Yoshi’s Island Tour, Part 19: Conclusions
At long last, we’ve reached the end! And what an ending it is! After stretching those synthetic guitars to the limit for the final boss piece, we get a quiet, emotional, LttP-esque credits song. While most Mario games simply end with a return to status quo and fireworks, this one takes advantage of its prequel status by calling forward to things to come. Ending on the classic “flagpole jingle” is just beautiful. It managed to make me feel nostalgic at eight years old, before I even knew what the word meant.
The GBA version has an additional final scene. If you get 100 percent in all 60 of the game’s stages, you get a notification congratulating you and letting you know you’re the (X) Yoshi to visit the island. In other words, it counts how many lives you lost during the campaign. There’s a little scene after that…nothing that will blow your mind, but nice that they provided some closure for tackling those extra stages.
That concludes the tour! For those of you that came along, I hope you enjoyed it! For me, this confirmed what I already felt: This game is one brilliantly designed piece. I think I’ve articulated why, but let’s sum up now that we’ve reviewed every stage.
I haven’t touched on the music much throughout the tour. Someone I’ve discussed the game with pointed out that it doesn’t have the parade of “hit singles” that the DKC games boast, but its soundtrack is very cohesive, with tracks building off each other and working together. This is most apparent in the game’s map theme, which famously adds instrumentation with each world beaten, starting as a quiet solo jingle before building into a triumphant fanfare. The title screen doesn’t have as many variants, but it has a neat sign of progression itself. For much of the game, it will begin with ambient island sounds before gently easing into the extremely mellow tune. Once you’ve reached the dark final world (that may or may not be a different location?), it goes immediately to the (still very mellow) instrumental. This sense of cohesion also works nicely when progressing from the (second) intro, which sounds appropriately like a “rise and shine.” It leads directly into the “tutorial stage”, and its great sense of anticipation.
In-game, there are two distinct overworld tunes, an extremely catchy athletic theme, a “mysterious” cave theme, and a castle theme that’s like a proto-Song of Storms from Zelda. Plus we get a “lead-in” to a boss, a very “circus-esque” mid-boss theme, and a main boss theme (complete with adjustable intro as needed). Of course, Bowser gets a unique theme, and it’s one of the most intense MIDI tracks I’ve ever heard. Overall, the soundtrack flows and complements the game so naturally that it’s very easy to overlook. I’d recommend giving it a listen.
I said early on that this game is the best of both worlds. I realize now that it’s the best of several worlds. As I’ve said, I feel this is a perfectly legitimate sequel to Super Mario World and a predecessor to Super Mario 64. You can see and hear it all over the game. You have an evolution of SMW’s obstacle courses, with the exploration encouraged by that game’s multiple exits expanding into a search for many different treasures. Of course, that latter aspect would form the cornerstone of 3D Mario. I’ve said before how I feel like it takes the quick pacing of the 2D platformers while smoothly incorporating the exploration and item-hunting of the 3D games. But then there’s the art style, which takes the natural cute, cartooniness of the Mario universe and actually runs with it, managing to both feel totally appropriate while also looking distinct among its brethren. It’s still one of the prettiest games out there. We have the bosses, which are based on standard Mario foes, while also providing several unique setpieces, and forcing players to do more than just jump on them three times.
Then there’s the fact that this is one of the longest platformers around, but it almost never repeats itself. It builds on earlier experiences, certainly, but there are very few moments where it feels like “previous stage, but harder.” Heck, individual stages vary wildly in the types of challenge they present and the scenery traversed. Really, the only areas I sometimes confuse in my mind are: some transformation segments; the home stretch with Lakitu, switches, and hidden areas above the top of the screen in 2-5 and 5-1; the rail platforms in the sky in 4-7 and 5-7; and the Salvo battles in 6-4 and 6-8. We have 12 unique boss fights (the only repeats are found mid-way through castles). On top of all this, while almost never retreading ground, they manage to present unified themes both aesthetically (forest, jungle, mountains) and gameplay-wise (gradually teaching more advanced egg shots throughout World 3, Koopa shell tricks in World 4). And all this is in a game that dwarfs Sonic 3 and Knuckles, any of the DKC trilogy, and any prior SMB game.
