There’s only one way to begin this.
In a sense of course that’s a lie – there’s a vast and multifaceted history of side-scrolling platformers to which Yoshi’s Island was the momentary apex, countless aspects of which could be used as ways into the game. But I mean it simply in the literal sense that unlike its nominal predecessor, Yoshi’s Island does not have any sort of forking path in its initial worldmap, offering a straightforward and unambiguous “first level,” and indeed a wholly linear level structure through the entire game.
This is the difference between it and Super Mario World in a microcosm. The earlier game is a demo of the Super Nintendo – an advertisement for its supposedly infinite potential, and opens accordingly with a choice so as to signify the breadth of what can happen. Yoshi’s Island, on the other hand, exists deep in the twilight of the Super Nintendo, and less than a year before Super Mario 64 transitions the Mario franchise away from the side-scrolling mechanic that had defined it for its first decade. It is not a game about showing off possibility, but rather a late masterpiece – a final demonstration of the form before it passes into history. Its structure is fixed because it demonstrates perfection, not potential.
[Here’s a secret history for you. A retcon to Nintendo’s mascot, a new first adventure for him that predates not only his first discovery of the Mushroom Kingdom in Super Mario Bros., but all the existing prehistory of Mario as a carpenter, cement mixer, and monkey fighter. The already heavily frayed notion that Mario was ever just an ordinary Italian plumber gives way. Now he is always already bound into the history of the Mushroom Kingdom, his battle with Bowser now truly eternal, defining him from the very moment of his birth. His sibling relationship is also now set in stone from the first instant, Luigi always secondary, Mario always the adventuring hero.
But what’s inserted into the narrative is not just Mario’s role as a video game protagonist, but his relationship with Yoshi (like Toad at once a singular character and a species), who turns out not to have been a random dinosaur met at the start of Super Mario World but a guide and protector who has served throughout Mario’s life.]
Is it perfect? Well… no. It’s fun, certainly, and there are some good levels, but it ends up feeling like a collection of one-shot ideas – mechanics that are entertaining for a level (or, more often, a subsection of a level) but that can’t support much more than that. It’s not so much a boutique showcase of levels as a clear-out sale of ideas that were almost good enough for previous games.
In this regard it is also significant that the game is appreciably shorter than Super Mario World, which had 74 levels and 96 total exits to find. Yoshi’s Island has a mere six worlds of eight levels each, all with single exits, along with six bonus levels unlocked if you find all the items within a world, which is a grindy tedium for only the most obsessive of players. Again, there’s a clear sense of contrast with the game’s self-declared predecessor.
[In hindsight this was the last historical moment when a thing like this could be accomplished. Yoshi is the last character to get added to the “core” Mario cast. It’s not that elements from later games like Delfino Plaza or Rosalina don’t get incorporated into the ever-expanding canon of Nintendo nostalgia. But these characters are clearly part of the greater Mario psychochronographic area. Yoshi, on the other hand, is a essentially obliged to make some sort of appearance in a Mario game, occupying a role essentially on par with that of Toad.
At the heart of the trick is the way in which Yoshi’s Island’s status as the last time a sidescroller was a flagship Mario game. Sure, these days Mario shits out a new side-scrolling Mario game with a frequency that suggests they’re the new Mario Party, but the comparison only serves to highlight the shift, with the series keyword, “New,” ultimately existing to make it clear that this is a retro practice. By marking an endpoint to a particular definition of what “new Mario game” meant, Yoshi’s Island served also to collapse all of the history up to that point into a single moment. ]
But the game that Yoshi’s Island is most directly defined in contrast to is Donkey Kong Country. Shigeru Miyamoto, developing the game, found himself butting heads with Nintendo’s marketing department, who objected to the graphical style of the game, demanding it be made in the quasi-3D style of their latest hit. Miyamoto was furious, not least because he’d not been hugely impressed with that game, objecting to the excessive difficulty of early drafts and suggesting changes to the moveset. His response to the directive was him at his stubborn and visionary best – instead of complying he doubled down, going from a style akin to Super Mario World to a hyperstylized approach in which sprites appeared to be hand-drawn with crayons. The result was a triumph – it would be seven years before a Mario game looked this good again, and more than a decade before the visuals were definitively surpassed.
