This week, the awesome polygon-pushing power of the Super FX 2 enhancement chip is pushed to the limits…In a 2D sprite-based platformer.
When you think of the Super FX chip, you inevitably think of the humble SNES, pushing out a number of polygons that wouldn’t be possible on other 16-bit systems – But in Yoshi’s Island, we find a game that uses the power of the new Super FX 2 chip in some truly ingenious ways. It’s a subtle showcase for the new chip, and as a result, it avoids the technical pitfalls that has cursed the Super FX that I’ve covered so far games.
But not only does Yoshi’s Island face the burden of being the first game to use the new Super FX 2 chip, it’s also the first proper attempt at a Super Mario game after the brilliance of Super Mario World. Nintendo’s Western offices decided to brand the game as a sequel to Super Mario World 2, but it’s an unfair move for a game that in many ways, would help usher Mario into a new age of brilliant platforming fun. It’s also a game that has been on my bucket list for two decades now. I don’t know why, but I’ve never sat down and taken the time to see Yoshi’s Island through from start to finish, and now that I have, I realise that this has been a gigantic failure on my part.
Yoshi’s Island starts at the very beginning, and I really do mean the beginning. This is Mario’s Year One, at a time before Princesses and Mushroom Kingdoms. As the storks carry Mario and his brother Luigi to their parents, disaster strikes when Kamek the Magikoopa sees the future of the young brothers and their significance to the future King Bowser. In an attempt to kidnap the baby heroes, he grabs Luigi but Mario slips from Kamek’s grasp and falls. You’d think that such a fall would kill an infant, but thankfully the soft flesh of a Yoshi breaks his fall and the entire tribe of Yoshis decide to take the youngster to reunite him with Luigi, through a lengthy relay system, taking the child through six worlds of platforming action.
This is not a follow-up to Super Mario World, despite what the Western title states. Sure, Yoshi’s back and now in a starring role, but he doesn’t control like Mario does. Jumping on enemies takes a back seat to swallowing enemies, turning them into eggs and throwing them at enemies and objects. Being damaged by an enemy doesn’t result in an instant fail state, as this just knocks Baby Mario off Yoshi, starting a countdown timer before the child is captured and a life is lost. As for Yoshi’s other abilities, his flutter jump is an unusual mechanic to get to grips with, but becomes a useful tool for some of the tougher jumps, while the Ground Stomp serves a purpose beyond attacking enemies, and is one of the many elements of Yoshi’s Island that would become a regular fixture of future Mario titles.
In fact, it’s quite impressive when you think of how so many of Mario’s modern adventures borrow from Yoshi’s Island. For the first time, collectables become an integral part to the series and how secrets are unlocked. To truly beat a level, you’ve got to get everything – There are 20 red coins, that for the most part masquerade as normal coins with a slight red tint to them until collected. Plus, five flowers that when collected, that increase the chance of you taking part in a Bonus Challenge mini-game once you finish a level. Finally, you’ll need to finish the game with 30 Stars, which can be found a number of ways, but also act as seconds on your countdown clock if you take damage. You’ll need to reach the end of the level with those 30 stars for them to count. Only then will you have 100%ed each level – Do that for every level in a world and you’ll unlock a super hard secret level as well as the ability to play a Bonus Challenge whenever you want on the map screen. Which is perfect for collecting extra lives and consumable power-ups that’ll really help out when trying to get everything on some of the trickier levels.
The design of each level is top notch too, they’re rarely too long and there’s always something interesting to see and do. Secrets are everywhere, but are never impossible to find by yourself, while the difficulty is pitched perfectly. Having to face new bosses every four levels is as most a reward as it is a challenge, too – And those bosses are particularly impressive too, thanks to the power of the Super FX 2 chip. A little touch that I absolutely love is the fact that most of these larger than life foes are just magically mutated versions of standard enemies, and the fact you get to see this transformation as it happens is nothing short of impressive.
Super Mario World was where the series started to properly experiment with secrets beyond Warp Zones and Warp Whistles, but here in Yoshi’s Island is where we start to see the basis of exploration and discovery that features in pretty much every Mario platformer thereafter. It’s certainly no coincidence that elements and mechanics of this game have been retained by the likes of Super Mario 64, the New Super Mario Bros. series and even the recent Super Mario Odyssey. This game has been massively influential to the series, which is strange when you consider that Yoshi’s Island is quite a drastic departure from the Super Mario games that came before.
Can we just talk about the graphics for a moment, because this game continues to look gorgeous, even after two decades have passed. The story roughly goes that this game’s art style was a deliberate contrast to the pre-rendered and digitised look of Donkey Kong Country, and there’s probably more than a bit of truth to that. Whatever the reason, there’s a rough, textured feel to the sprites and environments that give Yoshi’s Island an aesthetic that’s is unmatched by anything else on the system. Play it on a decent CRT through RGB cables and you can really appreciate the thick bold outlines and beautiful colours that define this game as one of the best looking games on the Super Nintendo. Put it side by side with the drab looking Donkey Kong Country and I know exactly which game I would rather put more time into. It’s not even all about the boldness of the graphics either – Even the littlest details breath life into this glorious 16-bit world, such as the tiny birds that inhabit some of the levels.
We haven’t even begun to talk about the Super FX 2 enhancements either. While there are some polygons to be seen as environmental elements such as falling walls, opening doors and rotating platforms, the true power of the chip is seen in how it is used to manipulate 2D sprites. There’s stretching, rotating and scaling in a way that goes far and beyond what was possible with the Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 features. The infamous level, Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy warps the screen in incredibly trippy ways, while the true jaw-dropping moments come as you see small sprites morph into gigantic behemoths before your very eyes, with slowdown only becoming a rare occurrence during a handful of particularly busy moments.
Considering this game came out in Japan almost a whole year after the PlayStation launched, and in the rest of the world at around the same time Sony’s system debuted in those regions, this is a game that proved that the Super Nintendo could still easily hold its own in terms of 2D visuals.
The audio is also up to Nintendo’s extremely high standards. Mario games usually feature pretty eclectic compositions, but Yoshi’s Island takes it to another level. You’ve got tracks that wouldn’t sound out of place on a children’s music box, contrasting against atmospheric pieces in appropriate areas. You can hear the genre influences on each track, and it’s a brilliant collection of backing music that’s every bit as unique as the overall game. The sound effects go along with the playful nature of Yoshi’s Island, and although the crying of Baby Mario is most certainly one of the most annoying sound effects ever heard in gaming, that’s pretty much the whole point – You need to keep the wee plumber happy and safe, after all.
Yoshi’s Island’s linear progression seems restrictive and almost a backward step when compared to Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World’s overworld maps and sense of freedom; but it in no way suffers for it, thanks to an excellent pacing of difficulty, and the variety of the levels and worlds overall. As you’d expect from Nintendo, new mechanics and hazards are introduced to you from beginning to end, and there isn’t really a moment that can be considered uninteresting.