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A Smashing Good Time 

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Call it the circle of surreal life.

If you can just keep the Pretztails from stalking your Bunnycombs for a while, you might have the chance to get your Whirlms to mate so that you'll have some food to get your Sparriwmints to reproduce.

In the goofy world of "Viva Pinata," tending a garden successfully takes real coordination and a Dr. Seuss-like sense of science. In a land where pi*atas hatch from paper eggs and require care, feeding and a place to live, challenge comes with carefree chuckles. Leaving behind the sorts of save-the-world heroics that dominate game narratives, raising pi*atas favors an open-ended approach to fun. The game goads you to sow a happy garden, but how and why are left to the player's imagination.

Combining the sandbox dynamics of the Sims with the collectibility and cryptozoology of Pokemon, "Viva Pinata" works more like a toy than an objective-oriented game. Starting out with a junk-filled field, players work the ground, clearing debris and preparing to woo wild pinatas to the plot. Plant enough grass, for example, and a goofy-looking snake pi*ata, the Syrupent, wriggles onto the scene. If the critter likes what he finds, he'll decide to stay for a bit. If you can lure a Mousemallow, the snake will happily snack on his fellow papier-mache creature, and make your garden home.

Build a serpent house, and you might entice a pair of Syrupents to do the "romance dance," which leads to baby pi*atas. With a little salsa music and crazy dance-floor gyrations, a stork-like creature delivers the little bundle of joy.

Naming your tame pi*atas and tracking their progress through an in-game journal provide plenty of smiles, while defending your creatures and garden from interlopers and breaking up spats among angry beasts takes up most of your time. Along the way, you accumulate chocolate coins that are tradable for garden supplies, services and seeds for sprouting new foliage. Careful crop management provides a good balance of seeds for the next round of planting as well as extras for turning into quick cash.

The seeming simplicity of raising pinatas masks the more complex web of pseudo-life that underlies that game. Predator-prey relationships govern who wants to eat whom. A day-night cycle determines when certain pi*atas will come out to play. And a network of ecological dependencies and conflicts keeps the pinata wrangler busy trying to balance his or her Garden of Eden.

As peculiar a premise as it is, "Viva Pinata" shows the potential for games to transport players far away from the humdrum, even while leaving them on the treadmill of routine tasks.

Who's It For: The colorful graphics, silly style and animated television-show tie-in make the game as attractive to kids as any pi*ata filled with treats. The more cerebral management side of the game entices parents to grab a controller, sit down with their offspring and play along.

If You Like This, Try That: With 10 years under its belt, Pokemon reigns as the champ of cuddly, collectible imaginary creatures. It's still going strong, so players can enjoy the franchise with television, movies, cards, video games and toys.

Best Part: A well-designed help system and on-the-spot coaching from in-game characters make immersing yourself in the rich and complex world of "Viva Pinata" a snap.


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David Thomas


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