Yoshi's Woolly World
It has been a pretty disheartening year to be a Nintendo fan, not because of any glaring degradation in the quality of the game publisher's recent releases, but because so many other critics appear to have perceived such a decline, leaving me very few fellow gamers with whom I can share my genuine enthusiasm for their products. Super Mario Maker and Splatoon seem to be the only two Nintendo releases that have managed to escape the critics' general ennui, but Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., and to a certain extent the recent multiplayer Zelda game, Tri Force Heroes, have all languished under the critics' unjustly harsh assessment.
Yoshi's Woolly World is but the latest victim of the media's flagrant anti-Nintendo agenda. Of course, I'm being facetious: I don't actually think critics have any covert bias against Nintendo. In fact, I agree with many of the pronouncements of mediocrity they have passed on some of the other titles Nintendo has released this year. Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash is as undeniably charming as any of the previous games featuring the eponymous bite-sized automaton; the core gameplay mechanic--using Chibi's plug as a grappling hook and gauging the precise angle of its ricochet to latch onto ledges and skewer collectibles--is a simple and effective foundation from which to build a functionally proficient platformer; and the levels themselves boast sufficient instances of typical puzzle-platforming ingenuity to prove adequately entertaining to fans of the genre. But at the same time, the level design doesn't really go out of its way to be anything truly extraordinary: most of the stages just seem like a collection of boxes arranged in a slightly different order than that of the stage preceding, with the only notable differentiator of a level's theme being its static backdrop--a picture of sand dunes and pyramids to remind the player that these particular boxes are supposed to occupy the deserts of northern Africa, or an image of blue oceans and tropical palm groves to imply a Caribbean setting. The mini-games featured in Mario Party 10 are as reliably entertaining as those offered by the series' previous nine installments, but the board game element that ties them into one cohesive package has been stripped of nearly all opportunities for strategic play; and since a mini-game is only initiated when the players land on certain spaces--not at the conclusion of each turn like in erstwhile Mario Parties--the only truly enjoyable part of the game occurs in a handful of 30-second bursts interspersed among 15-30 minutes of mind-numbing boredom. And while I have not personally played the recently released Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, all facts that I have vicariously gleaned would indicate that it offers a solid game of tennis, albeit an equally spartan one, void of most of the bells and whistles that are all but required to impart relevancy to what is essentially a modern-day variant of Pong. The year 2015 may, indeed, have seen the release of more fair-to-middling offerings from Nintendo than fans of their traditionally high-quality games have come to expect, but this only makes it all the more aggravating when the few clearly superior titles are indiscriminately lumped in with the substandard rest.
In the case of Woolly World, I find the reviewers' willful indifference particularly egregious, because it is not only inarguably the best Yoshi title since the original Yoshi's Island on the SNES, but also an example of highly polished, consistently creative level design on par with the far more favorably reviewed likes of Super Mario 3D World and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Most of the criticism volleyed at Woolly World actually seems to stem from its aforementioned comparison to the original Yoshi's Island--a comparison that most fans of the franchise could not possibly interpret as anything other than favorable. I was also in the minority with my fond estimation of the previous two handheld installments in the Yoshi series--Yoshi's Island DS and Yoshi's New Island--but it would be impossible to deny that the level design in Woolly World is myriad orders of magnitude greater than anything that was offered in those two games. Sure, if you are looking for something that does to the now established gameplay of the Yoshi series what Yoshi's Island originally did to the Super Mario games (i.e., completely gut most of the mechanics that made it recognizable as an installment in its parent franchise, and supplant them with entirely foreign, though admittedly awesome-in-their-own-right rules and playstyles), then yes, I suppose you can accuse Woolly World of lacking innovation. The basic egg-throwing, tongue-whipping, flutter-jumping mechanics that define Yoshi's abilities and movements remain the same. The basic structure that determines the player's progression through the game--advancing in linear fashion through a sequence of short 15-minute stages arranged into six distinctly themed worlds--is unchanged. But what it may lack in originality it more than makes up for in an astounding abundance of creativity.
"Nearly every one of Woolly World's 50+ stages represents a master class in how to design the perfect platforming level... One core platforming concept is highlighted to serve as the level's theme, and its underlying mechanics are iterated on to perfection..."
Nearly every one of Woolly World's 50+ stages represents a master class in how to design the perfect platforming level (Super Mario Maker course designers, take note). One core platforming concept is highlighted to serve as the level's theme, and its underlying mechanics are iterated on to perfection throughout the course of the stage, so that by the end the player has had his satisfying fill of all that the concept has to offer. And there's no end to the variety of platforming tricks from which the level designers at Good-Feel have assembled their palette. There's a level that replaces Yoshi's standard arsenal of eggs (now transmuted into balls of yarn to coincide with the game's textile-based aesthetic) with fluffy white chicks; callously hurling these sentient projectiles through the air produces traversable vapor trails in their wake, thus effectively allowing the player to create his own platforms (and wisely appending justifiable functionality to the already intrinsic recreational value of tormenting cuddly cartoon animals). Good ol' Poochy, everyone's favorite pet of a famous video game character who is himself the pet of another famous video game character, makes a triumphant return in a smattering of stages, lending Yoshi a rallying dose of his infectious enthusiasm, along with his Christ-like ability to travel unhindered across otherwise untraversable terrain. And some of the bonus stages at the end of each world get really intense: in one such stage, a monstrous Piranha Plant relentlessly encroaches from the left side of the screen, and Yoshi must constantly keep one step ahead, periodically fending the advancing threat with a well-aimed ball of yarn, while simultaneously making sure to grab every last collectible before the autoscroll pushes it beyond his reach.
The game is not afraid to deviate from the genre's more traditional run-and-jump challenges either, throwing in a few slower-paced puzzles ever and anon to mix things up. Some of my favorite parts of the game are to be found in these more mentally taxing stages. One requires Yoshi to lure a frantic Monty Mole across a series of moving platforms, on the other side of which sits a switch trapped in a space only accessible by Montgomery's more diminutive bounding box. Another puzzle tasks the player with managing a Chain Chomp's two alternating modes of behavior--the dense sedentary boulder of wool that it becomes when smitten by one of Yoshi's yarn balls, ideal for breaking through walls of cushions and providing a stepping stone to unreachable heights, and the more mobile wireframe to which it reverts when unraveled by Yoshi's tongue.
Some people claim that the Yoshi games are too easy, which in tandem with their typically childlike presentation serves as proof that they are designed for a younger audience. It's true: if your sole objective in each level is to make a beeline for the goal, ignoring most of the secrets scattered along the way, then yes, you can avoid most hazards and overcome most pitfalls with relative ease. Yoshi's flutter jump, if executed with good timing, grants him nearly infinite midair adjustments to his original trajectory, allowing him to recover from most mistimed traversals of the bottomless expanse betwixt platforms; and with a health meter that allows the player a maximum of four hits before sustaining lethal damage, and with numerous opportunities to replenish its depleted reserves throughout each stage, it is unlikely that a skilled player will ever succumb to the cumulative hardship of his injuries. But the emphasis of the Yoshi games has always been on exploration--scouring every nook and cranny of each stage to locate all the hidden flowers, red coins, and other tantalizing goodies with which the designers have carefully populated the courses. Effectively, Yoshi is to 2D sidescrollers what the Super Mario 64s and Banjo-Kazooies of the early N64 era are to more modern 3D platformers. To those who dislike Mario's more recent offerings for being too linear and not affording as much opportunity for open exploration, Yoshi's Woolly World may offer the kind of experience you are craving, despite its more restrictive two-dimensional setting. (I, personally, am able to appreciate both styles--both Galaxy/3D World's emphasis on pure platforming mastery and Sunshine/64's freer sandbox approach--because I am a gamer of culture and class, unburdened by the shackles of narrowly defined tastes.)
Those less enamored of the "collectathon"-style platformer, however, may be less pleased to discover that the game's primary challenge lies in its secondary objectives. Aside from the flowers that serve to unlock bonus stages (which, as any Yoshi fan knows, provide some of the most exhilaratingly formidable pure platforming experiences offered by any game), the reward for gathering all collectibles of any given kind in a level is nothing more substantial than extraneous embellishments: a new set of stamps to spice up one's next utterly superfluous post to the Miiverse, or another adorable color pattern to smear across Yoshi's woolen flesh. But all virtual rewards are by definition meaningless, and it is the journey of obtaining them--the gameplay challenges that they serve to incentivize--wherein the true reward lies. Most of the collectibles are hidden in areas only attainable through a thorough flexing of the player's platforming and puzzle-solving prowess, and in the process of discovering them, the player is truly allowed to appreciate the full amount of care, cleverness, and creativity that the game designers poured into the creation of each level.
Some may bemoan the apparent random positioning of a few of the secrets. Sure, there is the odd bead or flower hidden within an invisible cloud that only reveals itself when Yoshi happens to stumble within its proximity, but 99% of the time the level design always includes some subtle intimation toward these invisible secrets: a strand of beads with one conspicuously absent; or a platform tucked away in some reclusive corner, where it would seem to serve no purpose toward facilitating the player's natural progression through the stage. You can purchase Power Badges with the beads you have gathered to activate various special abilities, including one that discloses the location of all hidden items in a level, thus making your 100% conquest of the stages significantly easier to achieve. But while I applaud Nintendo for including these power-ups as options to broaden the range of playstyles and skill levels that can enjoy the game, I personally refrained from making use of them, as doing so would seem tantamount to circumventing the entire point of the game.
