Cute smile, vicious bite. That’s the best way to describe The NewZealand Story, a colourful platformer first released by Taito in 1988. Set against a surreal backdrop which bears almost no resemblance to the antipodean country of its title, the game’s picture book graphics are but a thin veneer for the outright cruelty lurking beneath.
Consider the scenario first. You take control of Tiki, an orange, curiously plump kiwi in chunky trainers whose job is to rescue his friends from an evil leopard seal from the antarcitic ocean. To do this, you have to traverse a series of large and sometimes quite complex mazes, shooting enemies down with your bow and arrow or whatever replacement weapons you can find lying around.
In a harsh twist which predates Grand Theft Auto by several years, you also have the option of booting an enemy out of its flying machine and stealing it for yourself, which is a vital tactic, it turns out: without commandeering a balloon, floating platform or UFO, you’ll struggle to get to the end of the level before the time runs out.
Whether you’re playing the original coin-op or one of its numerous ports, The NewZealand Story is startlingly difficult. Mazes are narrow and full of hazards. Spikes will kill you with a solitary touch. Stretches of water will drown you if you don’t swim through them quickly enough. Worse still, enemies will spawn randomly and in huge numbers; one moment your fragile kiwi’s plodding through an empty corridor, the next a portal’s opened and a stream of angry robot cats, boomerang-lobbing humanoids or other weird enemies has started streaming out of it.
The NewZealand Story emerged towards the end of a second golden age for Taito. A decade after it conquered the world with Space Invaders, it lit up 80s arcades with beguiling and innovative games like Elevator Action, Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands. The NewZealand Story is, even by the standards of those latter two platformers, a cleverly-designed and imaginative game.
The collision of furry animals and quite violent action is akin to a Terry Gilliam sketch; there’s something quite mesmerising about the sight of Tiki suddenly arming himself with a laser gun and taking out hordes of cats, birds and demonic bats. Even the opening cut-scene, brief though it is, has a streak of humour running through it: look through the kiwis about to be swept into the leopard seal’s swag bag, and you’ll see that one of them’s smoking.
It’s just possible that the whole game takes place in that bird’s drug-addled mind. How else do we explain the sequences where Tiki rides around on the back of a laser-spitting duck? Or the frenzied music, which sounds like the Cantina band from Star Wars rattling through an up-tempo jazz number?
Like just about everything in The NewZealand Story, the area bosses are refreshingly off-beat. The most famous one is probably the one at the end of the first area: a gigantic whale which Tiki has to climb inside to defeat. You’ll also face a robot doll and a huge stone octopus that squirts ink at you. Naturally, the globs of ink quickly take on the form of deadly bats.
If anything, The NewZealand Story’s design allows for more variety and surprises than the far more famous Bubble Bobble. It’s possible, however, that The NewZealand Story’s frustrating difficulty level may have put some, less dedicated players off. But if you persevere with The NewZealand Story, which involves memorising the layouts of its levels and getting used to its quirks, you’re soon rewarded with an exciting run-and-gun maze game that’s as packed with secrets as Bubble Bobble or Rainbow Islands.
One of my favourites is the hidden “Heaven” level, which you’ll only find by losing your last life to an enemy projectile between the third and fifth worlds. Get it right, and you’ll wind up traversing a landscape of clouds until you meet the game’s equivalent of the Virgin Mary. (We told you this was a strange game.)
Of the numerous ports that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s, the Amiga and Sega Mega Drives were, for this writer, easily the best. The Mega Drive edition of The NewZealand Story features some quite different level layouts from the arcade, and if anything, is even harder, with your progress hampered by some particularly aggressive enemies. Unfortunately, that version only came out in Japan, and is a relatively rare thing to come by these days.
History doesn’t record what it was that inspired Taito to make such a curious game, so we’ll never know whether it was some kind of field trip to the real New Zealand or a fever dream that led the firm’s designers to come up with idea of a kiwi with trainers and a bow and arrow or a laser-spitting duck. All we do know is that the result is a quirky, tricky yet insidiously addictive title.
The NewZealand Story got a kind of semi-sequel in 1990, the even more obscure Liquid Kids, though the strangeness to be found in that warped little gem is best saved for an article of its own. Instead, we’ll leave you with a final conundrum. At one point in the game, we’re told that the leopard seal stole Tiki’s friends with the intention of “selling kiwis in various places.” But who would buy kiwis from a leopard seal in a beige hat? And more troublingly still, what on earth would they do with them?
It’s yet another mystery in a game packed full of them. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to steal a UFO from a cat…
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