As the summer of 1989 turned into autumn of the same year, our eyes had gradually adjusting to the visual brilliance of stuff like Defender of the Crown and Dungeon Master that had heralded the greatest graphical leap between any computer or console generations we’ve seen to this day. Okay, maybe that’s a bit subjective, so let’s head back to 1989 where we were now equipped to be a bit more objective.
September 1989 was the ideal opportunity to put this new-found objectivity to the test, and it wasn’t going to get just one workout either! Few at the time would argue that Xenon II on Atari ST was delivering what was considered a genuine arcade experience at home, and few since would argue that it was one of the best-looking games to ever grace the system. Those Amiga perverts would probably say the same over there too! The depth of vision; the smooth parallax scrolling; the intricate textures; the swarms of unique insect-like enemies traversing realistic organic meshes over distant starfields… It’s still absolutely stunning, and its polished, deep, addictive, tough as nails and simply essential gameplay is equally joyful!
A lot of those descriptors could also be applied to another game that appeared on the 16-bit machines that month, even though it couldn’t be more different in almost every other respect! It was the screenshots in the October 1989 Computer & Video Games magazine review that got me. And they got me by surprise too! I was a 17-year old nerd, listening to Slayer and reading Warhammer books, yet here was this bright yellow cartoon bird on a bright yellow cartoon background with a load of teddy bears floating about the place, and it all looked utterly, utterly gorgeous, which was utterly, utterly confusing! Which might also explain why it took me another 32 years to actually buy it on Atari ST, though once I’d got a bit more comfortable with my identity, there was never a time during that period that I didn’t laud it as on a par with Xenon II as the best-looking game on there!
My history with The New Zealand Story did start a little while before that arrived care of eBay a few weeks ago though. I eventually got the arcade version by default when I bought the Taito Legends compilation for PlayStation 2, albeit a good ten years after the event, and that was bought specifically for the original version of Continental Circus! The PC-Engine port reached me shortly after, and actually that’s where I’ve now spent quite a lot of time with it. And it was in playing that again a couple of months ago in 2021 that inspired me to finally bite the bullet and spend £3.50 on my beautiful Atari ST game!
The arcade version first appeared in 1988, after one of the Taito programmers apparently came back from a holiday in New Zealand with the game in tow! Delving into one of those wonderful (and relatively small) 14x15cm cardboard Atari ST game boxes from The Hit Squad, I’ll pick up the story from the instructions… You’re Tiki, a kiwi, living a peaceful life in Auckland Zoo, New Zealand, until trouble turns up in the guise of a psychotic walrus called Wally Walrus. He likes nothing better than scoffing fresh kiwi, so he kidnaps Tiki, his girlfriend Phee-Phee and the rest of their clan to stock up the larder! This equates to hiding his captives across 21 levels, but luckily Tiki has escaped and is out to rescue everyone else. These levels are based on the places the developer visited during his holidays, starting in Auckland then taking in Rotorua, Waitomo Caves, Wellington Strait, Cook Straight, Hammer Springs and finally Mount Cook, where you’ll go one-on-one with the evil wally.
I’m not sure how cannon these instructions are, and I’m definitely not a marine biologist, but the arcade version seems to have you kidnapped by a leopard seal (or sea leopard) rather than a walrus. All about the ear placement, apparently. Anyway, it doesn’t really affect the gameplay, which generally involves you searching for a caged companion in maze-like horizontal and vertical platform-based levels, starting with a bow and arrow to protect you from Wally’s minions. As well as the teddy bears (which, in retrospect, might also be cats), these include crabs, turtles, bats and more exotic things like UFOs and magicians. As you kill enemies, they might drop items that you can retrieve and use yourself, from bonus score fruit to extra weapons, like lasers and plasma balls, to invincibility pills and smart-bomb books. Being a kiwi, you can’t fly, so to get vertical you’re going to have to find a balloon or hijack one from a hovering teddy bear cat thing. There’s six different balloons to find that all handle differently, for example a duck balloon that goes faster, and there’s a nice joystick power-up for those too that gives you loads more flight control. You’ll need to go underwater to traverse some of the levels, and if your oxygen meter runs out you’ll drown, but that can be replenished by reaching the surface and spitting water, which in turn can also be used to take out enemies. Take too long over any of the levels though, and you’ll have the Time Dragon on your back for one of your three lives!
