Yoshi’s Island Tour, Part One: Do Look Back
Hello everyone, and welcome to this “lookback” series. This series is going to take an in-depth look at Yoshi’s Island. Basically, I plan to take a gander at each stage, with primary focus on its level design, but also on audio-visual elements, and how the entire experience comes together (or falters). Yoshi’s Island is a very unique piece of gaming history and the few attempts to replicate it have fallen flat. With this series I intend to examine what exactly makes the game stand out, what influenced it, what it went on to influence, and how it holds up. We have a lot to cover, so let’s jump into the pregame!
Intro: Whether this intro scene was a holdover from the “prerendered graphics controversy” or whether it was always intended to look distinct from the rest of the game, it certainly stands out. While it looks radically different, it carries a storybook feel, which fits the rest of the game’s style nicely. The intro is actually rather dark and subdued, depicting a “dusky, pre-dawn sky,” Yoshi walking through a dark jungle, and Kamek in his castle before finally showing some broad daylight. The music-box-inspired tune is simple and emotional, and hilariously comes to a halt early and needs to be rewound.
The title screen is truly a memorable one: a rotating view of the bright, colorful inviting island. Even as the game shows off its graphical muscles (in a friendly, incidental way, not like an intimidating bully), the standout here is the music. Initially, we hear only the sounds of waves crashing onto the beach. The music slowly and quietly makes itself heard, a gentle, relaxing piece lazily drifting through your ears.
Another cutscene in a 16-bit game? This one introduces us to the visual style we’ll be spending most of our time with. The dense foliage crowding the foreground and background makes this feel very much like the Yoshies’ secret meeting place. The music feels “fresh” and meandering, until it finally focuses into something optimistic, transitioning smoothly into the anticipatory tune in our first “stage.”
Note that the GBA version makes a few changes. All references to “twins” is changed to “brothers.” The spelling of the plural form of Yoshi is also changed. Plus there’s an additional “overall” title screen, which is an extremely plain pink background. Apparently the Japanese version was graced with some Yoshies, but that’s far too interesting for the rest of the world. Naturally, Mario Bros. comes packaged with the game. I always felt this was very strange. With the first Mario Advance it made sense, pairing the two “unloved” Mario games together. The later Advance games seemed like an opportunity to shine some spotlight on other “lesser” Mario titles paired with a “headline” game. SMA3 in particular seemed like a good chance to let Yoshi, Yoshi’s Cookie, or even Tetris Attack shine. But nope, more Mario Bros!
In any event, the rotating island actually seems to move more smoothly on the GBA. But let’s enjoy some actual gameplay!
Welcome to Yoshi’s Island is an odd little prologue. As we’ll soon see, the first proper stage lets you exercise your abilities in a no-pressure situation, so it’s hard to say what the purpose of a “pre-stage” is. I suppose it comes down to anticipation. The music is a piece heard nowhere else in the game (unless you’re playing the GBA version, but that doesn’t apply until MUCH later). It’s mild and quiet, but vibrating with building energy, like someone excited to start a new day. You gradually ascend as you progress, matching the “building up” theme. Your repertoire is only partially tested here: You certainly can ground pound and throw eggs, but there’s no need or prompt to. Only flutter jumping is outright necessary and explained. It is a rather unusual concept though (that we may take for granted in hindsight) so I can understand giving it plenty of focus early.
Meanwhile, we get a taste of what the game has to offer: the return of Shy Guys! Quirky size-changing objects! Organic, flowing terrain with rocks haphazardly jutting out! Squishy, bouncy orbs that serve as springs! There’s a sharp contrast to the typical Mario game on display on all fronts. The terrain’s a far cry from the hard lines and right angles of the Mushroom Kingdom. Shy Guys only had the one (pseudo-)Mario game to their credit, and here they amble aimlessly, rather than patrol mechanically. Flat jump boards are replaced by round trampolines. The fact the stage opens in front of a Yoshi house gives it common ground with Super Mario World, but everything else stresses this will be a different adventure…a more natural adventure.
