Tuesday 13 July 2010

The New Zealand Story

Taito used to be top of their game in the 80s and early 90s, mostly down to the success of Space Invaders... and then Bubble Bobble... and then Puzzle Bobble. But try and name something they've made recently and you'll have given yourself a hard task. In their glory days, we had The New Zealand Story, probably one of the better platformers on the market in 1988. Better read on to find out why!

These days Taito spend their hours re-releasing the same games, much like Nintendo, except Taito's lineup (bar Space Invaders) never saw the success of Mario or Zelda, and none of the remakes or sequels have ever matched their twenty year old arcade counterparts. Their original ideas are shrouded in mediocrity and because Square Enix call the shots these days, a lot of their IPs are sent elsewhere for forgettable sequels. It sucks to be Taito, and considering they're one of the key reasons video games were a success in Japan, it sucks harder than normal.

But it sucks even harder to be the New Zealand Story. Whereas Bubble Bobble saw heaps of sequels, tNZS saw... one... a couple of years ago... which was a remake that tagged "Revolution" onto the title for the Nintendo DS. I remember seeing Tiki the Kiwi at a young age helping to advertise the Commodore Amiga, though it wouldn't be until a couple of years ago when I actually learned who and what he is. This is because the game was left to rot at Taito HQ until emulation became worthwhile.

And I'd also learn it wasn't just an Amiga thing. As well as showing up on that computer and in the arcades, the game was ported to the Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, FM Towns, Sega Mega Drive (in Japan), Sega Master System, Sharp X68000, TurboGrafx-16 and ZX Spectrum. It's more recently popped up on the Wii's Virtual Console, and it also saw a release on the NES under the title of "Kiwi Kraze" (you can cast your own judgements about how a Kiwi might be easier for an American child to comprehend than a country in the south pacific).

My screenshots come from the arcade version because this is obviously the best version of all, though no ports were terrible. The New Zealand Story seems to have been designed with ports in mind, so it uses a very basic colour scheme and graphical style to help the worse-off hardware. Perhaps this was one of the reasons it wasn't amazingly successful however, as by 1988 arcade users were starting to expect a lot more.

Anyway the player controls Tiki, a Kiwi armed with a bow and arrow who must run, jump and shoot his way through various levels supposedly set around New Zealand. There are a number of different weapon upgrades, EXTEND bonuses borrowed from Bubble Bobble, and several floating vehicle things that can help him reach high places. The game constantly flushes out enemies to kill you so you can't hang around to admire the scenery much.

Each level is essentially a large, complicated map, where precise jumping is a necessity to make sure you don't hit spikes. These days people tend to criticise the level design for this reason, and though its true that the player tends to go around in circles and one slip up will have them killed, I always thought this was part of the New Zealand Story's charm. Yes a lot of the levels look identical and the music is recycled constantly, but these are areas where you'd expect sequels to expand upon. Too bad those sequels don't exist.

It's also at a disadvantage as it's an ARCADE platform game. Now many reviewers will talk about console platformers such as Mario, and claim that tNZS is very unforgiving in comparison. You can't really do that. Arcade games are engineered to be difficult so that the arcade owners can get more cash. Home consoles and computers wanted an arcade experience in the living room, so you can't have this and then complain that the game is too... "arcade-like". The same applies to the likes of Ghosts 'n' Goblins and Metal Slug, and it's the reason you don't see many platformers in the arcades anymore.

But tNZS doesn't feel as extreme as similar arcade platform games. Slip-ups are the fault of the player, not because the game cheats or is designed to be brutal. But aside from the scrolling it's fair to say this isn't a massive step above what Bubble Bobble was doing in 1986. Many of the consoles it appeared on loved the game thanks to a drought of better platformers, but it would only be a matter of months before longer, nicer and more varied sidescrollers would show up to take the throne.

You'll also notice some ports change the level design slightly or reduce the amount of enemies to make things a bit more pleasant.

Nevertheless, I think this is a brilliant game. There's not much it gets wrong other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and had Taito bothered to make a console-based sequel it could have been something quite special. Tiki has made various cameos over the years (especially in Bubble Bobble games) so chances are we'll see him again at some point, but it's a bit of a shame he never saw the success he deserved.

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