Yoshi’s Story gets dismissed as a weak, childish game because of its apparent simplicity and forgiving difficulty. Really though, it is one of the most intelligently designed games ever made. It is one of the only games, if not the only game, to successfully and adequately deal with the concept of losing ‘lives.’
I have an old family friend a few years younger than me. His first console was an N64 and Yoshi’s Story one of his first games alongside Super Mario 64. When I first played Yoshi’s Story at his house I enjoyed it, but invited him to try my copy of Yoshi’s Island on Super Nintendo. He played and enjoyed that but something bothered him and he confronted me about it. He had two extremely interesting questions that to this day I remember because I could not adequately answer them;
“When Baby Mario got taken, how come I had him again at the start of the level?”
“Blue Yoshi died but when I tried the level again I was Blue Yoshi, why?”
Imagine a seven year old asking you that.
Games have always dealt with the concept of death or failure. Yet for some reason, everyone seemed happy to just go along with the idea of ‘lives’ or chances. You might typically start with 3, like baseball “third strike – you’re out.” Unlike baseball, you might actually achieve something before you lose a life and then get to start over. And unlike baseball, you might collect new chances, typically by running over an icon that resembles the avatar’s head. If a video game is an interactive narrative you play out and then you fail, it is as if the events that just played out had never happened and we were starting fresh. Like a blooper, left on the cutting room floor of a movie editing studio. A long time ago it was simply decided that games would adopt this format and no game ever challenged that, until Yoshi’s Story.
As gamers, we have probably forgotten how long ago or how quickly we mentally tore down these logical problems with games. Who knows, maybe it was 30 seconds in that we decided that was just how things were in games. It didn’t matter if you died because you could just start again from where you left off, unless you got ‘game over’. Gamers raised on today’s titles might not even be aware of the ‘game over’ concept, since it was a convention of arcade machines that had to stop you playing all day. But for those people who played Yoshi’s Story, like my buddy Angus, they didn’t encounter this flaw in game mechanics until they branched out. In Yoshi’s Story you start the game not with six lives, but six Yoshi’s, each an individual. If they die, they don’t come back ever. There is no ‘Game Over’ screen in the old sense: if you lose your last yoshi, you have actually failed to protect them, the last of their species, and caused evil to reign forever.
This ties into the game’s name: Yoshi’s Story. It is a story, a pop-up book as the game presents it, and stories do not have mid-sentence revisions. There is no flicking back and reading from the beginning of the page again if you stuffed up in Yoshi’s Story. The events that unfolded always matter and form part of the story. “The red yoshi failed and was taken, crying, to Baby Bowser’s castle” is part of the story and then the green yoshi or whoever has to pick up the pieces. You can even gain new chances in Yoshi’s Story in the form of locating and saving the two stranded yoshis hidden in the game. It is a game that, without removing the convention of extra chances, creates a logical reason for events.
Yoshi’s Story is incredible in that it never ever breaks real life logical boundaries and sustains a narrative. And for that it must be applauded.
As the page turned, the Yoshis all grew happier.