I can’t imagine the pressure felt by developers creating titles under the Nintendo brand, taking very popular, existing franchises and attempting to put their own spin on things. If there is any studio that seems to excel at this, it has to be developer Retro Studios. Between the Metroid Prime series and their Donkey Kong Country revival, they are clearly the fan choice for best non-Nintendo development team creating Nintendo titles.
And then there’s Arzest.
While Arzest is a somewhat new group comprised of ex-SEGA and Artoon members, they still have a number of experienced people on staff. And some of that experience actually shines through with Yoshi’s New Island. But whether it’s due to inexperience or talent, there are also a number of unfortunate missteps with this 3DS release that make for a less than desirable attempt to breathe life back into Yoshi’s Island.
Yoshi’s New Island follows the general formula found in previous titles, starting with the original Yoshi’s Island that debuted on SNES in 1995. You’ll play as Yoshi, with Baby Mario riding along, attempting to clear level after level across a number of colorful worlds. This is a 2D platforming experience with an emphasis on collecting hidden items, uncovering secrets, and overcoming tricky jumps and obstacles along the way. Like most modern Nintendo platformers, there’s not much effort needed to just finish a stage. You’ll have a multitude of extra lives at your disposal, and getting from point A to point B isn’t too hard. The challenge comes more from finding and getting to the three major collectibles, a number of which inhabit each stage.
This element certainly isn’t too far removed from the first game. There are still 5 flowers, 20 red coins, and 30 stars to collect. Stars still double as life points, which slowly wind down if you get separated from Baby Mario, typically after you’ve been hit by an enemy or hazard. Yoshi can still do a mid-air flutter, boosting the height of his jump and allowing him to stay aloft. There’s still a big emphasis on eating enemies and turning them into eggs, which can then be thrown at other enemies, obstacles, or question mark clouds that unveil various things.
And all of these returning elements feel great here. I don’t think Arzest has really messed up anything when it comes to the standard controls, or the overall feeling of these actions. The flutter jump feels pretty close to how I remember it. There’s no run button for Yoshi, but his top speed amps up quickly when moving in one direction, feeling pretty reminiscent of classic Sonic the Hedgehog in that regard. There are a few neat moments here that involve a Super Star for Yoshi, allowing him to run so fast that he can travel up walls and ceilings, with sections of stages designed around the concept, often filled with neat transitions between floor and ceiling. Really, everything related to the standard controls feels great.
But then there’s the forced gyroscope controls. Not all of these segments are awful, but most are annoying and gimmicky, with no alternative control options to make these sequences less frustrating. There are a number of points in stages where you’ll enter a doorway and Yoshi will transform into some sort of vehicle, like a submarine, helicopter, bobsled, jackhammer, and so on. You’ll need to guide Yoshi along a scrolling, timed mini-stage, attempting to collect coins, dodge or destroy enemies, and bust through obstacles. Sections like the bobsled or jackhammer are fairly easy to control, but anything involving flight tends to be problematic, and will have you twisting your 3DS all over the place in order to try and stay on track. This isn’t too bad at home, but in a public setting where you’re likely to be playing a portable device, it’s less than ideal.
I also don’t think Arzest nailed the art direction they were going for with Yoshi’s New Island. When the game was first revealed, I thought maybe the visuals were pretty early, and would surely improve. But every trailer or screenshot that followed did little to improve my initial reaction to the visuals. There are moments here where the game actually looks pretty good, and the pastel/colored pencil effect manages to shine. This tends to happen when faced with larger enemies, bosses, and colorful background or foreground stage elements. But most character models, including Yoshi and Baby Mario, look like a blurry mess. That hand-drawn look that made the original game stand out so well does not carry over here.
That said, despite issues with the look of things, I do think the overall stage designs are pretty solid. The first two worlds can be a bit bland, and don’t necessarily do the game any favors when it comes to first impressions. But from World 3 onwards I really enjoyed the gameplay offered by Yoshi’s New Island. Stages tend to get more inventive and uncovering all the collectibles starts to become a really satisfying challenge.
Various elements are introduced throughout the worlds at different points, and are repeated just enough to keep them from wearing out their welcome. In one stage you’ll be chased by a giant Chomp-Chomp, while another will have you riding across the backs of birds in order reach platforms suspended in the sky. Another stage will have you consume a giant metal Shy Guy, and then use the huge metal egg produced as an anchor to keep Yoshi from floating while underwater. These various concepts prevent the game from feeling monotonous, and break up the standard platforming moments nicely.
It’s a shame that some of that inventiveness didn’t make its way into the soundtrack. The music in Yoshi’s New Island is the most aggressively awful element you’ll find within the game. It’s not the repetitive nature of the primary theme, or the overreliance on remixes of that theme, but just the general quality of the tunes produced here. There is not a single musical track in the game that I enjoyed, or would want to hear again. There are a number of forgettable themes, but then there’s also a few that are bad enough to make you want to turn the volume off completely. I can understand the need to go for something whimsical and childlike to match the visual style of the game, but there are moments where I swear I’m listening to a bunch of preschool kids slamming Fisher Price toys together to make “music”.
By the end of the game I found Yoshi’s New Island to be a mixed bag. The parts where you’re actively playing the game and aren’t shoe-horned into silly gyroscope control gimmicks are legitimately fun. But most of the presentation surrounding that gameplay is bland, poorly executed, or downright bad. There’s enough merit to the stage designs and standard controls that make this something worth playing, but not in that must-have day one way that tends to mark a quality Nintendo release.