When remembering the great games of the past, our thoughts tend to drift towards the revolutionary titles; the literal game-changers. And any gamer worth a darn knows that the indisputable king of these wonderful permutations is Shigeru Miyamoto. The man's M.O. is completely altering the landscape of gaming with every project he takes on. From Donkey Kong to Wii Fit, Miyamoto nearly always leaves the playing field altered forever with every vision he brings to fruition.
Yet there is something to be said for creating a masterpiece within the rules of an existing formula. Inventing something and perfecting it are often at different ends of the spectrum. Though the platformer had been around for over 1.5 decades, it took a long-tongued dinosaur to perfect it. In 1995, along with designer / director Takashi Tezuka, Miyamoto managed to create something that still felt as fresh and wonderful as when Pitfall Harry first leapt atop an alligator head.
Yoshi's Island (subtitled "Super Mario World 2" undoubtedly to attach itself to one of gaming's biggest franchises) is the epitome of what any smart retro enthusiast knows: the twilight of a console's life often contains its best releases. And for a system that hosted many of the greatest games of all time, that's quite an achievement.
Whereas any other Mario game has players controlling the titular plumber, Yoshi's Island has us playing as Yoshi and not just riding on him (speaking of which, does anyone else find it odd that all Yoshis are born with saddles attached to their backs?).
Though billed as the sequel to Super Mario World, the story takes place before the Mario Bros. are even delivered to their parents: young Mario and Luigi are en route to their parents via stork. The travelers are then attacked in mid-air by Kamek (baby Bowser's caretaker), who kidnaps Luigi and the stork but sends Mario plummeting to the ground below. He happens to land on Yoshi's Island, where the friendly dinosaurs decide to reunite the baby with his brother and send them back to their parents.
Really, though, this is a platformer; is the story that important? What is important is the world that Miyamoto has created: our favorite multi-colored species of dinosaur is given a beautiful, detailed land to traverse.
The gameplay is quite unique. Although it has scant traces of Mario's traditional platforming romps, Yoshi's Island is its own game. Instead of the traditional "one hit and you're dead, save for any active power-ups" formula, Yoshi's Island relies on a countdown instead of a life meter. In fact, Yoshi is virtually invincible (save for the instant-deaths of pits, spikes, and lava).
Instead, after being hit, Mario floats off of Yoshi's back and must be retrieved. At that moment, a countdown timer begins. If it reaches zero, then Kamek's toadies steal baby Mario and the player loses a life. Once Mario is retrieved, the countdown stops. Players begin a level with 10 seconds on the timer (similarly, if the time goes below 10 seconds after a hit, it will slowly regenerate back to 10) and power-ups found throughout levels can add up to 30 seconds.
This seemingly simple setup was quite revolutionary for its time. Time-based life was practically unheard of when Yoshi's Island was released, yet it's the fundamental rule for more recent games such as Halo.
Each level has Yoshi jumping, running, and climbing through large areas. Again, this isn't quite the Mario adventure that most of us are used to: instead of hopping and bopping and jumping platforms, Yoshi's Island focuses more on puzzle-solving and item-collecting. Every four stages presents the player with a boss battle (usually a super-sized version of a standard enemy). Along the way, Yoshi also comes into contact with giant Super FX 2 chip-powered obstacles, accesses hidden bonus levels, rides on an indestructible canine friend named Poochie, and finds "transformations" that turn him into various vehicles such as a helicopter and a race-car.
Though all of this is splendid fun, the gameplay isn't quite revolutionary. Yet it's the world that the developers draw us into that represents a smorgasbord of beauty, creativity, and whimsy.
Yoshi's Island is a wonderful vision of pastel colors, majestic backdrops, and character-oozing sprites. Honestly, it's difficult to remember any other game that matches or even comes close to the amount of detail that Yoshi's Island did, past or present. The level of charm is astronomical. Every enemy seems quite intentional. There will be moments when you refrain from killing an enemy just to watch it in action.
Previous games up to this point often gave the impression that it was a struggle to appear the way it did. Something like Battletoads for the NES has amazing graphics, but one can almost feel the blood, sweat, and tears of the game's developers in every layer of parallax scrolling. Yoshi's Island took a different approach: having the graphics dictate the technology and not the other way around. The game could have replicated the pre-rendered 3D graphics of Donkey Kong Country, but chose style over the latest and greatest. (Apparently, this was not what Nintendo requested the game to look like, earning DKC an infamous diss from the Miyamoto.)
This was the beginning of a different philosophy in artistic presentation: instead of wrestling with technology, let creativity revel in it. This is perhaps the first game that seemed to genuinely "play" with its foundation. Giant polygonal doors that fall down onto Yoshi as he walks by… necessary? No. Appreciated? Much.
Less obvious but equally as beautiful as the visuals are the sounds: Kōji Kondō, the greatest video game composer of all time, strikes gold once again. From the bright, anxious flutter of the intro stage to the epic grandeur of the final boss battle, the music is simply amazing. And if the ending theme doesn't give you goosebumps and tingles, then I'm sorry to be the one to inform you that you have no soul. Seriously, go YouTube that tune right now.
The downsides of this game are practically moot, but here goes anyway: baby Mario's crying is annoying and some of the bosses are too easy. And that's it. The rest is perfection.
Yoshi's Island isn't just a great platformer: it's a reminder of why this silly little hobby of ours is so wonderful. Sure, the game contains no political satire, no poetic justice, no character development. But if what Miyamoto and Tezuka crafted isn't a work of art, then the definition of "art" needs to be amended.