So I guess there is a lot going on in this stagelet after all. We’re also introduced to some more GBA differences, namely changed voices. Baby Mario’s crying has been toned down, which I suppose is a good thing, given that it’s a lot of people’s only complaint about the game. But its purpose is to impress upon you that you’ve done a bad thing by losing him and giving you urgency when scrambling to recover him. Yoshi now makes some Yoshi’s Story sounds. I’d prefer he didn’t, but it’s not a dealbreaker or anything. At least they retain some of the old noises. It’s mostly the “getting hit” sound that’s much louder/more annoying (perhaps to compensate for making Baby Mario sound more bearable). Also, each color of Yoshi now has a different shoe color, unlike their uniform red of the SNES era. Shy Guys also have their Story voices.
Now that we’ve reached the map proper, a few things stand out: There’s no room for deviation here. Progress will be strictly linear. At the same time, it’s more artistic than previous Mario maps, with each area both detailed in kiddie crayon style on the map below and given a portrait. This also functions as our hub, letting us view our scores and adjust how we want to throw our eggs (Hasty all the way for me, although I traditionally start the first few stages out of reflex before I remember to switch, and end up waiting until the message block in 1-3 reminds me).
The GBA version, for some odd reason, “straightens out” the path the Yoshies travel across. As a tradeoff, it throws in an overall world map (which mostly just shows off the six castles, but the terrain does fit each segment, and we also get to see our goal, Baby Luigi).
Make Eggs, Throw Eggs extends the tutorial we started. We have a few more Shy Guys, as well as a Crazee Dazee for some variety (they continually march forward, but are still distinct from the traditional mindless platformer drone, because they’re happily skipping along to their own beat. Also, experimental players will find if you spit them out, they have a different trajectory than Shy Guys. The game immediately asserts both its personality and its attention to detail). Message blocks continue to spell things out for beginners (accompanied with some adorable artwork). The first Special Flower is in plain sight and a quick caption explains its function.
Piranha Plants are some of the more formidable “common” enemies. Not edible or stompable, they can at least force a stalemate against an unarmed dinosaur. They’re also rather large, and can grow on just about any surface. If they do manage to eat you, they both incapacitate you a good bit longer than most enemies and separate you from your eggs. The game is kind enough to introduce one when you have the high ground, so you’re encouraged to jump over, not onto it. Plus, it noisily announces its presence.
To further signify the shift in style, Piranhas no longer emerge from pipes but grow freely. They remain tiny until Yoshi approaches, so they’re still analogous to their other appearances (non-stompable, can hide).
Meanwhile, we come across our first winged cloud, prominently showcased above a platform with a Shy Guy on it. We see one of their functions here (staircase/platforms) and it leads to a series of platforms above. This serves a similar function to SMB3′s 1-1, “expanding” our mindset when going into these levels (“there might be something up there”).
If newcomers didn’t try to kill the first Piranha, the game invites them to kill the next two, who barricade a tempting pipe. The pipe leads to a cavern, and boy is there a lot going on down here! We see our first Chomp Rock, an all-around useful tool and sprite-rotating showcase. We see items held by balloons (which we can pop just by touching) and Fly Guys (which we need to attack). Then we come across a tulip, just begging for a gift (and showing off some gorgeous animation). And thus, egg banking was born.
Returning to the surface, we get some widely shifting terrain, then we come across a pipe that will spawn Shy Guys until our egg arsenal is full. In an interesting touch, you can go down the pipe into an empty room (that will spawn Shy Guys if needed). Unnecessary, but a nice detail.
We find another cloud, this one growing into a large flower with several leaves that we can scale vertically, basically the island’s version of the beanstalk. Going left leads to a suspiciously empty ledge, and passing over it reveals another winged cloud! Mario fans fear not, your invisible block instinct still has a use here.
Proceeding right leads to the stage’s final red coins and a message block explaining what they are. With some idea of the score system in mind, we can proceed downhill, pushing a Chomp Rock ahead of us to demolish all in its wake. Finally, there are a couple flipping Shy Guys to spice things up, then the goal ring and next Yoshi house await!
This is a brilliant first stage that teaches just about every basic concept of the game (I guess it doesn’t outright spell out for you that stars count toward your total score, but you’ll find out soon enough).
