Yoshi's Island: insert hyperbole here! In 1995, Nintendo delivered a sequel to Super Mario World which left 16-bit fans gasping. Rejecting the comfortable Mario dynamic, Shigeru Miyamoto's resourceful team produced a whopping great adventure brimming with originality, and in the eyes of many topped their previous release by quite some distance.
Super Mario Advance 3 sees the infant Mario stranded on Yoshi's Island, his brother Luigi having been kidnapped by the Koopa family. Fortunately for the hapless baby, Yoshi and his multicoloured kin set about transporting Mario by dinosaur-back to the grounds of Koopa castle, in an attempt to retrieve Luigi and end the madness - a pretty tall order given how peculiar Yoshi's Island turns out to be.
As Yoshi races through the game's seven varied worlds, he can bop enemies on the head, old-school, or swallow them and then spit them out as a ground-sweeping projectile. Swallowing an enemy and hitting down on the directional pad produces an egg, and by tapping the R button players can target and launch the egg to knock collectibles out of the sky or simply to vanquish pesky plants, turtles and other aggressors. If Yoshi can find a watermelon, depending on the colour, he can even spit seeds, fire and ice.
Jumping jack mash
The action of jumping has changed, too. Instead of just tapping the button to do a small jump and really mashing it to do a big one, Yoshi can also flap his little wings and kick his little legs to float even further through the air by holding the A button down. Once airborne, the diminutive dino can stomp the ground by pressing down on the directional pad - an attack strong enough to dispatch even the worthiest enemy, or to break through the strongest barrier.
Another change is in Yoshi's pain receptors. Forget growing, shrinking or donning a cape or fire suit ala Mario when powering up and down - Yoshi's too tough for that. Short of falling down a bottomless pit, all but the sharpest objects in the game leave him unharmed, but when struck Yoshi does lose track of his cargo! When Yoshi finds himself caught off-guard, Mario floats about in an air bubble, whinging like a, well, a frightened baby, until Yoshi can safely retrieve him. A timer counts down while Mario is detached from his ride, and if the clock reaches zero than Koopa's minions will swoop down and drag Mario kicking and screaming away, leaving you to start over or from the last mid-level save spot.
Yoshi does however kick Mario off of his own accord here and there. At certain points in the game, he thrusts his famous passenger down a tube and transforms into a helicopter, a mechanical mole, a sports car and even a toy train, racing through obscure sections of the level before meeting Mario at the other end of the pipe and turning into a dino once again.
Those seconds on the baby Mario countdown are a valuable commodity in Yoshi's Island, and you can supplement the timer's total by seeking various bouncing stars, which often fall from question-marked clouds when you launch an egg at them (see, it is peculiar). If you can build up a clock of more than 30 seconds by the end of each level, as well as collecting all five flower icons and all 20 hidden red coins, and you can do it on each of the world's levels, you build up a 100 percent record for that area, and in the most significant change to the game's design on the GBA, you unlock a secret GBA-exclusive level. One for each world, and they're tough nuts to crack, I'll tell you that much...
Level design is the game's strongest point, and the fact that the game very rarely repeats itself is quite telling. Instead of narrowly pigeonholing each world into a set theme, Nintendo has built up a succession of varied challenges which always leave you wondering what's round the next corner.
Apart from the task of platforming your way through some of the most imaginative levels ever seen in a 2D adventure, players can also test their mettle in one of Yoshi's mini-games. Dotted around the various worlds behind locked doors (watch out for keys flapping about nearby - yes I did say flapping), these mini-games are based around speedy reactions and various other skills. For example, one of the first sees Yoshi trying to tap a sequence of buttons quicker than a CPU-controlled opponent. Victory in these cute little diversions will unlock power-ups, including a +10 star power-up which adds a nice 10 seconds to your Mario clock - useful if you're about to hop through the starry ring at the end of a level a few seconds short of 100 percent...
At the time, Nintendo's choice to go for a cartoony, stylistic graphical approach was thought to be edgy, risky and perhaps even mildly insane, but it's no exaggeration to say that the effect is among the best the developer has ever produced. The graphics are really lively; bouncing, expanding, contracting and quivering with each passing sight, and the character designs - in particular Yoshi, Mario and the various boss characters, are ornately detailed and in the case of the bosses, determinedly creative. If there's one thing 2D platformers had been guilty of before 1995 it was producing boring, piddly bosses, but Yoshi's Island rewrote the rulebook.
Sadly, things have changed since 1995, and Nintendo certainly has a rulebook for Mario Advance titles, and plans to stick to it. With each passing release, we get an almost pixel-perfect port of the single player title in question, coupled with a rather shabby bop-turtles multiplayer Mario Bros. mode. In the case of the previous two decidedly single player adventures, it felt like a reasonable afterthought.
In the case of Yoshi's Island, a game renowned for its player-versus-CPU mini-games, it feels like an insult. Playing button-combo-against-the-clock back and forth with another player would have made a much better two-player mode, and it's a shame that Nintendo is sticking with such an incidental multiplayer distraction after three titles.
The presence of this so-called multiplayer option is representative of the work which has gone into Yoshi's Island on the GBA as a whole. Best 2D platformer on the system or not, as a port it's a mite uninspired. Slowdown has crept into the equation for the first time in a Mario Advance title, and the wealth of Super FX2 chip effects present in the SNES version has been wittled down and emulated with only varying degrees of success here - the screen still undulates where necessary, but the effect has lost a lot of its panache in the transition.
All things considered though, there's still no argument against buying this. Whether you played the original or not, Yoshi's Island is a timeless platform classic, and deserves to be enjoyed for the first or second time by all and sundry. The fact that it has more longevity than most games on major platforms at the moment - and a darn sight more than the previous two Mario Advance titles put together - should make it an obvious enough purchase. Few titles are this engaging. It's just a shame that Nintendo didn't have the time or inclination to reshape it properly for the portable hardware.