Hey everyone! Franchise Fatigue took a little break over the holidays (you might say that Franchise Fatigue felt a little bit… fatigued) but we’re back! And today’s game is a weird one – one of the few 2D platformers for the Nintendo 64, Yoshi’s Story!
Now, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m in my late 20’s. Which means that when the Nintendo 64 was released in 1996, I was the tender, impressionable age of 12 – probably the ripest of any age with which to be completely absorbed by and obsessed with video games. One of my most vivid of memories was my first trip to the brand-spankin’-new Best Buy that had just opened across the mall in Tucson that year. It was impossible not to notice the Ziggurat-like structure in the middle of the video game department, emblazoned with the now-familiar spinning “N” cube. All around it, children my age stood in silent awe, with expressions not unlike those if men succeeded in climbing the Tower of Babel and seeing the true face of God; meanwhile, a gourad-shaded red plumber bounded around in endless joy on the giant screen in front of us. I don’t think any of us will really forget the first time you experience something like seeing Super Mario 64.
I got my Nintendo 64 the next year, Christmas 1997. I loved the hell out of that machine, as did a lot of us – it’s telling, I think, that the N64 sold astronomically better in the US than it did anywhere else in the world. Rough estimates state that around 20 million of the system’s 32.9 million worldwide sales came exclusively from the United States. The system had a great life here compared to elsewhere in the globe, but the system still had one major stumbling block in the face of the industry-leading Playstation. One that I’m sure a number of you can sympathize with.
“Oh, Nintendo? All they make are baby games!”
And on a superficial level, how can you argue that? Star Fox 64 is unarguably a better game than Duke Nukem: Total Meltdown, but one has blood and swears and boobs in it and the other has talking animals. In the increasingly image-conscious mind of your average teenage lad, defending your Nintendo love was hard to do, compared to the grown-up image of the Playstation; with its Resident Evils and Final Fantasies and Metal Gear Solids. No matter; those of us who were content to swallow whole Hiroshi Yamauchi’s hilarious “Quality Over Quantity” mantra had no problem defending ourselves on the early days of the internet.
‘Course, there was one specific Nintendo 64 title that was hard to defend as anything except a baby game. One where your main objective is to literally save the “Super Happy Tree.” Virtually everything refills your health, most enemies don’t even hurt you, and each of the six levels you need to finish the game can be completed in under five minutes if you don’t care about your score.
It seems weird to think about now, but Nintendo actually delayed the US release of the game – originally intended to ship in December of 1997, as it did in Japan – in order to make the game harder. Luckily, that extra time made the game a definitive improvement over the Japanese release; the game may be “harder” in a purely anecdotal sense, but at least we got a few things additions to the game – like, some new ending screens, hidden secrets, and the ability to save during the Story Mode, in case you, uh, don’t have several minutes to plow through them. Not that it mattered much on Nintendo’s part; once it became apparent that Yoshi’s Story wasn’t quite the sequel to Yoshi’s Island that people expected, the game was doomed. Doomed!
I can’t really think of a game that’s suffered a worse fate in critical reception versus expectation than Yoshi’s Story. People wanted – nay, demanded! – the game to fit snugly within the Mario/Yoshi canon, and the tremendous shadow of excellence that lingered from Yoshi’s Island cast a pall upon the game beyond all reason. Playing Yoshi’s Story once more after all these years, it’s sort of amazing that this game throws almost EVERYTHING away that we all take for granted when playing a 2D platformer starring Mario’s apocryphal benefactor; each level has no set “goal,” and will circle inward upon itself endlessly – there is no time limit – until the player eats 30 pieces of fruit. Essentially, clear the level at your own pace, guy. Take some time, sniff around, find some secrets. It encourages multiple playthroughs, since you can only play one of four stages during each level, and unlocking those extra stages means hunting around for the Special Hearts. And, it encourages players to repeat each stage several times to better their score – not for any extra content or anything. Just ’cause.
In other words, Yoshi’s Story broke all the rules by basically having none of them. Finish each level however you want, at your own pace. Critics hated it. Console war fanboys had another howitzer shell of ammunition to launch in their “Nintendo is BABY GAMES” debate. In the intervening years, popular opinion on the game has remained… mixed, at best.
And, look, the game certainly has its legit problems – for one, this is an ugly game. The N64 doesn’t really handle sprites all that well, considering a) the lack of cartridge space they require, rendering them awfully low-res, and b) the N64’s video filtering was not kind to most textures. Also, the in-game cutscenes (and the superior Japanese box art) posit that the game still takes place using the same, wonderful, crayon/storybook art style as was used in Yoshi’s Island, but everything is pre-rendered in gauche, Donkey Kong Country-inspired CGI. Yuck!
Additionally, like I alluded to earlier, the game has a problem incentivizing the lackadaisical pace of the game – going for the high-score route in the Story Mode doesn’t really offer you much in the way of benefits. Aside from the Special Hearts, there really aren’t any “unlockables” to speak of. Altogether, there’s not a lot of content in the game; the levels themselves are very large and have quite a few secrets and stuff, but they’re awfully spread out, and many of them feel rather empty.
Not to mention, the game forces you to listen to Kazumi Totaka’s heavily modulated caterwaul several times. A shame, since Totaka’s score for the game is otherwise very creative and interesting – and it creates a tone and a mood without tons of instruments and excessive noise.
In a way, that’s the charm of the game. Despite it’s flaws, it still certainly leaves and impression, and in spite of its lack of difficulty, it’s hard to put it down once you’ve started playing it. I knew that my 7th-grade friends were probably thinking they were having more fun playing Quake or some other game with blood in it, but they certainly couldn’t beat my all-melon high score on every level in Yoshi’s Story.
I mean, of course I had all melons on every level. It was the N64 – that was the only decent game around for months.