“Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island” for the SNES is a timeless masterpiece that deserves a deeper look. It’s more than just a game. It’s an entire philosophy of how to approach game design. Game designers should place a big magnifying glass over this game even if it’s not a game you particularly enjoy. There is such an overwhelming wealth of knowledge that a game designer can obtain from analyzing and dissecting “Yoshi’s Island”.
I believe “Yoshi’s Island” should be taught and studied at game design schools the same way films like “Blade Runner”, “Citizen Kane”, and “The Graduate” are studied at film schools. Every single aspect of this game from the level design, gameplay mechanics, boss fights, music, and graphics were created with attention to detail, love, and admiration. Those little nuances and small details separate a good game from a brilliant game.
Every genre (like first person shooters) can learn from Yoshi’s Island about how to take genres or formulas that are growing stale and taking them into more unique, creative, and ambitious directions. Heck, the 3D Legend of Zelda games have been using the same formula since Ocarina of Time, and that is one franchise that could really use some major shaking up to keep the formula from growing tired. Perhaps the 3D Zelda games should take a note from “Yoshi’s Island”.
In life, the best art is ambitious and divisive. Both terms sum up this game perfectly. “Yoshi’s Island” does not hide the fact that it is not a traditional 2D platformer like Super Mario World or Super Mario Bros 3. Instead, “Yoshi’s Island” embraces itself as a radical experiment/departure during a time when the 2D platforming genre was growing tired and stale due to an overabundance of generic 2D platforming games hitting the 16-bit era. It’s very similar to today’s trend of first person shooters, military games, and apocalyptic dude-bro games overflowing today’s market. They threw “Super Mario World 2″ into the title as a way to sell a crazy, insane experiment in 2D platforming to people who were only comfortable playing traditional platforming games.
“Yoshi’s Island” doesn’t just simply improve on the platforming genre. That would just be too simple for a game this ambitious. It also tries to rewrite some of the rules that previous Mario games created (and other 2D platforming games later copied). By trying to create new rules, while also rewriting old rules, Yoshi’s Island doesn’t just become the most unique and deepest 2D platforming experiences ever.
It also becomes the most divisive 2D platforming game ever because it divides gamers into two classes :
1) People looking for a more complex, difficult, and unique experience in their 2D platformers
2) People who prefer a more simple, casual (easy to jump in and play) approach to 2D platformers (Super Mario World/Super Mario Bros. 3/Donkey Kong Country series.)
“Yoshi’s Island” embraces a playful childlike innocence more openly than almost any other Nintendo franchise (other than maybe Kirby). Regardless, the gameplay remains deep and complex enough for adults to enjoy it. Although it has a storybook art style, the difficulty of the game is never sacrificed or dumbed down. Developers could learn a thing or two about why art styles shouldn’t always dictate the difficulty of a game.
Miyamoto has attributed most of the credit for Yoshi’s Island to Takashi Tezuka, one of four directors on the game. Tezuka was the director of Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Previously, he was a designer on Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3. Why is this important? It’s important to understand that Tezuka spent his life working on all of the major Mario platforming games with Miyamoto. Games that defined an entire genre.
Sometimes I question whether Tezuka and Miyamoto were bored of the 2D platforming genre when they made “Yoshi’s Island”. Although both men loved Super Mario World, it could be debated that Super Mario World played things too safe in the gameplay department in comparison to Super Mario Bros 3, Yoshi’s Island, and Super Mario 64. It was not really a major jump over Super Mario Bros. 3 in terms of gameplay. It had powerups just like Super Mario Bros 3, as well as many other features from past Mario games. Beyond the ability to ride Yoshi’s, there wasn’t a whole lot that separated Super Mario World from Super Mario Bros. 3 other than a fresh coat of paint (improved graphics).
If the world’s greatest game designers sat around a table to discuss “Super Mario World”, I don’t think it would lead to any fascinating discussions because the game is just a very safe, traditional platformer. It wouldn’t bring out strong feelings (positive or negative) out of a discussion. At this point, too many games have copied Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda, and 2D Metroid so there’s no need for a discussion on how influential these games are.