Watch Out Below opens in another flower field, but this one has plateaus in the background. We can see Chomps milling about back there (with a cute little warning sign in the foreground), and before you know it, they come leaping into the foreground and smashing huge craters into the landscape! This is a pretty intimidating scenario for the second stage of such a friendly game, and it’s the first instant-death hazard we’ve come across. But it’s not really as bad in practice as it may be psychologically. You see a Chomp leap from the background, hear the noise of it dropping, and see a shadow above the danger zone before impact. As long as you’re aware, this segment shouldn’t be too much trouble.
Once we get past the falling Chomps, we come across a couple stumps. The game hasn’t formally taught the ground pound yet, and these stumps don’t yield any prizes, but they do show the curious that they can be pounded. Next, we’re introduced to the one-way flipper doors (of little consequence here), the middle ring, and the odd spongy dirt material that can be destroyed with eggs, headbutting from below, or ground pounding. It will probably take a few egg shots to claim all the red coins above, but the game provides a Shy Guy pipe to help hone newcomers’ skills.
This stage is just throwing game mechanics at us rapid-fire. The next screen leads us to a series of tunnels, which we can only see inside of once we enter. It’s a neat little twisting setup, but there’s barely anything of importance in them. Making our way to the exit leads to the first helicopter transformation. This is the game’s first real misstep. The transformations are used well later on, but here we have to get used to its extremely loose controls and scour for collectibles over several screens. You get infinite tries, but getting kicked back to the transformation bubble breaks up your flow. Being able to simply explore around freely would be neat, or laying out the collectibles in a clear path (as they do in some later instances) would be better. It’s a timed mission with no focus to it, and while getting more tries is a nice fallback, it shouldn’t be necessary. In any event, the lessons about what “transparent” walls look like should pay off before moving on to the next section, as there’s a little indentation with some coins just above the pipe.
The final segment is just a cooldown. The last flower is handed to us for free inside a winged cloud in plain sight (letting us know that they can be inside clouds). There’s another Chomp crossing, but there’s really only room for one crater. The goal is just beyond that.
This stage tries to give a sampler of a lot of different concepts. It just falls off the rails a bit in the middle section. Still, the Chomp crossing is one of the most iconic setpieces of the game, completely redefining a classic Mario enemy, presenting an intimidating, but very survivable challenge, and making use of the game’s horsepower.
The Cave of Chomp Rock: We were introduced to Chomp Rock in a cave, but now it’s time to do a full cave stage. In Mario tradition, we start above ground, with a very warm background and some Piranhas snapping at us just for show. The cave is an immediate contrast, full of cool blues and grays, with jagged rocky surfaces, crystalline formations in the background, and various mushrooms serving as platforms and scenery rather than the flowers on the surface. The music is much slower and more deliberate than the meandering flower garden theme, and almost has a “shimmery” quality to it to match the shining crystals.
We have little time to take this in, though, as we drop onto a slope with a Chomp Rock coming down at us. This is completely harmless of course, and we can bring it with us up until hitting another stump. This time, a message block fills us in on ground pounding, so now there’s no excuse anymore. There’s also a crate on the other side of the stump, so we learn we can ground pound those for stars (six rather than the five from clouds). The stump also yields a red coin, teaching us to pound every stump we ever see ever.
As an aside, putting red coins in stumps is one of the game’s worse decisions. Aside from one particular stage, it isn’t terribly obnoxious about it, but having to pound every single one into the ground one section at a time just to be sure can get old. If there’s one thing the DS sequel did right, it’s letting you wipe them out in a single pound (with Baby DK only. Ideally, you could do this if you held Down, while just tapping it would pound one section at a time for the occasions where that’s tactically preferable).
Anyway, we can continue pushing the Chomp Rock through some enemies until it finally gets caught on a wall. Then the stage branches out a bit, and we can send one Chomp Rock down a slope into another, and both of them will clear out their respective branches. It’s a cool little setup that gets us further acquainted with Rock physics. Following one will also trigger a hidden cloud with some stars that Yoshi himself can’t reveal. We also get acquainted with a couple new enemies. Lantern Ghosts are functionally equivalent to Shy Guys, at least in this stage. Nipper Plants are another classic Mario enemy with a twist. Now they descend from the sky as spores, blooming into their white-mouthed selves on impact, then hopping toward you. Since their mouths are angled forward, it’s perfectly safe to jump on them. Sometimes the uneven cave floor can put them just out of reach of your tongue, but they’re largely harmless. Their spore forms can actually be more of a nuisance, clogging up airspace. There’s also a neat tradeoff presented here: You can easily clear the air of the spores by eating them, but they’re insubstantial and don’t provide an egg (Yoshi does have a nice lip-licking animation for this). You have to wait until they sprout if you want ammo.
