I saw a fair few kiwis when I was trekking about New Zealand with a backpack. Endearing little things they were, with abnormally long beaks and strangely proportioned bodies (I mean the birds, of course; not the local population). Their prominent features make them the perfect candidates for the platform-game-hero treatment. Had little Ivy been on the scene fifteen years earlier, I'm sure she would have just as iconic as Bubsy, Earthworm Jim, or Gex. Ivy has pedigree, you see. She's been brought into existence by the same man responsible for Sonic the Hedgehog, a certain Yuji Naka. After leaving Sonic Team back in 2006, the famed SEGA developer went on to form Prope, the studio behind the recent Let's Tap. It's with this team that Naka looked to return to his roots; to create a platform game relevant for a 2010 audience.
Born into the world all on her tod, Ivy takes it upon herself to find her mother. It's up to the player - as an omnipotent, vine-drawing hand - to orchestrate this reunion. The adventure is portrayed in the form of a storybook, with each world presented as a chapter, and each chapter consisting of five levels. A podium waits at the end of each stage, the idea being to get Ivy to the top of it for the biggest score bonus. It would be a distinctly retro experience were it not for two things: first that you never take control of Ivy directly, and second that it's all done with technology of the moment, motion control.
Movement is handled automatically. Ivy will run from left to right until something blocks her path, and when it inevitably does, she'll simply move in the opposite direction. With no jump button, you might assume that this will quickly lead to a dead end, but that's where the vines come into the equation. Holding down the A button whilst moving the cursor-hand across the screen will draw a vine, which will stretch the longer you keep it pressed. You'll need to create these creepers constantly throughout each level; building slopes to climb gradients, bridges to avoid spike pits, and walls to prevent Ivy running headfirst into an enemy. Stretch a vine too thin, however, and it'll snap, so it's always best to draw another one if in doubt. Up to three vines can be drawn at once - the first disappearing when you draw the fourth.
It takes a few minutes to acquaint yourself with the mechanic, but knowing where and when to draw a vine quickly becomes second nature. Once you're in tune with the physics, you can flick and snap your makeshift platforms whilst Ivy is on them, launching her to higher areas of the level with a simple flick of the wrist. In the right places, you can also turn vines into make-shift catapults. Holding the B button will allow you to grab your creepers, pulling them back to catapult Ivy in any direction of your choosing. The process of flinging Ivy through the air also turns her into a weapon, her beak becoming the tip of an airborne spear. By aiming at destructible walls and enemies, Ivy can break into previously inaccessible areas and shoot her foes out of the sky.
The first few chapters are incredibly tame, but the difficulty quickly ramps up. In later levels you'll need to retrieve boulders, using cleverly-placed vines to drop them on unstable parts of the level. Enemies start appearing from world 4 onwards, too - rats and birds who want nothing more than to bring your quest to a premature end. Due to the fact that Ivy is constantly on the move, there's little time for planning, meaning the game relies on snap judgements and quick reaction times. There's no checkpoints midway through a level either, and although each stage is fairly short, you'll be booted all the way back to the beginning if you die. It can be quite stressful at times, but learning to deal with this is part of the addictive nature of the game.
Each level is built from a floating assortment of blocks, their crayoned edges shimmering continuously. It's a similar effect to what Yoshi's Island used in 1995 and helps give the game that distinct storybook vibe. It's an incredibly quaint aesthetic and compliments the simplicity of the action perfectly. That said, I don't feel there's enough variation level to level. The only differences between each world are the backgrounds, which reflect the theme of the chapter (forest, town and so forth). This, in combination with repeated use of the same tunes - which, in the game's defence, are fantastic - tends to make the game blur into one. It all gets a bit samey.
There's variation to be found elsewhere, however. As well as the main game and a score attack mode, there are also multiplayer matches, which pit four birds against one another in a race for the podium. It's a substantial package, with over 100 levels in the main game and the added challenge of replaying a level to collect the ten feathers dotted about it. Like Sonic's rings, these feathers will also earn Ivy an extra life, should you collect enough of them.
Ivy the Kiwi's simplicity is both a blessing and a curse. After chapter eight or nine, the solitary vine-drawing mechanic starts to get a tad stale, and experienced gamers might find themselves yearning for something with a bit more depth. It's not that it becomes too easy - the game is incredibly well-paced, with sequences towards the end that are devilishly hard - but with 100 levels built around the same idea, it would have been nice to see some more twists on the central concept. That said, it does what it does very well. Ivy is charming and understated; a platform game that deserves credit simply for doing something new with an old formula. Despite a few problems, Prope has proved that the platform genre is just as relevant today as it was 15 years ago.