When Yoshi – Mario’s dinosaur friend – first appeared in “Super Mario World” (1990}, he stood out in a landscape brimming with the weirdness of frowny-faced mushrooms, predatory plants, and hostile turtles. He’s one of the few video game characters that even my mother knows. That should tell you something about the far-reaching appeal of the tame dinosaur formally known as T. Yoshisaur Munchakoopas.
“Yoshi’s Woolly World” is a companion piece to “Kirby’s Epic Yarn” (2010). The visual palette of both games is inspired by crafted textiles. I watched a knitter gleefully dissect the game’s crocheted, knit, and felted fabrics that bring a human touch to the fantasia. Yarn, in fact, is the chief material that informs the character design and gameplay. Yoshi’s main ability, besides using his extravagantly long tongue to suck up enemies and grab items, is his ability to convert swallowed enemies into balls of yarn via what has to be one of the most adorable pooping animations ever. (Given the worldwide success of Tarō Gomi’s children’s book “Everybody Poops,” we shouldn’t be surprised to find a totally kid-friendly Japanese entertainment product with an, um, sweet scatological bent.)
Yoshi can use his balls of yarn to knock off enemies and create platforms to help him reach out-of-the-way places. He can also use Power Badges which can be employed for the duration of a stage. These can be purchased with in-game currency. Some abilities, such as immunity to fire and lava, or invulnerability to pits and spikes, obviously neuter the game’s tougher challenges, as does the inclusion of a “Mellow Mode” which renders Yoshi more impervious to injury and endows him with a set of wings. But as one who fondly remembers the mostly bygone days of cheat codes, I find such scalability refreshing. Any frustrations one encounters can likely be surmounted with an on-the-fly tweak, which should free those who are disinclined towards perfecting their muscle memory through strenuous repetition.
All the same, “Yoshi’s Woolly World” is a relatively easy game unless you’re shooting for a 100% completion rate. As has been customary with Nintendo’s platformers for decades, levels are filled with secret nooks and items that require a bit of dexterity to reach. Regarding said items, players will want to keep an eye out for the five skeins of yarn scattered throughout each of the main levels. When one completes a level with a full-set, a new, playable Yoshi is woven together in different colors. Sure, it only makes a cosmetic difference, but if the thought of a Panda Yoshi doesn’t elicit an inner smile, you’re less of a sentimentalist than I am.
Looking past the visuals, the mechanics of “Yoshi’s Woolly World” should feel overly familiar to anyone raised on the side scrolling platformers of yore. The game features your basic set of rolling green hills, fire, snow, and nocturnal levels. Although I never encountered any gameplay twists that threw me for a loop, I enjoyed playing through several of the levels with a friend. Because you can help or hinder you partner by swallowing their Yoshi and converting them to a ball of yarn which can then be used to your collective advantage or to your friend’s disadvantage, the possibilities for slapstick comedy are rife.
“Yoshi’s Woolly World,” won’t change how you look at games or lead you to any important insights. It wants nothing more than to perk you up a bit, to lighten your mental load. Life is hard; sometimes a little frivolity is in order.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.