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Words: Malindy Hetfeld
Sometimes when you look back on a game for its big anniversary, it can be difficult to describe what made it great at the time. Not every game ages well, and some are simply surpassed by their successors. Yoshi's Island on the other hand - which turns 25 on August 5th - is a timeless game, both as a piece of software in itself, and thanks to its legacy.
When Nintendo's creative division starts thinking about a game, they don't start with a theme. Instead, they think about mechanics, about fun ways to play. With the massively successful 96-goal extravaganza that was 1990's Super Mario World, the team had given Mario as many new abilities as was feasible for the technology at the time, which left them out of ideas on how to possibly top that for a sequel.
Enter Yoshi. The dinosaur actually existed long before he made his debut in Super Mario World as a mount - at one point he was nothing but a normal horse, for no other reason than that Mario's creator Shigeru Miyamoto enjoyed horseback riding. Humans are simple creatures, sometimes.
The 8-bit NES wasn't powerful enough to contain a mighty dinosaur, and so he had to wait his turn, with the arrival of the 16-bit Super Nintendo. With reaching the limit of what could be done with Mario even before the new hardware, game designer Takashi Tezuka saw in Yoshi the chance for something new. After all, if your players are at this point well familiar with Mario and what he can do, the best way is to give them something they're basically unfamiliar with.
But the only thing that had been established about Yoshi after his Super Mario World debut was that he liked to eat things, which admittedly is a solid start. The Yoshi we know today, the character of many colourful adventures who turns his enemies into eggs only to use them as weapons, was ultimately established with 1995's Yoshi's Island. His whole move set as we know it has its origins in that game, giving Yoshi the character and charm his prior appearances could not.
Imagine the creative risk that accompanies all but abandoning your popular mascot and making him a side note in a series bearing his name! (Yoshi's Island is, after all, the prequel-sequenced sequel to Super Mario World.) To pull that off, Yoshi had to stand out, he absolutely had to be fun to play, and I think his egg throw is a large part of that, before we even talk about how he could transform into a helicopter(?) and a train(??). Nintendo simply wasn't shy to abandon a safe idea for something that seemed more fun, and it's stayed true to that idea to this very day.
This is certainly also true when it comes to Yoshi's Island's art style. If there's one childhood memory I've retained in connection with the game, it's that amazing box art - it spelled adventure in the same way the image for Super Mario Bros. on the NES did (well, the Japanese cover, anyway). Thanks to Kotaku, we know the look came about by tracing hand-drawn images pixel by pixel. While I'm impressed by the Sisyphean effort this must have taken, it's more amazing to me how well the style has aged.
At the time of Yoshi's Island's development, the team initially got the directive to make something in the style of Donkey Kong Country, as that game's 3D art was all the rage then. But they responded by doubling down on their cartoon style instead (it was even rumoured, in the years since, that Miyamoto himself was no fan of Country's aesthetic, though that seems to be unsubstantiated). Whether it was Yoshi's eventual 3D outing Yoshi's Story or Kirby's Epic Yarn, colourful art design has led to consistently wonderful results, and Yoshi's Island is a great example of pervasive trends-following company executives, asking for a new project to follow in the style of another, not always knowing what's best.
If we're talking about art, we also have to mention the music. Twenty-five years later, you can still wake me in the middle of the night and ask me to hum Koji Kondo's 'Flower Song' or 'Athletic Theme' from the first levels of Yoshi's Island. Yoshi leitmotifs, duly established - and by that I mean melodies and songs that Yoshi's Island players will likely forever connect with the green dinosaur and his adventure.
With Yoshi's Island, Nintendo the toymaker succeeded in making something that looks like a toy, from its level design to its cartoonish enemies and animations. Yoshi's exaggerated squash and stretch when he ducks or pushes something around are as much an example of that as enemies like the ghosts with their bushy eyebrows, or fire spires with little (:3) faces. There's a lot of detail here that you can still appreciate to this day.
The sheer enemy variety makes Yoshi's Island interesting from both an art and gameplay design perspective, not only because you'd be hard-pressed to forget enemies like the baseball pitcher and the seeds that drug Yoshi. I'm just continuously impressed how many different enemies the game had room for, even if some ideas repeat.
But Yoshi's Island can occasionally feel like a long game, not least because it asks you to explore each level more thoroughly than any of its predecessors did. Players coming from Donkey Kong Country, a similarly collectible-heavy game, probably appreciated that, and Super Mario World fans got platforming sequences close enough to the previous game to be pretty intuitive. I got a lot of mileage out of Yoshi's Island simply by wanting to know what's behind the next corner, fascinated at another example of vertical exploration in a 2D platformer. Although I can now admit that Donkey Kong Country fared better in that regard.
But Yoshi's Island is a sum of so many parts that I will forever connect with Nintendo - Koji Kondo's fantastic music; an insistence that child-like art design doesn't mean childish play; that trying new things will be rewarded; and the overall kindness of the game itself. This is not a hero's journey, it's the story of an act of kindness - reuniting a baby with his brother by means of a relay race. As with Super Mario World, I rarely felt animosity from any foe I encountered. Sure, there are giant cannons and the occasional enemy throwing things at you; but just as often enemies you hit will look hurt or dumbfounded, as if they just meant to play a joke on you and got an egg on their face as a result. Just think about how your antagonists are a toddler version of Bowser and Kamek sporting a purple wizard's outfit.
Yoshi's Island speaks of indulgence, not only because it essentially gave Mario a break and took him back to more innocent times, but also because I can't help but feel like the team ran with every idea it could feasibly fit, not unlike the more recent Super Mario Odyssey. If they wanted a train Yoshi, they found room for one. If they had an idea for a fun game of catch, they put it in a mini-game. I think Yoshi's Island is an all-time example of creative energy let loose, and it's that spirit of fun and indulgence that makes it feel lovely 25 years later.
Follow the author on Twitter at @yourkyotowife, and GAMINGbible at @gamingbible. Yoshi's Island celebrates its 25th anniversary on August 5th 2020, and if you've the urge to play it right now - and we can't blame you - you don't need a SNES to do so. The game is available on the Switch Online subscription service, alongside Super Mario World; and both games are also included on the Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System mini-console.
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