A game about a sidekick can’t possibly be as good as the most popular sidescrolling platformers ever made, right?
With New Super Mario Bros. 2 just released for 3DS a lot of people are aiming criticism at Nintendo for persistently rolling out the same old same old, the supposed great innovators playing things safe with polished titles that challenge practically nothing and with Mario platformers fast becoming annual releases the concern is creeping in that the series might just be showing signs of stagnation. I’ll deliver my own verdict on the new game in due course but for now let’s look backwards at a very different time.
In the SNES era one might have forgiven Nintendo for milking their mascot’s popularity a bit more than they did, after all it worked for the NES which enjoyed three Super Mario Bros. titles and it was working for Sega who brought out four fantastic, critically acclaimed and riotously successful Sonic games in as many years. The launch title for their 16-bit console, Super Mario World was a massive hit that confirmed the Japanese giants as the masters of their trade and yet we had to wait until 1995 before Super Mario World 2 came along, and when it did it wasn’t even a Mario game.
Yoshi’s Island puts the colourful dinosaur buddies that debuted to immediate popularity front and centre. The adorable story, beautifully told in a memorable opening sequence goes like this; whilst delivering babies Mario and Luigi to their parents the stork gets waylaid by Kamek the magikoopa who manages to snatch only the latter brother. Baby Mario ends up plummeting to earth where he lands on the back of a Yoshi. The long-tongued lizard consults with his clan who agree to transport the baby to Bowser’s Castle in search of his brother and set off on a long journey taking turns to escort him across Yoshi’s Island.
As the player you control each colourful Yoshi in turn as you progress through a linear series of levels in the old A to B tradition with Baby Mario riding shotgun. It’s essentially the traditional Mario setup replete with perfect controls but comes with a number of brilliantly conceived embellishments. Yoshi can put his long tongue and iron stomach to good use by gobbling up enemies and either spitting them out to attack or swallowing them to turn them into eggs that will follow you around until you decide to throw them. A tap of R brings up an aiming cursor which automatically ranges up and down and you must time your throw carefully to hit your mark. You can have up to six eggs at a time and they can be used as weapons (obviously), to snag distant collectibles or to hit question clouds (which serve in place of the traditional question blocks). Getting used to making and throwing eggs is essential as it serves as a critical aspect of the gameplay and is integrated and balanced beautifully. Your movement is unimpaired in aiming mode and you can tap a button to fix the direction to help you aim but there’s nothing more satisfying than letting rip a well-timed shot especially if you bounce your egg off a wall or two first.
The other major idiosyncrasy of the gameplay is something more subtle, the flutter jump, a technique that allows you to hover in mid-air to prolong the distance of your jumps and control the speed of your fall. It’s easy to understate the importance of this technique which affords you an unprecedented level of control for a sidescroller and empowers you with confidence. You can leap far enough away from a platform for it to move off screen entirely and still be able to make it back with the flutter jump which makes the already speedy movement all the more exhilarating. This is a fantastic platformer to play, with flawlessly smooth controls and a lightning pace.
Although your goal is as simple as reaching the goal you do have some secondary objectives to think about and this is where Baby Mario comes in. If you take a hit instead of dying your infant charge will instead go flying, become incased in a bubble and start bawling as floats away. You must regain Baby Mario by touching the bubble before your star counter runs out at which point Kamek’s toadies will swoop in and kidnap him, causing you to lose a life and start the level over. The star counter starts at a default of ten but you can increase it by grabbing bouncy little star characters or by passing through a middle ring checkpoint, up to a maximum of thirty thereby increasing your window for regaining Baby Mario. Once you do your star counter will start to creep back up but will stop increasing at ten even if you expanded it further than that prior to losing him. It’s a smart system that adds an effective extra layer to the gameplay and fits in well with the story. The only possible downside is Baby Mario’s wailing which can get annoying but maybe it should come as an incentive to play better.
Those star points serve the additional purpose of contributing to your score at the end of your level alongside red coins and flowers. Among the usual gold coins in each level are twenty red ones which are only revealed to be red once you collect them, giving you an incentive to try and grab every coin you can. Each level also contains five flowers most of which will be located in tricky to reach spots or hidden in question clouds. Flowers give you an extra chance to play an end of level minigame to gain some extra lives or items and contribute ten points to your level score with red coins and star points each worth one, making a maximum target of 100 for every level. The level scores for the eight levels that comprise each of the six worlds will be added up to score you some extra lives and unlock a handful of super-hard secret levels. Yes, it’s all a bit of a collect-em-up but it’s intelligently integrated and pursuing the various collectibles is very addictive and helps to describe the superb level design.
Like a number of notable games released late in a console’s life cycle Yoshi’s Island boasts some of the best visuals seen on the SNES. Quite apart from featuring brilliantly detailed and exuberantly animated 2D sprites, the graphical style is among the best and most appealing ever seen in a sidescroller. The usual bold colours are displayed with a little more subtlety in pastel shades designed to resemble a storybook aesthetic and it looks utterly wonderful. Foregrounds and backgrounds both hum with detail and motion and the degree of expression the animations afford the Yoshi clan is effortlessly endearing. On top of this the game’s music is of such consistent high quality that literally every single chirpy tune is memorable. The all round presentation is of the highest quality available, the only possible downfall being that the child-friendly style isn’t to everyone’s taste.
It’s not often that a developer gets so much of a game’s design so consistently right but Yoshi’s Island is one of those games, one that’s very difficult to find fault with; only the slightly clunky vehicle transformations let down the rest of the experience. It’s packed with memorable moments from the startling level in which giant chomps drop from above or the hilarious Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy and the eye-opening final boss encounter. With forty-eight lengthy levels there’s plenty of content to get stuck into and if the main quest is a little easier than a lot of Mario platformers the unlockable challenges will certainly test those with skill.
Design – 10
Gameplay – 10
Graphics – 10
Sound – 10
Longevity – 8
A fantastic bookend for SNES software to partner Super Mario World and arguably the best 2D platformer ever, Yoshi’s Island is rightly regarded as one of the great titles in video game history and the seventeen years that have passed since its release have not aged the game even slightly.