The Mario universe has been the starting point for many spin-off titles that have developed into their own series. SOme of these have been more casual affairs featuring sports or party games with the cast as a whole taking the starring roles. Other spin-offs have allowed for some characters to flourish away from the plumber's shadow by placing them in the lead role. Yoshi's Island DS is an entry into Yoshi's own series of games that presents platforming action with a few twists to the standard gameplay that attempts to separate this game from the many Mario leap-athons that have come before.
The general gist of the game is that the evil magikoopa Kamek is going around kidnapping babies and taking them off to a floating castle, but during the raid Baby Mario and baby Peach fall from the sky and land on Yoshi's Island, saved by Yoshi. At that point Yoshi decides to go fight the evil baddies to rescue the other children for some reason... and yeah, then....
Actually, I don't care. I don't know why Yoshi is being the good guy or why Kamek is kidnapping babies. Heck, even the game mocks its own lack of sense near the end of the game when one of the kidnappings makes very little sense. It's also pretty hard to care for anyone in here. I mean, out of all the babies it is only Baby Bowser that seems to actually talk and that is rare. Yoshi just seems completely clueless, and the likes of Kamek have such little screentime that you have to wonder what the point is. What, they needed an overall bad guy and figured 'oh well, he'll do'?
For the most part this is a platforming adventure. The player takes Yoshi and guides him from one end of the stage to the exit. The actual platforming itself tends to be rather inconsistant though. Much of the game is pretty easy, as the leaps tend to be rather simple acts with little in the way of consequences should you actually mistime things. Holding the jump button will also cause Yoshi to do a little flutter kick in mid-air, which is brief but enough float time to help reach most ledges in the game.
However, at seemingly random times the difficulty of jumping will suddenly spike up, throwing you into a situation where you're bouncing across platforms barely a block or two wide with an instant death chasm right below you. It's off-putting because there is no gradual introduction to them. Yes we want a challenge, but no we don't want it suddenly thrown in our faces. The problem also extends to afterwards, as once you're past one of these nightmare moments the challenge disappears as quickly as it came.
This inconsistency is not limited to jumping around though. Much of the game, whether it is bouncing around ledges, fighting baddies or tackling traps, is really easy for even the casual gamer. Everything seems too simplified and does not interfere with the player's progress overly much. But like platforming, these other elements will change at a moment's notice and then drop off again afterwards. What may be a gentle stroll through the countryside might turn into a fight for your life in a few seconds time with no warning anything was coming.
The combat in this game is a little more unusual than usual. Some enemies can indeed by defeated by simply landing on their heads, but Yoshi has other tricks that are more useful and at the same time more limiting. One move allows Yoshi to swallow small enemies in one gulp, which not only gets rid of the enemy but turns them into an egg. Eggs can also be gained from special eggs blocks and form Yoshi's best attack. Pressing a button starts aiming and from there Yoshi can fire one of the eggs that follows him like a snake. These projectiles travel surprisingly fast and are sometimes the only way to defeat some enemies. Eggs can also pick up items as well, like lives or coins.
The system is pretty flawed though. For a start, the aiming system is one of the more dimwitted ideas to come out of the game. Instead of allowing the player to free-aim (which, you know, would have actually made sense) the targeting cursor moves up and down on its own. Perhaps this was meant to make the game harder, but instead it just makes the whole process frustrating as you have to wait for the cursor to line up with the target before you can fire.
The bosses in the game can be quite creative though. You might have to whittle down the smaller enemies defending the large boss to make an opening or strike weak points on a rotating wheel while dodging projectiles. Aiming is still a pain in the butt but at least the designers did something with the boss fights to make them a lot different to taking down generic baddies.
Eggs are good for you, but not for the enemy.
Taking damage is something the game is far too generous with though. Yoshi's life gauge is made up of star bits, where he starts with 10 and can hold up to 30. Getting hit doesn't immediately deplete a set amount though. Instead, the baby Yoshi is carrying is thrown off the dinosaur and starts floating around in a bubble. Yoshi's star bits collection starts counting down like a timer until the baby is recovered. Unfortunately, the developers made it so that whenever you have the baby and less than 10 start bits your counter will automatically count back up to 10. This makes dying from enemies, traps and even bosses virtually impossible because you will almost always have a counter at 10 as the minimum and it counts down rather slowly.
Not that losing lives seems to matter all that much, as this is another aspect the game makes way too easy. By the time I reached the fourth world, and without replaying a single level, my life counter was in the triple digits. This is in part due to the high number of lives you can grab during the levels, but the game also throws loads of bonus games at you to bulk up the life counter even more. It's complete overkill because no matter how tough a section is you will almost certainly have more than enough lives to die often on it and still end up passing it with loads left.
