Though presented as the sequel to Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island represents a new type of Nintendo platformer. It contains some aesthetic elements from the Mario games that preceded it, but blazes its own trail in myriad new ways.
First and foremost, you play as Yoshi in Yoshi’s Island, complete with a unique new moveset that would eventually make it to Super Smash Bros. mostly intact. Mario is literally just along for the ride. Yoshi’s strange secondary jump and ability to create and throw eggs make controlling him or her (and indeed you play as many different Yoshis during the game) feel very different from previous Mario games. Perhaps the biggest departure is the lack of a run button in favor of Yoshi gaining momentum naturally.
Yoshi’s controls can take some getting used to, and you will often fall into pits or otherwise randomly end up dead until you do so. Planning is vital in Yoshi’s Island, from planning jumps to making good use of your stock of eggs. You need to eat enemies to make more, and they aren’t always available. You need those eggs to find most secrets and bonus items, so managing them is key.
Yoshi’s Island is structurally as different from its predecessor as could be. It’s perhaps no surprise that the game wasn’t branded as a sequel to Super Mario World in Japan. The game is entirely linear, consisting of 48 stages completed consecutively. You are scored at the end of each stage, and gaining a perfect score in all 8 stages of a single world earns you a bonus stage and free access to a minigame. This demand for perfection, requiring you to find all the hidden red coins and flowers as well as completing the last part of the stage without getting hit, is quite unlike the alternate routes of Super Mario World. This demand for perfection and focus on collecting items is a bit of a harbinger for where Nintendo gaming would go in the N64 era.
Fortunately, Yoshi’s Island is extremely well-made and enjoyable, despite what some might consider structural deficiencies. The stages tend to be large, and the game’s hand-drawn aesthetic grows on you and works extremely well for the SNES hardware. The game makes use of the Super FX chip, but isn’t focused on polygons like others of its ilk. Instead, the chip is used to create a series of very cool effects which are mind-blowing for the SNES hardware, though less impressive in a modern context.
The best use of technology and innovation comes in the boss fights, which the game is wisely packed to the gills with. These generally involve huge opponents and have a strong puzzle aspect. One amazing fight in particular suggests the planetoids of Super Mario Galaxy 12 years and three generations before that game was released. These fights don’t take the usual Mario shortcut of doubling up with a slightly more difficult version later in the game, either. They represent the best Yoshi’s Island has to offer.
Yoshi’s Island’s high points are incredibly high, with some of the best visuals and effects the SNES would ever achieve. However, its occasionally drawn out levels and some annoying enemy placement bring the game down somewhat. If you go in expecting a Mario game, you might be a bit disappointed, but standing on its own, Yoshi’s Island is a breath of fresh air.