'Yoku's Island Express' Is Metroid Plus Pinball, And It's Sooooooooooo Good


#1

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.”

Excuse me?

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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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/pav35n/yokus-island-express-is-metroid-plus-pinball-and-its-sooooooooooo-good

#2

It’s a cool premise but for me the thing about pinball tables is that it’s very hard to get the ball to go exactly where you want but it’s OK because no matter where it goes it’s going to bump into something that gives you points. That first gif of you trying over and over again to get the bug into the tunnel looks very frustrating and the last thing I’d want in a platformer.

Does the game have more wide open spaces elsewhere? When I think of, say, the casino levels in Sonic, it’s fun (for a little while) because there’s a terrific momentum and a lot of space for you to fly through the air and haphazardly bounce off stuff. If those levels required skill shots I don’t think I’d like them at all.


#3

I am all about this game. I discovered a love for the mechanisms of pinball and the skill involved when a few of the Star Wars tables were free on PS+, but score-chasing just isn’t for me, so I’ve never really gotten any more pinball games. This sounds perfect.


#4

I got the game on my Switch right after the stream yesterday and it’s really fun but also pretty short. I think it took me 4 or so hours to finish the main story and some of the extras, which got me to about 50% completion on that save file. The stuff I’ve been doing since is still pretty fun—pinballing everywhere is great and all the character designs are so cute—but most of it now is just revisiting areas to collect various items and it is starting to get a little stale.

Still, really good bite-sized indie game with a really fun core mechanic. Between this and Dandara, maybe this is the year of metroidvanias with creative movement?


#5

Hey I just wanna give a shout out to another game. If you like more objective-oriented pinball games, I recommend checking out Rollers of the Realm. Here. If Yoku is pinball Metroidvania, then Rollers is pinball RPG! Worth a gander, I think!

I also completely forgot about Odama and now I want to play it ugh


#6

Odama looks super far out.

I’m in love with this game. I’m about 8 hours in this game, 60% complete, nearing the end of the plot I think (at least in the final third), but I’ve done a lot of collecting on the way.


#7

I was in love with this game, until it started leaning hard into the mechanics that aren’t pinball. Specifically, the slug vacuum and flower swinging.

If you watched the stream, you may have noticed that the slug vacuum behaves kind of unpredictably. If you approach a slug too fast, you’ll hit it before you can vacuum it up. If you approach too slowly or from the wrong angle, the vacuum will auto-engage, but not actually suck it up. A lot of the tables spawn slugs in spots that are basically impossible to vacuum from, which means you have to keep spawning them until they show up in a good spot. You can sometimes overcome this by hitting both triggers. Combine that with the timer (and the auto-exploding with A), and it’s pretty frustrating.

The flower swinging is somehow even worse. It behaves the same as the slug vacuum, which means that you have to be pretty precise to even engage the swing. Using both triggers to compensate means that it’s unclear which trigger you have to let go of to stop the swing. Aiming is damn near impossible for two reasons: you spin way too fast to get a bead on anything, and it’s extremely unclear how you’re supposed to aim. Do you let go when it looks like the ball’s tangent will intersect the target? It turns out: no, it’s sometime earlier, but it’s unclear how much earlier due to the speed of the swing. Worse, the game forces you to chain a bunch of swings together during one of the main missions, which is extremely difficult and not fun. I’m at the point now where this is blocking forward progress, and I think I’d rather just watch a video of the ending than put up with this bullshit mechanic.

This is the kind of super obvious thing that should’ve shown up in playtesting, but maybe they just didn’t?


#8

So I cleared the main quests (the swinging mechanic is still awful and needs to die), and thought it might be worth discussing what the game gets right.

A lot of people have wondered why a game like this hadn’t happened yet. The answer is simple and telling: Yoku’s Island Express is an open world Metroidvania platformer with pinball mechanics. It’s not trying to simulate a physical pinball table – it’s just taking whatever mechanics from pinball make sense in the context of a platforming adventure game, and discarding the rest.

This is a crucial distinction. Most video pinball games try to emulate the physical format of pinball, complete with rectangular tables and nudging. But if you’re lucky enough to play pinball tables in the real world, you know that this is a fool’s errand. Pinball is analog and unpredictable; every table plays different, depending on how it’s set up (and how well it’s maintained). That’s not a thing video pinball has ever been seriously interested in simulating, nor is it necessarily possible. And in the context of a video game, that unpredictability would probably be seen as a bug and not a feature.

Yoku strips away all of that stuff, while still keeping the basic feel of pinball. You can’t nudge (that would mean physically shaking the world, which doesn’t make sense), but you can influence the ball a little with the analog stick. You can’t post pass, but you can use ramps to transfer the ball between flippers, while also building speed and momentum for shots. Yoku makes its shot mechanics explicit by lighting up the part of the flipper the ball is on; what that means is that shots are always reproducible if you set them up correctly, and that precision becomes necessary as the tables/areas get more difficult.

If you don’t already like pinball, I don’t know that this is the game that’s going to change your mind. As forgiving as it is (you can drain as many times as you want, you just lose a little fruit), it does require a certain level of skill and precision to advance. But it’s a tantalizing look into an alternate world where platformers were built around flippers, and not the jump button. I hope that if they do a sequel, they iron out the rough edges in the extra mechanics, because I love the basic concept.


#9

So I’ve been chipping away at this and it’s really good, but I’ve been finding myself getting queasy in some spots, specifically when there are a ton of swinging points and the camera shakes back and forth a whole bunch. It makes me real dizzy. Otherwise, this game is so weird and wonderful and all over the place and I want to hug everything I meet!


#10

I got this on sale on the eShop for $12 (I think?) and it may be my GOTY, like holy SHIT is it a good game. It’s not just a great-playing game (which it is!), a total joy to move around the world (also true!), and a well-balanced pinball experience (yep!). The graphics are gooooooorgeous, and the soundtrack is sublime. I just love everything about this fucking game, I can’t get enough of it, and it is significantly longer than I expected going in! PLEASE check this game out, it fucking rules


#11

Completely missed this game so thank you for bumping this @kcin, it looks super rad. :open_mouth: It reminds me of the RPG mode in Pinball Quest: