Yoshi’s Woolly World
What are all these gems doing here? These sparkly pickups surely have no place in a world whose every fibre and inhabitant is made of craft materials. Yet here they are, glimmering invitingly, suggesting routes between platforms and tucked away behind knitted false walls. They’re not just aesthetically inappropriate, but mechanically irksome, with one gem in each large group containing one of the 20 Miiverse stamps woven throughout the level, stamps being one of four item types to be fully harvested from each stage if you want a 100 per cent rating.
With no way of knowing which gem holds the stamp until you collect it, all you can do is seek out every last crystal. Yoshi’s games have long played at a more leaden pace than Mario’s, and they tend to prize methodical exploration over a sprint to the finish line. In 1995, as a novel twist on platform game conventions, it worked. Here, a slow pace feels more enforced than encouraged, and the knowledge that missing one collectible brings the same result as missing the lot of them provides less and less incentive to explore as things progress.
That’s largely because the process of exploration itself is unsatisfying. You must jump at every wall to see if it’s a false one. You need to hold the button down to gain a little bit of lift and extra airtime, bumping Yoshi’s head into ceiling after ceiling as you search every corner for a hidden cloud with a question mark on it. When an arrow tells you to go up, you must first go left, right and down, leaving no thread unmolested, no potentially breakable surface not ground-pounded, no woolly wall not licked, no nook or cranny unexplored as you seek out yet another thing to tick off a list. And you’d better do it all without taking a hit, too, since your stock of hearts will be totted up at level’s end and factored into your rating as well.
These elements are, admittedly, inherent to the Yoshi design document, and dictated in large part by his moveset. Those stubby, scrabbling little legs that slow an already leisurely jump arc; that ground pound; that extendable tongue gobbling up enemies to be turned into throwable eggs: Yoshi has never been built for grace or speed, and the absence here of a run button further takes the latter out of the equation. But here that familiar moveset signals a missed opportunity. Yoshi will always be Yoshi just as Mario will always be Mario, but Yoshi’s Woolly World’s aesthetic presents its developers with an option to freshen things up. It’s an opportunity squandered more often than capitalised on.
Yes, everything in the world – those pesky gems aside – is made of wool. And it looks sumptuous, a riot of fuzzy colour that’s almost cloyingly cute at times, its antagonists and their wandering minions begging for a cuddle even as they bear down on you in the hope of ruining your chance of a perfect rating. It’s a concept that’s put to delicious aesthetic use throughout an otherwise visually traditional platformer – ice, desert and lava worlds formed of coils of yarn – and there are some delightful touches, such as the way gobbled-up enemies are not killed so much as unravelled.
However, this aesthetic device presents mechanical opportunities, and it’s hard not to think of Tearaway, which embedded the theme of its world design deep in its mechanics, and in the process made rare use of its host hardware’s convoluted featureset. The GamePad touchscreen, despite its potential to deepen the connection to this tactile world, is entirely ignored for the sake of supporting different Wii and Wii U controllers. For too much of its runtime, Yoshi’s Woolly World is happy to simply be Yoshi’s Island with a pretty aesthetic in delicious HD.
It’s at its best when it tries to be something more. In one stage, you must guide a Chomp through a tightly designed cavern; in its default, wireframe form, the Chomp will bite you, but can also jump up to higher ground. Fling an egg at it and it’ll become the inanimate boulder of past Yoshi games, killing enemies it touches and providing access to high ledges. You’ll kite the beast into the desired place, throw an egg and use its woollen form to destroy the scenery blocking the way, then tongue loose its coat and lure it to the next objective. One ghost house level sees you use eggs to turn Boos into slowly rising balloons; elsewhere there’s a fine nod to DS launch game Yoshi Touch & Go, where thrown eggs leave woolly clouds in their wake to serve as platforms.
There are times, too, where the leisurely pace is used for more than just arbitrary exploration of every corner. Some smartly designed puzzles, typically involving a central room with a door chained up with several padlocks and multiple routes off it leading to keys, lend welcome context to that pace. And there are moments where the obvious design flair of a classic Nintendo game shines through. It says much that a level where you leap between moving curtains – a delicious take on the concept of an on-rails platformer – is one of the most satisfying in the game, and also the paciest.
In the context of Yoshi’s recent past, Woolly World does a lot right. Bar that absent run button, everything feels right. It looks delightful, especially when compared to the lacklustre Yoshi’s New Island, and when it’s using its aesthetic as a mechanic, or its pace as a gameplay device, it sings. But these moments are the exception, rather than the rule. The best Nintendo games use familiar trappings in a succession of new ways, the company’s spirit of restless invention producing a series of ideas formed, used and flung away. It is Woolly World’s failure to do that – despite the possibilities for play afforded by its delightful aesthetic – that keeps it from the upper tier of platform games on a system that hardly lacks for them. Too much of it is cut from old cloth instead of woven from its own loom.