Like many other Nintendo platformers, Yoshi’s New Island can’t help falling under the shadow of its predecessors--in this case, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. The original was the culmination of all the lessons of 2D Mario games that had come before it in terms of level design, enemy types, presentation, and more, which made it brilliant. But since then, every Yoshi's Island game to come out has failed to live up to the high-water mark the original installment set in 1995. Sadly, Yoshi's New Island is no exception.
In a vacuum, that might seem strange since it’s not actually that different from the original Yoshi’s Island. Yoshi still eats enemies, tosses eggs, and solves simple puzzles to deliver Baby Mario through six worlds en route to Bowser’s Castle. The pastel graphics are still there, and getting hit by an enemy will still result in Baby Mario getting knocked off Yoshi’s back and sent flying off in a bubble. And while these touches will most certainly activate a tinge of nostalgia, Yoshi's New Island struggles to keep up with modern platformers; a sense of malaise that I blame on the level design. Far from a step forward, Yoshi’s New Island in many ways represents a regression from the original game, many of its stages being a relatively straight shot from beginning to end with little in the way of interesting twists or puzzles. Rarely does it match the rich, multi-tiered efforts found in the original Yoshi's Island, instead tending toward being linear, uncomplex, and worst of all, repetitive.
The most egregious example is a sequence in Bowser's Castle in which I was forced to hunt down keys by doing things like hitting a cloud with an egg while dodging a spined enemy on a falling platform. Less challenging than boring and repetitive, it made me wonder if Yoshi's New Island had run completely out of steam after only six worlds. Much the same could be said for the underwhelming boss battles. Whether I was fighting a giant crab or a giant armored fish, the method for beating bosses was the same, and the level of challenge was consistently trivial.
For a game with such lovely pastel colors, Yoshi’s New Island feels oddly beige in its design.
It’s also kind of easy, which has been a knock on the series before. Rarely did I feel overwhelmed by the number of enemies on the screen, and with the possible exception of the ice world, I didn’t worry about the jumps too much either. As mentioned before, the boss battles are rote affairs--expose the weakness and hit them three times for the win. I’ll grant that boss battles aren’t exactly essential to a great platformer--they’re almost more of a palette cleanser than the main course--but like the rest of the game, they feel weirdly undercooked.
So it’s with that the graphics are left to carry the day, and happily that’s one thing that Yoshi’s New Island gets right. I’ll admit to having been a tad worried when I first saw that Yoshi’s New Island would be mixing polygons with hand-drawn backgrounds, but the effect is very nice. Rendered in a pastel style that gives it the look of a children’s coloring book--a style perfectly in line with the theme of protecting Baby Mario--it’s one of the few games on the Nintendo 3DS that absolutely must be played with 3D turned on. It looks great without it; but with it on, it suddenly becomes a beautiful diorama, with weather effects like snow really popping out of the foreground. The 3D graphics also help to make Yoshi seem even more alive and animated, one of my favorite examples being when he eats a giant enemy and you can see him visibly struggling to get it down his throat and into his stomach.
Also to its credit, Yoshi’s New Island does manage to squeeze in a few elements that help to freshen up the original formula. For instance, the game riffs on New Super Mario Bros.’ extremely satisfying Giant Mario power-up, whereby Yoshi eats a Giant Shy Guy and then tosses massive eggs around the screen. Giant metal eggs, used as a weight to explore underwater areas, likewise add variety to the otherwise staid level design.
Unfortunately, these new elements aren’t used enough. The metal eggs for instance--easily the most interesting new mechanic for the way that they add a new dimension to the water exploration--only pop up a couple times in the whole game. Ultimately, this is what I mean when I say that the level design is uninteresting. It rarely feels like the developers utilized some of the cooler design elements at their disposal, and they also lack interesting themes outside of the fairly typical water, sky, and ice. I look at contemporary platforms and the innovative things they do--for instance, Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze and its levels based around musical themes--and I think: “Why can’t Yoshi’s New Island do anything this neat?”
I’ll grant that it’s a competent effort. The pastel graphics, egg-tossing, and light puzzle-solving all do their share in helping to differentiate Yoshi’s New Island from other Nintendo platformers. And the large number of collectibles--another Yoshi’s Island mainstay--once again serve to liven up the exploration a bit and give it some replayability. But after nearly 20 years, I think it’s fair to expect more from a Yoshi’s Island game, and I don’t just mean in terms of new mechanics like giant eggs. When I’m playing a platformer, I want one of two things--memorable levels or a really solid challenge. Often, those two elements go hand-in-hand. Yoshi’s New Island lacks both.
Yes, this is a beautiful-looking game that more than justifies the 3D aspect of the 3DS. Yes, it is ultimately more Yoshi’s Island. But if you're looking for Yoshi's New Island to surprise or delight you, you will sadly be out of luck.