Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, a classic platformer for the SNES, turns 25 this month. Yoshi's Island is technically marked as a follow-up for 1990's hugely popular Super Mario World, but the two games don't give off the image of parent and offspring when you put them side-by-side.
Super Mario World takes place in a Euclidean land that exudes order—a strange aura for a game that's chock-full of fire-breathing dinosaurs. Yoshi's Island is a marked difference from its predecessor. Its wild, crayon-scribbled visuals take Yoshi and his rider, baby Mario, up and down massive slopes, into sparkling caves, and through treacherous castles filled with enemies that morph and jiggle like Jell-O moulds.
Yoshi's Island was met with universal praise from critics when it hit the SNES. Said critics reiterated their love for the strange adventure when the Game Boy Advance port of Yoshi's Island, marketed as Super Mario Advance 3, was released. The praise is no mystery: Yoshi's Island is a refreshing change for long-time Mario fans who are tired of scraping Goomba guts off the soles of their shoes. Its combat system, which primarily involves turning enemies into eggs and using them as ammunition against their friends, simply feels good to use. Yoshi can still stomp enemies but making and using eggs is what defines his premiere game. That, and the fact Mario is a helpless babe (most of the time) who can't do anything except sit on Yoshi's back and fill his diaper. Yoshi's Island is weird, it's different, and it's wonderful.
(Its soundtrack is also the source of a great meme.)
Despite the roars of approval, many SNES owners—myself included—gave Yoshi's Island a hard pass when it initially came out on the SNES. The game sold four million copies, which initially sounds great, but it's a bit piddling next to the sales numbers for other mainstream Super Mario games. (New Super Mario Bros. DS, released for the Nintendo DS in 2006, sold a whopping 30 million copies.)
Years later, Nintendo fans who missed out on Yoshi's Island finally tried the game under differing circumstances. I just happened to sample it nonchalantly at a cousin's house and was stunned at how well it played. I said, "Oh heck, this is a great game I missed out on the first time around."
Given the low-ish sales numbers for Yoshi's Island, I wasn't the only one who only achieved enlightenment years later. What happened? Why did so many of us '90s rugrats turn our backs on one of the greatest platforming games Nintendo's ever made?
It's instinct to blame the popularity of Rare's breakout platforming series, Donkey Kong Country. Donkey Kong Country and its follow-ups feature computer-rendered graphics that were unlike anything produced at the time. The team for Yoshi's Island considered using rendered graphics, but the game was too far along in development for such a drastic change. Instead, the team aimed to "take up the challenge with visuals that were the exact opposite of the style in Donkey Kong Country," which is how Yoshi's Island wound up looking like the product of a 152-color Crayola orgy.
For a long time, Super Mario fans assumed the rendered graphics for the Donkey Kong Country games outshone the "childish" look of Yoshi's Island, which caused potential buyers to turn away from Yoshi's babysitting adventure. It's easy enough to believe; Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest came out a few months after Yoshi's Island. Surely kids held onto their money for more monkey business, right?
Not exactly. Donkey Kong Country 2 sold around 4 million copies worldwide, which is more or less what Yoshi's Island raked in. The Donkey Kong Country games turned heads, but they didn't necessarily chase people away from Yoshi's Island's scribbly art style.
With that squared away, it's time to break out Occam's Razor. The reason Yoshi's Island was overlooked is because it came out at the dawn of a new console generation. The North American launch of the game and the North American launch of the PlayStation was barely a month apart. The Sega Saturn was already out. The N64 was slated for 1996. Lots of young video game enthusiasts had either blown their (cash) wad on Sega or Sony, or like me, they were saving up for the Nintendo 64. There wasn't a lot left over for poor Yoshi.
There's also the matter of the commercial Nintendo cooked up for Yoshi's Island. It's gross beyond reason, featuring a man who literally explodes and sprays half-digested food on restaurant patrons after eating too much. The spot, which is a parody of a similar scene from 1983's Monty Python: The Meaning of Life, was probably woven by some marketing genius who made the connection between the distended diner and the squashy, stretchy enemies in Yoshi's Island. It's not one of Nintendo's best commercials, and the company made a lot of questionable advertising decisions in the '90s. In any case, I'm doubtful people felt compelled to pick up Yoshi's Island after seeing the box get drenched in regurgitated spaghetti.
Despite bad timing and abysmally gross advertising, word of mouth and the growing online Nintendo community gradually helped Yoshi's Island gain the recognition it deserves. Today, it's easy to find on Nintendo Switch Online, or the SNES Classic. Best of all, it's as good as it ever was. Twenty-five years later, you won't find another platformer quite like it. It's jolly, it's riotously colorful, and its mash-up of gameplay mechanics give you an unparalleled sense of control. Should you stomp that oncoming Shyguy, or eat it, turn it into an egg, and whip that egg at the trailing Shyguy that might be its mate? It's up to you.