Platform: Wii U
Be it hand-stitched rainbows, lava represented by knitted material or snowballs essentially giant balls of wool, at its peak, Yoshi’s Woolly World is equally charming and impressive in regards to its chosen aesthetic and art direction. Not that Yoshi himself has been anything but the charmer since his first 2D outings on the SNES (as both main and supporting character alike), but Woolly World catapults Nintendo’s famous green dinosaur to the peak of the series hierarchy – standing over the others, at least visually, as one of the most captivating. The original Yoshi’s Island may have something to say about that as the sum of a whole, but there’s no doubting both games hold very common ground when it comes to showing off just how well Nintendo’s hardware can reflect their excellence. Truth be told there’s nearly two decades between either title and the times, as far as 2D platforming and the design of which is utmost paramount to underpin it, have changed.
This in mind, to say Woolly World is, itself, underwhelming doesn’t speak truthfully for what genuine positivity there is to be had. Given this comes months after Kirby’s clay-motion adventures in Kirby & The Rainbow Curse and lesser time after Splatoon showcased some very favourable ink mechanics, Yoshi’s Woolly World continues Ninty’s recent trend (and as a result, success) in squeezing every last drop out of the Wii U’s hardware. But away from the graphical prowess (or limit of), this said World of material, stitching and loose strands – from the get go – is simply wonderful to look at. Guaranteed to melt even the iciest of hearts (i.e. mine), there’s a bubbly charm and joy to be had with the game’s presentation and neat roster of “hand-made” assets. And this is only magnified when you throw Yoshi himself into the mix; be it the way his feet transform into wheels, propellers, a mallet, even ice-skates depending on the situation or context, or simply his modestly innocent and joyful presence.
But the sad truth is even with this – with an art style and aesthetic that stitches together remarkably well – the charm, come the final third (or, to one extreme, even the latter half of the game’s 40+ levels) starts to wear thin. Woolly World builds itself around its visuals so much so that, inside, there’s barely anything else that feels predominantly ground-breaking or the least bit genuinely surprising. To admit gameplay segments that are objectively engaging or are without extensive periods of lull are in short supply here sums up the categorical issue with Yoshi’s Wii U outing. Aside from the game’s secret ‘S’ levels and some variance on side-scrolling action, there’s little change from the series’ atypical platforming concept. For every level (or sequence of a level in some cases) where Yoshi transforms into a shmup-styled plane for example – as if taken straight out of a Gradus/R-Type set-piece – or has you riding a series of curtain railings at a faster pace, there are five maybe ten more that spit out out the same tired formula.
Woolly World’s desire to keep things consistent aren’t, as a whole, necessarily a bad thing. Yoshi still uses his tongue to capture enemies – which also unwinds loose ends of string to reveal secret areas – as he does his trademark flutter-jump, yet it’s everything around it that conjures a fear of a lack of variety, both structurally and on the basis of challenge. I’d say using the same boss more than once is a bad decision and leave it at that, but when you find yourself guessing (and guessing correctly) how your arch-nemesis will attack you before it even shows up, cements not just the game’s concerns, but Nintendo’s other recent trend in disregarding player intellect or skill. Even level design, when encompassing its art style, in later spaces, reveals itself to relatively lack idea-wise – a shake-up in direction here and a modest gimmick there, but they don’t quite check all the right boxes.
Most of Woolly World’s challenge comes in the form of its collectibles; like previous games, a check-list of nabbing all flower coins, hidden [Miiverse] stamp coins, bundles of yarn (of which make up different themed/coloured Yoshi’s of which can be switched at any time for use over the standard all-green form) and maintaining one’s health at maximum will land you a perfect clear, but aside from an extra level and the satisfaction, there’s little else the game rewards you with, intentionally or otherwise. The S levels definitely crank up the game a notch – which may or may not find players switching from the game’s default mode to the easier ‘Casual Mode’ wherein Yoshi gains the ability to fly for infinite stretches – and while the game offers a series of badges that function as perks so to speak when going into a level, the added buffs don’t relatively look or feel beneficial. One badge does let you bring Poochy the Dog into each level, which admittedly is rather delightful.
But all this is decorative; mere window-dressing for a game, as delightful an experience it is – as unashamedly joyful to play when the game’s soundtrack has music that’s playfully enthralling at one point and intriguingly engaging in others – blatantly lacks that sense of individual, stand-alone triumph or generally unforced sense of accomplishment. It’s the best kind of window-dressing there’s ever been for a game sure, but Yoshi’s Woolly World feels like visuals first, gameplay second as opposed to the other way around. When it’s good it compels, when it’s great there’s no hiding the childish glee to be had from such a moment. But when it falters, it falls more so into mediocrity. Yet despite the mixed bag, it’s the could-have-been’s and should-have-been’s that stick out more. Not necessarily a mediocre product, but simply one I came into hoping for more…but came out, in retrospect, not at all surprised by the lack of such.