Version tested: DS
If the rumours are true, at the heart of Sonic the Hedgehog's creation was a desire to simplify things: Nintendo had laid out the template for platformers, and now SEGA was going to refine it. So where Mario used two buttons, Sonic would use only one. While the plumber liked to dawdle, the hedgehog, for the most part, preferred a breathless dash to the finish line.
If you're looking for any signs of the influence of Sonic's daddy Yuji Naka in his latest game, then, this sense of focus is perhaps the most likely candidate. Slow-paced and gently melancholic where Sonic was frantic and aggressively cheery, Ivy the Kiwi? is still an exercise in thoughtful economy: a platformer – of sorts – with almost no fat on the bone.
Ivy's a chubby little bird with rust-coloured feathers and an expression of fretful hope that wouldn't look out of place in a Schulz cartoon. Having spent the best part of a week with her, I can also confirm that she's utterly incapable of looking after herself, too.
Unable to fly, unable even to jump, Ivy plods along constantly and with a mechanical mindlessness, waddling from left to right until she hits an obstacle - at which point she turns around and heads back the other way. To escort her through the game's gamut of 2D mazes – 50 forming the initial campaign, with another, far trickier, batch as a bonus – your job is to guide her past spikes, drops and baddies by drawing a series of vines to hem her in and keep her from harm.
There are a couple of enemies to avoid and a limited range of obstacles to overcome, but for the most part, Ivy the Kiwi?'s as straightforward as it is beautiful, its delicate visuals invoking a world of sparse prettiness that could have sprung from a Victorian children's book. While the game throws in a handful of new techniques throughout the journey, much of the fun comes from the way your use of the basic tools evolves.
Levels tend to be short and sweet, encouraging experimentation as you shepherd Ivy past a dozen little danger points, and pretty soon you'll discover that the vines you can conjure have uses beyond employment as platforms and ramps. You can twang them to bounce Ivy over spikes – or, quite often in my experience, into spikes – and you can use them to send the bird into a kind of spin attack to blast through blocks and knock out the game's few foes. You can use them to put up temporary road-blocks to keep Ivy still while you plan your next move, and – most satisfyingly, if you pull it off properly – you can whip them around while they're being drawn to give her a more controllable upwards boost when you don't have enough room to bust out the whole trampoline act.
Stretch a vine too long and it will snap; draw more than three, and the oldest will disappear. With such tightly-controlled options, Ivy the Kiwi? is one of those games that offers the pleasure of real mastery. The only problem is that the central design is perhaps a bit too economical at times.
Chances are that you'll be relatively competent with most of the game's tricks by about halfway through the initial batch of levels. After that – unless you have the speed-run gene – you're just reacting to the occasional design wrinkle as the maps get more devious, or you're zeroing in on collectables and power-ups, such as feathers that count towards an extra life, or something that looks a bit like a piece of toast and confers invulnerability for a few seconds.
And while Naka's latest is elegant, it isn't perfect. The small playing area of the DS combined with the tiny mini-map means planning ahead in any kind of detail can be difficult. As such, the game puts reaction before strategy, and the results are often exciting. Sometimes, however, it's Excitement's dim-witted and dungaree-clad half-brother Frustration that turns up instead, as a wall of spikes comes at you from nowhere, or the helpful boulder you'd been hoping to plough through a line of rats with bounces over your head and into the distance.
The vines themselves can be a bit annoying, too. While laying them down is no problem whatsoever, if you want to get rid of some in a hurry – and you will – you'll have to frantically sketch more while they queue up to be cancelled out. Yoshi's Touch & Go got around a similar problem by allowing you to wipe out all of your creations at once by blowing into the microphone; that would have been handy here, too.
With single-card competitive multiplayer, all those bonus stages and a score attack mode for completed levels, Ivy the Kiwi?'s a generous proposition, but it still adds up to a game without a huge amount of variety. Ultimately, having Yuji Naka on board has been both a blessing and a curse: it's helped to lift the profile of a quiet and unassuming little offering, but it's raised expectations, too.
Look beyond the famous name, however, and Ivy the Kiwi? is a fresh, if limited, spin on the 2D platformer. If you're a leaderboard junkie, there's plenty of replay pleasure to be had as you chase down the best times for each level and find all the secrets. For everyone else, this remains a sweet-natured distraction that will last for a good few bus journeys, even if it won't necessarily linger in the memory too long after you've reached your destination.
7 / 10