But there’s not a whole lot of games like “Yoshi’s Island”. If the world’s greatest game designers sat around a table discussing “Yoshi’s Island”, it would probably turn into one of the most interesting debates ever. Why? Because it would show the true colors of each game designer. “Yoshi’s Island” is such a bizarre, unique experiment in 2D platforming that watching developers dissect it’s gameplay mechanics, level design, and art direction would reveal each game director’s priorities and core beliefs/philosophies when it comes to game design.
Yoshi’s Island has the charm, humor, and emotion of a Hayoa Miyazaki animated film. Yet it makes zero attempt at trying to be cinematic. The game develops an emotional core between two characters without needing tons of cutscenes, dialogue, or a ridiculously deep story to pull it off. The genius of Yoshi’s Island is that it’s able to say so much by saying so little.
The theme and emotional/moral core of the game is selflessness. Yoshi gains absolutely nothing from saving this baby and delivering it to it’s parents. These Yoshi’s won’t get a kiss from a princess like the Mario series, or become rich like Wario in “Wario Land”. They aren’t trying to retrieve back their hoard of bananas like Donkey Kong did in “Donkey Kong Country”. They won’t become known as legends like Link because they aren’t trying to save the world. Instead, the Yoshi’s will put themselves through all these life threatening dangers, tribulations, and obstacles for the safe return of ONE child without asking for a reward for their effort.
Another major theme of the game is friendship. Baby Mario can’t talk, and Yoshi speaks a language that maybe only other Yoshi’s can understand. It’s not the same type of friendship like Banjo-Kazooie where they constantly trade one-liners. In Yoshi’s Island, we have giant barriers in communication between Yoshi and the baby. Yet, regardless of those communication barriers, a defenseless Baby Mario puts 100 percent of his trust into Yoshi to keep him safe from harm’s way. What’s interesting is that Yoshi is not an adult. Yoshi is just as much of an infant as Baby Mario, yet he’s put into a situation where he must be a parent/guardian for the child.
An Edge article said it best:
“For what could be more infantile than Yoshi, with his digestive impulse to put things in his mouth and either throw them straight back up or pass them, mysteriously, out of his backside? The answer, of course, is an actual infant, a being whose powerlessness and trust are absolutely complete, who cries in terror at the slightest loss of contact with his guardian. Yoshi is a child put in charge of a child, and the key mechanical feature of this game is also its emotional core: being struck means not death for the dinosaur but peril for the baby, as he’s knocked off Yoshi’s back, and floats away in a bubble.”
Just like any childhood story, there are usually dark undertones under all of those happy smiles and bright colors. “Yoshi’s Island” can be a dark game if you think too deeply into all of it.
Joystick Division points out that at the end of the day, the game is about child abduction. Throughout the game, everyone is trying to abduct Baby Mario. For example, one of the main antagonists, an evil wizard name Kamek, sends out his henchmen to abduct Baby Mario. But he’s not the only one. There are a few levels where a bandit will literally rip Baby Mario off Yoshi’s back as Baby Mario screams, and run away with Baby Mario in his hands. In another level, a chain of monkeys will try to reach over and grab Baby Mario off of Yoshi. Everything in this game is trying to kidnap Baby Mario.
Could Baby Mario symbolize something else? In the game, a stork tries delivering Baby Luigi and Baby Mario to their parents. But it gets attacked in the sky. Baby Luigi and the stork are kidnapped and held captive. Baby Mario on the other hand falls into Yoshi’s Island where a group of Yoshi’s find him. One could make the argument that if Baby Mario never reaches his parents, then his parents would assume he was never born in the first place
“Or the other possibility is that Super Mario World 2 is an allegory for a baby in danger of being lost somewhere between conception and birth” says Joystick Division.
Another thing to consider is that there is more at stake in Yoshi’s Island than any Mario game ever made, and Yoshi’s failure would be the end of something much bigger.
Edge points out, “Of course, such a failure is an impossible paradox, and the game’s final frame shows Mario and Luigi held aloft by their parents over the legend ‘Heroes Are Born!’ In retrospect, it’s sad to realise that Mario’s adventures, in their original form, may have died at that moment of his birth.”
