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We video game enthusiasts certainly can be a surly and cynical lot, huh? You can't really blame us, though. Look at all the nonsense we have to deal with just to partake of the medium.
Beloved franchises wither on the vine or mutate into something almost unrecognizable. Avaricious publishers have turned mobile games into a churn of unethical, exploitative products that deliberately defy decades of game design discipline for the sake of a quick buck. The people who make our favorite games lose their jobs because the multi-million-selling works they create didn't sell enough multi-millions, or do it fast enough. Sometimes, it really sucks to enjoy video games.
Sometimes, though, it behooves us to set aside the cynicism and just take things at face value. Yoshi's New Island is one of those cases. On the face of things, it's certainly the sort of game to inspire distrust among the faithful, seemingly the latest in a long succession of inadequate attempts to follow up on 1995's masterful Yoshi's Island: Super Mario World 2. And foremost among those would-be successors figures the tepid Yoshi's Island DS, which was in fact created by many of the same people responsible for this new game.
Worse, you can play Yoshi's New Island from start to finish without spotting even one new idea. Every single element of this game was taken directly from the original Yoshi's Island; this isn't so much a sequel as a visually overhauled remix. And it doesn't even manage to incorporate all the original game's great moments. Unless it's hidden in a secret stage I've yet to unlock, the single coolest moment from the SNES game – the hallucinogenic "Touch Fuzzy Get Dizzy" stage – doesn't get so much as a passing reference.
That would seem to be perfect cause to damn the game on the spot. Certainly my first reaction upon playing Yoshi's New Island at E3 last year was one of disappointment, and Bob Mackey felt much the same upon sitting down for a more comprehensive demo. As Bob said, "Why can't we just have the original?"
It's a fair question, and it was foremost in my mind as I embarked on this review. After playing through the whole of Yoshi's 3DS adventure, though, I think the question also somewhat misses the point of what Nintendo and Arzest were going for here. People take Nintendo to task for making "baby games," and by god, Yoshi's New Island may well be the babiest game they've ever put together. Yoshi's New Island doesn't need to defend itself from accusations of being a baby game, because that's its entire raison d'être. Look at the art! It's all done up in nursery school pastels. Listen to the Yoshis' voices! They sound like toddlers on helium. Even the play mechanics – in which Yoshi is essentially invulnerable from everything but spikes and fire so long as he keeps track of, yes, Baby Mario – provide a low-stress protective padding to the action that makes the act of simply completing the game a reasonable goal for novice players.
It chaps my hide a bit that Yoshi's New Island is so faithful to the SNES game that (outside of a couple of new boss forms) it doesn't even bother to introduce a single new enemy to the mix. The one new game mechanic comes in the form of giant eggs, which have the same limited, gimmicky use here that the Mega Mushroom in New Super Mario Bros. does. But I also realize that the core audience for this game likely has never played the SNES game, because – having come out 19 years ago – it's older than they are. And despite the lack of original elements, Yoshi's New Island consists of new material (that is, new level layouts) from start to finish. This is also where it stands above previous Yoshi sequels: The 54 stages on offer here don't simply feature new designs, those designs demonstrate utmost skill. What Yoshi's New Island lacks in inventiveness it makes up for in canny use of the familiar.
Where Yoshi's Story felt aimless, Yoshi's New Island offers clear goals and gently increasing challenges. Where Yoshi's Island DS's new elements felt amateurish and sloppy, Yoshi's New Island sticks to what works. It's a platformer that succeeds on two levels: As a "baby game," you can complete most stages up until the last world or two without too much trouble. Simply reaching the goal requires some skill, sure, but persistence and caution prove to be even more useful. Actually completing each stage with 100 percent of the collectibles in-hand, though – that is, with 30 stars, 20 red coins, and five flowers – well, that's another matter entirely.
The collectibles hidden throughout each stage demand expert play. While you'll naturally collect some items in the course of a normal runthrough, most of them have been tucked away in obscure locations. Some items require careful sleuthing. Others need quick reflexes or iron nerves. Many require all the above. The further you make it into the game, the more ruthless (and obscure) the secrets become.
The integration of secrets into the level designs definitely stands as one of the best traits of Yoshi's New Island. It's easy to look down at the game for rehashing so much material from its 16-bit predecessor, but enemy designs aren't the only thing that has carried over. Arzest has taken great care to preserve the original game's scrupulous approach to collectible items, a much more difficult thing to duplicate. Unlike most collectathon platformers, Yoshi's New Island doesn't just throw its hidden items around haphazardly and force you to slog through the game to find them. There's a logic to placement – a discipline of sorts. The game rewards observation and deduction. Nintendo has been guilty of putting out some of the most arbitrary and tedious collection-based platformers I've ever suffered through over the years (Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, Super Mario Sunshine), so the restraint that Yoshi's New Island demonstrates is greatly appreciated.
Is Yoshi's New Island basically a rehash of an 19-year-old classic? Yes, definitely. Does it reach that classic's dizzying heights of excellence? No, not at all. However, it accomplishes something that's almost as difficult: It presents these classic elements to a new audience in a more contemporary style, without simply copying the original game's content. And then it adds hooks for high-level play – seriously, unlocking all the bonus stages could be a full-time job in and of itself – to give the old-timers in the audience something to strive for.
Let's dispense with this right away: Yoshi's New Island springs from the same core as Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island. There's a few new additions to the formula, but ultimately I wouldn't fault older players for thinking this is an excellent HD remake. Since I'm a part of Nintendo's 3DS Ambassador program, I downloaded and played the original Yoshi's Island prior to opening up Yoshi's New Island.
Rolling from one to the other, there's a strong feeling continuity. Yoshi runs, jumps, and throws eggs in the same adorable way and at roughly the same pace. Baby Mario is still annoying and when you get hit, you still have to rush to retrieve him. Kamek is still making things bigger or smaller in order to end your quest prematurely. There's new Yoshi Transformation mini-games that use the 3DS gyroscope and a gyroscope control option for throwing eggs (that works rather well), but if you're a veteran of Yoshi's Island, you've been here before.
Arzest, a developer who helped Nintendo with Streetpass Mii Plaza and Wii Play: Motion, obviously did their homework when creating Yoshi's New Island. The game feels like a labor of love, made by someone who just needed more Yoshi's Island; one developer who had been waiting his or her entire career for the chance to make an expansion for the original title. It's a rehash of an old game, but it's a damn good rehash in the style of WayForward's masterful Contra 4 for Nintendo DS. It sticks with what worked in the previous title, delivers a great visual presentation, and gives you new areas to do the same old thing in.
And really, that's not a problem. Yoshi's Island was in 1995, nearly 20 years ago. Until Jeremy told me that Yoshi's Island DS existed - yeah, I totally missed that game somehow - I was under the impression that Nintendo had let the entire gameplay conceit just lie there for all those years. Even counting that title, it's been eight years. In that time I've purchased seven Assassin's Creed games, three Batman: Arkham titles, three Need for Speed games, and a number of MMOs in the same vein as World of Warcraft. That is to say, I'm perfectly fine revisiting the same concept with a new coat of paint... if it's done well.
And Yoshi's New Island is done well. If Yoshi's Island was not your jam, there's nothing here that will sway you towards love, so you can skip it. If you thought Yoshi's Island was great, pick this up, because Yoshi's New Island is every bit as endearing as the original. Mostly by walking directly in its footprints.
No, Yoshi's New Island may not be the game we fans of the original want, but it's definitely the game its creators set out to make. And a lot of fun, too. It's hard to be cynical about that.
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