It makes a quite refreshing change to hear the impossibly cute mumblings of Mario's eternally helpful sidekick, Yoshi, directly after having your eardrums burst by Marcus Fenix's hyper-macho marine madness. It's refreshing in all sorts of ways. Going straight from the jaw-dropping high-definition next-generation graphics of Gears of War to the tried and trusted 2-D cartoon platform action of Yoshi's Island DS, and not missing Mr Fenix a single bit, is one. Leaving behind the whining and bitching of the ever polite Xbox Live community for the peace and quiet of a classic single-player adventure is another.
But it's the realisation that you can still lose yourself in a virtual world, whether it be blasted into your living room from a 40-inch LCD or engraved onto your retina from the back-lit glow of the Nintendo DS' dual screens, that is most refreshing of all. It's back to basics in the most pure, unadulterated fun kind of way that the DS seems to have a monopoly on (well, pre-Wii at least). It's the embodiment of the fundamentals of gameplay that I sometimes pine for, even when picking my jaw off my carpet following the resolution of a particularly exhilarating fire fight in Gears of War.
And you really have to hand it to developers Artoon for such a noble effort, not without a sizeable amount of pressure. The Yoshi's Island franchise is treasured among Nintendo platform devotees - 1995's Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island on the SNES (remade in 2002 for the GBA as Yoshi's Island: Super Mario Advance 3) is arguably the greatest platform game of all time - and a cock-up could have resulted in a particularly nasty backlash. But don't worry - you can put down your protest banners - despite some niggling annoyances, Yoshi's Island DS is a thoroughly enjoyable re-imagination of a classic platformer and a heart-warming alternative to the next-gen madness which will no doubt dominate the gaming agenda this Christmas.
I say re-imagination because it's more a remake than a sequel. The simple backstory involves the Yoshi clan helping babies Mario, Peach, Donkey Kong, and, later on, Wario and Bowser (don't worry, that's not a spoiler, the manual will tell you that much) to rescue Baby Luigi from the evil Kamek, the Magikoopa in his floating castle. The staple Yoshi's Island platforming goodness remains, but with a DS twist. While carrying a baby on his back, Yoshi can swallow enemies by sticking out his tongue, then either spit them out or turn them into eggs. Get hit by an enemy and the baby will start bawling and float away in some demented direction, forcing you to frantically retrieve the babe before its protective bubble disappears and Kamek comes calling.
There's lots of precision jumping, puzzle solving and pipe exploration, as you'd expect. And the structure of the game is equally predictable - complete levels, get to castle, defeat boss, start next world.
Within five minutes of play you'll notice how long the game is compared to, say, New Super Mario Bros. By no means will you fly through the game, platform guru or not. But it's not because the levels are particularly difficult, they're just, well, long. Reflecting this, there's no time limit, so there's no pressure to rush through things. It's more a case of relaxing, bopping along to the cutesy music and enjoying the ride.
You won't die too often either, which is curious, given the masses of extra lives you'll pick up along the way. Yoshi's Island DS feels more like a coin hunting exercise than a platforming extravaganza.
There is more to it of course. Artoon has tried to spice things up a bit by adding some interesting features that vary in success. You now have access to five different babies, and each gives Yoshi special skills. Baby Mario can dash and hit Mario blocks, Baby Peach can use her umbrella to float, Baby Donkey Kong can swing on vines and has a dash attack, Wario has a fairly useless magnet which attracts coins and Bowser has a fire attack. The premise here is simple: you need to use certain characters to solve certain puzzles.
At the beginning of the game it's pretty obvious which character you should be using in each level (if there are wind turbines, use Baby Peach to float, if there are vines, use Baby DK to swing), but as you progress through the game this process becomes more elaborate, and often involves switching characters a number of times within the same level to get every yellow and red coin, flower and special character-specific coin. But you'll never be stuck for too long as Artoon has kept things pretty simple. It's not until fairly late in the game that you'll find yourself dying with any regularity.
It's here that I'd like to point out the flaws in the game which stop it challenging New Super Mario Bros. as the No. 1 platformer on the DS. On more than one occasion during my time with the game I was hit when I thought I shouldn't have been. Maybe slightly dodgy collision detection. Maybe me being slack. Most likely a bit of both. It just doesn't seem as fluid and precise as NSMB. Mixing it up with different babies and different skills also seems a bit gimmicky, only because there are no really clever challenges where you have to think about combining and switching characters to any degree beyond the obvious. At no point did I think, 'wow, that was nicely done'. While we're on the subject, I'm not sure why only Mario can run. It's a bit annoying when you've only got 10 minutes on the bus to finish a level.
It also seems as if Artoon has suffered from trying to be a bit too clever with the dual screen system. The levels are played out on both screens, so by holding down 'x' and pressing up or down, you can see above or below Yoshi. It's here that you'll discover most of the game's secrets, but instead of becoming intuitive, it often grates and you constantly keep stopping to look around. This becomes even more apparent once you finish the game and begin the 100 percent hunt. You then have some items that are deliberately hidden behind the bit of plastic between the DS' two screens. I can see what they're trying to do, but holding 'x' and pressing up and down to reveal an item because it's hidden behind a blind spot isn't my idea of amazing level design.
Because the game is quite long, it can often feel repetitive. There isn't really much variety in gameplay, and while this criticism can most certainly be applied to plenty of other great games, and indeed NSMB, there is no scope for online play, or multiplayer. You'll be doing pretty much the same thing the entire time, notwithstanding the mini-games, which won't hold your attention for too long.
The boss battles are a notable disappointment too. As it was in the original, when you get to the end of a castle, Kamek comes along and sprinkles evil dust on the sprite of a bog-standard enemy, for example a piranha plant or a fish, and they just grow to fill the screen. Yes, you guessed it, three hits and they're dead.
So I guess the main flaw is a rather subtle one. Yoshi's Island DS doesn't really do anything new with the genre, even if it does look as if it's been drawn by some crazed crayon-wielding baby genius. Yes, I know it's played out on dual screens, but that's not enough for me. NSMB suffered from the same lack of real originality, but it features such tight controls that it simply didn't matter.
It's getting a bit too negative. Let me finish by saying that Yoshi's Island DS is a thoroughly enjoyable platformer. It's not going to make the same impact as its illustrious predecessor, which amazed gamers by using the SNES' Super FX 2 microchip to create sprite scaling and polygon effects which were advanced for the time, but it's not going to make you bawl like a baby if Santy drops it down the chimney this Christmas either.