But there’s a fundamental sense of loss to all of this as well. John Higgs, in his magnificent history of the twentieth century Stranger Than We Can Imagine, inventively uses Super Mario Bros. as his main example of postmodernism, explaining the concept in terms of the game’s seemingly arbitrary juxtapositions of iconography. But just a decade later it’s hard to see anything particularly postmodern about Yoshi’s Island. Instead of thrilling in the strange fusions, it’s defined them into a style of its own. Yoshi’s Island doesn’t look like a postmodern assemblage; it looks like a Mario game, and Miyamoto’s brilliant insistence on a hand-drawn style just serves to highlight how coherent a notion that has become in just a decade.
[What’s odd, then, is how unlike a Mario game Yoshi’s Island is. I mean, the clue’s in the title, really, to which “Super Mario World 2” feels in many ways like a late and quasi-official addition. Mario is in the game, but save for a handful of short power-up fueled segments you don’t control him. Most of the time he’s literally a burden, carried upon Yoshi’s back, and an oft-frustrating one as well, in that his plaintive wails when he’s dislodged are the one universally panned aspect of the game.
But this gets at the larger issue, which is that the basic mechanics of the game are pretty far from Mario-standard. Baby Mario getting knocked off Yoshi’s back is in fact the game’s version of enemy damage – when it happens the player has ten seconds to get him back (less if it’s the second hit in short succession, more if he’s gotten some power-ups). The attack mechanics are also significantly different, focused on eating enemies and turning them into throwable eggs that have to be aimed. Even the jumping mechanics are off-standard, with the game introducing Yoshi’s now trademark flutter jump, vaguely modeled off of Luigi’s jump mechanic in Super Mario Bros. 2, but still a big departure from the comparatively tidy, precise jumps of most Mario series. Jumping in Yoshi’s Island involves an agonizing strain to reach your target, and jumps are slow and almost languid even when the game is in fairly action-heavy portions.]
Much of this is due to the sort of decadent phase that the Super Nintendo was in at this point. Just a year after Yoshi’s Island the Super Mario series, and indeed video games in general would make the decisive switch towards 3D polygon graphics. But although these had advanced significantly from the hugely primitive ones in Starfox, it would be a while before they developed to where characters didn’t look rough and blocky. Yoshi’s Island, on the other hand, leaned into precisely the thing that pixel graphics do best, which is an impressionistic style that takes advantage of the basic similarity between pixel art and pointillism.
But of course, every style has its specialties and frailties. It’s not as though the era that was rapidly emerging to replace the 16-bit era didn’t do some things well and other things poorly. It’s just that the fact that we haven’t actually emerged from that era to where we can look at it in hindsight means it’s harder to see the limitations and idiosyncratic obsessions of it as clearly. In many ways, it’s only when you have a game like Yoshi’s Island that’s consciously thinking of itself as an endpoint to a phase of gaming that it becomes easy to think about the era from the outside.
[There’s an argument to be made that all of this is to the game’s benefit, and I’m sure Froborr will be along in comments to make it. Certainly there’s a case to be made that breaking from the established framework of a Mario game is a strength and keeps the game fresh. On the other hand, the basic Mario framework is that of an extraordinarily good game. Yoshi’s Island demands to be read within that framework even as it refuses to offer quite the same pleasures, and there’s a sense in which anything it offers instead is doomed to be disappointing regardless of its strengths. This isn’t a gamebreaking problem by any measure – Yoshi’s Island is a consensus classic, after all. But it’s still strangely stuck between a past it erases and the future it exists to be the last word before.
It is, in other words, a game that serves to replace a large swath of real and lived history with a simulacrum, a cleansing fire that both erases the past and brings it to an end. What is significant here is not the experience of the flames. It’s fun, yes, and a deserving classic. But in the end that matters as little as what Super Mario Bros. 3 felt like. Or indeed what gaming felt like to any of us at the time. In the end we’re just what’s replaced. What matters in such cases is not the fire, but the egg that’s left behind from which the future hatches.]