Yuji Naka. That’s the first thought that entered my mind when I was handed his latest game. Back in 2006, the renowned programming designer and former Sonic Team front man decided to leave the constructs of his long-standing career with Sega and conceive his own company, Prope. As so many of his latter-day projects have centered around mobile phones and downloadable mini-games, it’s only natural the two would eventually converge. Such is the case with Ivy the Kiwi?, an odd puzzle/platform hybrid that originally began its adorable life as a Japanese-only release for Windows mobile phones last year and has now landed on both Nintendo Wii and DS consoles, courtesy of publisher Xseed Games.
The journey begins as Ivy, a newborn hatchling, emerges from her shell and ventures forth on a desperate search for her lost mama. It’s up to you to help guide the perpetually moving baby bird towards her goal, protecting her from a world that’s wholly unsuitable for a newborn chick, using only a single Wii remote – and all your wits – to get the job done. As it was never released outside of its home country, chances are this will be your first experience with the little bird that won’t give up. The only real question is – will you?
A straightforward platformer in the strictest sense, Ivy the Kiwi? follows Newton’s first law of motion – Ivy tends to stay in motion until she’s acted upon by an outside force. Similar to Kirby: Canvas Curse for the DS, it’s less about controlling Ivy than influencing her, as she’ll simply dart about in a straight line (Lemming-style) until she hits an object, then turn around and keep going. This is where you – the player – come in as you’ll be playing the role of Ivy’s unseen protector, armed with the ability to draw multiple vines across the screen to help push, nudge, and even slingshot the hapless bird towards the end of each stage. These vines can also be anchored to expand them into impromptu platforms, incline levels, and even trampolines. You’ll also help direct her towards the smattering of feathers and carrots scattered across the varying levels.
Of course, there’s a whole host of critters and environmental hazards that threaten to make Ivy’s trip home a short one. One touch from them and you’re dead, and heroes don’t come more fragile than our dear little Ivy. She might be just a bird-brained (literally) baby, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be a lethal bird-brained baby. Luckily, you’ll be able to defend her using the same tools as navigation – strategic vines. Well-timed vine launches can send her hurdling towards the enemy, taking them out in spectacular drill-style fashion. Certain levels will have boulders that can be manipulated, either with vines or by having Ivy pushing them forward into enemies.
You’ll soon discover that Ivy’s worst enemy is often herself, as navigating the increasingly difficult levels is almost never as easy as it looks, and one wrong move can mean instant death. Learning the game’s fundamentals is one thing, but conquering the 50+ levels (and further bonus ones) not only requires nerves of steel, but a complete synthesis of both mind and matter, as simply guiding Ivy towards the goal will soon involve navigating complex mazes and multiple platforms, and those who can’t think on their feet (and guide the remote with their hands) will soon find their trip in this dreamlike world a short one indeed. Enemies like rats, crows, and water droplets may require near-perfect timing to overcome, but failure isn’t an option if you want to help reunite little Ivy with her long-lost mother.
Looks can be deceiving, and few games sport a veneer so thoroughly disarming as Ivy the Kiwi?. With its beautiful hand-sketched visuals that look like they’ve fallen right off the artist’s easel, the game’s look and feel ooze warmth and gentleness. The soundtrack is a pleasant mix of equally dreamy and mystical tunes, and when paired with the unassuming visuals, the game becomes the perfect foil to undermine just how challenging it can be, especially for a generation of gamers who may have forgotten what true difficulty is. What’s here is used for maximum impact, and Heaven help those parents who mistakenly purchase this for their less-experienced brood, as they’re in for a grand lesson about never judging a book (or game) by its cover, no matter how irresistible it may be.
The game supports multiplayer, with up to four players in both 2-player cooperative and 4-player competitive play. Two players zipping towards the same goal on two mini-screens is manageable, but things can get hectic in the manic when up to 4-players race against one another for best times and collecting medals. The real challenge comes when another player decides to interfere with your Kiwi, as they’re able to draw vines that can send your panicky little bird in a completely different direction. Apart from the inevitable bragging rights for fastest finish, there really isn’t much more to the multiplayer than that. While having four people struggling to keep their eyes on their own square is a nice throwback to the days of Nintendo64 gaming, things can get very confusing very quickly, especially if you don’t have the space to accommodate everyone (especially when a well-timed vine interruption can mean all the difference between sweet victory or sad defeat).
It’s worth mentioning the game is also available for the Nintendo DS, and retains much of the Wii version’s unique look and feel. Of course, the game replaces the Wii remote controls with the stylus, which is actually an advantage in some cases. Although the game has been scrunched to the smaller screen(s) and allows for fewer onscreen vines (limited to three), the option to bring the game anywhere you want might be enough to even double-dip for both adventures.
With Ivy the Kiwi?, Sonic creator Yuji Naka has created his most personal adventure since his hedgehog days, and one that everyone should experience for themselves. The game’s hand-crafted visuals give the impression of a storybook come to life, and the overwhelming sense of innocence can’t help but make players fall in love with the main character. And that’s when things get interesting, as its blistering difficulty won’t be for everyone, but it will take patience to discover if its singular mechanic is worth investing in. There’s an understated elegance with what Naka has brought to the table and, with luck, you’ll come to embrace the mechanics and the illustrative magic that help brings it all together.
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