Game: Yoshi’s Island; System: SNES
by Jake Aidsman (my irl name)
Mario has long been the ubiquitous face of Nintendo, an instantly recognizable icon that’s taken up residence in the branding pantheon with global behemoths like Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald. He was there on launch day when gaming changed forever with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System. He was there again for the unveiling of Nintendo’s great sequel, the Godfather 2 of consoles, the Super Nintendo. And he would be there to make history again with the release of the 3D platformer Mario 64.
Mario also has a brother, of course. He is Player 2, also known as Luigi, Mario’s fraternal twin, who by all evidence is every bit as capable as Mario, yet whom nevertheless plays an eternal second fiddle, relegated to the background in most games if he appears in them at all. Mario is the hero, Luigi is the sidekick, and in its early history the Mario franchise works the same way: the launch title is Mario, groundbreaking and the face of a console generation; the follow-up entry is without question Luigi, curious and great but always overshadowed. On the NES, Super Mario Brothers 2 was a marvelous oddity, created by reskinning a non-Mario game called Doki Doki Panic in Japan. For the SNES, the Luigi role is beyond any doubt played by Yoshi’s Island.
Super Mario World was a smash hit, selling over 20,000,000 copies. Yoshi’s Island was released at the twilight of the SNES era and sold only around 4m units, with many casual players not realizing it was officially “Super Mario World 2,” or even that it existed at all. Super Mario World took the innovation of Super Mario Brothers 3 and perfected it into a flawlessly designed 16-bit release with a polished look. Yoshi’s Island attempts a crude sort of crayon-drawn aesthetic. Super Mario World introduced the Yoshi character, a dinosaur-like beast that powers up Mario by being ridden like a horse. Yoshi’s Island turns Mario into a bawling baby, helpless and annoying, literally carred by Yoshi, the game’s playable character. In seemingly every way, SMW2 is the inversion of SMW, the anti-Mario; Yoshi may not be Mario’s mustachioed mirror-image twin, but he is green, and SMW 2 is the Super Nintendo’s Luigi.
Luigi is everywhere in Nintendo’s catalog if you know where to look for him. He’s escaped Mario World and is invading other games. Ocarina of Time? Regularly listed as one of the greatest games in history. But Majora’s Mask? Lurking somewhere in that dark experimental world, rest assured, is Luigi. At work here may be a somewhat peculiar model for a video game developer, but it’s the same phenomenon at play as in Hollywood when an an actor does a summer blockbuster, then follows it up with a few personal art house projects. Nintendo can be relied upon to use its flagship franchises as tentpoles to help move new consoles, but after getting a system afloat, they also have a history of leveraging premiere franchises in order to flex their creative muscles with some of their best new concepts and most innovative ideas.
Yoshi’s Island is one of the most stark examples of these inventive types of games, and while overlooked by many during its time, to real gamers it is a hidden gem in the platformer genre reaching cult classic status. The graphics are good for the 16-bit era, although Donkey Kong Country probably came closer to executing on its vision. Nevertheless, the Yoshi’s Island crayon-drawn aesthetic was surely influential in the future Paper Mario series that came into being five years later.
In terms of enjoyability, all platformers walk a delicate balance. If the difficulty level ramps up too high, with it comes hair-tearing frustration. At the same time, a game that’s not challenging enough will be breezed through and tossed aside quickly. Yoshi’s Island treads this line carefully, and successfully, but does fall short a bit in the length of the adventure. There are only six “worlds,” and they mostly blend together into indistinct levels that don’t particularly represent any special facets of the island’s geography.
The Yoshi egg mechanics are unique to this game, but add a fun new element for the player that fits universally throughout the game’s levels, as does Yoshi’s flutter jump. The same can’t be said for the various forms Yoshi takes (helicopter, car, mole, submarine, train), which feel shoehorned into the game and don’t make the play any better for it. Yoshi’s ability to spit ice, fire, and seeds seems a natural fit for the character, yet these abilities are never utilized meaningfully.
The level design has been praised by many fans, who are also devoted to the game’s quirks and characters. Infamous forum troll ghostnuke is particularly fond of the boss battles, claiming that they’re creative and fun, although for the most part they’re rather simple and straightforward. The game strikes a good compromise on replay value: each level has five flowers and 20 red coins to collect, which in conjunction with a full 30 stars allows the player to achieve a perfect score, which can unlock additional levels. This can be difficult at times, but it’s attainable enough to be a fun goal to work toward, whereas other games at times take “collecting” too far and make it into a sprawling and thankless chore best ignored.
While Yoshi’s Island may not be the Super Nintendo’s peak, its charm is to be remembered and learned from. We can even take it as lesson offered to us by Nintendo, and integrate that lesson into our real lives. Whether busy with school or with work, whether raising children or a child yourself, I encourage you to take time out of the grind to nurture your own inner Luigi. This has been Jake Aidsman, and you’re reading ambitiousgamer.com.