Some of my earliest and fondest memories of playing games growing up are of Yoshi’s Island. Considering how much I don’t or choose not to remember about my childhood, it’s actually surprising just how many positive memories I have associated with the Nintendo classic as it proved to be an invaluable source of escape for me as a child. I never got to play the original SNES release when it came out and wouldn’t play it until I owned a Super Famicom and a copy of the game when I was far older, but I poured countless hours into the game’s Gameboy Advance port.
I finished the game from start to finish more times than I’d care to admit, and even undertook a childlike attempt at speedrunning before I knew what the term even was.
I share these memories of mine because this week marks the 25th anniversary since the original Yoshi’s Island released on the SNES/Super Famicom in August 1995. In the years that have followed, this unique Nintendo platformer has found a place in gaming history as one of the best 2D side-scrolling platformers in history. The game is still fondly remembered today in part for how it eschewed the industry’s obsession for 3D graphics at the time that made games like Donkey Kong Country a success in place of wonderful 2D spritework more reminiscent of a child’s crayon drawings than the real world.
I could easily talk about this game’s development in light of the revelatory information revealed to the public for the first time as part of the Gigaleak of early Nintendo prototypes and source codes, or I could discuss the technical achievements of the game, but this is a road well-traveled and I’m not sure I have anything insightful that I could add to these discussions. What I’d prefer to focus on is the legacy of a game that hasn’t been matched even by Nintendo’s later attempts creating a Yoshi platformer.
Not only was Yoshi’s Island a game built out of creative minds and filled with original ideas and visuals, the game itself encouraged exploration and self-expression in how a player approached each level in a way few games have been able to achieve since.
How Yoshi’s Island Reinvented Mario Platformers
Yoshi’s Island is a deceptively-simple gamer on paper. Levels were more streamlined than its beloved predecessor Super Mario World thanks to the removal of secret exits, in spite of in-level collectibles like flowers and hidden red coins. Even the visuals made it look like a child’s toy than anything more sophisticated and in-depth. With so many unique and original ideas crammed into a single game as you found with Super Mario World, how could a successor to that game even hope to compare?
Well that’s all thanks to a certain pudgy green dinosaur. Compared to Super Mario World’s limited arsenal of power-ups, the core gameplay loop of Yoshi’s Island remained ever-changing from level to level throughout the experience. By controlling a Yoshi in parental charge of Baby Mario as you help them find their way home, you’re entire approach to the game is altered as a result. Yoshi’s movement makes for a much different experience since they have the ability to hover in the air for an infinite amount of time, allowing a player to hover over large gaps or avoid death.
Then you have eggs, where you can eat enemies that are found around the level to create eggs that you can then throw at objects or other enemies. You can freely aim these eggs and they’ll bounce off walls as well, which allowed developers to use the entire screen to hide secrets for the player to discover. You have to make sure not to be hit by Baby Mario as you need to carry them around at all times, and if they cry from separation after being hit for too long they’ll be taken away.
Still, they’re not a burden, as at certain points they can transform into a caped super baby that can go anywhere and help Yoshi out along the way. They aren’t the only one with the ability to transform either, as Yoshi also transforms into a helicopter, a train and more over the course of their journey. The possibilities are endless, and even core mechanics like eggs were sometimes switched up in levels like 2-7, Lakitu’s Wall.
On their own, each mechanic could form the basis of their own exciting 2D platformer. Together, they not only form the basis of a platformer that constantly evolves and excites players at every corner, but provides these players with a canvas to express themselves in a way that, even as Yoshi’s Island celebrates its 25th anniversary, I haven’t seen executed quite as well since.
All of these mechanics work together in harmony not just to encourage exploration within the levels themselves in order to find all the different hidden collectibles within each level, but to encourage players to have fun completing the level however they want while setting their own meaningless challenges for personal pride.
Take the first level, for example. After bouncing on an enemy, Yoshi can hover higher than he normally would. With a bit of thought, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that you could maybe circumvent the normal intended path through the level by spitting on it in the right place and using it to skip a chunk of the level. Using the tools at your disposal, fixed levels can change and bend to your will as you find new ways to complete them.
There are countless moments like this. Once you learn you can ride on the Lakitu clouds in 2-5 you want to see how far you can go. Sometimes just bouncing eggs off of walls can be fun, and maybe this will help you find the boss-skipping easter egg in 3-8. Even if it’s not directly related to level progression, it’s sometimes fun to just mess about and enjoy Yoshi’s fluid movement. It’s a freedom Nintendo later employed in Mario’s best 3D platformers that followed.
You see this experimentation and self-expression brought to its maximum potential in speedrunning, where players use all these mechanics in unique ways to speed up certain levels.
Gameplay as Imaginative as the Visuals
Yoshi’s Island’s artstyle was once derided for its childish crayon-like visuals, yet for a game as expressive as this I don’t think any other style could have worked quite so well. It harkens back to the boundless imagination of a child where the only limit of your potential was what your mind thought was possible, and that’s what it can often feel like playing through these levels.
As a child, I felt like I could do anything playing this game and that every playthrough was a new experience. Even now, as I’m far older, I find myself approaching the game from a new perspective and finding new ways to have fun within a level away from the intended path or directive.
All these years later, as Yoshi’s Island celebrates its 25th anniversary, I can’t think of any game that’s impacted how I view the medium of games quite like this one. That’s what makes Yoshi’s Island’s anniversary one worth celebrating.