As mentioned each stage comes with a variety of items for the player to pick up, and in a sense this is where the sense of challenge comes in. Each stage has red coins, flowers and star bits. Each item has a points value that contributes to an end of level score out of 100, and the highest score of each level is saved. Getting through a level is easy enough but actually tracking down every single item is tricky. In many cases it's not that the item itself is hidden away but rather that getting it isn't a simple task. Some red coins are held by shy guys that hover high above the level and must be shot down with an egg, or you may have to bounce an egg through a narrow passage to hit the flower.
There is a minor element of frustration to this though. Those shy guys with the red coins have a tendency to fly off quickly after being spotted, and considering that the aiming system is not all too friendly then it can lead to missing that coin as you fight to line up a shot. The rest is great though and does provide the more seasoned gamers with more to do than the cakewalk that is the rest of the game. In fact, it's probably the whole item collection setup that gives the game its longevity. Getting every item is very challenging and will require the player to explore every part of every level.
In fact, the different levels are well designed when it comes to the general construction of them. Each area is multi-tiered and can have you travelling in many different directions, as well as going through doors and navigating mazes. There are also some rather interesting elements to these stages, like activating steps by smashing a cloud, collapsing platforms or finding keys to locked doors. Some sections will even toss in a transformation powerup, like turning Yoshi into a helicopter, although these are fairly underused compared to everything else. That said, the game seems to shove almost all of its ideas out too early. The earlier worlds are fairly entertaining as you tackle varied obstacles and challenges but by the time you're hitting the later areas you find that the obstacles and enemies are practically the same as the ones you powered past numerous times already and so it starts to wear pretty thin by then.
Explore every corner of the level for all those items.
The obstacle element is expanded upon through the different playable babies. You start off with Baby Mario and Baby Peach but will slowly gain new toddlers as you progress, eventually ending up with five kids to take through, and each child comes with their own special traits to make use of. Baby Mario allows for fast running and some platforms can only be stepped on as him. Baby Peach can float for much longer and her parasol can catch updrafts to reach higher ledges. Baby Donkey Kong can swing from vines and perform smash dashes. Wario is perhaps the least impressive, as he just uses his magnet to pull objects to him and pull himself to them. Baby Bowser forces Yoshi to lose the ability to swallow anything but can spit fireballs instead, heavily reducing the reliance on the egg tossing system (which can only be good considering how awkward aiming is).
It's true that the different abilities work to enhance the puzzle element by requiring specific abilities for specific areas. This covers not only the main game but grabbing all the extra items too. The level design also makes sure to maximize these traits rather than making them feel gimmicky. Alas, the process can become a bit tedious into the later stages. You are able to change babies during levels by using a stork platform, but sometimes you'll come across a problem that requires you to backtrack to the nearest stork platform, which can be a bit annoying when all you want to do is move forward.
Away from the normal run, jump and eat action are the mini-games. Some stages will have locked doors that will open up mini-games for you, once you've found the relevant key and entered it. Games can range from defeating as many enemies as possible to firing eggs to hit targets. Some of these games are affected by the aiming but they make for fun distractions from the main game. The game also tends to be brutally tough when awarding rankings in these games, so even bronze will require a great effort to obtain.
The game seems like it is more geared to the younger gamer, and this is reflected in the visual style. Yoshi's Island DS is bright and colourful, with striking bold sprites for all the wonderful creatures that inhabit the different levels and the protagonists themselves. There's a certain charm to the young children and the dinosaur that comes across in the way they look and they sport some rather cute actions.
The game worlds have also been crafted with care to meet the same design goal. Each area is filled with a variety of objects and terrain that suits the idea of a colourful picture book and really works to immerse you into Yoshi's world. The way the foreground imagery is complimented by beautiful backgrounds, whether they are mountain regions or tree-filled forests, really adds layers to the visual appeal.
Worlds awash in vibrant colours.
The dual screens are used pretty well too. Like many DS title the action is split between the two screens that offers a bigger view of the level, and it's possible to shift the view so that Yoshi is on either the top or bottom screen, allowing players to see clearly what lies above or below. There is the concern of 'dead space' between the two screens but this is an issue of the console rather than the game and it's not as if much of importance gets hidden there anyway. The remaining DS specific features aren't really used though, so you can give the stylus a rest this time around.
The music is a rather cheerful sound track that matches the mood of the game quite well. I can't really say it has been done well though, because most of the music just doesn't stick in the mind and it's hard to really notice it when playing. Well suited it may be, but it could do with being bolder in its delivery so that players pay attention to it while playing.
The majority of the sound effects work well, like Yoshi's various grunts and yelps as he bounds through each stage, or the distinctive popping sounds when an egg explodes against something. The cries of the babies is quite irritating though when they get knocked off Yoshi. As an incentive to not get hit it works great, but inciting players to smash their DS when they hear it is not that good a thing to do.
Yoshi's Island DS is a good game, but it is held back by flaws in its design. The biggest hurdles is a general lack of challenge and an awkward aiming system. However, this is also a very accessible title with good levels and some very nice ideas, combined with a charming visual look. Try it if you're looking for a platform adventure with a few twists.