Note: opinion article. I’ll be saying some not so nice things about Yoshi’s Story. Thanks to CartBoy and Spazzy_D for edits.
When thinking about games for this series, my thoughts generally turn to one-offs or failed experiments, the kinds of games fans like to target. For reasons I think are fairly clear, it’s harder to find games that actually did define their series before shuffling into being relics or pariahs (Sonic 2006 would probably be the best example of this, being that it more than any other game led to the modern, negative view of Sonic, though that doesn’t really fit the idea). Yoshi’s Story, however, actually does fit that – but not so much for the Yoshi games. Instead, it became something of an icon for a short-lived era in games: the early 3D mascot platform game.
First, some context. The mid-Nineties debut of the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 brought with them the ability for designers to make fully three-dimensional spaces, rather than creating facsimiles of the concept through isometric views, pre-rendering, or other visual tricks employed by Star Fox, Mortal Kombat, and Super Mario RPG. Similarly, the technology had for PC gaming had advanced far beyond the sprite based first-person engines seen in games like Doom and System Shock. In the zeal to learn (and sell) this technology, the entire fifth generation of consoles and their PC counterparts was something of a “proof of concept” for how 3D games would function. Early successes like Super Mario 64, Tomb Raider, and Resident Evil (as well as Ocarina of Time and Metal Gear Solid later on) were foundational for level design, camera operation, and even the most basic mechanics of movement. Those are all memorable, successful games, but they were among a scant few in that era that have retained their clout and respect. Most developers had difficulty adapting to the new perspective, and it was only in the sixth generation that you started seeing games strongly and consistently exploiting 3D. With the possibilities and challenges of creating three-dimensional environments having such an allure, 2D platformers and action games – the dominant genres of the previous two console generations – were seen as outdated, to the point where Sony’s American branch allegedly discouraged their presence on the PlayStation.
With so many wonderful contemporary 2D games readily available on every platform currently on the market, throwback and not, it’s hard to remember that this was a massive and not entirely appreciated shift. By the end of its life cycle, the SNES had become the epicenter of a sort of golden age for side scrollers, from Super Mario World to Super Metroid to Kirby Super Star to games without the “Super” signifier, like Mega Man X (quality could also be found outside Nintendo’s machine with games like Rondo of Blood and Pulseman). While the knowledge used to make these games was not thrown away, the interest in developing or purchasing 2D games was for the most part pushed aside, and it was not entirely clear when, or even if, publishers would be willing to go back to them.
Amongst these 16-bit 2D platformers was Super Mario World’s 1995 sequel and spinoff Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island; it was brilliant, inventive, and had a gorgeous pastel chalk art style unique from anything else on the market. Abandoning Mario’s acrobatics, Wario’s bullishness, and Sonic’s uncontrollable momentum, it opted for a decidedly slow pace emphasizing precision platforming and targeting. Yoshi the dinosaur (dragon?) would die easily without patience and had to micromanage a supply of eggs to throw at enemies or obstacles, making it an incredibly tense experience. You can see its influence in not only how it led to Yoshi’s own little sub-series, but in otherwise unrelated games such as Paper Mario. It was an excellent game at the tail end of an excellent era, and recreating the experience would prove to be difficult even a few years later.
Of course, while Nintendo declined to make another side scrolling Mario title until New Super Mario Bros. in 2006, they didn’t throw away home console 2D games entirely. Instead, they made a few early versions of what are colloquially called “2.5D” games, where the action is on a 2-dimensional plane but in a 3D environment, sometimes with gameplay elements using the latter. Kirby 64: the Crystal Shards was well received for mixing up the Kirby formula, and Super Smash Bros. complimented a number of excellent 2D fighters of the era. This practice also led Nintendo EAD to make Yoshi’s Story, which despite strong sales disappeared from public consciousness fairly quickly. Today, people of my generation are the only ones likely to remember it, and mostly as a nostalgic staple of the days of the video rental stores.