One of the branches contains a small hut with a locked door. This leads to a mini-game where we face off with an enemy Bandit. Unfortunately, this particular one is the worst of the four options. You play Hot Potato with a balloon that gradually inflates. You have to press a combination of buttons within a time limit to throw it. Once it reaches a certain size, it pops. Unless you game the system (learn to recognize how big it gets before it pops, then just hang onto it until it’s almost there), this can be obnoxiously luck-based. There’s also no way to expedite it, so it can be an annoying amount of time invested into getting an extra life or two. But let’s move on.
At this point, a message block will ask you if you want to switch egg-tossing styles. As previously mentioned, this option is right there on the world map, but even after playing this game so many times, I often just plunge straight into stages and forget about it. It’s nice of them to give you a chance to actually get the feel of throwing eggs first, then make sure you’re aware that there’s a choice.
Going forward, the ceiling opens up and the air is filled with Nipper spores, as well as balloons hauling a crate and a key. This shows up a lot, and this is a fairly tame introduction to this setup (the spores later get replaced with more dangerous obstacles). Meanwhile, on the ground, there are pegs to pound, with Nippers harassing you depending on whether or not you cleared the air.
Eventually, we come to a big patch of that dirt stuff, with a plainly visible flower inside. Destroying more of it will reveal a 1up cloud, showing us that there could be more secrets buried in this substance. A few more pegs follow, and if you’re diligently pounding them, you’ll reveal a hidden cloud that contains a ! switch. This leads to a little bonus area that’s all normal coins (classic Mario), with a seesaw. So far, the game’s been pretty cool about letting you discover mechanics on your own if you’re curious (with them leading to non-essentials just in case newcomers miss them), then spelling it out before you need them for actual score/progress.
The cave section ends with a cool moment where we need to shove a Chomp Rock up a slope, then wait for it to roll back, jump on it, and immediately jump up through a gap in the ceiling to get the last flower/coins. It manages to be both the most difficult maneuver up to this point and be completely nonthreatening. It tests our grasp of the rock’s physics after playing with them all stage. And if it proves too frustrating for those who don’t care about score, they can just leave. We pop back into the same type of environment the stage started in, and have to get past a couple Piranhas to reach the exit.
This is a very strong stage, continuing to gently teach things and ever so slightly asking for improvement. The cave atmosphere is wonderful and we get a nice mix of challenges that don’t hamper our pace.
With that, it’s fortress time! Or “Fort” because this game is cool and flexible like that (while remaining consistent with SMB3 and SMW’s “fortress=mid-world, castle=end of world” nomenclature)! The fortress begins very gently, supplying us with several yellow eggs (it’s possible players obtained some yellow eggs trying to shoot into the tulip in the first stage) and tempting us with dangling buckets. Oftentimes, the game just invites you to play around with its mechanics. Hitting the buckets from beneath will simply knock them off their perches and drop them offscreen, but hitting them from the side causes them to swing around and spill their contents (just ordinary coins in this case). The game continues to playfully show off when a chunk of wall reveals itself to be a polygon and comes slamming down on you! You have a good amount of time to react, but you may be caught by surprise the first time. It takes several seconds off the clock (while Yoshi is flattened, peels off the wall, drifts the ground, and finally regains his form), but it’s an isolated danger and you haven’t had a chance to add any stars to the meter, so I wouldn’t call it a cheap shot.
Carrying on, we come across our first Burts. Other than Chomps, these are the most threatening enemies we’ve seen so far. They can’t be eaten or stomped (without a ground pound) requiring some timing to defeat. Plus they leap great distances (even bouncing off each other) making them tougher to pin down. The game introduces them by having you run safely over the area they’re in, letting you drop in when ready. They also give you a nice incentive for destroying them, offering three stars apiece (this particular duo also guards a flower).
