Like trick-or-treating at Hallowe'en, the piñata is an American (well, Mexican) tradition that has gradually insinuated itself into our culture. Both provide opportunities to amass hoards of sugary treats and have some fun into the bargain, so it’s hardly surprising Kiwi kids have embraced the concept with open arms. The piñata in particular is fast becoming a regular highlight at children’s parties. What could be more fun than clobbering a papier-mâché party animal with a big stick, and the shower of lollies that follows its demise? Viva Piñata, that's what!

You’d think the piñatas in Microsoft’s new open-ended sim game would find the prospect of being beaten to death extremely disturbing, however the opposite is true. Winning selection for parties is the pinnacle of success for the critters in Viva Piñata, and it’s up to you to help them achieve their goal.

At the outset you are allocated a run-down patch of rocky, junk-littered ground on idyllic Piñata Island; a place where wild piñatas (recognisable by their black and white colour) roam free. Armed initially with a decrepit shovel, you must transform your sorry plot into a piñata paradise, first by breaking up the ground and removing any inorganic eyesores, then by planting and tending your garden to a point where any wild piñatas it has attracted will settle in and become permanent residents. From there you move onto the business of adding to your flock and garden, earning a bit of money, making a name for yourself, and dabbling in a little genetic modification.

The learning curve is in fact a gentle slope. With the help of your guide - a masked young lady by the name of Leafos - and your handy journal, you’ll be making good progress within 30 minutes. One useful feature for new gardeners is Family Mode, where two or more players can cooperate on the same garden, using extra controllers to move the on-screen cursor. Since the controls can be a bit uncooperative – especially when trying to make certain selections on the menu - this is particularly useful for younger players, who may need a little extra hands-on guidance to begin with.

As well as Leafos, there are a number of other masked characters who either wander in and out of your garden, or who you can call upon to trade goods and services. The local village boasts a general store for basic requirements; a pet shop, for animals and piñata accessories; a post office, where you can send and receive goods over Xbox Live; and a builder’s yard, for ordering homes for your piñatas (each animal type requires its own dwelling). Later on you’ll have access to other services such as a doctor to cure any sick residents, and will be able to hire specialised helpers to assist you in the garden.

Of course, all such goods and services cost money. The currency of Piñata Island is foil-wrapped chocolate coins, and while there are several ways you can acquire them, most of your income is derived from selling resources such as seeds, plants, and piñatas. Build, nurture, buy, sell… as you become more and more successful, you will be rewarded with better equipment, extra garden space, access to more shops, helpers and items and a title reflecting your level of achievement.

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