SNES Essentials: Yoshi’s Island

Super Mario World marked the point at which “Mario games” were no longer really one series, though this didn’t become obvious until much later in retrospect.

Still, the fact that its sequel was called Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island rather than Super Mario Bros. 5: Yoshi’s Island should have tipped you off a bit… and if that didn’t work, then the fact that you didn’t actually play Super Mario would definitely do the job.

The “rebranding” that Yoshi’s Island ultimately underwent was a good idea though, because although having elements in common with its predecessor, it’s a distinct type of experience in its own right. And one of the best platformers on the SNES.

I must confess that, to my shame, I was unfamiliar with Yoshi’s Island until relatively recently. Despite owning a SNES “back in the day”, I never had all that many games on it; I was very much a computer gamer growing up and didn’t really get heavily into console games until the PlayStation/Nintendo 64 era. Consequently, since Yoshi’s Island was a very late SNES release — it came out in 1995, which is after the Japanese launch of the PlayStation — it completely passed me by.

I now understand this to be something to regret, because Yoshi’s Island is amazing. Blending traditional Super Mario Bros. run-and-jump gameplay with the emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving from Super Mario Bros. 2Yoshi’s Island is a game in which every level not only feels enormously satisfying to wander around, it’s also a game that never gets boring because there’s always something new to see.

For the unfamiliar, Yoshi’s Island is technically a prequel to all the Super Mario Bros. games, featuring a baby Mario riding on the backs of various Yoshies as they attempt to track down the kidnapped baby Luigi. Rather than Super Mario World’s non-linear approach to its structure, Yoshi’s Island unfolds in a more conventional manner, though there are secret levels to unlock along the way.

One thing I always like about more recent Nintendo games is the fact that they rarely overuse gimmicks; in something like Super Mario 3D World, for example, you’ll generally see a special type of block or platform just once or twice in the whole game — just enough to get the hang of dealing with it — before you move on to something else new and exciting.

Yoshi’s Island feels like it marks the beginning of that sort of design philosophy; making use of advanced graphical techniques such as combining polygonal objects with sprites and the SNES’ hardware scaling and rotation capability, there are a wide variety of different situations to deal with over the course of the game, ranging from things falling out of the background onto your head to giant monsters bursting out of the water.

Each level is generally themed around one of these gimmicks; by the end of the level you’ll have mastered dealing with it in several different ways. For example, one stage sees your path being blocked by gelatinous creatures that shrink when you throw things at them. Over the course of the level, these creatures block your path in numerous different ways, requiring you to knock them back until the path is clear, shrink them down until they’re small enough to jump over, and deal with them at the same time as more conventional enemies. After that, you’re done with them; the next level offers something new to deal with.

In keeping with the rebranding and the focus on Yoshi, there are a number of differences between Yoshi’s Island and the earlier Super Mario games. For starters, the way in which you take damage and lose lives is very different; rather than being able to upgrade to a “super” form and losing this when taking damage, in Yoshi’s Island you instead drop the Baby Mario Yoshi carries on his back when you take a hit, and must reclaim him before an on-screen timer reaches 0, otherwise he will be kidnapped and you’ll lose a life.

The twist is that this timer can be replenished by collecting star items and reaching checkpoints in the level — unlike Super Mario World there can be more than one “mid-way” checkpoint, since the levels are much larger in many cases — and in order to get the best score in the level, you’ll need to finish with the timer at a full 30. In order to achieve this, you’ll generally need to get through the majority of the level without taking damage, and preferably with finding all the hidden blocks and clouds that house collectible stars.

Alongside the stars/timer system, this installment also introduces the “red coins” and “special coins” system found in many subsequent Mario titles. The former are hidden in plain sight, appearing as slightly differently coloured coins in the level, while the latter are usually positioned in awkward situations. Both can be collected by throwing objects at them, so you don’t necessarily have to get Yoshi to reach them; just have enough of an understanding of physics to ricochet something into them.

Talking of throwing things, this also brings up Yoshi’s Island’s different approach to attacking and dealing with enemies. While you can stomp on many enemies Super Mario-style, it’s more efficient to eat them where possible, then poop them out as an egg, which can then be flung at other enemies, coins, blocks, hidden switches and all manner of other things. Throwing involves stopping a sweeping cursor at the correct angle you wish to toss the egg; it takes a bit of practice to get right and makes Yoshi’s Island marginally less accessible than the very simple controls of earlier Mario games, but presents some interesting new ways for the game to present you with puzzles and challenges to overcome.

As you progress, you’ll find other ways to attack, too; eating a watermelon allows Yoshi to spit seeds like a machine-gun, for example, while other edibles provide the ability to spit fire or ice, both of which have applications beyond simply defeating enemies at certain points in your adventure.

The game as a whole is no cakewalk, particularly once you start to progress beyond the introductory levels. Later levels require precise egg-throwing and similarly accurate platforming as well as an understanding of how to apply the game’s various mechanics to many different situations. Boss fights are a particular highlight in this regard, generally requiring you to make use of a new mechanic you’ve learned in that world or level, or simply to think a bit more creatively than you might be used to from a Super Mario game. One boss, for example, simply requires you to push the vase they’re in off the platform you’re on rather than fight them conventionally; another requires you to skim eggs across the surface of the water in the boss room to hit an otherwise inaccessible weak point.

You’ll need to truly master the game in order to see everything it offers, too; unlocking the two secret levels in each world requires you to get a perfect score on the preceding levels. That means finishing the level with 30 stars on the timer (i.e. taking no or at least very little damage) along with finding all the red coins and special flower coins. And unlike more recent Mario games with similar “objective” mechanics, you have to do all these things in a single run through the level!

We haven’t even started on how good the game looks. While the hand-drawn in crayon style of the background art is admittedly something of an acquired taste, it fits the game extremely well and is complemented by some wonderful sprite work featuring excellent animations and very effective use of the SNES’ capabilities. Yoshi encounters a wide variety of weird and wonderful creatures over the course of his adventures, all of whom are absolutely bursting with personality and joy. The only mildly irritating character is baby Mario himself, but that may just be the fact that I find babies in general incredibly annoying.

The game as a whole is simply an absolute pleasure to play. It looks great, sounds great and most importantly plays great; it’s regarded as one of the best platform games of all time with very good reason, and if you, like me, have managed to sleep on it for this long, I recommend you rectify that situation immediately — there are several ways to get your fix at the time of writing, including the original SNES version, a port to Game Boy Advance, a Virtual Console version of the Game Boy Advance port on 3DS and Wii U, and the SNES original in glorious high definition on the SNES Classic Edition.

Yoshi’s Island is, without a doubt, one of the very best games on the SNES; a truly timeless classic that deserves its place in gaming’s “canon”, and a title that every gamer needs to play at some time in their life.

More about Yoshi’s Island

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