The only difference between Yoshi’s New Island on the 3DS and its predecessor on the SNES is the word “new.” Yet that’s not a bad thing. In fact, Yoshi’s New Island is a better realization of Yoshi’s Island in some very important ways. This new game uses the full technological potential of the 3DS to hit this satisfying balance between game and toy. It stands as one of the easier, more calming experiences that the 3DS has to offer.
For those of you already familiar with Yoshi’s Island, the New Island is exactly the same kind of game. Both are 2D platformers that entail the titular Yoshi protecting Baby Mario throughout the game’s various levels. Now obviously, a game centered on a baby and a squishy green dinosaur is going to make very little effort to challenge the player. Levels let you proceed at your own pace and give you a lot of space in which to recover from potential failure. And the baddies populating each stage are hardly a threat, either, seeing how they obey the same rules. True, seasoned players can create challenges for themselves. I know I did. I can remember all the times I died reaching for that precariously placed coin or flower that I knew I could live without. However, those deaths are the exception and not the rule. The rest of the time, the game makes very clear its indifference toward challenge.
I should probably clarify that this is more an observation than an out-and-out criticism. The game makes a very strong argument for why it doesn’t need challenge. It instead relies on a sense of discovery, and smart level design which caters to that. New Island’s levels are very strategic in how they place objects; the levels always give you something to do. Collect this coin, collect this flower, play this mini-game, find this hidden part of the level, etc. And just when you think you’re out of shit to find, you stumble across some new element that was hidden in plain sight. New Island strongly encourages its players to pick the levels apart, but it does so in a non-forceful way. It’s like a satisfying balance between Kirby’s relaxed tone and Mario’s more involved antics. I want to explain further, but I’m finding a bit difficult. All I could come up with is how toy-like the game is: that it’s something to play around with rather than something to be won.
Running with that theme, if Yoshi’s New Island is a toy, then the 3DS was the perfect system for it to be on. This is evident from the first moment you look at the game. The game keeps its predecessor’s crayon look, yet layers that atop a claymation aesthetic. As unlikely a combination as it sounds, it works in the game’s favor, and not just in the obvious way that everyone’s thinking. We must also appreciate the game’s visual style in the 3DS’ technical context. That very context lends the visuals the tangible physicality that makes them so strong. It’s the reason why the claymation has a clearly defined form beyond its 3D models. It’s the reason why the crayon textures feel physical enough to touch. Hell, it’s the reason why the game can even have a pop-up book aesthetic.
The toy philosophy becomes especially apparent during the gyroscopic mini-games. (All that means is that you control Yoshi by rotating the system for a brief amount of time.) I imagine that it’s this part of the game people are most ready to criticize. Yet for me, at least, these sections felt right at home. In the brief amount of time you play them, these games turn the system itself into a toy to be played with. That certainly explains why the mini-games are always simple enough to rely on just the rotating: any more than that, and the illusion would collapse. You’d be left with a confusing, awkward to look at tech demo of 3DS features. Instead, Yoshi’s New Island offers a brief and novel distraction that lends credibility to the game’s childlike theming.
If any of this sounds gimmicky, keep in mind that the game thrives on gimmick. It embraces gimmicks. It makes them a part of itself. The various gimmicks are enough to make me wonder why people are so ready to criticize gimmicks in games. I often hear people talk about them like they’re the gravest sin a game could commit, like novelty has no great lasting value. But if my time with this game has taught me anything, it’s just how wrong that rhetoric is. Yoshi’s New Island is actually stronger for its rampant novelty, not weaker. With novelty, the game can present its various obstacle courses as rewards in themselves. Each level becomes an adventurous and memorable experience. One sees Yoshi spitting watermelon seeds to take down enemies, another sees archerfish spit him to where he needs to be, another almost sees him bowling with giant eggs, etc. You’re never doing the same thing twice.
Really, if New Island has any glaring flaws, it’s that the game doesn’t know how to present itself. Not aesthetically, mind you. We’ve already seen how well the game succeeds there. I’m more concerned with how the game frames that aesthetic. It irks me to no end. Every so often, the game desperately begs for your attention, doing everything in its power to fix your sense directly on the game. The overbearing buzz of the kazoos at the start of the game illustrate this especially well in the one place where they absolutely shouldn’t. Ironically, all the game’s condescending efforts have achieved is to distance me from something that I genuinely wanted to engage with in the first place. Fun needs to arise naturally for it to be of any worth, and most of the time, the game understands that. It’s just the moments that don’t that get under my skin.
My generous side wants to read this as a lack of self confidence on the game’s part. That would certainly explain the obligatory boss battles that appeal neither to challenge or childlike glee. Still, I can’t help but feel confused about where the game’s poor self-esteem comes from. It has a lot to be proud of, after all. The best answer I can find is that the game doesn’t cleanly fit a lot of popular ideas about what makes a game good. Yet if that’s truly the case, then the game becomes an argument against those definitions, and the fault lies with them. Yoshi’s New Island lacks challenge, frequently relies on shallow gimmicks, yet still comes out the delightful game that it is.