Kamiongames.com had this to say about Yoshi’s Island back in 2011: “It’s a game that trounces more than half of new releases; a game that shows that simple but clever design never goes out of fashion; it merely waits for a new generation to discover its charms, it’s nuances, for a new breed of gamer to fall in love with it. And for old hands like me, returning to it and playing from scratch isn’t a chore at all – it’s like a blanket, warm and snuggly and very comforting.” The writer later says, “This is gaming nirvana. Yoshi’s Island is utterly brilliant. And if they re-release it in another decades time, it will still be brilliant.” He later adds, “You can’t improve on this kind of perfection… so why bother?”
In a 2002 IGN review of the GBA version, former IGN writer/editor Craig Harris shared his opinion on Yoshi’s Island.
“When I played through the original Super NES game back nearly a decade ago, I felt that Yoshi’s Island was the best 2D platformer ever created. And after playing through the Game Boy Advance version, I still feel that way…the variety in what Yoshi can do and the diversity in level designs, not to mention the wonderful use of scaling and rotation for the level structures and the incorporation of a half-dozen clever mini-games makes Yoshi’s Island the best damn platformer ever.”
In Nintendolife.com’s review, Kaes Delgrego thinks “Yoshi’s Island” (SNES) might perhaps be the greatest 2D platformer of all time:
“Yoshi’s Island isn’t just a great platformer: it’s a reminder of why this silly little hobby of ours is so wonderful. Sure, the game contains no political satire, no poetic justice, no character development. But if what Miyamoto and Tezuka crafted isn’t a work of art, then the definition of “art” needs to be amended.” says Delgrego.
Games Radar listed Yoshi’s Island as the 4th greatest SNES game ever right behind “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past”, “Chrono Trigger”, and “Super Metroid”.
It’s not just game journalists who love this game to death. Even at NeoGaf.com, members dedicated an entire thread to praise the game for being such a masterpiece. Many of the posters in the thread label it “The greatest 2D platformer” and some even go as far as calling it the greatest game of all time.
How Creativity Won Over Technology
Place yourself in the year 1995. “Yoshi’s Island” was trying to grab people’s attention at a time when a giant storm of 3D gaming was about to hit.
1995 was one year after Donkey Kong Country raised the bar for what was graphically possible in a 16-bit machine. 1995 was also one year before Super Mario 64 revolutionized 3D gaming.
During a time when technological breakthroughs and graphical advancements were all the rage in the industry, the team behind “Yoshi’s Island” rebelled against all of it and went into a completely opposite, alternative direction. In creating “Yoshi’s Island” the team did not look at the the past, nor did they care about what was looming in the future. All the “Yoshi’s Island” team cared about was making a game that would charm millions of gamers. It was very gutsy to release a game like “Yoshi’s Island” in between games that were making technological breakthroughs like DKC and Super Mario 64. It’s even gutsier when you consider that Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest released in North America on November 1995, one month after Yoshi’s Island.
Tezuka and his team were feeling even more pressure coming from Sega. Sega planned to release games like Vectorman and Sonic 3D Blast in an attempt to downplay “Donkey Kong Country’s” technological achievements, and capitalize on the popular 3D trend in 2D games. Not only that, but Sega planned to release Nights around the same time as Super Mario 64. Nintendo proposed the idea of “Yoshi’s Island” having a similar graphical style as Donkey Kong Country so it could successfully compete in the market, but Miyamoto rejected the proposal. Rejecting this proposal turned out to be a smart idea because “Yoshi’s Island” went on to become a critical and financial success both on SNES and Game Boy Advance.
Whenever I think about the visual style of “Yoshi’s Island”, I can’t shake off the thought of Miyamoto’s love for manga and how he originally wanted to be a manga artist before becoming a game designer.