I discussed Yoshi’s abilities extensively in Part 5, but another case of balancing extremes is how well those abilities tie into the game world. As discussed above, it’s extremely creative, and in the later stages gets quite tough (and downright brutal in post-game content). But Yoshi is perfectly designed to take on any challenge, and because of his extensive “safety nets” (not taking actual damage from most hazards, being able to flutter, having multiple forms of offense), you almost never feel overwhelmed. You can enjoy playing Tetris with rocks, surfing a dog across lava, or navigating Chomp bombing grounds because you have a fighting chance against it all. Your character is incredibly versatile and powerful, but the levels are extremely varied and (eventually) quite devious to match.
To contrast, let’s take a couple games that I still feel are very good: Kirby Super Star (or really, most of the Kirby series), gives you a protagonist with an incredible range of abilities. Heck, there are about twenty powers in that game, and the better ones individually make Kirby more formidable/versatile than Yoshi. But the level design is an afterthought. Heck, from my own experience and from talking with other fans, the most replayed portion of the game is the Arena, which is solely made up of bosses. Outside of boss battles (which do hit YI’s level in terms of creativity), the game rarely makes you prove just how amazing Kirby’s abilities are.
On the other end is Super Meat Boy. Here, our protagonist can run, jump (but not stomp. He has no offense whatsoever), wall jump, and die. There are some unlockable characters with additional abilities, but they’re usually minor, and once you progress to a certain point, you’ll find that Meat Boy is basically the best-equipped for the challenges. The level design, on the other hand, is constantly coming up with amazingly creative ways to kill you. It requires a beautiful combination of reflexes, forethought, and trial by death to proceed, and it’s immensely satisfying to conquer. Since it’s obviously beatable, Meat Boy’s skills are technically perfectly suited for the levels, just as Yoshi’s are. But the game’s only beatable (for the vast majority of players), because the stages are incredibly short and there are infinite lives. Unlike Yoshi, Meat Boy has no “safety nets.” You can never really be in a relaxed state when hoping to advance in the game.
I’ve said before that the most satisfying part of Yoshi’s arsenal is the emphasis on manipulating the world and creatures around you. This has held true throughout the game, and I was pleased to see the post-game stages really run with this. What’s also impressive to me (and yet another case of perfectly balancing extremes) is that for such a versatile moveset, it’s extremely simple and easy to execute any move at any point (or a few at once/quick succession). There are characters that can do more than Yoshi, but many of those require items or skills learned in-game over time. For those that can do more inherently at any point in the game, I can’t think of any that can do so more fluidly than Yoshi can.
The game has well over 100 enemies, a massive amount for a platformer. Even eliminating palette swaps (and it should be noted that many enemies that use the same sprites have different functions), it still clocks in at more than any platformer I know of (and just about all of them use palette-swapped enemies too). With that many foes, it’s surprising just how many of them are both well animated and have a great deal of behaviors. Bandits, Bumpties, Shy Guys, monkeys, and Baseball Boys are the standouts here, but many other foes have some quirk that you wouldn’t expect. Mildes send nearby enemies scattering when stomped, Spiked Fun Guys can hop into pots, Goombas can walk when flattened…it just goes on. There’s a lot of effort in making every enemy memorable. If it’s not some weird quirk, then they’re simply enormous. The Mario series is excellent at visually communicating the danger/weakness of its enemies to the player, and this doesn’t change here. Many enemies have surprising attributes, but they’re usually something that benefits the player or a harmless quirk. In fact, a big part of the game’s appeal, especially on replays, is simply toying with various foes and seeing how they react. This is yet another reason why Yoshi’s “safety nets” are so great: You can mess with enemies in ways that would get you killed or lose valuable power-ups in other Mario games.
