Did you know that in one of the best platform games ever to grace the Super Mario series, Mario can’t jump — or, for that matter, run or talk?
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island is a curio, even by the standards of a series that had previously seen an advergame about throwing vegetables (based on a discarded Mario prototype) reskinned as Super Mario Bros. 2. It is the official sequel to the Super NES launch title and best-game-ever contender Super Mario World, yet it has a different art style, a different lead character, and radically different gameplay.
These days, it might be more useful to describe it as the first Yoshi game instead; the game that established the cuddly green dino and his brand of mechanically inventive, tactile, kindergarten-bright platforming. And that’s all accurate. But the wonder of Yoshi’s Island, which is included in Nintendo Switch Online’s SNES collection, is that it can still hold its own among the full-throated Super Mario games, too. It is as exquisitely crafted, as freewheeling, as mischievous, and as joyously weird as any of them, and a best-game-ever contender in its own right.
Yoshi’s Island is a sort of storybook prequel to the Mario games. Mario and Luigi, as babies, are being delivered by a stork, when baby Luigi is snatched away by the Koopa wizard Kamek and baby Mario falls down to the island where the Yoshis live. (This scenario introduces strange considerations to Mario lore, such as the identity of Mario and Luigi’s parents, and why the babies were delivered wearing their distinctive red and green hats.) Yoshi — is it a younger version of the Super Mario World Yoshi, or a progenitor Yoshi? What is the lifespan of a Yoshi, anyway? — resolves to reunite the twins, and carries Mario off on its back in search of the child’s lost brother.
The delightful adventure that follows is defined by the extraordinarily flexible and sophisticated toolset that the developers chose to give Yoshi. He has a “flutter” that can extend the lengths of his jumps; he can gobble up enemies with his long tongue and spit them out; or he can, um, convert them, with a squat and a satisfying pop, into eggs. These eggs can be thrown using a target reticule and ricochet around the environment. Mario sits on Yoshi’s back, and if Yoshi takes a hit, he floats off in a bubble and must be rescued before a timer runs out.
Most of this was intended to make the game more forgiving to play than Super Mario World, and in a sense it does. Thanks to the flutter, jumps don’t need to be as precisely executed, and the baby-bubble mechanic essentially gives Yoshi a second hit before he’s knocked out. The time limit for levels has also been removed, encouraging more careful exploration. Thanks to these changes, Yoshi’s Island is technically an easier game. But the tweaks also make it a more chaotic one, too.
If Super Mario games are all about momentum, Yoshi’s Island is all about elasticity. Mario sprints, leaps, and soars. Yoshi bounces, wobbles, and skids. The world around him pulses, undulates, expands, and contracts, thanks to special distortion and scaling effects powered by a Super FX chip in the game cartridge. It’s all so rubbery. The enemies are mostly innocent, comical beings that just get in the way — except those which are ensorcelled by Kamek to become huge, fatuous bosses.
Through a combination of meticulous design, physics-driven cause-and-effect, and wicked humor, the designers — led by Shigefumi Hino (Yoshi’s original artist) and Takashi Tezuka (Shigeru Miyamoto’s right-hand man) — set up an incredible sandbox for organic video game slapstick. In fact, this is one of the funniest physical-comedy games ever. One unforgettable stage, “Touch Fuzzy Get Dizzy,” turns the whole level into a wobbly wave machine if you touch one of the narcotic clouds that floats through the air, sending Yoshi staggering about like a drunk salaryman after closing time.
There’s an inherent comedy, too, to Yoshi’s frantic scramble to reclaim bubble-baby Mario when he gets knocked off. But there’s real desperation in there as well, fueled by Mario’s panic-inducing cries. (The sound effects are fantastic, as is the bouncy, funky, lyrical music by Koji Kondo.) Later Yoshi games would be explicitly aimed at very young players. Yoshi’s Island, though, isn’t a game for babies, but it is a game about them.
When it was released in 1995, Yoshi’s Island was visually an outlier, not to say a relic: Donkey Kong Country’s luscious renders the year before made Yoshi’s Island’s pixel art look old-fashioned, and the dimensional explosion of Super Mario 64 was just around the corner. Its graphics have arguably aged better than either of those games, though, and its intentionally sketchy, handmade look prophesied the scrapbook aesthetic of many later indie games.
Nintendo later evolved this idea into the tactile materials and soft, cushioned safety of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Yoshi’s Woolly World, and Yoshi’s Crafted World. Yoshi’s Island, while still adorable, presents a more unfiltered, more mischievous vision of early childhood. Yoshi is both a stressed guardian, running around after his wailing charge, and an orally fixated toddler himself, putting anything he can see in his mouth, pooping out eggs, and throwing them to see what happens.
Yoshi’s Island is a world of lovely chaos — distinct from the surreal non sequiturs of Super Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom, but a close cousin to them nonetheless. If you’ve got a Nintendo Switch Online subscription, you owe it to yourself to pay the island a visit. It will leave you feeling years younger.
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