Edge discusses how the past nor the future had any major influence on the art direction of “Yoshi’s Island”:
“Yoshi’s Island, however, looked neither back at earlier gaming technology, nor forward to any kind of conventional future for it. Though it (almost literally) stretched the SNES to breaking point, it tried its hardest not to look like technology at all.” The Edge author adds, “Yoshi’s Island is a living, organic cartoon, made not of pixels or polygons, but of playroom detritus that has a texture so convincing you want to reach into the screen and touch it. The game’s graphics aren’t screaming ‘now’ but rather suggesting ‘then’: a pre-technological past, a daydreaming childhood, a story that begins ‘a long, long time ago…’ “
Yoshi’s Island was a statement to the game industry that you can push technology to its limit without pushing it toward realism.
Nintendolife’s Delgrego says, “Something like Battletoads for the NES has amazing graphics, but one can almost feel the blood, sweat, and tears of the game’s developers in every layer of parallax scrolling. Yoshi’s Island took a different approach: having the graphics dictate the technology and not the other way around. ” He continues, “This was the beginning of a different philosophy in artistic presentation: instead of wrestling with technology, let creativity revel in it. “
It’s a stark contrast to today’s indie games that try to imitate the hip 8-bit retro look to pay homage to the past. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, but so many games like Retro City Rampage, Cave Story, Castle in the Darkness, and countless other indie titles depend on your nostalgia for the 8-bit era in order to enjoy those games. But when so many games try to do it, does your retro indie game still have a unique voice to stand out from the bunch?
“Yoshi’s Island” did not pay tribute or homage to older platform games. “Yoshi’s Island” was more interested in giving gamers what they didn’t know they wanted by taking the Mario series into a drastically different direction. This is why “Yoshi’s Island” has such a unique voice. They helped create the concepts and rules of platforming games with “Super Mario World” and the “Super Mario Bros.” series, but “Yoshi’s Island” would redefine the rules. Instead of one hit killing you, they added a time feature. Instead of every level being short, many of the levels can be very long. The egg mechanic and the jumping physics were completely different any normal Mario game (or any platformer for that matter). “Yoshi’s Island” was a breath of fresh air from a platforming formula growing stale. It was the type of change that most gamers didn’t ask for but they are grateful that they got it.
Four Purposes behind “Yoshi’s Island’s” graphics
- It creates a storybook atmosphere. Creates the feeling of a story that took place “long, long ago”.
- Creates the feeling of innocence. This is needed since most characters appear as children or babies minus a few.
- Visual style was different from anything released on SNES or Sega Genesis. This differentiated it from everyone else’s games.
- Looks closer to a cartoon than any other SNES/Genesis game ever made. Pushed SNES’s graphical power to it’s maximum potential without going the realism route.
Gameplay Mechanics and Level Design
Egg Collecting/Targeting/Throwing System
“A good idea is something that does not solve just one single problem, but rather can solve multiple problems at once. It’s easy for people to come up with a good idea that can focus on one problem, but that’s not good enough. ” – Shigeru Miyamoto
Six purposes that the egg mechanic in Yoshi’s Island serves
- Aim and launch eggs at enemies
- Throw eggs to grab hard to reach items like blocks or coins
- Use eggs to break through breakable walls or barriers that are in your way.
- Use eggs to solve puzzles.
- Hit clouds/switches/blocks to create steps, platforms, or vines that get you to new areas
- Adds humor to the game: Swallowing enemies and pooping them out as eggs is funny.
Just like Miyamoto said: Good ideas serve more than one purpose. It’s defines whether something is a good game mechanic, and just simply a big gimmick.
The egg mechanic in “Yoshi’s Island” is similar to a third person/first person shooter where you have limited ammo. You must collect eggs just like you must collect ammo in a shooter. Throwing an egg and watching it bounce off walls and ricochet into all different types of direction shows you the amazing physics displayed throughout this game. The physics of watching an egg bounce off a wall or ceiling, hit multiple enemies from far away, and then collects coins all at the same time is straight up genius.
Even enemies can play a big role with the egg mechanic.
In one level, enemies dressed up in sports gear will wear catcher’s mitts to catch any eggs you throw at them, and then they’ll throw the eggs right back at you. In the same level, there are enemies carrying baseball bats who will swing at your eggs right back in your direction.