While the building blocks are similar to the earlier game – a gang of multicolored Yoshis eat enemies, lob eggs, and flutter jump across the land to stop the machinations of Bowser’s infant self – Story often feels disparate from its predecessor, to its detriment. Much of that’s technical; it’s as loose as the older game is tight. Your movement feels less secure (something I suspect comes from the move to the N64’s analog stick from the more traditional D-pad), the level design is unsatisfying and bland, and the mechanics are less inviting to learn and exploit. A level in Yoshi’s Island could feature dramatic gameplay shifts or fun, disposable gimmicks at a whim; Story rarely goes that far. It’s not that levels are not unique; they actually feature a fairly incredible number of alternate routes that lead to and from unique stages, and in theory the middle four of a six stage playthrough can each be different. The problem is entirely from the feel of it, a difficult to quantify part of game design that can make each part of each game’s action satisfying and exciting. Story fares badly here, not just through the less tight controls but also through the levels themselves not being that interesting to explore. They have as many secrets as the best Mario games, and perhaps even more separate branches for replays, but the prospect of discovering them is less compelling when levels all have the same style of harsh pastel coloring and boring level design.
This replayability at least somewhat justifies a surprisingly strict lives system for something released in 1997, where the game ends once your set pool of Yoshis all die (my fellow writer Spazzy_D suspects this is a holdover from the quarter-munching arcade era). I find the potential for something like this exciting, honestly. Think about it: this could end up like a platformer equivalent to something like ZombiU or Until Dawn, where a lives system isn’t just a barrier to keep you from brute-forcing your way through the game but a compelling mechanic with its own gameplay advantages. Maybe each Yoshi could play differently, and levels could be built to account for all (or at least most) of them? This would also make the replayability so much more compelling, as you could have far more drastically different experiences. I’m not asking for the game to be something it isn’t, but it is disappointing something this exacting isn’t really used for anything.
You may notice this article is a fair bit shorter than others in this series, and a big part of that is that it, well, just isn’t that meaty a topic. Yoshi’s Story speedruns are exciting, but the game as a whole is just not that great or interesting a work. The art style has this compressed, janky look that’s a bit too reminiscent of Mortal Kombat and Donkey Kong Country’s pre-rendered characters, a style that was already outdated and stiff by the time this was released. Its objectives are banal, and despite having a number of secrets to uncover about its levels and a few surprisingly complex mechanics for its collectible fruit, the movement and exploration isn’t rewarding or interesting enough to drive that.
The biggest reasons why Story leaves less of an impression goes beyond gameplay, however, and have to do with its presentation. Its score is unmemorable outside of the nursery rhyme theme song, with surprisingly few noteworthy pieces for a game scored by Nintendo musical icon Kazumi Totaka. And though there are things to like about its art direction, like how it uses its pop-up book aesthetic to present the kind of “constructed” world the Paper Mario games would use, much of the time it suffers from the problems of many early 3D games; it’s just bland. The game is constantly stuck between low resolution 2D textures and blocky polygons, and that coloring – a very clear attempt to adapt Yoshi’s Island‘s pastels – just looks ugly. The best looking games in this console generation (that weren’t just 2D, like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) overcame these high limitations through interesting level design or a satisfying art direction, or simply pushing what had come before with a compelling fervor. Yoshi’s Story does nothing of the sort. The 2.5D design puts it in this weird limbo state; it has none of Nintendo EAD’s skill that made Yoshi’s Island and the original Super Mario World so excellent, but it also lacks the palpable sense of imagination you could see in Mario 64 or Ape Escape.
