Review: Ivy the Kiwi? Mini (DSiWare)

Remember how people ranted when Dead Rising 2: Case Zero came out, about how awesome it was of Capcom to release an unique piece of DLC for $5 that works as both a prequel and a demo of the full game? Well, that’s what Xseed has done with Yuji Naka’s new game Ivy the Kiwi?, but in reverse.

This $5 version of the game comes to us long after the full game was released at retail for the DS and the Wii. It contains no unique content and there is no bonus for owning the downloadable version of the game and the retail version (that I’ve seen anyway). This is just the campaign of Ivy the Kiwi?, without the multi-player mode and other extras, for a discount price.

So why does this “mini” port of the game exist? Well, the more appropriate question is “Why does the retail version of the game exist?”, as a game like Ivy the Kiwi? has almost no chance of success on the retail market. As a downloadable title, it can hold it’s own, and then some.

Hit the jump for the full review.

Remember how people ranted when Dead Rising 2: Case Zero came out, about how awesome it was of Capcom to release an unique piece of DLC for $5 that works as both a prequel and a demo of the full game? Well, that’s what Xseed has done with Yuji Naka’s new game Ivy the Kiwi?, but in reverse.

This $5 version of the game comes to us long after the full game was released at retail for the DS and the Wii. It contains no unique content and there is no bonus for owning the downloadable version of the game and the retail version (that I’ve seen anyway). This is just the campaign of Ivy the Kiwi?, without the multi-player mode and other extras, for a discount price.

So why does this “mini” port of the game exist? Well, the more appropriate question is “Why does the retail version of the game exist?”, as a game like Ivy the Kiwi? has almost no chance of success on the retail market. As a downloadable title, it can hold it’s own, and then some.

Hit the jump for the full review.

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Ivy the Kiwi? Mini (DSiWare [Reviewed], WiiWare)
Developer: Prope
Publisher: XSeed
Released: October 11, 2010 [DSiWare], TBD [WiiWare]
MSRP: $5

The best thing I can say about Ivy the Kiwi? is that it truly feels like a Yuji Naka game. Naka has always had a signature style; a style that, for a time, defined Sega as a company. Sonic, NiGHTS, Burning Rangers, Billy Hatcher, Lets TAP, Lets CATCH; they all rely on a one or two simple gameplay hooks that can be basically performed if you just want to survive a level, or mastered by those who want to play “with grace and pride“.

In Sonic, master level play came from grabbing as many rings as you could while avoiding anything that would reduce your momentum. With NiGHTS, the challenge came from chaining together somersaults with precision and speed. Billy Hatcher was a little like a cross between the two; you had to keep you momentum going while also chaining together egg moves. Regardless of the details, the Naka’s games of old live and die by the “easy to learn, hard to master” principal, while infusing a certain spirit of ingenuity that assures that they wont play quite like any other game on the market.

Ivy the Kiwi? holds to the Yuji Naka style quite well. I’ve never played a game quite like it, and it’s definitely easy to learn but hard to master. It’s  incredibly simple, perhaps the most simple game that Naka has developer yet. Throughout the entire game, you do exactly two things; draw vines, and stretch the vines.

By starting from such strange, straightforward gameplay hook, Naka keeps things intriguing and intuitive. All you have to do is protect and guide Ivy; the little flightless bird who may or may not be a kiwi, as she makes her way towards “the goal”. Keep the bird alive, and you’ve done you job. End up with a dead bird, and it’s back to the start. You may end up with a bird  carcass sooner than you think. Ivy is dumb. She’s always walking either left or right, even it means falling into spiky death pit. To save her, you can either stop her by drawing a vine wall in her way (which will force her to stop and turn around) or you can draw a vine under her feet, and over the pit, so she can just walk on by.

Sounds simple, right? It is at the start, but as you progress, you’ll find that there are many intricacies to how the vines and Ivy interact that will take time to discover and master. For instance, you can fling Ivy by drawing a vine under her feet and moving it  in a windmill motion, vaulting her either up or down. You can also grab a vine that you’ve already drawn and stretch a limited distance by grabbing it somewhere in the middle. Let go of the vine while Ivy is touching it, and you can trampoline her with enough force to break through walls or take out enemies. Discovering the potential for all these moves is the key to mastering Ivy the Kiwi?.

That sense of discovery is really fun for a while. The game tosses a fair amount of collectibles (in the form of feathers) which will tempt you to try new things. As the game progresses, you’ll be forced to it take on a variety of new obstacles. You’ll need to use your vines to manipulate both Ivy and giant boulders in order to get past breakable walls. You’ll have to dodge or kill angry rats and weird dinosaur looking birds. In addition to spikes, there are also killer water droplets that threaten to fall on Ivy, destroying her outright on contact. You’ll need to either block with your vines, get Ivy to dodge them, or snag a time-sensitive invincibility power-up to survive that serious droplet problem.

The game keeps rolling these new obstacles at you for the first 30 levels or so, with about one new problem every 5 levels. For a game with only 50 levels relatively short levels in total, that’s not a good thing.  For the last 20 or so levels, the game sort of runs out of steam. The levels designs remain interesting, and the difficulty curve is about right, but with no new elements, the last third of the game is notably more stale than the chapters that proceed it.

The visuals and music don’t do much to keep things interesting either. The storybook art direction is definitely charming, but other than the backdrops, things don’t really change. Enemy designs lack imagination across the board. The music isn’t to my tastes, but it’s well written, and gets less and less toxic-sweet as the game goes on, but the fact that some tracks repeat on various chapters is pretty dissappointing. After hearing the opening chapter’s music for about twenty minutes, I never wanted to hear it again. It was a real bastard to have it come back for me on chapter 3. 

Maybe this isn’t fair, but I was also bummed that the game lacks boss battles. It’s not like there is no precedent for my expectations. Even unconventional Naka experiments of old like Lets CATCH (a game where all you do is play catch), and Burning Rangers (a futuristic firefighting game) feature some sort of climactic showdown with… something. I believe this is the first traditional platformer from Naka that lacks any kind of boss. After the seeing how well boss battles can be utilized to keep things feeling fresh in a pacifistic 2D platformer like Super Meat Boy, it really pains me that Prope didn’t even try to change things up with occasional boss fight.

In the end, Ivy the Kiwi? is still an admirable value for $5. The first two thirds of the game feel truly new, inviting, and intriguing. That’s not a common thing in today’s downloadable marketplace. Too bad Prope couldn’t keep up that pace. I’d love to see them build off of what they’ve started here, and create a true classic. Instead, we have a game that’s a must buy for anyone who loves the study of game design, or is just looking for an interesting, but ultimately imperfect, downloadable diversion.

Score: 7.5 — Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)

Jonathan Holmes
"Where do dreams end and reality begin? Videogames, I suppose."- Gainax, FLCL Vol. 1 "The beach, the trees, even the clouds in the sky... everything is build from little tiny pieces of stuff. Just like in a Gameboy game... a nice tight little world... and all its inhabitants... made out of little building blocks... Why can't these little pixels be the building blocks for love..? For loss... for understanding"- James Kochalka, Reinventing Everything part 1 "I wonder if James Kolchalka has played Mother 3 yet?" Jonathan Holmes