Even the flutter jump mechanic serves an amazing purpose when combined with an elaborate game design. Looking at the screenshot below, Yoshi tries to jump from platform to platform while giant spikes rise up. The timing of Yoshi’s flutter jumps are crucial in making sure you land as soon as the spikes begin lowering. As Yoshi reaches the opposite side, Baby Mario falls off his back and begins floating away. Yoshi’s tongue, which is normally used to swallow enemies, also has another purpose. Watch Yoshi’s tongue stretch out to grab Baby Mario from far away and save his life. Yoshi’s tongue is another example of a game mechanic that has more than one use, and it supports Miyamoto’s theory that good gameplay ideas have more than one purpose.
“Yoshi’s Island” doesn’t settle for just giving you a casual, traditional platforming experience. It has much bigger ideas.
“Yoshi’s Island” is all about the journey and the sense of exploration through jungles, swamps, caves, and mountains. It has greater ambitions to make each level feel like a giant adventure full of mysteries, surprises, unknowns, and humorous situations. This is part of why the levels are much longer than anything in Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World. Creating a sense of adventure is something Super Mario World tries to do, but it doesn’t succeed nearly as well as “Yoshi’s Island”.
Every single level is crafted with pure originality and imagination that you can’t help but notice new details each time you replay a level.
For example, in one of the most memorable levels called “Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy” the level turns into a psychedelic acid trip every time you touch one of the “fuzzies”.
In a section of another level, Yoshi finds himself in a real life game of Tetris where giant blocks of stone are falling from above and Yoshi must avoid from being crushed.
Even the boss fights were ahead of their time. In an iconic boss fight, Yoshi has to run around a sphere which almost feels like a giant inspiration for the levels in Super Mario Galaxy.
It’s hard for me to put into words why “Yoshi’s Island” is brilliant. It’s one of those things that you have to just play to understand. Games like “Donkey Kong Country”, “Super Mario World”, “Super Mario 64″ , “Nights: Into Dreams”, and others are all showing their age. “Yoshi’s Island” on the other hand has aged beautifully. Not just in the graphics department, but in the gameplay department as well.
“Yoshi’s Island” is kind of like “The Dark Knight” in some ways.
“The Dark Knight” gets praised for being “more than just a comic book movie” while others criticize it for not feeling like a standard comic book film or being too dark/too pretentious.
“Yoshi’s Island” is praised for being more complex graphically and gameplay wise than most 2D platforming games. But it’s also criticized for not being super accessible to casual audiences like traditional Mario platformers. It’s criticized for being too ambitious for it’s own good.
The idea that a character (Baby Mario) will cry at how much of a failure you are at video games comes off as both cruel and HILARIOUS to me.
I’ve heard complaints that the egg mechanic slows the platforming down in “Yoshi’s Island”. Movies like Blade Runner and Citizen Kane have been criticized for not having the same pacing or formulas as today’s hollywood films, while others would consider the pacing of those movies to be near perfect. I’ve heard people say, “I love Yoshi’s Island but I can’t replay it as often as Super Mario World”. I don’t watch “Schindler’s List” every day, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a brilliantly directed film. The truth is, expecting every platformer to have the same physics/game mechanics as Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World is like expecting every drama film to have the same tone, pacing, and atmosphere. The gameplay of “Yoshi’s Island” is created within the context of the game’s level design. “Children of Men”, “American Beauty”, and “Fargo” are all completely different types of dramas, yet they all still dramas.
People will also complain about Baby Mario’s crying. But they never think about the purpose it serves. It forces you to be more careful and to make less mistakes. The idea that a character (Baby Mario) will cry at how much of a failure you are at video games comes off as both cruel and HILARIOUS to me. There is nothing more tense than hearing Baby Mario cry and putting you into a situation to stop him from floating away. It also comes off symbolic because “your life is just floating away”, and you’re trying to get a grip on your life while you try to overcome obstacles and turbulations.
I’m not expecting every gamer to fall in love with the game.
I just ask that you dig deeper underneath the surface of “Yoshi’s Island”. Analyze the game as individual parts, but also understand how those parts come together to create the whole picture.
Note: I want to thank tycalibre for his help on a few animated gifs.