Originally published Aug. 2015
Yoshi's Island, the sequel to Super Mario World, debuted 20 years ago today. I almost missed out on it.
Compared to most other major Nintendo releases in the '90s, Yoshi's Island barely commanded a scrap of hype. I didn't see it blaring across magazine covers, or spanning massive multi-page spreads. I didn't see commercials for it, or big point-of-purchase displays, or receive a VHS cassette directly from Nintendo telling me about how amazing it would be. Compared to its most immediate first-party platformer predecessor, Donkey Kong Country, Yoshi's Island may as well not even have existed.
But, I still owned a Super NES and knew it would be a while before its 64-bit successor arrived, so I went ahead and took a chance on a copy of Yoshi's Island when it went on sale a few weeks after launch. What I found stunned me: A game that defiantly marched against the push of time and trends. It featured a rough, hand-drawn visual style that looked nothing like the slick CG rendered that Donkey Kong had brought into vogue. It didn't play like a typical Mario game, lacking a timer and even essentials like Mushroom power-ups, placing its emphasis more on precision aiming and exploration than raw action. And weirdest of all, it used Nintendo's deluxe add-on F/X2 chip — like the one that had made games like Star Fox and F/X Racer capable of boasting 3D graphics on Super NES hardware — to produce cartoonish, 2D visuals. Nothing about Yoshi's Island made sense!
And yet! I loved every minute of it. Nintendo had spent the past 15 years defining how platform games worked, and Yoshi's Island took all those rules and quietly side-stepped them. It retained the fundamental quality and thoughtfulness of classic Mario, of course; how could it not, being led by Takashi Tezuka? For the first time, I saw Nintendo not so much leading the way in terms of creating new kinds of game design the way they had with Mario, Metroid, Zelda, and so on; rather, they were taking a reactive approach, iterating on their own work by working around. Yoshi's Island was the opposite of a Mario game, designed in precisely the opposite style of mid '90s aesthetic and tech trends, and it burst with creativity at every turn. It offered the sheer variety of Super Mario Bros. 3 in a bigger, more visually ambitious context.
The only problem with Yoshi's Island, really, is that was so good Nintendo's never really been able to top it. Yoshi's follow-ups tend to fall flat. I've heard good things about Yoshi's Woolly World, though...