Review: Yoshi's Island DS (DS)

A decent game sullied mainly by its overshadowing predecessor

Following a critically-acclaimed title like Yoshi's Island, the immediate question that most will ask after learning the existence of Yoshi's Island DS will be: is it better than the original? Actually, scratch that: anyone who has played through the sublime SNES platformer will know what the more appropriate question is: does Yoshi's Island DS even hold a candle to the original?

After all, this is a decades-after sequel on a completely different type of system, created by an entirely different third-party developer. It's particularly curious for a company like Artoon, who doesn't have the unblemished track record one would expect for a Nintendo property. Quite some time before most gamers even get to take it for a spin, the external traits of Yoshi's Island DS begin to look mighty disheartening.

But therein lies the conflict: prejudice and preconceived notions. Should a title be tethered to existing media, or should a reviewer examine every game as an isolated experience? The latter certainly has sound reasoning behind it: if the original Yoshi's Island had never existed and if this version had its Mario license stripped away from it, it would be a very decent platformer. In fact, it could be considered one of the DS's best.

Yet we can't ignore the obvious: this is a sequel to the SNES classic. It catches our attention via name recognition and familiarity, and so we naturally respond using the same attributes. On that front, Yoshi's Island DS pales in comparison to the utter perfection of its older sibling. It tries too hard to recapture the same magic that made the first game so beautiful. It's quite similar to the uncanny valley hypothesis: the closer you get to perfectly replicating something, the more people will notice the slight differences between the two and thus be disturbed by the "impostor."

Yoshi's Island DS is structured nearly identical to its predecessor, almost to a baffling level: the title screen shows a revolving island, Yoshi dances in place and scratches his chin, baby Mario has the same unbearable whine, etc. It's all here.

The main differences found in the sequel are the use of multiple characters and the double-screen view. A cast of diverse characters is usually a good thing for a video game, particularly platformers. In Yoshi's Island DS, this is done via the use of "stork drops" containing baby-ized versions of a few Nintendo regulars: Princess Peach, Donkey Kong, Bowser, and Wario. Stationed throughout the levels, the stork will appear and Yoshi can switch out the babies of various skills. Mario can make Yoshi run, the Princess can use her umbrella to make Yoshi float and catch wind gusts, Donkey Kong can climb vines, Bowser can breath fire, and Wario has a magnet (don't ask).

While many critics were not impressed by this mechanic, it's certainly not terrible. However, it does seem a bit unnecessary: while the original Yoshi's Island succeeded in part through its varied and creative gameplay, it was the environmental obstacles and not the abilities of the character that made the quest so fun. Also, the stork drops usually appear right before a brief section that requires a non-Mario baby. Yoshi will get the right baby, do the brief section, and then there's no need for that baby and you'll want to go back to carrying Mario. It feels almost as though the sections were stuck in justify having the multiple characters, and the multiple characters to validate having the game in the first place.

As stated before, you'll probably find yourself using Mario the most. One minor irk with Mario's running ability is that it's accomplished by holding the Y button. It's a mechanic that feels perfect for standard Mario platformers, but doesn't work quite as well in Yoshi's Island DS: in the SNES original, Yoshi would run on his own without having to hold a button. This left the Y button completely free for tongue-flicks and didn't require the player to alter their pace when doing a tricky series of moves like running, then jumping, then floating, and finally grabbing something with Yoshi's tongue. Additionally, because of Mario's running "ability," it seems as though they slowed down Yoshi's regular walking pace with other characters. This is a bit of a pain when not using Mario.

The other major difference is the DS-specific use of two screens. It's not quite a hindrance but similarly never feels right. This is due to the so-called "dead zone" between the two screens. The issue is the amount of in-game space hidden: the difference between the DS Phat and Lite's screen placements means that not everyone will be able have a consistent experience. There will be items hidden in that space which will have most gamers constantly and repetitively searching the space above their heads. Also, aiming between the two screens isn't quite intuitive and many egg shots won't line up as they should. It should be noted though that occasionally the two screens are used in a clever manner that shows traces of SMW2.

The "dead zone" concept works better for something like Contra 4: since the player is only moving left to right or bottom to top, shots still line up as you'd expect for vertical-scrolling sections and the space is irrelevant in the horizontal-scrolling sections, since players will usually stick to either the high or low route. Yoshi's Island requires much more active scanning of his surrounding area, something that is complicated by the dual-screen/dead zone setup.

Other than these areas, Artoon has expended much effort to essentially "recreate" Yoshi's Island, especially in the audio and visual departments. The graphics are extremely similar, but most definitely not the same. Yoshi's Island DS tries to recreate the Super FX 2-powered spectacles of the original, but it's never quite as impressive as it was 10 years ago. But even if you prefer the graphics of the original, you can at least appreciate Artoon's dedication. The music is much the same: similar to SMW2 but with the feeling of trying too hard to be the music from SMW2.

Despite this mostly negative review, the game is solid and should not be missed by fans of SMW2 and/or quality 2D platformers in general (something of which we can never have enough).

Conclusion

As a stand-alone game, Yoshi's Island DS is an enjoyable platformer. But to compare it to the SNES classic would be akin to comparing Sean Lennon to his father: expecting him to live up to the walrus would be entirely unrealistic.

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