In the first few levels, you’re going to get arrows in the background to point you in the direction of your captive friends, but a few levels in and releasing them is going to alert the “Big Guardian Creature” who you’ll need to puzzle out beating before you can move on. I’m not sure if this is something people were getting particularly stuck on, but the instructions tell you that for the first boss, some kind of ice whale, you need to allow yourself to be swallowed so you can have a go at it from the inside as you avoid its lethal stomach juices! The instructions close by telling you that because the various lairs of Mr Walrus, the seal, are so well guarded that they can’t brief you any further, except you need to get good. And it then tells you to get good several times but using different words, including the profound advice that “after a lot of practice, playing skills can be improved considerably!” If you’re still struggling after all that practice though, the box also contains a cheat card for ST and Amiga, telling you that on the title screen, type FLUFFYKIWIS for inifinite lives, or press the help key in-game to advance to the next level. Which I don’t think I’ve ever come across in a game box before, even in other Hit Squad releases I own like Badlands and Rainbow Islands (which also came out that month, if I remember rightly)!
Speaking of Rainbow Islands, New Zealand Story feels a lot like its predecessor, Bubble Bobble, to play, and even shares more direct elements from it, like picking up letters to spell EXTEND for an extra life. However, these levels are far bigger, scrolling and meandering all over the place more often than not, and for as much as the time limits allow, they encourage exploration too, with loads of hidden secrets, from warp gates to entire post-death levels, if you die the right way… Those EXTEND letters are a good example of some early secrets, where in the very first level, you’ll see three platforms near the end that seem a bit excessive, but that because if you climb to the top one and stand on its left edge then jump and shoot five times, a warp gate will appear, and there’s E, X and T. Take the warp gate there, and you’ll end up in a room you’ve seen but couldn’t access under that whale boss, with E, N and D. And the rest of the game is full of this stuff!
The game takes some learning, but before long you’ll be making progress well beyond the first boss without too many problems. It’s as you progress into more unfamiliar territory, coupled with the increasing ferocity of both enemies and obstacles, and increasibly complex level designs, that you’ll feel the difficulty ramp up though. But it never feels unfair, or any kind of arcade machine cash grab; and it’s all so quick and varied and just fun that you can’t help but keep coming back… Er, as though it’s some kind of arcade machine cash grab! If you get as far as level 3-1, and lose your last life by being hit by some kind of projectile (rather than falling on a spike or something), you’ll go to Heaven, a kind of second-chance set of secret levels (depending on where you died) where everyone has a halo! There are some notoriously well hidden exits in these that reward you with one more go at the level you died on, but if you reach the end of one of these levels instead of finding an exit, you’ll have one of the saddest endings in all of gaming, where you see Tiki meet the Goddess and then go “into a long sleep in the warm sunlight.”
How can we use the word “sad” when talking about one of the most joyful looking games you could possibly imagine though? And was there ever a happier soundtrack? Well, maybe Bubble Bobble, but this isn’t far off, with its unforgettable chip-tune constantly reinventing its simple melodies, only to be briefly interrupted by the jaunty bass and bell-like jingle as you free one of your friends; or that ominous bigger bell to signify that the invisible timer is running low! And all the while, there’s a wondrous cacophony of sound effects, especially that shrill cheep-cheep-cheep-cheep to cheer you up even in your final moments!
Let’s get back to how it looks though, because that that’s where it all began for me, and I still maintain it’s up there with Xenon II as the best-looking game on Atari ST! By the way, as we’ve gone beyond what’s in the box, I haven’t really been focussing on any particular format here, and as I do when I’m just enjoying rather than writing about the game, have jumped between Atari ST, PC-Engine and arcade original on PS2 depending on what I’ve got up and running at the time. There are differences, of course, for example the ST’s play area reduced in comparison to the others, or the colour changes and simplified warp routes in the PC-Engine version, but you’ve got to be pretty deep into the game before you’re going to notice those, so what we can also say fairly objectively is that in the three versions I’ve finally landed on, two of those are about as good a conversion of the other that you could get! I will come back to even more versions again later, but we were talking graphics and how good they are on ST, but (as it doesn’t really work for arcade) where does it sit in the great pantheon of PC-Engine / TurboGrafx-16 games? I’ve genuinely never thought about this, but I’m disturbingly excited at the prospect of doing so now!
