Many people feel that the original Yoshi's Island is one of the best platformers ever made (if not the best). After all, it was a fun Mario-style game with an interesting mix of gameplay ideas. Its charming crayon-inspired visual style was also unlike anything else we'd seen up to that point. For the sequel, Nintendo and Artoon clearly wanted to keep everything that people loved about the original game intact. Besides the obvious uptick in audio-visual quality that is afforded by the Nintendo DS, Yoshi's Island DS pretty much looks, sounds, and plays just like its predecessor. There is one significant improvement that the sequel introduces: You can now plop different babies onto Yoshi's back and take advantage of the unique abilities that each diapered tot has to offer. It sounds like such a modest change, yet it totally kicks the sequel's replay value into the stratosphere. The different tykes give you more ways to frustrate enemies and more ways to interact with the environment. And, because certain babies can access spots that others can't, you're always discovering new items and secrets each time you go through a level. Thanks to this one key upgrade, Yoshi's Island DS manages to duplicate the look and feel of its predecessor yet seem fresh and new at the same time. It also accomplishes this without mucking up any of the things that made the original so great in the first place.
This new game picks up where the previous one left off. The evil wizard, Kamek, having already been thwarted once by those insufferable Yoshis, kidnaps Baby Mario and Baby Luigi a second time, along with all of the other babies in the world. Unfortunately for Kamek, a mishap between one of his minions and a stork frees a handful of babies, depositing Baby Mario and Baby Peach smack dab in the middle of the Yoshi village again. The stork informs the Yoshis that Kamek is up to his old tricks. As they did the first time, the colorful dinosaurs decide to take turns hauling the babies to Kamek's castle so that they can put the smack down and free the captive kiddies. It's a hokey story, but it's cute. It also provides sufficient justification for why you can now swap babies at the various stork stops that are situated within each level.
At its heart, Yoshi's Island DS is a run-and-jump platformer that is similar to Mario's own adventures. The underlying gameplay involves making your way to the exit on the other side of the level, jumping across gaps and pouncing on small enemies. The 50 different levels scattered across the game's five worlds are lengthy, intricate, and visually interesting. You can also look forward to fighting a gigantic boss in the middle of and at the end of each world. Yoshi has quite a unique set of abilities. He can run and jump, of course, and you can make him perform a ground pound by pressing down on the control pad after a jump. You can also make him flutter short distances by keeping the jump button pressed. One way to get rid of enemies is to land on their backs. Or you can make the tiny dino stick out his tongue and drag an enemy into his mouth. From there, you have the option of spitting the creature back out, either at another enemy or at a switch. Or you can make the dino swallow the enemy and turn it into an egg. Eggs are useful little projectiles that you can launch at enemies or bounce off of walls to grab items and activate switches that you otherwise couldn't reach. On top of all that, there are items in certain levels that transform Yoshi into vehicles, such as a snub-nosed helicopter, a mole-shaped drilling machine, or a cute, blue submarine.
Throughout the game, Yoshi is constantly carrying one of the baby Nintendo characters on his back. In the first game, this meant that you'd lose a life if Baby Mario was knocked off Yoshi's back and not retrieved before timer ran out. In the sequel, there are five different babies to swap among, and each baby gives Yoshi an extra subset of abilities. You start the game with Baby Mario and Baby Peach, but it isn't long before Baby Donkey Kong, Baby Wario, and Baby Bowser are added to the cast. Baby Mario can make invisible "M" blocks appear and gives Yoshi the ability to dash. Baby Peach can use her parasol to send her and Yoshi flying on a gust of wind. Baby DK can grab onto dangling vines and swing across ropes. Baby Wario can use his magnet to grab coins, as well as drag metallic boxes and platforms around. Baby Bowser can spit fire to defeat enemies and melt ice. Each baby also changes how Yoshi's egg projectiles work. For example, eggs fired with Mario on the dino's back will ricochet off walls. Those launched with DK in tow, however, will explode like bombs when they hit something.
Most levels are designed so that you have to switch babies at least a couple of times to reach the exit. Many levels have optional spots where you can pick up some extra coins or stars by using a specific baby to access an out-of-the-way spot. You'll also discover many secrets simply by going back through a level with a baby you haven't brought before. A greater emphasis on exploration is what all of the different babies really bring to Yoshi's Island DS, which wasn't evident in the original game. The original Yoshi's Island had some sweet level designs that were oriented around Yoshi's main abilities, but only a few actually made you work to get all of the flowers and bonus coins. In Yoshi's Island DS, you have to swap babies frequently to collect all of the flowers and coins that are necessary to earn a high grade for each level. At the same time, the levels in Yoshi's Island DS are at least twice the size of those in the original game. They're also absolutely massive compared to the short levels included in New Super Mario Bros.
