You won't catch anyone at Rare calling it a homecoming. Or a departure, for that matter. Even though Rare's remote Twycross base of operations, nestled deep in the gentle folds of the Warwickshire countryside, is dripping with memorabilia of its days as a Nintendo-owned first-party developer, none of its down-to-earth staff harp on about the old days.
By the same token, Microsoft may have bought this particular farm - and we may be drinking water out of Xbox-branded bottles - but Rare's initial presentation of Viva Piņata: Pocket Paradise for DS doesn't even mention the 360 original at all. Judging by the tone, this is just Rare's handheld division plugging away at developing another handheld version of a classic Rare franchise for THQ. It might as well be Sabreman.
But it is more significant than that, and it is a homecoming. Not because of the Nintendo connection necessarily, but because Viva Piņata was always supposed to fit in the palm of your hand - and because it arguably makes more sense when it does.
DS owners joining us without the benefit of the 360 or PC's context will wonder what the fuss is about. The fuss is about building a garden paradise, gradually coaxing cuddly new animals into it and convincing them to stay by landscaping and nurturing the environment to fit their needs.
Lost among fat-necked-men-shooting-aliens at the back end of 2006, the Xbox 360 original still found a loving and devoted audience, reinforced by PC gamers a while later, and the only thing they had to overcome was a quirky interface: a picket hurdle the DS version sets out to eliminate.
Viva Piņata was originally kicked around Rare's offices as an idea for a handheld game, and the absorbing, nurturing, slower-paced gameplay and compulsive collection and trading certainly fit that bill - as does the younger demographic, catered for by the 4kids cartoon. But it's the DS in particular that suits the game down to the ground. Touch control and the dual-screen layout make the creative and managerial aspects of Viva Piņata an instinctive, tactile breeze.
Your garden occupies the touch-screen, and is about four screens by four in size. You can push the camera around by drawing the stylus to the edges of the screen, tapping on a d-pad symbol in the bottom-right corner, or using the d-pad itself. Moving piņata around is a matter of tapping on them to select and then dragging to where you want them to go, or tapping on the item or piņata you want them to interact with. You can only do this with resident piņata, naturally; those wandering around outside will only join you when your garden fits their needs.
Tools and shopping items are selected with quick taps on an expanding menu system in the top right corner, and used directly with the stylus; grass and ponds can be drawn in, sleeping piņata nudged with a spade handle, apples, carrots, seeds and fallen flower petals picked up and dragged to new locations.
An overview map of the entire garden can be called up at any point showing the locations of all resident and non-resident piņata, although the latter appear as a mystery paw-print only, and a double-tap on any part of it (or any creature) centres the camera there. Double-tapping on the regular view zooms the camera in further and allows you to stroke piņata to improve their happiness.
It also lets you admire their beautifully reduced forms, lacking nothing in colour, character or craftsmanlike texture next to their 360 and PC brethren. Only a slight fussiness when zoomed out mars the game's gorgeous representation of the garden in Pocket Paradise.
The top screen is much more plain, hosting information, and quite a lot of it. A news ticker keeps you abreast of new events: appearances of new species, or the fact that your Whirlms can't get home after an over-enthusiastic bout of landscape gardening. Context-information boxes give you some relevant feedback on whatever you're doing or studying, such as the residency or romance requirements of the piņata you've selected, or the percentage of water in your garden if you're digging a pond.
Even better, tapping a small icon pauses life in the garden and swaps the top screen and bottom and allows you to interact directly with the information page - click on any icon and it will take you to the relevant section of the encyclopaedia, which can also be browsed independently. There's a whole system of piņata awards - achievements, in short - and a pyramid graphic showing your piņata collection.
It's not exactly a pretty interface - nor a perfectly elegant one, although it's not far off, and it's certainly perfectly logical. But the ease and speed of use of Pocket Paradise will be a revelation to those who played the laborious, if completely beguiling, 360 release. Even those who played it on PC might find this DS version a faster, more precise game that's more direct in its rewards. Nonetheless, Rare's developers are designers of games, not websites, so their efforts to improve and tailor their game shouldn't stop at usability. And they don't.
Rare (and Microsoft) are keen to expand the audience of Viva Piņata, and get past the troubling hurdle to accessibility represented by its wordy and complex tutorial. Pocket Paradise's training episodes, hosted by the four sweet-stuffed stars of the cartoon, could not be more winsome and plain-speaking if they tried, and though they might grate for experienced paper gardeners, they do a very necessary job and do it well. But a more vital - and universally welcome - addition comes in the form of Playground mode.
This beach-themed holiday from the pressures of modern gardening is a pure, unstructured piņata sandbox. It's a chance to enjoy the brilliant creature designs and their interactions, as well as the game's creative toolset, entirely free of the complex strategic checks and balances that sometimes weigh the main game down, and yet make it what it is.
Recognising, rightly, that it couldn't simplify Viva Piņata without neutering it, Rare has provided a generous plaything that is shared between all the save slots on a cart, and has access to all features and piņata unlocked in those slots. (Gardeners can also copy their pocket ecologies across from one slot to another, allowing them to experiment with branching garden designs and creature collections.)
As sweet and welcoming as Playground is, it's hard to imagine most Pocket Paradise players - aside from the very, very young ones - spending much time with it. The remorselessly addictive pull of developing your own garden, well known to players of the 360 and PC versions, is just too strong. Pocket Paradise presents it in condensed form: a little crowded perhaps, a bit halting in some of the piņata interactions, but a purer, denser, more effortless and efficient satisfaction of your sugar-coated cravings than ever before. Sweet tooths beware.
Viva Piņata: Pocket Paradise is due out on DS later this year.