There’s a non-score-related but fun secret in this area: a cracked patch of ceiling. Hitting it with an egg will let you reach the ceiling, which is full of (normal) coins for the entire first half of the stage. Obviously, you’ll skip some meaningful goodies if you go forward, but you also get a preview of what’s to come if you want to backtrack.
Next, we drop through some flippers for an easy flower, but another trick wall is waiting to smash us. The game gradually dials up the challenge, with some lava to cross (our second instant-death threat) but with plenty of platforms providing passage. There’s also a brief stretch of floor containing a single wall panel, which obviously tries to crush you. We also get introduced to this game’s Podoboos, who make a distinct bubbling sound and can be eaten by Yoshi. This has no real purpose in this case, but there are a couple takeaways: a nice feeling of empowerment for being able to thwart a classic Mario obstacle, and learning that eating something fiery lets you breathe fire.
After a floor transition, the stage continues with a couple more trick walls and throws in circling spike bars (being operated by a group of Shy Guys, in one of the game’s best little visual touches). We run into a couple more Burts, then need to hit a winged cloud to activate a bridge over lava. The “bridge materializing” sequence gives us a sneak peek at a pair of eyes/eyebrows near the lava’s surface. The Blargg in question is not too dangerous (but amusingly makes a thunderous sound belying its small size) but the next one antagonizing you on a seesaw can prove a bit more problematic to newcomers (if nothing else, rushing them/psyching them out when they’re trying to line things up). A third Blargg provides some pressure when snagging coins on a platform-go-round. Just to show how insanely dedicated to this game the developers were, the Blarggs have a unique animation if you hit them with an egg, even though it’s way more trouble than it’s worth to do, pretty much doesn’t benefit you at all, and is counterproductive on the seesaw or platforms.
Then we come to an intriguing setup: a locked door, a Shy Guy-producing pipe, and platforms over lava ahead. Descending the pipe leads to something different than the previous Shy Guy pipes: A dark room, illuminated only by Sparky-like wall-crawling enemies (whose size/light ebbs and flows). There are only ordinary coins to be had here, but I really appreciate the “discovery is its own reward” mentality. As we will see, the game likes to stick rare fauna/mechanics in hidden areas, and sometimes they’re the object of interest in said areas.
Anyway, that leaves the lava as the only way to proceed, but the much larger Gargantua Blargg is waiting to surprise intruders. Again, the situation looks a lot more threatening than it really is, and that’s just right for this point of the game. There are plenty of platforms for us to navigate across, the gap really isn’t that wide, the Blargg moves rather slowly at full height, it’s easily repelled with an egg, and savvy players can manipulate it into staying low by repeatedly crossing over it. But the Blargg’s sheer size, the lethality of lava, and not being able to see safe ground until we’ve committed to crossing add up to a situation that can effectively put players on edge. Even approaching the situation with confidence, there’s just something thrilling about subduing a gigantic beast by hitting it in the mouth, then bounding over lava at top speed. It’s really not at all difficult or complex, but the game makes it fun to play out.
On the other side, we come to a pot that we can push off a ledge to get our key (the game continues to play on cartoon logic), then make the return. The final segment has a couple more Burts in it, plus a side room with Piranha Plants (introducing you to the “clear a room full of enemies to get a prize” concept). There are also a ton of stars available here (middle ring, cloud, Burts) to ensure you proceed with a full count. The red double doors are a nice call back to Super Mario World and let you know what’s coming next.
Burt the Bashful is just an introduction to the formula for Yoshi’s Island bosses: a normal enemy appears, Kamek does his thing, and the fight begins. He really is a complete clone of his normal-sized counterparts, with no new tricks to bring to the table, but the Burt enemies were brand-new as of this stage anyway, so he’s an acceptable first boss. The game can flex its visual muscles with his growth and bouncing around, and at least the egg plant, the safe divots, and Burt’s tendency to really cover ground (even if you’re shooting him into a wall, watch out for the rebound) give the fight a bit of personality. Obviously, the punch line is Burt literally dying of embarrassment. He’s a mindless warmup boss, but at least he has character.
Next time: Watch for updates about once a week. We’ll discuss some game mechanics in the next installment before moving on to the second half of World One.
(Credit for the superb maps goes to Peardian at VGMaps)