There have been decidedly few games in the Yoshi’s Island series - which itself is a spin-off of Nintendo’s popular Mario Bros. games - despite it being around for almost 20 years and the early titles being met with critical acclaim. The 3DS-exclusive Yoshi’s New Island is the latest iteration, following 2006’s Yoshi’s Island DS and the hit SNES game that got the egg rolling, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island.
The first Yoshi’s Island served as a prequel to Super Mario World, putting players in control of members of the dinosaur-like Yoshi clan as they set off with an infant Mario on their backs to rescue Baby Luigi, who had been captured by Kamek, a minion of Baby Bowser.
It departed drastically from the main series visually, making use of a warm, chalk-drawing aesthetic. While retaining the 2D platformer roots from its parent franchise, Yoshi’s Island introduced a number of new gameplay elements, such as the ability to turn enemies into eggs which could be fired across the level, and the Yoshis’ trademark “flutter fly” move that let them jump just that little bit higher or further.
From the outset, it’s clear that Yoshi’s New Island has one singular focus: nostalgia. It looks to capture the magic that made Super Mario World 2 the beloved classic it is today, and does little to mix up the formula. What results is an important lesson in why nostalgia alone doesn’t make a great game, because as much as Yoshi’s New Island may tickle your fond memories of that SNES classic, it also falls prey to outmoded game design and doesn’t even try to engage the player in any way other than by saying, “do you remember how good Yoshi’s Island was?”
The story for Yoshi’s New Island is an exact replica of Yoshi’s Island, and I mean that literally. I’m not sure if this title is intended as a reboot, as a new entry in series canon, or something else entirely, but the plot is identical to the first game - the same events happen in the same way, and at the same points in the game.
That’s no big deal though, because Yoshi’s Island (and Mario Bros. before it, to be fair) has never been much about narrative. This is a franchise that prides itself on fun, engaging platformer gameplay, and in this regard Yoshi’s New Island seems very confused. In some ways, it’s everything that the previous games had and more, with the occasional new element thrown in to keep things fresh, but at the same time, it buckles under the weight of its retro-inspired design, and some of the new mechanics just fall flat.
Much of the game plays out just as you’d expect if you’ve played the previous games (or indeed, if you’re even vaguely familiar with the idea of a 2D platformer.) In control of one of the Yoshi clan, with Baby Mario upon your back, you have to make it from one side of a side-scrolling 2D map to the other, avoiding or overcoming various obstacles along the way. Enemies can be swallowed and turned into eggs, which can then be spat out in the direction of your choosing to defeat other foes, trigger switches, or collect out-of-reach items.
New to the formula are giant eggs - at certain parts of the game, a large enemy will appear, which can be swallowed and turned into a massive egg some five times the size of Yoshi. The giant egg can then be shot off in various directions, much like a normal egg, only it's much more powerful and can be used to destroy parts of the stage and open new pathways. There are also metal eggs, which can’t be launched into the air, but can be rolled along the ground destroying everything in their path, and used to drag Yoshi, who would otherwise float, underwater to access new areas.
These large eggs are easily Yoshi’s New Island’s most stand-out feature. They’re unique, interesting, and add a lot of opportunities for interesting, puzzle-oriented level design; my only concern is that they’re not utilised nearly as much as they should be.
Much less successful are the new vehicle transformation sections. Like the first game, parts of Yoshi’s New Island will see Yoshi turn into a vehicle of some sort - helicopter, bobsleigh, and pneumatic drill are just some of the options - which are controlled with the 3DS’s built-in gyroscope. Tilting the system to the left and right controls the direction the vehicle travels, while the A and B buttons do various actions depending on the transformation in question, such as braking, speeding up, or firing torpedoes.
Fortunately, there aren’t too many of these sequences, because they feel incredibly tacked on and do nothing for the game. Some are optional, and even the collector in me couldn’t push me to volunteer, even at the cost of hidden treasure, while the forced ones are a joyless chore. The forced use of less-than-responsive motion controls doesn’t help the cause, limiting your control and forcing you to hold the system upright (the best thing about handhelds is being able to play lying down on a couch or in bed, at any angle that’s comfortable.)
Part of Yoshi’s New Island’s nostalgia trip is, sadly, outdated game design elements that have no place in a title released in 2014. Checkpoints are few, far between, and often placed in less-than-helpful places; some may celebrate the apparent difficulty this creates, but it’s the disengaging difficulty borne of tedium, which is rarely, if ever, to a game’s benefit.
Much of the game is relatively easy, so poor checkpoint placement doesn’t become apparent too often, but - particularly in the later parts of the game - some trial-and-error, leap-of-faith type platforming puzzles will have you cursing this archaic system.
Yoshi’s New Island is something of a mixed bag in the presentation department. The background and level designs are gorgeous, capturing the chalk-drawing visuals of the previous games perfectly, but the character and enemy models haven’t made the transition from 2D to 3D well. Music, on the other hand, is stunning, perfectly capturing the feel of the source material and sending warm fuzzies down my spine every time I turned on the game.
Yoshi’s New Island places almost all of its eggs in the nostalgia basket. It's a bold decision, but one that ultimately holds back the game by bringing with it some retro-inspired design best left to the 90s. Series fans will enjoy a trip back to this oft-forgotten Mario spin-off, and some of the newly introduced mechanics are good, if used too sparsely. Ultimately, though, Yoshi’s New Island is an enjoyable, but underwhelming, romp.