Looking for inspiration for my next review project, I reached out to my Facebook friends and Twitter followers. One of the names that came back at me was New Zealand Story.
Growing up as an Amiga owner it was a game I was aware of but had never played. I must confess to some gaming snobbery; it looked like the cutesy kind of crap I detested, regardless of critical opinions (as an avid Amiga Power reader I could never understand their early-years obsession with Rainbow Islands). But time to put prejudices aside and see what lies beneath.
For those unfamiliar, you take control of a Kiwi, on a mission to rescue your kiwi chick friends who have been captured by a rogue seal, for some reason. Cue platforming antics ahoy as you take out bad guys, collect fruit and hop on and over precarious ledges. I think we’ve been here before.
But something strange happens when you start playing. Yes, it has a cute central character. Yes, you negotiate platforms and collect fruit for points. Yes it has insanely catchy, toe tapping music throughout. But beyond that, it’s a complete and utter bastard.
Things start off pleasantly enough. Hopping up a couple of ledges, I fire off one of my endless-supply arrows, taking out what looks like an angry snail. Pocketing the fruit he leaves behind I make my way up, shooting this way, moving that. This doesn’t seem so bad. Suddenly a door materialises out of thin air and a flying creature emerges from within, hurling fiery death at me. One hit is all it takes and this Kiwi is extinct.
Not to be put off I try again, getting a little further this time before falling onto deadly spikes, jumping into a deadly fire critter, being attacked by a rampaging bat, leaping through the platform above the one I was aiming for and being clubbed to a messy pulp. Next go I take my time, skulking round the level, picking off enemies. Only for the game to tell me to ‘HURRY UP’ lest insta-death come hunting for me.
It’s brutal. Death lurks around every corner, or jumps out of thin air shouting ‘SURPRISE’ before stabbing you in the face. You would need about a £1,000 of 10p pieces to get through it all. It’s frustrating in a ‘I want to throw the controller out the window then stamp on it until it smashes into tiny pieces then post them one by one to whichever soulless heathen programmed the thing.’
But you know what? It’s kinda fun too. It took me a while to realise but most enemies are not deadly in and of themselves. Unlike in almost all games of this ilk, where anything other than a pixel perfect jump on the sweetspot spells death, you can stroll right into an enemy without taking punishment. Only those that fire projectiles, or those that clearly stand out as different (the fiery nemeses mentioned above) dish out pain. It means that, within reason, you can leap around platforms with abandon, so long as you also maintain a steady supply of fire.
Plus, this allowance of close proximity means that you can steal enemy rides. When one of these hellish creatures emerges from their window to hell, jump on board their flying device, knocking them aside and float away to the exit. Your weapon can be upgraded with pick ups, arrows becoming bombs becoming fire balls. Plus some of the flying devices fire out deadly laser beams, allowing you to hurl out your beams of vengeance.
Each level is pretty vast, scrolling a significant area as you negotiate your way to the exit. The game is broken down into different zones with the completion of 4 levels bringing an end of level boss, such as a whale that you have to climb inside and bash up from the inside out.
Make no mistake, New Zealand Story is hard and unforgiving but it is largely also fair. You can dish out as much as you have to take and there are plenty of platform sections that allow you to draw breath and hide from the onslaught. When you inevitably die, respawn points are fairly generous. This is difficult but it is not the teeth gnashing, grindathon of something like Ghosts n’ Goblins. Skilled players will be rewarded and even us mere mortals have our moments of satisfaction. I have no illusions of being able to finish it (I’ve battled through about 7 or 8 levels so far) but it will be fun trying.
Amiga fans were treated to a near Arcade-perfect conversion, ranking as high as 19th in the Amiga Power All Time Top 100. So, how does it play on the 16-bit home format of champions?
Picture everything I’ve just described above. Now imagine doing that with a single-fire button joystick, using ‘up’ to jump.
Yeah, it’s a bit like that.
Takes the cutesy platform genre and turns it on its head. Then smacks it in the mouth and chucks it down the stairs.
Gloriously subversive in its own way, a clever, inventive platforming challenge.