Yoshi’s New Island
Though highly proficient with platformers, every so often Nintendo drops the ball. The drop distance varies from mediocre to disastrous, but it’s an equally unpleasant event to witness regardless. After all, at their best Nintendo produces the likes of Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Donkey Kong Country Returns. They’re not alone in the industry, but they’re certainly one of the most attuned to the necessary ingredients for delicious platformer stew.
Yet ever so often, I guess exposing how they’re no less subject to the challenge of making creative interactive works than anybody else, Nintendo throws out a bit of a dud. And while it might not be categorised as the aforementioned “disastrous”, Yoshi’s New Island is the most recent platformer from Nintendo’s experts that disappointingly falls short of what long time fans have come to expect.
Direct sequel to the Yoshi’s Island that started it all (because the canon is so important), Yoshi’s New Island tells a simple story of a silly stalk delivering baby Mario and Luigi to the wrong parents. Kamek gets involved and chaos ensues, the children separated and the lovable Yoshis making it their duty to reunite the pair. Like a lot of Nintendo platformers the narrative is mostly absence from the course of events, instead acting as bookends to contextualise the adventure. I found it inoffensive though unmemorable, but kids might enjoy it more, as it appears to be targeted more towards that demographic.
Understanding this actually exposes a lot of the issues I have with Yoshi’s New Island, particularly the surprisingly low difficulty. I’m reminded of New Super Mario Bros., the original Nintendo DS release, which I guess is intentional given the title, but the point is that Yoshi’s New Island is clearly supposed to be a resurgence of the franchise for a new audience that might be familiar though inexperienced with its origins. It’s an odd choice, given Super Mario at least had a thriving franchise in the realm of three dimensions, and the return to side scrolling was an even in itself. Meanwhile we Yoshi’s Island DS already kinda filled the “2D Yoshi returns!” void, quality aside. Nevertheless, Yoshi’s New Island is Yoshi’s Island for a new audience, and I feel that’s resulted in a fairly relaxed challenge curve. I didn’t feel the New Super Mario Bros. series came into its own until New Super Mario Bros. Wii, where challenge and creative level design were its forte, New Super Mario Bros. DS simply too easy and forgettable.
And that’s the problem Yoshi’s New Island faces.
Difficulty is one half of the problem, the other is the level design. There’s some clever ideas: I quite liked the new super egg power ups in theory, even if though they’re never really explored beyond basic functionality. Stuff like the (usually optional) mirror character control gives the pacing an almost minigames-within-platforming vibe, heightened by Yoshi’s various power-ups. But again: ideas are one thing, implementation is another, and Yoshi’s New Island struggles to use its ideas in memorable and surprising ways. Unless you’re eager to tread off the main path and search for collectables, rudimentary hazard dodging in some form is the cornerstone of Yoshi’s New Island and in such a way that it rarely stimulated my desire for challenge or simply to be surprised by whatever gimmick or layout was just up ahead.
It’s all so…by the numbers, again in the same way that New Super Mario Bros. recycled content from “classic” Super Mario under the banner of a franchise revival for a new audience. Yoshi’s New Island might draw a lot of content and inspiration from its roots, and fans will appreciate that, but it rarely presents this content with the same level of surprise and challenge that started all the way back on the Super Nintendo.
But again, maybe that’s the point: New Island for New Players, so what might seem generally unoriginal and recycled to you might in fact be fresh and original for someone else, especially younger audiences who didn’t have the benefit of growing up with the original masterpiece.
Strangely enough, I probably had more of an issue with Yoshi’s New Island‘s presentation over the actual play (I’ll detail why shortly). Instead of going with the heavy pastel and crayon colouring of Yoshi’s Island, New Island prefers a pencil sketch style with pastel filling. Pencil thin black outlines highlight much of the environment and objects, the objects themselves often three dimensions assets textured with sketchy coloured pencil lines and pastel smudges to give the aesthetic a playful sketch-filled scrapbook vibe. In motion it actually looks a lot better than it does in screenshots, and I’m happy they went with an art direction that is stylistically relevant to the Yoshi’s Island franchise yet not a carbon copy of the Super Nintendo game, even if I do think the latter looked more cohesive as a whole.
What really disappointments me about the visuals is how they fall apart in 3D. I love the 3DS stereoscopic display, and find it can enhance even the most rigidly side scrolling platformer by beautifully layering background and foreground elements with a fantastic sense of depth. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is a great example of this. For whatever reason Yoshi’s New Island has the layers all messed up. I’m not sure whether it’s simply a stylistic choice, or a mistake made from using polygonal assets alongside 2D sprites, but Yoshi often looks too far into the foreground relative to the platforms he/she/it is supposed to be standing on, while other elements integral for collision detection (like bubble floating baby Mario and certain enemies) too suffer from the same problem. It just doesn’t look right on stereo 3D, as if many of the layers don’t match up and certain collisions (like Yoshi’s tongue) are physically implausible due to oddly presented depth. And really, the stereo 3D seems to do more harm than good to the art too, exposing the polygon objects alongside sprites. Keep this game in 2D and the art and play comes together much stronger.
Soundtrack is the other disappointment. At times it’s fine: remixes semi-faithful to the classic’s soundtrack, distinctly Yoshi’s Island. But most of the new tunes are forgettable at best, and some of the remixes hugely underwhelming compared to the source compositions. Yoshi’s Island soundtrack, much like the Donkey Kong Country series, put a lot of steps forward to defining the atmosphere of each stage. And here Yoshi’s New Island is a let down.
As I was saying, the presentation bothers me more than play, because despite my grievances with the play Yoshi’s New Island isn’t a busted platformer. We’re not talking about a game with broken mechanics or inconsistent hit boxes. Mostly everything present is functional and responsive. Those familiarised with Yoshi’s control system from other Yoshi’s Island games will be able to pick-up-and-play with almost no learning curve due to the direct translation of systems and design. It is, admittedly, a Yoshi’s Island game through and through, and you’ll find yourself faced with many challenges, enemies, and ideas from the series’ legacy. And since those ideas were inherently good to begin with, that quality too translates to Yoshi’s New Island.
But it still lacks the challenge, surprise, and freshness veterans have come to expect from new series entries. No matter how playable and solid those core ideas are, they’ve been done to death already, and done better than they ever are in Yoshi’s New Island. At times New Island seems to lazily float through level design without much interest in grabbing your attention or throwing a curve ball. It’s a Yoshi platformer if you’ve ever seen one.
Perhaps these impressions would be more glowing if I were younger, had a lower skill threshold, and this was indeed my first Yoshi’s Island game. But even then I’d question whether Yoshi’s New Island is the right entry game for the series, especially when Yoshi’s Island still holds up remarkably well (if much harder). Still, there’s value to be had if you fit the right demographic and the game as a whole clicks for you more than it did for me. There’s a servicable platformer, but also sadly one that’s too simple and forgettable to leave a lasting impression.