In late 1995, the rebirth of videogames was almost complete. Sony’s PlayStation was already on shelves and under televisions in the UK, remoulding Mario Kart’s tartrazine fizz into the gunmetal-grey designer drug of Wipeout before amazed, dilated eyes. The 26th issue of Edge proclaimed that month’s future of electronic entertainment to be ‘3D world beater’ Fade To Black, and while that name would largely be forgotten, the moody humanity of the cover image and the cinematic ambition of the game were right on the money.
Meanwhile, in Kyoto, Shigeru Miyamoto’s internal teams at Nintendo were at the very height of their powers. Their SNES work had been an unbroken hot streak, five years long and littered with masterpieces all the way back to Super Mario World. Now they were elbow-deep in revolution themselves, months away from completing what would be their most dizzying feat: simultaneously entering and setting the seal on the brave new three-dimensional world, with fateful perfection, in Super Mario 64.
But with every beginning comes an ending, and Nintendo wasn’t about to drop the curtain without fanfare on an era it had ruled. Development of Mario 64 had overlapped with another Mario sequel in EAD’s labs, and it was the other that bore the title Super Mario World 2. It was the other that would be the last great Nintendo game on the SNES, the last great 2D platform game, and arguably the last great game of its generation. Videogames were growing up, but not before Nintendo had wound the clock back one last time, dumped its greatest star in nappies, and delivered its soulful, comic eulogy for their infancy: Yoshi’s Island.
The spellbinding intro takes us back into a world in which Mario and Luigi aren’t just babies, they aren’t even born yet: they’ve been stolen from a stork and separated before reaching their parents (and who, before this game, had ever entertained the idea of Ma and Pa Mario?). But the route Nintendo took to this gaming prehistory wasn’t the open nostalgia and quaint retrospection the company is so fond of today. A year earlier, Rare had begun Donkey Kong Country by cranking a tinny 8bit tune out of a gramophone, before swatting the past aside and brashly announcing its modernity with hip-hop beats and dazzling prerendered sprites that seemed strangely out of place on the 16bit hardware. Yoshi’s Island, however, looked neither back at earlier gaming technology, nor forward to any kind of conventional future for it. Though it (almost literally) stretched the SNES to breaking point, it tried its hardest not to look like technology at all.
The Nintendo logo that introduces it is a wobbling scribble in pencil. A soft lullaby tinkles over the clockwork grinding of a music box that, cutely, has to be rewound halfway through the intro. The sunrise that blushes behind the flapping stork is so delicate it seems to have been done in watercolours, and the characters in this storybook drama might be from, well, a storybook. This carries convincingly through into the game proper, as Yoshi bears the infant Mario to his abducted brother through worlds that seem to have been conjured out of crayon and chalk, patchwork, paper and clay. The sprites look more like hand-drawn illustrations lined in thick ink. Yoshi’s Island is a living, organic cartoon, made not of pixels or polygons, but of playroom detritus that has a texture so convincing you want to reach into the screen and touch it. The game’s graphics aren’t screaming ‘now’ but rather suggesting ‘then’: a pre-technological past, a daydreaming childhood, a story that begins ‘a long, long time ago…’
This was a major step in a radical art style for games, an alternative goal to realism: the use of serious technical firepower to create the impression of something handmade. The thick outlines foreshadowed the primary technique in the development of 3D cel-shading, and the deliberately simplistic background dioramas were a precursor to the cardboard cutouts of pseudo-2D styles like Viewtiful Joe’s. It was an approach Nintendo would experiment with time and again with results as different (and stunning) as Wind Waker, Paper Mario, and even some of Wario Ware’s scrapbook schizophrenia. It was profoundly influential, and though at the time it lacked the immediate wow factor of the super-shiny Donkey Kong Country, it has aged far more gracefully.
