Version tested: GameBoy Advance
Playing Yoshi's Universal Gravitation reminds me of playing racing games before I'd stopped impulsively twisting my hands like the control pad was a steering wheel. I love it that way. It's old but new.
Thanks to the addition of a tilt sensor embedded in the cartridge, it comes off as a basic 2D platformer - D-pad to move, A to jump, B to swallow - riffing somewhat on Yoshi's Island but with a twist that truly levels the playing field for all. And then rocks it back and forth like a seesaw.
It lets you alter the centre of gravity to affect your platforming abilities, and it's the sort of fundamental shift that the genre's been crying out for.
But it's more the sort of shift. It isn't necessarily the shift. I like YUG, but I don't rate it that highly.
There are loads of nice ideas, though, so let's concentrate on them for now. The basic objectives are just that - collect X amount of coins, or X amount of fruit (which has to be swallowed, and sometimes has to be plucked out of the air as it floats off-screen or somesuch), kill X amount of enemies, or finish within 60 seconds, and so on - but the tilt sensor has given Artoon licence to explore other possibilities.
So, in order to get to the ring of stars at the end of a section, you will have to do a certain amount of typical platforming but you'll also have to roll on top of balls to squish enemies, leap between rising musical notes that you activate by rolling a ball over a giant xylophone, swing wrecking balls to break down stone barriers, ride platforms that swing this way and that, and even leap between vertical walls by tilting back and forth to help keep gravity on Yoshi's side.
Some sections go further than that, transpor-- well, transmogrifying the little fellow into things like boats, parachutes and bouncing balls. The boat section, for example, has Yoshi dragged along by the current (on rails, effectively) and the challenge is to tilt the screen so the water rushes to one end and Yoshi either rides up high or sinks down low. In this way you can dodge obstacles, collect coins, and so on.
As you'd expect, it starts to use these ideas more and more in concert and as a result it becomes much harder to keep the gravity working for you whilst employing your traditional platform skills to avoid enemies and instant-death spike pits.
So why don't I sound more enthusiastic about it?
Well, for a start it, er, doesn't really get started for quite a while. It's as though developer Artoon realised too late that it would take quite a while for the gamer to acclimatise to using the tilt sensor to affect the centre of gravity and simplified the opening sections to compensate.
As such, many of the early stages are straightforward and tutorial-esque, with the game only really starting to challenge you, at least to the extent that you fail to earn a medal, by the end of the third world.
And while there are times when the tilt sensor is really inspiring or enjoyable (the aforementioned boat bits, parachuting down courses, rolling out carpets to create temporary platforms), other times it just feels awkward (particularly trying to jump back and forth between opposing walls and changing the centre of gravity in flight), and other times when it's just superfluous (like tilting to set off down a ski jump slope).
On other occasions an idea isn't quite as well executed as it might be. Yoshi as a bouncing ball is less of a football and more like those irritatingly erratic nearly-egg-shaped oddities that your mate used to throw around at school. And, rather worryingly for a Yoshi game, the collision detection on mid-air object-swallowing is a bit harsh.
What's more, by the time I got to the fourth world I was coming to the conclusion that while it's a nice idea it's a bit difficult to adapt to moving your hands that precisely.
A good comparison would be the difference between Super Monkey Ball and the Monkey Ball section of EyeToy game SEGA SuperStars. The former is very precise to control thanks to the GameCube's analogue stick, while the latter is much harder because your arms aren't just solid plastic trunks tilting away from the centre and then stopping.
It seems critically important to have a finite movement range for your control stick in precision platform games, whether it's a bit of plastic or your wrists that are governing that movement. I'd probably be a lot better if I was playing it in a straitjacket. In fact, joking aside, if you have limited mobility in your arms, you might find it a lot easier...
It is good to see Nintendo trying out new control schemes and augmenting existing genres in interesting ways, but YUG's tilt sensor seems to be strapped to the wrong genre. It feels most natural when you're not in a straightforward platform section.
When Kristan took a look at the Japanese version of YUG shortly after Christmas he said that he never once got tetchy with it. I certainly did. It's not guilty of poor or unfair design too often, and certainly doesn't kill you by design fault, but after a while I felt the tilt sensor just wasn't precise enough, and for me at least the learning curve for the new control scheme doesn't really conform to the game's difficulty curve.
Play it long enough and you do settle in, and it emerges as something spiritedly different, inventive and above all enjoyable. But for too long I wasn't able to get my head around the extra layer of control, and it held up my progress, sapped my enthusiasm and made for an uncomfortable experience overall.
I'd recommend trying it out because it deserves an audience, and some people will have a lot more luck with it than I did, but you should consider this a cautious recommendation. It's certainly not universally appealing.
6 / 10