"A competent, attractive platformer — no more, no less"
Yoshi circa 2021 is a character increasingly unrecognizable from the one I met on Christmas Day, 1991. Back then, “Yoshi the dinosaur” -- the marquee gimmick of Super Mario World, the Super Nintendo’s bundled-in launch title -- was little more than a power-up, akin to an invincibility star or fire flower. Mounted on his back, Mario could briefly take extra damage, jump higher, and kill (some) enemies easier. And that was it.
Flash forward 30 years, and Yoshi now comfortably inhabits his own independent franchise with a gameplay and style all its own. Freed from Mario -- both literally and conceptually -- the result has been a string of games built around the ways in which the two characters diverge. “Mario games” are frantic obstacle courses of jumping, stomping, and donning various super suits; “Yoshi games” are slower-paced and all about eating and egg-throwing.
Given they star a second-tier character with a weaker brand to maintain, “Yoshi games” tend to be more creative and experimental than Mario ones, but also less engaging. Yoshi, the happy green creature (he has long ceased to be much of a recognizable dinosaur) is simply a less compelling character than Mario, the heroic human, and the colorful, cuddly worlds he inhabits are visually interesting, but devoid of much ambition beyond that. Absent even the thin drama of Mario’s latest effort to rescue the Princess, or visit new planets or whatever, Yoshi games can never really aspire to be much more than pleasant platformers, a modest goal the competent folks at Nintendo can easily meet.
Yoshi’s Crafted World for the Switch is the latest entry in the distinct Yoshi franchise, which began in 1995 with the SNES platform Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. In keeping with the series’ fondness for unconventional aesthetics, Crafted World takes place in a universe designed to resemble something akin to a kindergarten art room, with platforms, enemies, items, and obstacles “made” from things like construction paper, sponges, tin cans, twine, and the like. As an idea, it’s not that novel -- anyone who’s played a Little Big Planet game will have immediate deja vu -- but evaluated on its own terms, it’s impressive just the same. Rich textures make the TV screen feel touchable, and Yoshi’s world is constantly folding, collapsing, and tearing up around him as he bops through cardboard trapdoors, swings from yarn ropes, slips down rivers of masking tape, and other ingenious topography that make full use of the paper-craft theme.
Gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has played the original SNES game or its sequels, and Yoshi returns with all his now-standard moves. Slurping enemies with his long tongue produces eggs, which can be aimed and thrown. Holding the jump button while in the air makes Yoshi “flutter” his feet to give an additional boost, making gravity feel light. Controls remain intuitive, though shooting eggs continues to use a somewhat cumbersome targeting system that may frustrate younger gamers (the game does have a “mellow” mode for the very young in which Yoshi can fly and takes very little damage).
Any player familiar with platformers will have little difficulty breezing through Crafted World’s fortyish stages; like many games of its kind, the true challenge comes in subsequent playthroughs when a vast tally of hidden items must be collected in each stage to earn a perfect score. Coins and flowers are often well-buried in the various nooks and crannies of the elaborate collage environments, and the programmers fully exploit the game’s semi-3D orientation, sticking secrets in both foreground and background that require focused attention to notice. A between-stages vending machine “mini-game” (a generous description) similarly aims to stretch replay value by giving players a chance to gamble coins and win various whimsical costumes for Yoshi, of which there are nearly 200 in all.
Yoshi is a cute character and gliding him through the amusing, innocent stages of Crafted World has been described as “meditative” (though the squeaky, squawky soundtrack is decidedly not). Yet gamers above a certain age may question why they should care. The visuals are clever, though hardly without precedent, and there’s little in the way of compelling characters or plot to draw the player in to a deeper experience. Baby Bowser, the game’s bratty villain, may be mildly charming to those unfamiliar with his antics, but Yoshi himself remains a personality-starved, bug-eyed creature who’s hard to care about in any real way. His quest to recover the five gems of “the Sundream Stone” is uninspired boilerplate.
Since the earliest days of the series, Yoshi games have been used to show off the graphical hardware of the systems they’re played on, and remind the world that it is still possible to take a gaming format as stale as the left-to-right, two-dimensional platformer and reimagine it as something precious. Nintendo has been doing this for quite a while now, however, and the consumer can be forgiven for expecting more.
Featured community review by jjmccullough (January 11, 2021)
J.J. McCullough is a Canadian writer, artist, political commentator and YouTube personality. He currently works as a columnist at the Washington Post for the "Global Opinions" section.
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