These homespun visual stylings weren’t the only task to which Miyamoto harnessed his artists’ talents and his programmers’ by-now-total command of the SNES. For Yoshi’s Island was a technological marvel, making extravagant use of the Super FX chip in its cart. From the rippling logo to the ballooning bosses, absolutely everything in the game scales, spins, squashes, distorts, distends and warps. Jump on a rotund, blushing creature called a Milde and it squeezes flat for a moment before popping, satisfyingly, into nothingness, sending nearby enemies tumbling with the force of the blast. Much bigger monsters made of translucent goo bounce, stretch, twist and quiver, furrowing their bushy eyebrows. Giant blocks of wood fall out of the screen, beams rotate, drums roll and boulders trundle with heavy momentum. The eggs Yoshi lays and throws ricochet like bullets, burrowing through soft earth, spinning pulleys to heft convincing weights for the little dinosaur to scamper underneath.
Mario games had for a long time been built around inertia and rebound, a strong physicality at the root of that peerless connection between player and avatar. But Yoshi’s Island was, and is, on another level. Its whole world is as tactile and elastic as a warm lump of Plasticine, as energetic as a rubber ball, as startlingly three-dimensional as a pop-up book. It is gloriously, intoxicatingly physical. And it’s not just in the lavish effects, or the surprisingly convincing physics. Tiny details of sound and animation – splattering mud, snow brushed off trees, the fat pop of a laid egg, the frantic, feather-scattering flap of a Goonie trying to support Yoshi’s weight – are just as vital in helping this playground paradise defy its well-worn idiom of lava and ice to become tangible, responsive and real.
If there’s a defining moment in Yoshi’s Island, it comes toward the end of the first world: after you’ve defeated Burt The Bashful by throwing eggs at him until his pants fall off and he explodes out of sheer embarrassment, but before you’ve shaved Salvo The Slime’s gelatinous body down to a tiny dollop that can no longer accommodate his blinking eyes. In a level called Touch Fuzzy Get Dizzy, an unremarkable woodland stroll is interrupted when the screen floods with hairy, puffy white balls like obese dandelion seeds, wafting gently on the breeze. Touching one makes Yoshi ‘dizzy’ – but really this is just the game’s kindergarten euphemism for blind drunk. He goes cross-eyed, colours pulse and shift, the music squawks queasily, and the entire landscape begins to undulate in heavy, seasick rolls. In a beautifully literal, physical interpretation of a mental state, the teetering dinosaur plunges helplessly into the troughs and labours up to the crests of these waves in a stagger that’s just the right side of impossible to control. It’s not a difficult section, but it takes a while because you’re too busy hooting with laughter to prevent Yoshi’s headlong tumble from one Fuzzy into the next (as if you’d want to).
This is where the game’s living landscape, its hero’s irrepressible momentum and its bewilderingly imaginative bestiary meet. Together, they create spontaneous, physical comedy that has never been bettered in games. It’s unapologetically low comedy of course, the kind of violent and absurd Tom & Jerry slapstick beloved of children and animators everywhere, but it is unusually native to the game. Whereas other classics of videogame humour (Monkey Island, say) have jokes written in to them, the best jokes in Yoshi’s Island issue directly from the gameplay, and involve the player. The designers set them up, seeding the world with carefully-timed comic possibilities – a monkey spitting melon seeds here, a trough of slippery mud here, a balloon carrying a Shy Guy with a bomb – but it’s always your fingers that deliver the punchline. That’s what makes it one of the purest, most native expressions of comedy in the videogame form.