In Yoshi games past, you had to achieve 100% completion of all pertinent tasks (collect all 5 flowers, gather all 20 red coins, and finish the stage with a full health meter) in order to have your progress count toward unlocking the coveted bonus stages, and you had to do it all in a single pass through the level... and across twelve miles and six feet of the damned driven snow, with forty pounds of schoolbooks strapped to your back, and a pack of feral dogs nipping at your heels for good measure, you mollycoddled whippersnappers! Woolly World is significantly more lenient: if the player only finds three out of the five flowers in his first playthrough of a stage, he can just focus on acquiring the remaining two during his next visit; and finishing with full health, though the game does keep track of the achievement, provides no tangible reward other than contributing to the player's 100% completion rating, which itself only rewards the player by appending a shiny gold star next to the corresponding stage on the world map. Admittedly, I found this compartmentalization of objectives to be a little off-putting at first, as it allows players to achieve victory in a more precipitate, piecemeal manner, which may prevent them from appreciating the holistic beauty of the design to which each separate piece contributes. Still, nothing is preventing the player from challenging herself to achieve all of a stage's objectives in a single run, and I think most experienced gamers will venture into each new level with at least the honest intention of finding all collectibles on their first try. Rarely was I able to do so myself (how many times did I linger on the pause menu before a stage's exit, straining to contain my festering rage and disbelief, as the tally of my recovered stamps mocked me with its derisive "19/20"); but when I managed it, the sense of accomplishment was immensely satisfying.
If there is one area where Woolly World's game design truly falters, it is in the boss encounters that cap the middle and final stages of each world. With so much creativity on display in the design of the stages proper, the predictable nature of these climactic confrontations is disappointingly anticlimactic. Every boss adheres to the traditional three-strikes design that has defined the majority of platformer boss fights since the dawn of time: identify and attack the boss' weak spot (usually by employing Yoshi's ground pound maneuver), bide your time avoiding the subsequent slew of onslaughts that the boss unleashes during his invulnerable retaliatory phase, repeat the process two more times to vanquish your foe and achieve glorious victory. I was still able to glean some small enjoyment from these encounters, if for no other reason than the momentary change of pace they provided, and there are even a couple bosses that I genuinely liked (Naval Piranha Plant and the very last incarnation of Knot-Wing the Koopa seemed slightly more nuanced than the rest). And since these effectively serve as brief bonus diversions capped onto the end of stages that are themselves complete and cleverly crafted experiences, their shortcomings cannot be counted too severe a mark against the game's overall quality.
Admittedly, the most obvious distinction between Woolly World and the previous games in the series is not the gameplay itself, but the textile-based visual aesthetic from which it derives its name. The graphical artists at Good-Feel did an excellent job integrating it into every aspect of the game's visual presentation, and the observant player will continually be delighted by the numerous details, both blatant and subtle, that hint at the textile transformation that has overtaken Yoshi's world. The frenetic movement of Yoshi's feet as he executes his famous flutter jump results now in the threads that compose his lower body unspooling in tornadic whirls. Yoshi's traditional white and green-splotched eggs have been replaced with balls of yarn, composed of the unraveled threads of the Shy Guys, Snifits, and Bullet Bills (or Woollet Williams) that most recently inhabited the voracious lizard's stomach. Cloud platforms dangle from the heavens on slender strands of string, like the props of some kindergarten theatrical production; the aurorae borealis in the background of the snow world's stages are represented by curtains of opalescent gossamer; even the traditional double doors leading to the next section of a level are composed of two cloth strips, joined together and drawn apart by means of a zipper.
The game's presentational charm overflows to its aural components as well, and players may find that many of the stages are as memorable for their catchy musical accompaniment as for the clever gameplay concepts they embody. As with the game's level design, Woolly World's soundtrack is undoubtedly an order of magnitude superior to the much-maligned kazoo orchestra of Yoshi's New Island. Acoustic guitar features prominently in several of the tracks, and it serves well to complement the game's unique visual motif, especially if you are hip to the subtle musical calembour it represents--a string instrument... scoring the adventure of creatures woven out of literal strings of yarn.
This is yet another grievously underrated gem in Nintendo's 2015 release calendar. If you are a fan of the Yoshi series or platformers in general, you should not allow Woolly World to slip beneath your radar.
*: too long; didn't read (but I'm actually literate--pahlease! omg**! seriously!
**: ow, my groin!