Thursday, March 26, 2009

yoshi’s island ds, uninspired and uninspiring

woooo cutesy No one knows how to do a potboiler like Nintendo.

Every few years, Nintendo will really make something special – a Super Smash Bros. Melee, an Ocarina of Time, a Super Mario Galaxy – that will show the world how a game is made. Pitch perfect and endlessly entertaining, these games define their respective genres and, for a time, defined the course of the game industry as a whole. I can’t say enough good things about these games, and that’s no hyperbole. Well, not a lot, anyway.

For every one of these games, though, the Nintendo of recent years has been much more content to rest on its laurels and bask in the reflected glory of successes past. You see these the most often on its portables, which have always been super popular – the Game Boy Advance saw straight remakes of nearly all Mario’s 2D outings, all of which originally sold for $34.99. This was reprehensible. What might be even more disappointing, however, were the new 2D outings that Nintendo has released for the DS in recent years. It’s not that these games are bad, it’s not even that they aren’t fun – it’s only that, by recalling so strongly the games upon which they were based, they show the player how uninspired they really are by comparison.

Yoshi’s Island was a late, great Super Nintendo game. Released in late 1995, it missed the boat stylistically – in an age where people were increasingly concerned with graphical realism, it chose style instead. That’s cool now, even a safe bet, but at the time everyone was all about the pre-rendered shine of Donkey Kong Country and no one cared about this cutesy Mario game and its hand-drawn style. They missed something great, a twist on the tested Mario roots that incorporated some fun new mechanics and fantastic level design. It was a little overlooked at the time, but it became a cult classic.

In 2006, Nintendo released Yoshi’s Island DS, which aimed to offer more of the same. In that respect, it succeeds grandly – there are five worlds of eight levels apiece, you throw some eggs, you carry baby versions of licensed characters around on your back. It’s really more of an expansion pack than a sequel, in that it doesn’t do a ton of original stuff. Its best ideas are almost always those that it lifts wholesale from the first game, and the new ideas it does bring to the table have a minimal impact on gameplay. Music and sound in general are particularly lacking – in a series famous for remixing one theme to death in every one of its games, Yoshi’s Island DS is particularly offensive. Every single world features dull, empty remixes of one dull, uninspired theme, and they fall ludicrously short of the high watermark the first game set. Repeating themes in music is great if you’re, say, Beethoven, but whoever did the music for this one needs to rethink his or her career choice – even though I had the same damn theme playing at me for the entirety of the game, I can’t for the life of me recall how it went.

In Nintendo’s defense, it did outsource this one to Artoon. Letting another studio make a sequel to your game is a great move if you’re bored with it, or if you want to make some money off of something popular. The trouble with it is that the second studio almost never really quite understands what it was that people liked so much about the original, and they rarely take chances or change the core formula of the game – look at developer Treyarch’s cracks at Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty series as a good example. The Infinity Ward games are typically hailed as important first person shooters, perfecting the World War II shooter thing before the World War II shooter thing became the overdone trope it is today. The Treyarch games, by comparison, aren’t terrible, but they do little to shake up the formula or advance the cause. When Infinity War took back over for Call of Duty 4, they brought the CoD gameplay to a new era, you know, of time, which did continue after World War II ended, and performed much better among reviewers than Treyarch’s Call of Duty 3. The new studio makes a sequel that conforms to the letter of the first games but not to the spirit – that doesn’t mean that Treyarch and Artoon don’t do good work, it just explains why the magic of those first games is nowhere to be found in their sequels.

Let’s not leave Nintendo blameless here, though – New Super Mario Bros. was the exact same brand of bland, and this one came from Nintendo itself. Like Yoshi’s Island DS, it’s fun enough while you’re playing it, but one gets the distinct impression that it was made to make money and not to push the envelope. New ideas are in short supply, and the whole game ends up forgettable in retrospect, even if it got rave reviews at the time.

Mario did a lot of fun stuff in two dimensions, but this isn’t one of his finer moments. It’s fine, mostly, but only fine. It’s nothing special – it’s not a game you’ll play fifteen years from now with the same wide-eyed wonder with which you approached it as a child, but it’ll entertain you for a few hours. Few enough games can even manage to do that, so I guess I will begrudgingly chalk this one up as a win.