With its simplistic narration and very basic storytelling, Yoshi’s Story feels more oriented to young children than other Nintendo games. I find it admirable – especially in today’s market, where games made for “all ages” is seemingly anathema to larger publishers – but it does feel incongruous with the punitive lives system and, to be honest, just a little condescending. The narration in particular leans so heavily on it that it’s not only unsatisfying, but also off-putting. It also is likely what contributed to the game being pushed out of Yoshi canon amongst players. More serious, “hardcore” fans have a tendency to feel just a bit insecure about the validity of the things they love, and the notion of Nintendo being a “kiddy” company in the wake of more “mature,” legitimately so and otherwise, titles being regularly released stung for many N64 kids (while the console did have a number of violent first-person shooters, Nintendo was still often uncomfortable with that kind of content being on their machine). While a lot of that perception came from Nintendo largely staying tonally similar to their previous work while other companies were pushing what was acceptable in the marketplace, Yoshi’s Story went a bit further. It’s a game about cherubic dinosaurs whose singing sounds like a baby’s cries! The entire story is presented through a picture book with few words, without any subversive or thoughtful or imaginative writing. The Yoshi games have always been like this, hiding their fairly intense difficulty behind a soft sheen, but Story pushes it pretty far.
Story was part of a larger trend of platform games in that era that based themselves around wacky animal mascot characters, like Spyro the Dragon, Crash Bandicoot, and Banjo and Kazooie, and outside of its 2D gameplay that more infantile ethos is the clearest thing setting it apart. Those heroes – along with their less successful counterparts, like Bubsy the Bobcat and the secret agent gecko Gex – often couched their kid-friendly nature through sarcastic or subversive humor (Enter the Gecko was written in partial collaboration with Simpsons writer Dana Gould) or more melodramatic plotting. Regardless of how successful each attempt was or how much those directions were meant to be appealing, Story lacks anything resembling that. That is commendable in a sense for its honesty about being what it is – a kid-friendly game about an adorable animal exploring a picturesque, geographically diverse world – but it doesn’t make it enjoyable on its own merits or valuable to a player who only saw his or her Nintendo 64 as a way to play GoldenEye or Turok. You know, mature games.
It’s worth noting Yoshi’s Story was not some kind of bomb; it sold over three million copies, and has probably done decently well on the Virtual Console. But it did popularize the stigma, one that admittedly had existed ever since Sega presented Sonic as Mario’s edgier alternative, of Nintendo as a “baby company” making games out of date with the desires of core players. It’s something they’ve never been able to shake, though I am very happy they’ve not invested nearly as much as rival companies in stylistic trends. That’s helped their games feel more unique and satisfying in a way few blockbuster games really are anymore (that ethos, interestingly, can be seen in a number of indie games). However, this is definitely an example of a work that went just too far, that should have been either a refined 2D game or a wild 3D one, and that didn’t even look good within the context of a kid-friendly game. Even just a few years after release, it became a relic of an age people largely didn’t miss, one of wacky, noisy animal mascots and a deluge of collectible crap. Though it is somewhat funny that the latter can be seen almost everywhere, even in games with directions or ideas as incongruous with them as last year’s Doom.
The game did have one major influence in Yoshi’s design, introducing Totaka’s vocal work for the character and a more upright pose. Outside of that, though, the series had almost entirely left it behind only a few years later. Yoshi’s Topsy Turvy had a 2D interpretation of the game’s art, and it’s gotten references in a number of Mario spinoffs, but that’s mostly it. The later Yoshi games soon after switched back to the chalky art of Yoshi’s Island, only getting a new style with Yoshi’s Woolly World in 2015. And on the whole, the entire “animal mascot” sub-genre was almost entirely dead halfway through the following console generation, thanks to market saturation, embodying the worst traits of late Nineties game design, and that interest in more “mature” titles being slaked much more easily. After that, the Yoshi games have became respectable but fairly minor successes, never a fixture in the Nintendo empire.
In all of this, Story has largely disappeared into the background; it’s almost more a piece of Nintendo trivia than anything else. And honestly, that’s probably the best place for it. The interesting things it added are still around, but the game itself isn’t. That’s similar to how a lot of that period’s games function, more memorable for the steps they made in this new frontier of the third dimension than as compelling works on their own. And so it stays in that odd cultural limbo, an icon of an era in the history of both Nintendo and gaming as a whole that itself has become forgotten and maligned.