When Nintendo first introduced Yoshi, its iconic omnivore, back in 1991, the company made a lot of noise about how the dino was a new “friend” and “companion” for heroic plumbers Mario and Luigi. But as anyone who’s ever played Super Mario World knows, all those declarations of friendship and equal partnership were little more than anti-dinosaur propaganda. In practical terms, Yoshi’s taken far more abuse from his supposed “friends” over the years than from all the Koopa King’s minions combined. Sacrificed into pits, slammed against enemies, and force-fed like a prehistoric goose being groomed for dino foie gras, Yoshi ranks somewhere between “meat shield” and “pack mule” in the Super Mario World player’s pecking order. For all the lip-service the game pays to the idea that Mario is freeing the yoshi species from its cruel confinement, it gives a hundred practical examples of the way the new boss might be even worse than the old.
You might expect, though, that the yoshis’ own self-titled outing would turn that brutal formula on its head and give the peace-loving dinosaurs a chance to shine. And at first, it looks like the brilliant Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, released on American shores 20 years ago this week, might do exactly that. For the first time in the series, Yoshi is the one in the driver’s seat, free of the overall clad tyranny of his pipe-lurking persecutors. Yoshi makes the jumps, and Yoshi decides when and what to eat. When the game’s rider-ridee dyad takes a hit, it’s not Yoshi who’s forced to take the brunt of the damage and sent running off in a terrified, adorable panic; instead, dead weight Baby Mario is the one who goes flying. And the Yoshi’s Island player who treats his dinosaur’s demise with the same carefree sociopathy that marked the lizard-player dynamic in Super Mario World is a Yoshi’s Island player who won’t be playing Yoshi’s Island for very long.
Yet for all the ways Super Mario World 2 subverts its predecessor in favor of apparent reptile empowerment, in the end, its main characters are still little more than self-sacrificing beasts of burden. It’s not the Yoshi who moves from stage to stage, traversing the game’s beautiful cartoon landscapes, but Baby Mario, who’s hurled from mount to mount in a relay system that seems to span the entire Yoshi Nation (none of whom seem to have anything better to do than serve as the Chosen Child’s personal, mobile thrones). And though Yoshi’s survival is far more important here than in other Mario games—the levels have the common decency to end when the poor little fella is smashed or burnt or otherwise killed in service to his mushroom-munching master—it’s never placed above Mario’s, only alongside it. Even in their own game, on their own island, the yoshis are tools, a fact that ultimately makes Yoshi’s Island a game not about self-determination, but about being a servant, about symbiosis gone sour, about sacrificing yourself for someone who’s perfectly happy to spend the rest of his life kicking you into a bottomless pit, just to get ahead. It’s the The Giving Tree, but in video game form.
Worse, it enforces its “happiness in servitude” mindset on the players themselves. Everything in Yoshi’s Island is bright and cheerful, with the smiling dinosaurs happily ferrying the parasite strapped to their backs past every presented threat. “What fun,” these paleontological proletariat seem to think, even as the bourgeoisie babe on their back grows ever more burdensome. The game goes to extreme lengths to get players to buy into this Mario-first mindset, training them to sacrifice their own safety to rescue Baby Mario via one of the most effectively awful sound effects in video game history:
Every time Baby Mario goes flying, that sound floods out, punishing players for their inattention, demanding they move heaven and hell to get the wailing bastard back. It’s probably overblown to describe the process as classical conditioning, but nobody who’s ever spent more than 10 seconds with that tinny wail blasting in their ears can question the importance of getting Baby Mario back to his “proper” place as fast as yoshily possible.
At it’s core, then, Yoshi’s Island is a game about serving someone else’s needs, about being a disposable portion of someone else’s grand design. You aren’t the hero; you’re the hero’s scaly, long-tongued horse, with no more self-rule than Zelda’s Epona or Shadow Of The Colossus’ Agro. It may be one of the rare games in the Mario universe where the portly plumber isn’t the playable character, but it never lets you (or its smiling, servile protagonists) forget who’s actually in control.