- No, I'm serious. Having been sent the game a few weeks back, I finally got round to sitting down with my wife and a friend and playing through Rare's latest Xbox 360 title this afternoon. Yes, I know it's had pretty good reviews, but buzz for the game in terms of online discussion has been curiously lacking - no messageboard hype that I've seen, and it apparently sold less than 40,000 copies in the States last month, following its launch on November 11th.

If you consider that Gears Of War did over a million units in less time than that, and even titles such as F.E.A.R. shifted over 100,000 copies for the month, that's pretty disappointing. And that's very wrong, because it's one of the best games for the Xbox 360 so far, and might even be a bit of a sleeper hit if Microsoft is lucky - I've seen a few smart bloggers who _have_ picked it up saying good things about it.

Of course, the demographics of Xbox 360's early adopters are likely very wrong for the kind of game that Pinata is (it's a Microsoft-funded attempt to open the console up to a wider audience as much as anything). But here, I meekly submit, are three other reasons that the game isn't making an impact with the public - bearing in mind that I've only just started playing Viva Pinata, and am still shaking off my preconceptions:

- Sorry, Rare, but your reputation among a lot of the hardcore gamers who currently own an Xbox 360 just isn't that good. Perfect Dark Zero and Kameo were both flawed attempts at X360 launch titles that probably got overrated by the press along the way, further disenchanting people who picked them up at hardware launch. And the Conker update felt pretty underwhelming - so I think that a family-oriented game done by the current Rare team just didn't appeal to a lot of people.

- As a 'playing in a sandbox'-style game, the hook for the game - which is that you build your garden in specific ways to attract pinata, is awfully difficult to communicate. This is exacerbated by the fact that there is no main character in the game, unlike titles like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing. So the screenshots and videos of the title can't show you, because 'you' are effectively God. Nothing wrong with that, but it probably turns the game into an 'only understand it when you play it' title, which is a pretty terrible hook.

- There's a cartoon series based on Viva Pinata, of course, and it's obvious that a Pokemon-style crossover was intended here, with kids being lobbied in the TV show to attract specific pinata. Regardless of how seditious this is in terms of influencing the kiddies, there's a major difference between Pokemon and Viva Pinata. In Pokemon, after you catch the creature, you can use it to fight others - it's very direct. In Pinata, after a creature wanders onto your patch of land - attracted by your landscaping, I hasten to add - you can interact with them in a limited way, but they have a mind of their own. Do kids intrinsically get excited by this concept vs. catching things and making them fight? I'm guessing not.

So, it's odd - by being original, I feel like Rare has made Viva Pinata even less sale-able that an average family platformer would be on the Xbox 360. Which is tragic, because it's a much, much more interesting game - not the character-based Banjo Kazooie/Conker clone which I think a lot of people just presume that it is. 1UP's John Davison has a fairly impassioned review in which he argues as much, but I'm not sure how many people are listening. Are you?

[EDIT, 12/25/06 8.50am PST: A couple of people have pointed out that I probably mean 'overlooked' rather than 'underrated', because the game got some pretty good reviews - and I can see the possible confusion, so I tweaked the title, thanks.

Also, a commenter asked why you might want to get the game, given that this piece mainly deals with why other people didn't buy it. I replied: "I think it _is_ worth picking up if you like the idea of making your own garden and tailoring it to attract certain type of wee wild beasties - with cute graphics and some fun collectability elements. But if that's not your cup of tea, then fair enough!"

Finally, a friend pointed out that 1UP's 'Naughty Or Nice' holiday feature actually apologizes to Rare over its preview coverage, saying: "Sometimes the joke is on us. We're just sending you folks an apology card; we were totally wrong about Viva Piñata all of those times we said it sucked."]