First Impressions: Enjoying the Craft of Yoshi's Woolly World

A purled gem

For fans who have been anxiously awaiting news of Yarn Yoshi since it was first announced in January 2013, seeing Nintendo’s Takashi Tezuka and Good-Feel’s Etsunobu Ebisu walk into a yarn shop during the E3 Digital Event was enough to send hopeful hearts flutter-jumping in anticipation. Now sporting a new name and a launch window of 2015, Yoshi’s Woolly World was one of Nintendo’s flagship titles on the E3 floor this year, and for good reason. We couldn’t get enough this textile-based platformer — it’s beautiful, charming, and a blast to play with one Yoshi or two.

From first glance, Yoshi’s Woolly World stands out for one thing: it looks absolutely amazing. Good-Feel has taken the endlessly charming design conceit of Kirby’s Epic Yarn and recast it into high definition and three dimensions; the results are mesmerizing. While the move to a three-dimensional world might seem inconsequential in a side-scroller, it makes a huge difference in the look and feel of the game: when enemies unravel, their yarn twists in and out of the background in addition to left and right, sewing pins poke through the platforms they keep delicately in place in different directions, and Yoshi’s boots swirl themselves into a woolly whirlwind as he performs his trademark flutter-jump.

The leap to a 3D world makes Woolly World feel almost like a 2.5D platformer, and there’s at least one instance when the camera pans away from the traditional side-on angle: when Yoshi reaches the hoop at the end of each stage, the viewpoint swings around behind him to get a better view of the jump. The third dimension is also used to full effect in the character models. While Kirby’s Epic Yarn traded entirely in iconic outlines, the denizens of Woolly World are more varied: Shy Guys are made up of loosely bundled strands of thread behind their trademark masks, Huffin Puffin chicks are tightly packed puffs of cotton, and Yoshi himself is an impossibly cuddly-looking stuffed toy — the epitome of crocheted cuteness.

The level of detail in the materials is incredible as well; individual pieces of yarn show subtle fraying, with stray wisps and strands swaying gently off the fabric, fine pieces of thread glisten and stretch as they hold cotton clouds aloft, sequins add a glittery glow to underground caverns, Yoshi’s bulbous nose squishes in softly as he pushes against objects, and the ground responds to his knit-purl pitter-patter differently depending on the fabric it’s made of. The effect is that everything in the game looks like something you could actually create — given enough time and talent, of course — pick up, and manipulate with your hands in real life. In fact, part of what makes Woolly World so surreal in its beauty is precisely the fact that it all looks so real — it feels like the game is made entirely out of fabric and yarn, and it’s easy to forget there are polygons involved in the process at all.

Best of all, the arts-and-crafts aesthetic feeds directly into the gameplay. Sometimes you’ll notice bits of the environment that are a little more frayed than others, or a piece of thread hanging out of an otherwise tightly-knit element; more often than not, these clues hide secret areas or collectables, which makes keeping an eye out for imperfections in each world’s weave a treat for the scoreboard as well as the senses. The resulting animations are in keeping with the theme too, of course: hidden platforms are speed-knit into existence, while a tug from Yoshi’s tongue will unthread barriers stitch by stitch and row by row.

We were able to play through three levels in our time with Woolly World, and we’re happy to report that the demo was just as much fun to play as it was to look at. Even in this early stage, Yoshi controls beautifully — flutter jumping, ground-pounding, and egg-tossing all felt just as they should on the GamePad, and the game already has the hyper-polished feel of Nintendo’s top-tier platformers. In a departure from both the Yoshi’s Island series on the one hand and Kirby’s Epic Yarn on the other, Woolly World uses a health-bar system: a ring of pink petals encircles Yoshi, appearing when you take damage, and you can add to your health by finding more petals hidden around the stages — they scatter when uncovered, just like the Stars of Yoshi’s Island. There are no lives or Game Over screens to worry about, however; if Yoshi looses all his health, he’ll just pop back up at the last checkpoint.

