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Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise

Preview: A pint-sized papier-mâché party...

Rare's latest foray onto DS since they sent Taj to elocution lessons and busied themselves with the task of exhuming Wizpig's corpse, Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise is part Animal Crossing, part Pokémon and possibly, at a stretch, a touch of Harvest Moon.

Not then, as the cynic in us half expected, a collection of mini-games like the abominable Party Animals.

More surprising is the fact that this is actually a full Viva Piñata game - all the gameplay features of the Xbox version are in here, no corners cut and nothing (bar annoyances and HD graphics) removed - which will mean absolutely nothing to you if you haven't played the original. So...

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You have this garden. In terms of land, you're looking at about four-by-four DS screens, which doesn't really seem like much until you actually have to work it. And boy, do you have to work it.

See, you're tasked with taking this neglected plot and turning it into a Piñata magnet. You can dig it so it's all nice and earthy, paint it with grass, pop in a little water feature or two and plant yourself some pretty flowers - and those are essentially the basics.

Before long (as in, about a minute) Piñatas will start to take their first tentative steps into your garden - probably something rubbish like a Whirlm (the most basic worm-like resident) - and that's when the fun begins. Every Piñata has a number of demands that need to be met before it'll set up home in your allotment.

Fortunately, like a petulant child who wants all the mushrooms plucked out of his bolognese sauce, you can just hit them with a trowel and remove the problem.

Unfortunately, that doesn't mean progress for your corner of paradise - some Piñatas like water, others like trees, certain Piñatas need flowers to eat. Others, just to complicate matters, need to eat other Piñatas in order to be happy. And if your Piñatas are happy, they'll breed.

Soil yourself

Don't for one second let the animated series fool you into thinking that this is child's play. Look past their terrifying hypnotic eyes (presumably rejects brushed from the floor of Rare's antiquated Banjo Character Factory) and behind every happy resident Piñata is a garden that's a real bitch to look after.

Add to this the fact you can't satisfy all of your Piñatas all of the time - for example, some are aggressive to others and there simply isn't enough room to accommodate them all.

And so careful pruning, management of space with fencing and slowly figuring out which tiny ecosystems will attract any Piñatas you've yet to find is the order of the day. The rarer the Piñata, the more convoluted the requirements and the tougher it is to tempt them to breed or live on your patch.

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The good news is that it works remarkably well on DS. What was once a bit of a fiddle with the Xbox pad's analogue sticks and buttons has now been distilled to a simple point, stab and select mechanism, which means dealing with the tedious mechanics of gardening is a significantly less stressful task.

Likewise, many of the annoyances, such as the breeding minigames3 from the original, have been completely ditched in favour of a more free-flowing, immediate experience.

Job's a good 'un

Hats off to Rare, then. After all, shoehorning all the Piñatas and the gameplay onto the DS is quite the technical achievement - and one that's translated remarkably well.

None of the charm of the original (which had a very distinctive visual style) has been lost - the garden areas are just as sumptuously detailed and the Piñatas themselves are well rendered and chunky on screen, conveying their individual behaviours admirably for such a restricted graphical environment in comparison to the consoles.

Rare have even gone so far as to throw in some new modes and functions. Younger players, who'll find the intense management quite a challenge, can occupy themselves in the sandbox-like Playground mode - a means of playing with the Piñatas in a stress-free environment - while those of you with friends equally enthused by Piñata farming can trade resources wirelessly.

For a game that's relatively simple in concept, Pocket Paradise offers a substantial amount of play time, whatever your skill level, and could well be the best Viva Piñata to date.

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