Version tested: DS
It's not often that the DS gets to stomp all over the Xbox 360 (unless you live in Japan, in which case it's all day every day that the DS gets to stomp all over the Xbox 360), but when it comes to Rare's lovable gardening strategy game Viva Piņata, Microsoft's multi-core lounge-dweller can definitely count itself muddied by the Wellington-shaped boot-prints of its dual-screen contemporary. Viva Piņata: Pocket Paradise lives up to its name, although it certainly hasn't spent much time in my pocket.
First, and most important, is that Rare has been able to recreate the Xbox 360 game on DS almost entirely. Beginning with a patch of rubble-strewn land, you're given a spade, a watering can and brief instruction, and left to clear and turf the place over. But no sooner have you begun to clear up the mess than small animals start to take an interest, and within an hour the compelling conflict of interests is established: whenever you think you're getting the garden looking nice, another piņata animal pops up and charms you into re-sculpting and cultivating your land to fulfill its requirements for residency and then breeding. And then another. For hours.
On Xbox 360, Viva Piņata relied on cute animations and a wealth of things to do in order to keep the player occupied, and while the garden area is smaller on DS, there are actually a few more creatures, and the pace and mechanics of gameplay are intact and finessed thanks to the second best thing about Pocket Paradise: the new touch-based controls. Simple actions, like moving apples and crates around the garden, or planting seeds, are as simple as dragging and dropping with the stylus. Grass is simply drawn on the screen, and to direct animals you just tap them and drag the stylus tip to a suitable location. Basic tools and their actions - like the spade's tap, smack, plough and pond-digging - are all within your control after a couple of super-quick stylus' taps on logically-positioned icons, and while your stylus hand taps away your thumb uses the d-pad or face buttons to move the camera.
Subtler actions - like renaming an animal or digging out the residency requirements for a piņata currently tiptoeing apprehensively around the borders of your plot - are more elaborate, but still easily remembered. Like the upcoming Viva Piņata 360 sequel, you can tap on and examine animals slightly outside the chalk outline of your garden, too, which makes it easy to see what they need in order to step inside. The encyclopedia, awards and other resources that help you to make the most of your seeds, buildings and tools can be accessed by pressing the right shoulder button to swap the garden and information screens around and then tapping the relevant button.
What's more, it's all quick. Xbox 360 owners had to spend hours staring at the cumulative loading screens in order to visit the shop where you buy seeds, garden furniture and other items, or the doctor, or the tinker-man who transforms bread into sandwiches and milk into cheese. But DS owners either hit these screens instantly and get what they need just as quickly, or don't even have to visit them; the doctor and tinker-man, for example, can be deployed by tapping two icons on the garden screen and then selecting the piņata or object to be cured or tinkered. There's also less clutter; there are still a great many messages alerting you to sightings, illnesses, fights and so on, but they appear above the hinge rather than piling up along the bottom of the garden screen.
After the content and interface, the rosiest apple in the Pocket Paradise bushel is the game's graphics: another smashing adaptation of the 360 source material. The original animals were paper-tasselled, processor-smashing perfection (we called them Rare's sexiest effect since Donkey Kong Country, from memory), but even without the benefit of that high-definition effect, the chunkifying implication of the reduced resolution delivers much the same. Whether it's the doe-eyed charm of the sparrowmints, the gentle bumbling of the fizzlybear or the stumpy tottering of the sherbats (and the uniformly excellent names, clearly), the game's personality shines past the DS' graphical restrictions, and the decision to back the animals up with rendered 2D sprites for more complex objects like trees and buildings was a sensible one.
Elsewhere, the DS version sadly doesn't take advantage of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection to allow you to share access to your garden, so there's no scope for Animal Crossing-style guided tours, but you can at least trade animals with friends, providing you have their code. There's also a "Playground" mode for playing with your piņata free from the constraints and resource-management treadmill of the core "Garden" mode, although we didn't really enjoy this: the game generates garden terrain based on some pre-selected tiles and then you can summon animals at will, but we prefer the graft of the main mode's progression. Another addition we do like though is the "Episodes" - optional, purpose-built tutorials, which won't do much for people who pick it all up quickly, but clearly and interactively demonstrate principles that others might not grasp, like how to use shellybeans to get rid of weeds and how to separate warring piņata without one or other getting smashed to bits or sold off.
There are a few occasions when the concessions made to newcomers go a bit far, however; most notably with the rewards for Piņata Central requests. Piņata belong at parties being smashed up by kids, obviously, so occasionally Piņata Central asks for some of your best to send off to some unseen faraway family gathering, and when the animals respawn in your garden buoyed by the experience, they come with a bunch of romance sweets by way of thanks. Romance sweets aren't so much aphrodisiacs as intravenous nymphomania; as long as you have a house and a pair of the same animals, you can get them at it in seconds by throwing down a couple of them, and you quickly build up a healthy stock. More to the worrying point, this shortcuts the part of the game where you plant the relevant flowers, work out an item to tinker and generally manufacture prescribed circumstances to get animals to mate. Because unlike the 360 version, you can use romance sweets whether your animals have mated before or not.
This may sound good to people who haven't played Viva Piņata before, but bear in mind that manufacturing circumstances by gardening or playing zoo-keeper is what the entire game is about. If you can't enjoy raising a colony of sherbat-men and renaming them Bale, Clooney, Keaton and Kilmer, or spying a deer on the fringes of your land and madly carpeting the place in long grass to tempt it inside, or buying a chicken to hatch a couple of eggs faster and then to be served up to a suddenly-interested fox; then this isn't the game for you. Reducing the burden of experimentation and earthy graft with easy access to romance sweets rather goes against the spirit of the game.
Veterans of the 360 original may also remember that certain actions become rather repetitive as the game proceeds, and while the addition of an improved interface reduces this it's not a problem completely solved, with flower-tending still rather exhausting in a heavily populated garden, for instance. Similarly, even those with nearly two-year-old memories of Viva Piņata may struggle to summon the same levels of enthusiasm now that so many of the core species are known; at least part of the thrill the first time around is admiring new creatures, who arrive on the outskirts in greyscale, before smiling broadly as you meet their requirements and they cross the threshold into colour and residence, usually skipping or quacking as they go.
However, what Viva Piņata: Pocket Paradise loses in coming second, and not having a triple-core PowerPC chip to drive its graphics, it makes up with its new, much better stylus-based interface, and Rare's impressive feat of retaining the vast majority of the original game's best features, in roughly the same measures. It's still a bit too complex to work as a kids' game (for that you might be better with the 360 sequel's co-op mode, where you can pick up a second pad and offer a helping hand), but for everybody else it comes highly recommended.
8 / 10