Another interesting thing about Yoshi's Island DS is that it can be a very easy game or an extremely difficult game, depending on what you attempt to accomplish during your time with it. It isn't challenging in the traditional sense. In fact, falling into a bottomless pit or lava bed is about the only way to lose a life outright. Whenever you do make contact with an enemy, Yoshi will merely be stunned for a second, and the baby he's carrying will fly off of his back crying. The baby will then float around in an energy bubble while a timer ticks down. If you don't retrieve the tot before the timer expires, then you'll lose a life. This generally isn't a problem because the timer is fairly generous. Although it isn't difficult to get through the levels, it is difficult to collect all of the stars, red coins, character coins, and flowers scattered throughout each of them. These items contribute to a grade that you're given at the end of each level. You need perfect grades in all of the game's main levels to unlock all of the bonus levels and to see the extended ending sequence. That's no easy undertaking. You lose stars when a baby is knocked lose; character coins can only be grabbed by the character printed on them; and some red coins and flowers are only on the screen for a few seconds before they float away. Getting all of these items in one pass through a level requires a fair amount of practice. So for the completist, Yoshi's Island DS can be very challenging indeed.
How long the game lasts is really up to you. Each of the game's five worlds has eight main levels. If you just want to rush through and beat Kamek, the whole process can be done in about eight hours or so. You may find yourself wanting to replay some of the more enjoyable levels and discover that each world also has a bonus level, which becomes available after you finish the game the first time. Completists will no doubt want to collect all of the stars, coins, and flowers in each world to unlock the secret 10th level and witness the extended ending sequence. That endeavor can easily consume 20 or 30 hours of time. You can also check out all of the creatures that you've encountered in an island museum. And there's a minigame menu, which lets you play the five minigames from the normal game in easy and hard variations. About the only thing that is not included is any sort of multiplayer mode. That's a mild shame, but there's certainly more than enough single player stuff here to keep you occupied for a long time.
No matter how long you play Yoshi's Island DS, your eyes and ears will probably be satisfied the entire time. Many people fell in love with the original game's unique audio-visual style. The levels and characters looked like they were drawn with crayons and felt markers. The music and sound effects also tickled the listener's ear with flutes, xylophones, animal noises, and other whimsical jangles that were not typically heard in video games. Yoshi's Island DS basically looks and sounds just like the first game, although the system's horsepower has been used to beef up certain technical aspects. You'll run into larger versions of some enemies; the transparency effect used to animate the water looks much nicer; and cute little environmental touches, such as bouncing plants and passing clouds, are more plentiful. The game doesn't make use of the system's touch-sensitive features or do anything special regarding the two screens. Outside of a cool transition effect and a couple of boss encounters, the extra screen is primarily just used to let you see more of the surrounding environment.
Some sticklers may complain that the charcoal and crayon-style graphics in Yoshi's Island DS look a little cleaner than they did in the original game. Specifically, the backgrounds aren't as cluttered, and the black outlines aren't as thick. Depending on your personal preference, this is a stylistic change that you'll either love or hate. The same can be said about the kindler, gentler music that is featured in the game's soundtrack. It's the same tropical sort of stuff that was in the original, but certain melodies and instruments are understated this time around.
Aside from the technical aspects, it's just a joy to take in the game. All of the levels are tropical and happy. They are so happy that the characters even seem pleased to be in them. Yoshi taps his feet while he walks and makes cute noises when he jumps or bumps into things. Some enemies wink or make faces as they walk along. As it is, many of those enemies are familiar faces that we know and love from the various Mario games. The shy guys from Super Mario Bros. 2 and the crabs from Donkey Kong Jr. feature prominently, as well as the Koopa Troopas, piranha plants, and giant Bullet Bills that have been present in every classic Mario game. Boss battles increase the eye candy even further. Each world serves up two different bosses, which are gigantic and often quite inventive. In one battle, for instance, the lower screen is a mirror that reflects what's going on in the upper screen. You're on the upper screen, but the boss is a large ghost that's only visible in the mirror on the lower screen. Each boss is a whole new, fun experience. This is more than can be said for the flimsy bosses that Nintendo came up with for New Super Mario Bros. earlier this year.
It's hard to top a masterpiece, but that's just what Nintendo and Artoon have done with Yoshi's Island DS. By incorporating one major new feature and leaving everything else alone, they've produced a sequel that seems fresh and new while remaining every bit as awesome as the original. If you enjoy side-scrolling platformers, you have to play this one.