Yoshi's Woolly World is cute. Everything about the game is designed to make players coo “Aww” as they bounce through the 50ish joyful stages on their way to the conclusion. The way Yoshi shouts “Bum” as he gobbles up an enemy and poops them out as a ball of yarn? Sweet. The sad look Yoshi wears on his face when he's close to death? Adorable. All this cuteness, though, feels like soft padding around a decidedly ordinary platformer, which knits together some well-worn ideas from the last 20 years of gaming without adding much to the mix.
The story is classic Ninty fluff. Magikoopa swoops down to Craft Island on his broomstick, kidnaps all the woolly Yoshis (with the exception of green and red), and it's your job to chase him down and liberate your friends. This means navigating six themed platforming zones, knocking off bosses every few stages, and taking part in mini-games along the way. The structure is incredibly simple, played safe to appeal to a wider audience, and more experienced players will find it (as I did) uninspiring next to the more innovative Mario series.
But this isn't a game with the hardcore in mind: here everything has (dirty phrase alert) universal appeal. In fact, much of Woolly World appears skewed towards younger players, lured in by the craft aesthetic or - very likely - the woolly amiibos that go on sale alongside it. Right at the start, you're asked whether you want to play in 'Normal' or 'Mellow' mode (the latter of which lets you fly through each level, avoiding obstacles as you choose), and even if you opt to play on regular difficulty, you're constantly given assistance and reassurances. Would you like to switch to Mellow Mode? Go on, have a free power-up for this level... Woolly World genuinely (and fittingly) wraps its players in cotton wool, and that's a smart decision.
How is the co-op?
Like most same-screen co-op games, Yoshi’s two-player mode has ups and downs. Being able to grab your partner with a swift flick of the tongue, crap them out, and fire them across the screen is hilarious. For a while. Struggling with some later levels, largely designed for solo play, is less so.
Like most Nintendo games, Woolly World is exceptionally well crafted. The platforming is extremely precise, stages and bosses are (mostly) intuitively designed, and gobbling foes with Yoshi's tongue before popping them out as yarn - which can then be fired at foes or hidden items - feels satisfying even after you've done it 100 times. Yes, it's probably because he shouts “bum” and does a cute pooping animation, ok. While it can be a bit of a finger-dance when you're forced to scoff enemies, shit them out as wool, dodge attacks, and balance on moving platforms, this all feels like a fair challenge rather than a fight against inconsistent controls. In other words, when I died, I only had myself to blame. At the start, Yoshi's 'jump then hover upwards' animation takes a little readjusting used to, but it becomes natural after a couple of levels. Hey, the little fella’s been doing it since 1995...
The stages themselves follow classic video game tropes. There's an ice world, there's a haunted house, there are a bunch of lava levels... Woolly World never surprises or delights with its originality. An underwater level covered in yarn and sponge is still an underwater level. While direct rivals like LittleBigPlanet have since given us more interesting locales (along with truly game-changing creation features in keeping with the craft aesthetic), Yoshi falls back on the themes we've been jumping through for years. That wouldn't be a huge problem if the game weaved interesting ideas throughout each level, but sadly very few stages feel genuinely fresh or memorable. Then end result is that the game starts to feel a little staid after only a couple of worlds.
Sure, there's a novel section during one of the haunted house stages, where Yoshi can only jump on ghostly platforms when they're hidden by shadows, and a neat stage that lets you fly a magic carpet around, but few others stand out or charm. Mini-games punctuate certain levels, providing a break from the vanilla platforming: more exciting examples see Yoshi turning into an umbrella, allowing you to float him through a stage, while another turns him into a motorbike.
Sadly, the frustrations are slightly more numerous than the joys. The handful of 'maze' levels quickly get tiresome because - despite literally having giant arrows for signposts - it's too easy to get lost. The slippery ice areas are particularly annoying, and one late-game stage requires you to find a handful of 'hidden items / areas' to progress, despite the fact that secret stuff is flagged as purely optional throughout the rest of the game (and is often literally invisible until you stumble onto it). A number of levels too, are plagued by inconsistent checkpointing, which can mean restarting a level when you're a good chunk of the way through.
Checkpoints are one of Woolly World's largest problems. They're often placed shortly after instant-death areas, rather than before, often real distances from the last checkpoint / start of the stage. Sure, that's one way of ensuring a reasonable difficulty curve for more experienced players, but here it feels more punitive than challenging. Why? Aside from the fact that it introduces too much repetition, the game forgets all the secret items you've collected every time you die... but it does demand that you risk your life to find each and every one. More often than not, I'd want to explore each level searching for sunflowers or yarn balls (the game's secret items), but after being forced to go right back to the start of a stage for misjudging a tricky jump, in pursuit of an optional item, this quickly became a chore.
It's just a shame that Woolly World seems designed in such a way that largely discourages exploration. Going back through with unlockable power-ups is mildly entertaining, but they feel more like minor-buffs than genuine game-changers. Aside from direct replay, there's very little added value here. You can check out artwork, or - if you've scanned a Yoshi amiibo - play in 'Double Yoshi' mode, which lets you play as two Yoshis with one controller. And there are different Yoshi skins, accessed by collecting all the yarn in each level. No big deal.
How willing you are to forgive Yoshi's Woolly World's shortcomings really depends on what you expect from the game. Those looking for something cuddly and vibrant to play with a child or sibling will find it most welcoming, while Nintendo die-hards will recognise this as a safe and uninspiring spin-off, sent out to fill time in between core Mario titles. Everyone, however, will agree that Yoshi's actual yarn-pooping is the cutest thing that'll happen to games in 2015, and for that it deserves a massive hug… but not a stellar score.