Without any thought whatsoever, I’m throwing in Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, and not just for its famously cinematic intro, but also its huge gothic sprites and relentless Hammer Horror atmosphere. No doubt it’s got the best soundtrack on there too! Closely followed by Lords of Thunder, which is a looker too; a kind of heavy metal fantasy take on side-scrolling cute ’em up Cotton. Which reminds me, there’s Magical Chase – another one that’s trying to pretty much be Cotton in all but name. Then there’s some beautifully horrifying sights to be found in Splatterhouse; one of my favourite sights in all of gaming, in fact, with the flying scarecrow pumpkin thing and its skeleton army in stage five! The bold use of colour, especially on its outdoor stages, really sets that game apart for me though. I’m going to throw in Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands sequel Parasol Stars too, though mainly for when it goes all neon cityscape or all-out rainbow! Okay, my mind’s almost made up… It’s a tie between Rondo of Blood and New Zealand Story!
If I had to describe New Zealand Story in a single word, that word would be “yellow.” And yes, I know I could have saved you a whole lot of time if I’d done that from the outset! Anyway, yellow. It’s not all yellow, but there’s a lot of yellow. Actually, sometimes it is pretty much all yellow! But things do get mixed up the further you go, and if you think about it too much, quite messed up too, as it veers from the whimsical brickwork and animal enclosures in the zoo, dotted with posters or billboards, through to full-on stained-glass references to the Virgin Mary and disturbing graffitti from desperate hostages. There’s actually huge variety once you get going – tiki villages, wooden galleons, shark-infested deep-seas, fishing towns, gardens and mountains; all of them share the same dreamy, almost psychedelic aesthetic, and this incredible use of colour is set off by subtle shadows and highlights, as well as the intricate complementary detailing everywhere you look, in the rocks, the clouds, the water and so on.
That’s reflected in the sprites too, which never stray from being cute, but probably cram even more attention to detail into their much smaller frames, big bosses aside! There’s so much animation in each one too, and once you notice this, you’ll be dying no end because you’re more interested in seeing your characters jump and land frame-set play out in full! Another highlight here is when you go underwater, and a snorkel seamlessly appears on your face, and your blue and white trainers start pumping the water. You’ll notice similar details for the huge variety of enemies too, like the flying goggles on those bear-cats or the nervous shuffling of the crabs, and actually the only place I feel a bit let down by this is when you’re freeing another kiwi from its cage, and they’re doing this very basic, stationary wing flap in time with their eyes blinking – it’s almost like a placeholder they forgot to come back to finish off in comparison with pretty much everything else you’ll come across during your non-stop peril. It really is just a quietly beautiful feast for the eyes!
The New Zealand Story came out on everything! The Amiga had a bit more sonic oomph as usual, but otherwise I think it played similar to ST from what I’ve seen. I have played a fair bit of the Spectrum version too, which benefits from all that yellow, but for as much as it maintains a lot of the detail in the sprites, there’s barely any background detail and it loses a lot of its charm as a result; fantastic music on the 128K version though! I’m not massively keen on the Commodore 64 version – I know that few developers could resist making everything on there as brown as possible, but combined with really blocky sprites that lose all of the character that even the Spectrum version managed to capture, as well as a really grating take on the theme tune, I’m not a fan! The Amstrad version is terrible! Even more blocky and everything moves like a dog.
As well as PC-Engine, it would then turn up on NES (but called Kiwi Kraze in America), Master System, Mega Drive and those weird Japanese things like X68000. I’ve honestly never played any of these, but the Mega Drive one is interesting because it’s based on a prototype version of the arcade game, and was only ever released in Japan. The arcade version would eventually turn up on that compilation I mentioned earlier on PS2 as well as Xbox, PSP and PC, but in 2007 there was also a remake, New Zealand Story Revolution, for Nintendo DS. I just bought that on eBay too, and it looks fantastic, with all that detail and highlighting taken up another notch, especially when you see it in motion, but it’s let down by some crappy bonus games that need you to use the stylus while you’re using the same hand to both hold the console and control the action!
I’m not sure I was ever so taken by a screenshot for any game and then took so long to actually get it as I was with The New Zealand Story! And what really bothers me about that is that as I flick through my old mags, there’s an advert for RVF Honda on Atari ST the same month as this came out. Now, it’s a fine racer, but it’s no Super Hang-On, and apart from that and Enduro Racer and watching speedway on Anglia TV of a Thursday night when Go Fishing wasn’t on, I really wasn’t into bikes, so what was I doing buying that full price and ignoring The New Zealand Story? Okay, in the end I got it for £3.50, so waiting did pay off financially, but this could have been an all-time favourite an awful lot sooner! But it’s still a glorious example of the arcade platformer, and you can’t go wrong with any of the three versions I dived into here, as, after more than thirty years waiting, I find myself suddenly spoilt for choice!