I’ve always wanted to like pinball games, but it’s never clicked. The allure is obvious: the slow tension of locking a ball into place, the hypnotic randomness of a tiny metal sphere bouncing around the table, the subtle dance of mental predictions with gut instinct. It’s also where some of my favorite universes—Jurassic Park, Independence Day—got their best presentation in game form. My first rounds with a table are intoxicating, as lights and sounds glitter around my attempts to punt the ball in the right direction. The mechanics of pinball are strange, pure, unmatched. But inevitably, my interest runs dry. High scores aren’t enough for me, and in pinball, that’s the point.
Every once and a while, though, video games give me what I want: pinball dropped into something outside a regular pinball table, a game with more concrete objectives, a way to feel satisfaction beyond watching sheer numbers tick up. You would not be surprised, then, to learn I’m a huge fan of games like Kirby’s Pinball Land, Odama, and Sonic Spinball. (Sadly, I’ve never played Devil’s Crush.) These days, there are so many ways to play great, traditional pinball games, but Kirby’s Pinball Land 2? No dice.
Enter Yoku’s Island Express, a game I literally hadn’t heard of until randomly scrolling through Twitter and seeing a link to a review note it as a “pinball Metroidvania.”
I spent an hour yesterday streaming the opening sections of Yoku’s Island Express, and it’s everything I was hoping for. Yoku’s Island Express, a game with a shockingly brazen riff on the Yoshi’s Island logo, is an utterly charming mashup that completely works.
At first blush, it’s easy to take Yoku’s Island Express as a platformer; you start off by directly controlling a small bug who is far too cute. Attached to this bug, however, is a ball. The ball constrains the bug from doing anything but moving left and right, but fortunately, there are flippers all around. There are two kinds of flippers—blue, orange—and each is controlled with a different button. These allow you to propel the bug (and ball) through the initially jungle-themed environment, where elaborate and intricate pinball tables are woven into the kind of place that would normally hide a platformer.
And really, Yoku’s Island Express is a platformer, “jumping” replaced with slamming a ball against walls and loop-de-loops. It creates a pace both methodical and frenzied, as you slowly line up a particular shot, before watching the laws of physics take over, sending the ball in unexpected directions. Because the “tables” have been so carefully designed, however, you’re often rewarded for erratic play by stumbling into secrets, or having the ball smash bumpers that serve up the game’s chief collectible, fruit.
I can’t speak to whether the physics of Yoku’s Island Express are table accurate, but they feel right. They’re forgiving in a way that lets a novice like myself try to pull off elaborate trick shots I’d otherwise shy from. Because the punishment for ambition in Yoku’s Island Express is often nothing more than a chance to try again (at worst, you lose some fruit), it encourages creativity in a way that runs directly counter to the feeling I usually get—dread, failure, resentment—when trying the same thing on a regular table.
It’s hard to say too much about the Metroid influences, given the little time I’ve spent with it, but, one of my favorite moments in these games is seeing the map for the first time, and Yoku’s Island Express has a big ol’ map. A good one? I don’t know. It’s big!
I’ve played lots of Metroid-like games, and so the sheer existence of a game where you’re collecting tools to use in places you’ve already explored isn’t enough for me anymore. We live in an age where there’s a new game to scratch a particular itch every few weeks, which requires more than nostalgia to be interesting. Part of the reason I’m having such a delightful time with Yoku’s Island Express is because my primary mode of interaction is so wholly different from games of this type. I’m not running, jumping, and dodging in the way I usually am—I’m smackin’ a dang pinball.
One last thing. I can’t say for sure, but there might be some messed up stuff under the surface. Does Yoku’s Island Express have a morality system? Is a game about cute animals going to let you be a dirty villain? The first quest you’re sent on is finding a mushroom for this giant eel blocking your path. Finding the mushroom is easy, but if you spend a time poking around, you’ll come across a poison mushroom. I figured the poison mushroom might be for a side quest or something, but nope—when I encountered the eel, the game presented me with the option to feed him either.
Okay? Okay. I think that eel is dead?
It’s not clear what the implications of that decision are, if any, but if Yoku’s Island Express is not only a terrific Metroid-inspired pinball game but also a game about biting moral choices—shit, man. I didn't need another reason to keep playing, but there you go.
OK, one last last thing. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised Yoku’s Island Express is operating on multiple levels; it's making explicit (and funny!) jokes about horny enemies—in this case, slugs who explode because they be horny—and doesn’t blink. There’s a character who uses “tools” to “manage” horny slugs. Tell me more.
Wait, one last last last thing. No port begging on this one; it’s already on Switch!
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