Image by Ravecat
Everyone played Mario growing up. Even for kids of the nineties, born when he was surfing pipes and hopping on goombas for the first time, it was an unspoken rite of passage. “You’re in,” it meant, “You’re part of this video game thing now.” In 1994, I fell in love with Donkey Kong Country primarily because it wasn’t Mario. When Super Mario World came around to launch the Super Nintendo in 1991, it seemed like it was just aping itself, running through the routines. By then, most games on the Super Nintendo were just just variations of that side-scrolling formula that Mario created. Donkey Kong Country was different, rendering a world of unbelievable depth with ground-breaking 32-bit graphics and incredible animations.
Then Yoshi’s Island came out.
While Donkey Kong pushed the Super Nintendo’s hardware (well, the cartridges anyway) to new limits, it really didn’t strive to be much more than the same ol’, same ol’ when it came to its platforming action: Yoshi’s Island got by being so damn different. (Miyamoto even criticized Rare for playing so close to home while he was out saving the world with this game.) At first glance, this game is Mario Babies. You play as a gang of Yoshis that are trying to bring a bare-backed baby Mario up to baby Bowser’s Castle to unite him with his kidnapped brother, Luigi.
The first thing you notice is just creative it looks. Instead of taking on a more realistic, 3D modeled look, Miyamoto sought a more cartoon-ish theme. Everything looks like it was drawn by a school of first graders and in motion, complete with amazing parallax effects, it looks like moving art. Adding to it are the clever warping and distortion effects that allow blobs to be blobby, levels to twist and distort when you ‘touch fuzzy‘, and make for an incredible boss battle inside the gut of a frog. The game takes this to a crazier effect in one particular battle based on a sphere in which the entire world rotates as you move from side to side, something very trippy in 1995 (video below!). Yoshi’s Island wasn’t shy about taking full advantage of the Super Nintendo’s sprite transformation effects. And the music? THE MUSIC.
While baby Mario is saddled on your back (switching off to a new Yoshi at the end like a super cute Pony Express), he becomes a liability. Yes, this game adds dimensions. While you can’t “die”, once hit by an enemy or hazard, Mario begins to float away in a bubble and a countdown starts. Once it hits zero, he’s abducted and you have to start over. Keeping your Mario on-board is priority one. Now, it’d be far too easy to just have Yoshi run around and step on dudes, but his digestive track makes for such an excellent weapon. Swallow an enemy and you can convert it into an egg. A button press sends you into aiming mode to target enemies or destroy portions of levels (or get special goodies!) Seriously, it’s resource management. But cute! It didn’t feel like a Mario game and that was probably the best part.
In the pantheon of Mario releases, this one’s as under-rated. “That one.” they call it. But it’s easily the best of the whole series. My brother owned it on the Super Nintendo, but I was quick to snap it up when it landed on the GameBoy Advance in a nearly perfect transition. The tragedy is that it was overshadowed by the release of its much bigger brother, Super Mario 64, on a brand new-spanking platform not long afterward. It’s such a shame, because that game was completely joyless.