Yuji Naka may be best known for creating Sonic the Hedgehog, but I've always been a fan of his more obscure games. With releases like Samba De Amigo, Burning Rangers and NiGHTS into Dreams, it's clear that this is a developer who loves to create interesting characters. His newest game, Ivy the Kiwi?, is no exception. Here we are introduced to a newborn bird in search of her mother. And while Ivy may not have the attitude or speed of Sonic the Hedgehog, I have no reservations saying that this is Yuji Naka's best work in years.
There's not much of a story here, just a big set-up for 100+ levels of platforming action. You don't control Ivy directly, instead you play a cursor that creates ivy vines to help aide the little bird on her quest. The object of each level is to pick up all ten feathers and make it to the winner's podium. But don't let the simplistic gameplay fool you, the game is full of surprising obstacles and tricky challenges.
The concept is simple, as Ivy walks around in a predictable pattern, the player will create vines to point her in the right direction, make her jump and even block her path. But beware, because you can only create a few vines at once before the others start disappearing. All along the way will be feathers to collect, which add to the point total and even give extra lives. The game eases you into the gameplay, teaching you how to create vines and use them to control the action. As Ivy makes her way through the world she will have to avoid rats, birds, water and more.
The gameplay is reminiscent of Kirby: Canvas Curse on the Nintendo DS. But what sets this game apart is how you can manipulate the vines by stretching and bending them. Even though the gameplay involves little more than creating vines, there's a surprising amount of depth to that one act. Mastering how to use the vine is the only way to help Ivy complete her journey.
Of course, that's easier said than done. At first the game is a push-over, but it won't take long before you'll run into a particular obstacle that keeps messing you up. Many of my deaths can be contributed to two things -- Ivy's speed and the limited vision. Because the player has no direct control over Ivy, there's no way to slow her down. She just walks beak first throwing caution to the wind. This is annoying when she's barreling towards a bed of spikes and there is water dripping from the ceiling. Being able to juggle several obstacles at once is the key to defeating the later levels, and if you can't do that you'll discover that Ivy the Kiwi? can get mighty frustrating in a hurry.
And then there's the claustrophobic perspective that keeps you from seeing all of the obstacles around you. Even when this game is filling up my television, most of the display is covered in fog and unreadable text. It may only be around the edges, but that's enough to make it hard to fully know what dangers to fend off. There is far too much trial and error gameplay here, which often brings the game's pace to a grinding halt. Speaking of the game's presentation, the art style is drawn with what looks like water colors. The only game I've ever played to pull off a similar style is Yoshi's Island on the Super NES (and Game Boy Advance). Unfortunately, this game isn't very colorful. All of the platforms are a dreary brown color, and none of the obstacles add much color to the affair. The backgrounds vary in style, but they never impact the actual level. Instead the backgrounds just hang out in the distance, only there to suggest you're actually making progress on this journey.
Because there is so little story or character development, I found that I wasn't invested in Ivy. Oh sure, I want her to find her way home, but that really took a backseat to the mountain of levels I had to climb along the way. Even though they come in all shapes and sizes, the levels don't differ too much from one to the next. If you don't like the puzzles in the first few worlds, chances are you won't like the rest of the game. Thankfully I had a good time with the gameplay mechanics, though I certainly started to tire of the repetition towards the end.
On top of the single-player levels, Ivy the Kiwi? also supports up to three more friends. The four player mode involves you racing against your friends and earning points. This mode is strictly offline splitscreen, which is a shame. Still, the barrier for entry is fairly low (each player only needs a Wii remote, the nunchuk is not required) and it's an easy way to lose a few hours.
Ivy the Kiwi? may not be as fast as Sonic or colorful as Samba De Amigo, but she stars in a solid puzzle game that takes advantage of the Wii's unique motion control. This isn't a perfect game and I found myself getting bored towards the end, but there's enough here for you to get your money's worth. It turns out that Ivy the Kiwi? is one question worth answering.