That said, we were impressed and somewhat surprised by the satisfying level of challenge offered by the demo, especially in comparison to Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Some of that challenge comes from level design and enemy placement. One section in the third level we played saw Yoshi leading Huffin Puffin chicks instead of eggs, and had plenty of Piranha Plants guarding gems (the omnipresent, Epic Yarn-inspired pickup of choice in the game) and other collectables. Without eggs, the plants couldn’t be stunned (muzzled, in this case - with a piece of string of course) and set-up for a ground-pound, and in some cases they guarded narrow enough passages that Yoshi wouldn’t be able to ground-pound them anyway. The key to getting past the plants lay in skipping a few screens forward, finding a fuzzy, floating Koopa Trooper, heading back to the Piranha gauntlet, and using the Koopa’s button-shell to take them out.

Another part of the challenge stems from the reason you’d want to get into the hidden areas in the first place; as in most Yoshi games, the emphasis in Woolly World is on unravelling the levels at leisure to find secrets and hidden items, rather than racing to the finish, and there are plenty of collectables to find along the way. Along with the Good-Feel gems and Yoshi’s traditional smiling flowers, there are three skeins of yarn to be found in each stage, some of which were rather deviously hidden. All these collectables added to what felt like a large emphasis placed on secrets in the demo, especially in the form of invisible cotton question-marked clouds. These Cheshire cat-counterparts to the series’ staple item boxes were hidden everywhere, only making themselves known if touched by Yoshi or a yarn egg. Triggering them did everything from opening up new areas and knitting new platforms to dispensing health or gems, and in one area we had to find an invisible cloud just to move forward — Woolly World’s way of training players to keep an eye out for places they might pop up.

We also got to play several rounds of two-player co-op — a feature carried over from Kirby’s Epic Yarn but new for Yoshi titles — and in many ways that’s where the game shined the brightest. Woolly World’s co-op feels unique, distinct from both the cut-throat cramped quarters of New Super Mario Bros. U and the wholesome teamwork of Kirby’s Epic Yarn; in fact, two-player mode can be as competitive or cooperative as you’d like, and Yoshi’s trademark abilities facilitate that. Either player can swallow the other and carry them around as a special yarn ball, and from there, anything goes: you can toss the other player up to otherwise unreachable areas, towards collectables, or across gaps; or you could spit them out of the way or into a pit, making sure you can collect all the gems for yourself.

In our playtime, we went back and forth between both styles depending on both our co-op partner and the feel of the stage, and had lots of fun with both approaches. Cooperation was particularly useful in the sky level we played, where Yoshi needed to toss Huffin Puffin chicks to create lines of cottony cumulous platforms on the fly — a task made considerably easier by having another Yoshi on backup. The Yoshi-stuffed yarn ball made by swallowing your partner is more powerful than regular eggs as well; in the demo, it could be used to take out Piranha Plants where normal eggs would only stun them, opening up new options for exploring enemy-filled corridors.

The only issue we ran into in multiplayer was with the Wii Remote controls — egg-tossing is mapped to the ‘A’ button, which is slightly awkward with the remote held sideways. It also precludes throwing eggs while moving — or at least any graceful implementation of that maneuver — which tripped us up in a particularly perilous part of the demo involving mid-air Huffin Puffin chick-tossing. Still, we certainly expect that the Wii U Pro Controller will be supported for co-op, and in general the action was paced so that tapping ‘A’ to toss wasn’t a problem at all.

Yoshi’s Woolly World was a huge hit on the show floor, wowing with stunning visuals, excellent level design, and a superb co-op (or not so co-op!) experience. We’re excited to see what other surprises Tezuka-san and Good-Feel have in store for the game before its release in 2015, and only sad that next year suddenly feels such a long way off; it’s going to be a tough wait for Nintendo’s knitted mascot to return in what looks to be a fantastically charming platformer.

We have plenty more E3 show floor impressions still to come, and be sure to check out our Splatoon first impressions.

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