These are jokes, however, that you couldn’t pull off on your own; you need help from your enemies, but ‘enemies’ often seems an inappropriate word. Not for those Bandits, it’s true, or the Lakitus who pelt Yoshi from clouds or holes in the wall, or the ever-hateful, gnashing piranha plants. But the cheerful monkeys that scamper around Yoshi throughout world three, coyly playing catch-me-if-you-can, swinging in chains from the treetops, or engaging the dinosaur in seed-spitting firefights, seem more like mischievous playmates overstepping the mark. The wide-eyed Flightless Goonies, running in terrified streams and rolling in fat stupor along the ground, are no more malevolent than the little vacant penguins that bounce Yoshi around the game’s later snowscapes: they’re just pratfalls waiting to happen. The weeble-like Burts might be trying to get Yoshi as they leap ridiculously off each other’s heads, or they might just be practising some inept, clownish acrobatics. Each new creature is encountered not with fear, but joy and curiosity, compelling the player to jump on it, stomp it, shoot it, eat it and spit it out until every quacking sound effect and comic permutation of cause and effect has been discovered.
There’s a subtle innocence to everything about Yoshi’s Island, and it runs deeper than the game’s whimsical presentation. Take the most common bad guys: the Shy Guys. Caped from head to toe, and wearing expressionless open-mouthed masks as haunting as they are cute, the Shy Guys come at Yoshi in wildly varied and hilariously undignified fashion: somersaulting, dangling from head-propellers, gingerly picking their way on stilts, or even hiding under sheets and pretending to be ghosts. Some are grotesquely fat, and when eaten, cause Yoshi to lay giant egg-bombs that can barely be thrown. Some are tall and thin, their elongated masks scarily resembling Munch’s Scream. Their patterns are preset, their attacks half-hearted, and they seem to have no will or malicious intent of their own. They’re funny, but also a little sad: their attempts to assault Yoshi so hopeless and ridiculous, it’s almost cruel. With the Shy Guy, the game’s genial exuberance tips lightly into pathos, as it does with the bosses. These aren’t ferocious, fully grown terrors: they aren’t bosses at all, each one being no more than a common-or-garden variety of the island’s surreal fauna, enlarged by the wizard koopa Kamek to outrageous size, but mindless and blameless in its fate. This makes them the perfect opponents for the faithful, dog-like dinosaur and his young charge, because it ensures that from hero to ultimate enemy – excepting Kamek, who rarely acts directly – Yoshi’s Island is a world entirely without adults, complete in its innocence. Fittingly, the final battle starts as a toddler’s brawl, with a baby Bowser jealous of Mario’s mount, stomping furiously and crying “MINE! MINE” as he tries to snatch a ride on the “green donkey”.
The most touching twist on this world of eternal childhood is in the hero himself, or rather the heroes themselves. For what could be more infantile than Yoshi, with his digestive impulse to put things in his mouth and either throw them straight back up or pass them, mysteriously, out of his backside? The answer, of course, is an actual infant, a being whose powerlessness and trust are absolutely complete, who cries in terror at the slightest loss of contact with his guardian. Yoshi is a child put in charge of a child, and the key mechanical feature of this game is also its emotional core: being struck means not death for the dinosaur but peril for the baby, as he’s knocked off Yoshi’s back, and floats away in a bubble. There are few things in games as heart-rendingly stressful as those panicked moments, scrambling to reclaim the baby against a ticking clock, impelled by his enervating, desperate cries. The threat is displaced from the avatar to his helpless cargo, and the childish, enthusiastic beast becomes a parent: responsible, harried and defensive of his charge.
It’s a primal motivation, more instinctive and more profound than the romantic heroism that drives a lone, fearless Mario to save his damsel in distress. And perhaps it gives extra contextual poignancy to a game that was the last two-dimensional gasp of the greatest platform series. In giving the player care of Mario – and by extension, the captured Luigi – before the event of their birth, Miyamoto entrusts the player with the very existence of his creations. If Yoshi were to fail, none of Mario’s adventures would ever take place, and a beloved icon would wink out of existence. Of course, such a failure is an impossible paradox, and the game’s final frame shows Mario and Luigi held aloft by their parents over the legend ‘Heroes Are Born!’ In retrospect, it’s sad to realise that Mario’s adventures, in their original form, may have died at that moment of his birth. But if they did end there, they did so after their most idyllic and loving episode, mourned by a joyful tear, and celebrated by the widest of smiles.