Peardian, the map master, pointed out a way of looking at the game that had never occurred to me. He suggests that the game is “viewed” from Baby Mario’s perspective. I always assumed the game’s unique visual style was due to Miyamoto and Co. trying to stand out in a pre-rendered, pseudo-3D world, but it makes perfect sense. The music-box bookends, the larger-than-life bosses, the various enemies that are out to kidnap him, and even Yoshi’s abilities are very fitting in this interpretation. Yoshi makes the ideal guardian: virtually unkillable, literally running on air to accomplish the mission, and making insanely improbable trick shots. Even the emphasis on manipulation works better from this angle. Like the “my dad can beat up X” stories, Yoshi can do anything. He can surf on rocks, spit seeds like a machine gun, eat fire and spit it back out, pound his way hundreds of feet underground, and most importantly, retrieve lost babies (either directly, with tongue, or with eggs). All while being totally cute and loveable.
With all this talk about Yoshi’s moves, I think that’s one reason why I find the transformations one of the game’s weak spots. There are very few points in the game where I feel like I’m just slogging through, but they usually involve vehicles. For that matter, they also tend to be the few points of the game that feel repetitive. By nature, they limit Yoshi’s abilities. DKC’s animal buddies do this too, but you usually get a few new tricks in return, plus you almost always retain offensive abilities (in fact, you often become even stronger). For the vehicles, only the sub can attack, they tend to have really long/annoying stun periods when hit, and they’re all pretty much one-trick ponies. The car is completely pointless in the original version. The mole tank’s segments typically consist of fighting against its controls to try to be efficient (though the one point in 2-3 where you’re teased with a 1Up and have to travel along the bottom of the screen to get it is pretty clever). Merging with background train tracks is a cool idea that meshes very well with the game’s visual style, but there’s never any “trick” to it in the main game, and the enemies in these segments end up being completely inconsequential (sometimes they’re unfairly unavoidable, but as long as you keep moving, getting hit is meaningless). The chopper is fun at times because flying is almost always fun in games, but the obnoxious controls and time limit do their best to try to break that rule.
I feel like this was one aspect where the game gave in to trends of the time. For the most part, the game is comfortable doing its own thing, obviously lifting from Mario’s world, but still shaking things up. But this feels a lot like “DKC did this, so we need to do something like it”. It doesn’t ruin the game, but I get excited when I see an animal crate or barrel in the DKC trilogy. It’s quite the opposite here. On the other hand, you have rides on Poochy, both kinds of Arrow Lifts, or both kinds of balloons. These let you retain Yoshi’s versatility, while transporting you over territory he can’t normally cross and forcing you to rethink the way you use his moves. It also provides for exciting, unique scenarios. In short, these scenarios hit many of the same benefits of DKC’s animal buddies while still letting the game play to its unique strengths. The vehicle transformations feel more forced.
Of course, the exception to this is the GBA-exclusive stage, Go Go Morphing! (And now that I type that again, I wonder if that’s a play on Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers). They clearly benefited from hindsight, and went nuts crafting challenges perfectly suited for each vehicle. Heck, some of the challenges require the use of multiple transformations in tandem.
The other recurring negative point that comes to mind is the dreaded Fly Guy. That is, the particular type that carries red coins and will leave if you take too long. There’s a good idea in there. If only the ones carrying 1Ups or coins/stars were capable of fleeing, or if you had them come back if you retreated a suitable distance, or even if you only placed them immediately after checkpoints, it’d be just fine. A moving target that you have incentive to hit is a good match for a protagonist with a long snatching tool and precision projectiles. But tying 100 percent to objects that can permanently leave (sometimes without you knowing they were there) is just mean.
With that, I think I’ve said all I can say about Yoshi’s Island. It’s a masterpiece that manages to build on an established property while being completely unique. It’s the peak of 2D platforming with the addition of some 3D design principles.
Thanks once more to Peardian for allowing the use of his maps, and thanks to those who read it, or gave it a shot and decided it wasn’t their thing.
Next time: That’s partially up to you. This was a lot of fun, and it’d be great to dig into another game like this. Series I like and feel I could speak intelligently about include, but are not limited to: Mario, Ghosts n Goblins/Gargoyle’s Quest, Mega Man, Metroid, Castlevania, Star Fox, and Kirby. DKC and Banjo are also in there, but such projects would likely go to DK Vine. Ideas are welcome!
Postscript: If you want to read more by Reed, check out his great Banjo Kazooie series over on DK Vine today!