There aren’t many games that it’s hard to imagine looking any better than they did in their original form. Especially of those released in 1995. But Yoshi’s Island, or to give it its complete name, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, still looks as cheerily pristine as the day it emerged, thick crayon lines, plump patchwork textures and all.
Styled around appearing like a children’s picture book, Yoshi’s Island exhibits singularly cohesive art direction and a rare synergy with its host system, even if it required an extra chip in its cartridge, the Super FX2, to achieve it.
It extends and builds upon the Super Nintendo’s sprite-manipulation capabilities with beautiful logic. Enemies squidge and bounce with almost tangible elasticity, popping with force when jumped on, tautly growing and flabbily shrinking, reacting to Yoshi’s actions with a materiality that prefigured the present-day impact of realtime physics.
Though wonderfully engaging and pretty, these effects aren’t just window dressing, because Yoshi’s Island always ties them right into its mechanics. They’re an intrinsic part of the boss battles, in which Yoshi finds itself trapped in the glutinous depths of a frog’s belly, or running around a spinning moon after a raven. They’re also present as part of the standard levels – providing a revolving barrel for Yoshi to cross, a plank that falls from the wall, a balancing beam, a rolling rock. Each incarnation makes the world a little more engaging to play in, a little more substantial. For all that it’s rooted in childish imagination, Yoshi’s is one of the most authentic-feeling two-dimensional worlds videogames have created.
It’s sad, then, that so many felt disappointed by Yoshi’s Island when it first appeared. With a name that set it as a sequel to the sprawling secrets and liberal exploration found in Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island’s linear sequence of levels initially feels limited. Yoshi doesn’t gain access to additional skills as the game progresses, other than transformations, which are probably the game’s most poorly judged feature. There are no secret exits or hidden areas. In a curious regression to a previous generation, success is based on achieving high scores.
Yoshi’s Island is not Super Mario World, though. With no cleverly interwoven overworld, it relies on the huge variety of challenges in its levels. Precise acrobatics, targeting, puzzle solving, searching for collectibles and battling smoothly segue into each other from one moment to the next. The diversity is breathtaking, and taken to its limit in the ‘secret’ levels, accessed by scoring the full 100 points in each of the main levels. These expand the dynamics – fast-moving on-rails platforms, monkey-infested treetops, labyrinthine tunnels – into abstract playgrounds, demonstrating just how robust the design is.
It’s also somewhat unfair to compare the titular Yoshi with Mario because their fundamental characteristics are entirely different. Mario has a small set of basic moves centred on jumping, and his movement is based on inertia and speed, meaning his games are about skilful negotiation through the levels. Yoshi, on the other hand, has his flutter jump, the chance to spend a second hanging in the air before falling. This is a skill that, in lending confidence to every leap into the unknown, redefines each level as a place for careful exploration and experimentation instead of speedy transit.
Yoshi’s other ability, egg-throwing, might seem overly complex and unwieldy in a pure Mario game. But Yoshi’s Island uses targeting so consistently and it’s so much part of the level design that here it never falls over. Yoshi’s Island also breaks with Mario convention with its essential play dynamic – that Yoshi is more or less invincible, merely stunned if he touches enemies, but with his precious cargo, baby Mario, thrown from his back. Retrieving the youngster before a timer counts down reverses what was a measured pace into a frantic panic, Mario screaming and bouncing around the screen.
That comedy of errors, with Yoshi spinning cartoon-like into a daze whenever he takes a hit, is part of the game’s fabulous sense of humour. From the infamous ‘Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy’ level, which scrapes close to Cheech & Chong slapstick, to the tear-jerking moment an errant giant Chain Chomp bites down on a hard wall, Yoshi’s Island bursts with rollicking, joyous character, all supported by its ebullient score.
The formidable challenge that is achieving the maximum 100 points on each level is never a chore, for all that the odd red coin may seem impossibly elusive. Because Yoshi’s Island is a precious example of a game that offers play that’s reward enough for its trials.