Our last trip to the world of Yoshi was with the decidedly average, and very frustrating, Yoshi’s New Island; a game so entrenched in pushing nostalgia buttons that it shot itself in the foot. The Yoshi clan’s latest outing, Yoshi’s Woolly World, is positively avant-garde by comparison, even as it sticks closely to the Yoshi formula. There’s a balance of old and new ideas here that makes Woolly World feel both immediately familiar and completely uncharted, and both at the same time.
The new artistic design has a lot to do with this. Gone are the chalk-like visuals; if the name didn’t give it away, wool (or yarn, if you prefer) is the order of the day. You control Yarn Yoshi as he sets out across a world made of wool and felt to rescue the other Yoshis, who have been turned into spools of thread and stolen by the evil wizard / servant to (a woolen) Baby Bowser, Kamek.
Everything else flows forth from there. You’ll traverse each side-scrolling level, turning enemies into ammunition to help you explore, only this time you’re unravelling foes to create balls of yarn, instead of swallowing them and popping out eggs. Tougher enemies that aren’t defeated instantly by a tossed ball of yarn will get bound, rendered briefly helpless and ready to be head-stomped. Secrets are often hidden behind walls that you can tear down by pulling at a loose thread. Yoshi’s transformations - a series staple - actually make sense now, as he unwinds and remakes himself in a different shape.
Beyond that, it’s mostly the Yoshi you know, a 2D platformer with a bit more of an exploration element than its parent series, Super Mario. No time limits, lots of collectibles - just the way a platformer should be, as far as I’m concerned.
That this collect-a-thon works so well, and rarely grows tedious, is the product of utterly fantastic level design. This is something that’s always been true of the Yoshi series, but it’s never been quite this impressive before. No two levels are the same; each of the game’s 54 stages is built around its own unique theme, and while some broad ideas or mechanics are reused and built upon, every level feels completely individual. There are a handful of levels I don’t like, as I’m sure is the case for most players, but there are a lot more that I adore.
One of my favourites has you navigating a network of velcro conveyor belts, with Yoshi’s woollen extremities letting him cling to the surface and defy gravity. Another gem is essentially a roller coaster, as you ride ski-lifts along a series of tracks, jumping from one to the next before they fall off. Best of all, a haunted manor with moving, magical curtains that show silhouettes of Yoshi, enemies, and platforms - but the platforms only exist when you can see them, so you have to time your jumps for when platforms are actually there.
All this creativity comes with some steep difficulty, but it’s here that Nintendo seem to have learned the most from criticism of Yoshi’s New Island - basically, Woolly World is as hard or as easy as you want it to be. This comes through with optional power ups you can buy (with gems collected in the game - there are no microtransactions here) that, say, increase your defence or make you immune to fire and lava, and an invincibility pick-up that starts to appear should you die too many times on the same level.
Then there’s the option to switch between Classic and Mellow mode at will. Classic is your standard difficulty, which in Yoshi parlance means “really frickin’ hard”, while Mellow takes the edge off by giving Yoshi wings. I played most of the game in Mellow mode, and even then, some parts were quite challenging (flight keeps you from falling to your doom, but you can still be squashed, eaten, shot, and so on); some of the levels are nightmarish on Classic mode.
Nightmarish, and frustrating. For all the other modern elements of a user-driven level of challenge, Woolly World still has the same horrible checkpoints that have long plagued the series. They’re few, far between, and often placed in terrible locations - so when you die, you can expect to do a lot of retreading. It’s not too much of an issue when you’re playing in Mellow mode and/or with power-ups, but in the death-filled Classic mode…
Ultimately, Yoshi’s Woolly World is a game that achieves something rather impressive - it manages to feel immediately familiar and completely uncharted, and both at the same time. For the most part, it sticks close to the series roots, but it does so with a new, adorable veneer and a welcome level of accessibility. If you like platformers and/or things that are cute, you’ll definitely want to check this out.