To many gamers, the classic Mario franchises represents 2D-platforming perfection. Super Mario Bros. 1, 2, and 3 all set new bars for the medium, which was followed up by the fantastic Super Nintendo title Super Mario World, while on GameBoy the Super Mario Land games reigned supreme. Then came Super Mario World 2 and, like the Super Mario Bros. 2 that the West received, it was a different beast altogether.
A risky move, but one that paid off tremendously. While young Casper ignored the game while it was on shelves, the world embraced this new style of Mario game and Yoshi’s Island became a favorite to many. After all these years, I finally sought the game out and gave it a try myself.
While Super Mario World introduced gamers to Mario’s friend (and part-time mount) Yoshi, this game acts as a prequel to the entire Mario canon. It stars a baby version of gaming’s most iconic hero who is about to be delivered to his parents by a stork, when suddenly the evil Koopa mage Kamek swoops through the skies and launches an attack. Mario falls down to the land below while Luigi is kidnapped.
Down on the surface, a Yoshi tribe finds the newborn Mario and notices that the bond between the two brothers is so strong that they know exactly where the other is. With Mario pointing the way to Kamek’s hide-out, the Yoshies set up a relay system where each member carries the baby through a part of each world.
With Mario reduced to an infant, platforming is now entirely focused and tuned to Yoshi, which is a big change for the series. The Mario games had always been pushing the tightest platforming controls and experimented a great deal to make movement feel as satisfying as possible. It’s what made them timeless classics. Yoshi’s Island throws that out the window and gives us a character that feels more clumsy to control, but in a very deliberate way.
Each Yoshi can run & jump through the levels, lick up various objects and enemies, and turn those into eggs to be used as projectiles. Stages are a mixture of 2D platforming and mild puzzle solving, with each stage changing the balance to suit whatever it needs. Some levels are pure platforming bliss focusing on Yoshi’s moveset, whereas others can be mazes filled with puzzles and tricky targets you have to hit with your eggs.
what makes Yoshi’s platforming so different is his notable weight. He feels chunkier than the Mario brothers ever have and doesn’t build up speed as well as they could in Super Mario World. To compensate for that, Yoshi’s jumps extend to a ridiculous length through fluttering. While losing a little height each time, every Yoshi can repeatedly flutter in the air to extend the jump or buy a little more time to land on a platform just right.
Yoshi’s Island feels like more of a kid-friendly approach to a Mario game and this flutter is certainly a part of that. It’s easier to land jumps than ever before, enemies aren’t as aggressive, eggs for ranged attacks are plentiful, there is no timer forcing you to go fast, and Yoshi can’t even die from taking repeated hits. Spikes and lava still claim a life instantly, but any hit from an enemy instead causes you to drop Baby Mario, who begins floating around the area while a timer ticks down. If you catch him, the game just resumes as normal. Let the timer run out and evil minions take Baby Mario away, sending you back to a checkpoint.
I won’t say these changes are the best for the Mario series as a whole, but they set Yoshi’s Island apart and certainly feel right for this specific game. Lacking the tight controls and levels crafted to accommodate those, it makes sense that players are given a floatier moveset and given more opportunities to recover from a mistake. The counter gives you 10 seconds by default and can be extended to 30 seconds, and it always recovers back to 10 if you go for long enough without subsequent mistakes. It’s a little annoying to deal with the semi-random direction in which Baby Mario floats off, but it beats being sent back to a checkpoint for every little thing that hits me.
With that said, if you had this game as a kid, chances are good that your parents hated it. Mario’s crying is needlessly annoying, which was extra frustrating on the few occasions where he ended up stuck somewhere I couldn’t reach and I had to sit out the full 30 seconds while listening to his wailing.
To match the easier gameplay and baby protagonist, the art style of the game is unmatched in its cuteness. The game takes on the style of a pop-up book with crayon & chalk visuals, creating a bright and unique world teeming with motion and details. It is very kiddie, but the Mario games were never hardcore and this art-style is so technically impressive you’d be doing your Super Nintendo a disservice by avoiding it. My only complaint is that cutscenes felt sluggish in their directing and dialogue stayed on screen for too long with no option to rush through it for those who read faster.
The levels frequently introduce new enemies and mechanics, which keeps the 6 worlds (with 8 levels each) very fresh. Enemies in particular have a lot of effort put into them to feel lively, such as the monkeys and penguins that interact with the stage around them, or how the Shy Guys in the jungle dance to the music while poking at you with spears while those in the haunted levels are ghosts that fly around. Many levels are also made memorable by their unique mechanics, such as the level that has you ride ski lifts or one late level where everything moves all the time and the path behind you literally explodes as you go. There are even some levels where Yoshi gets… drunk? The screen tilts, everything is colored weirdly, Yoshi resists your movements a little and slips to the sides. It’s not great as a skill-based platformer, but it’s hilarious to play through.
There are, however, some bad apples in there and several levels brought me much frustration. Mazes are as obnoxious as they were in Super Mario World minus the time limit, often requiring players to find obtuse secrets to progress. These mix in with the many collectibles each stage offers for 100% completion, making you always wonder if hitting a question mark cloud will unlock the way forward, give you a rare collectible, or or just give you 5 coins. Some gimmicks are also too gimmicky, like the various transformation forms that rarely see any use.
Enemies are also bizarre in their logic. There is little to no indication of what foes you can lick up and which ones you can’t. Sometimes you can lick a foe up, but not turn them into eggs. Sometimes enemies are only vulnerable to a ground-pounding, while others you can bounce off endlessly without result. Other enemies are invulnerable to eggs or operate under some other inane rules. There are semblances of common sense in her, such as the baseball enemies homerunning your eggs away. These only make the cases where no apparent reason exists for why an enemy has special rules all the more maddening.
I am glad that people took a liking to Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. It was a clear sign that gamers weren’t always after the coolest protagonist, the fastest gameplay, the hardest challenge, or the most skill-based design. Gamers were willing to forego such qualities in favor of a well-designed, artistically-pleasing experience. Yes, Yoshi’s Island is more kid-friend than its predecessors, but I don’t feel like Nintendo was just targeting young children here. Yoshi’s Island is a game designed to be fun and comedic, and it pushes the capabilities of the Super Nintendo exceptionally far to achieve that.