For such an unassuming game, Yoshi’s Woolly World ties together a surprising amount of Nintendo’s creative loose ends. It does right by Yoshi and the legacy of Yoshi’s Island far better than any other attempt in the last 20 years. It makes good on the promise of its other obvious forebear, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, a wildly imaginative game so cuddly and kind that its charms easily devolved into blandness. It avoids the same pitfall by giving players the chance to fine-tune its challenge in ways that are far more natural than Nintendo’s clunky attempts at player-regulated difficulty in recent years. Most importantly, though, Woolly World finds the delicate, flexible game-design philosophy that blossomed in Super Mario 3D World bleeding into and invigorating the company’s other projects, even when, in the case of this one, they’re developed outside of Nintendo’s walls.
Woolly World takes all the egg chucking and flutter jumping of Yoshi’s Island, does away with Baby Mario, and replaces its predecessor’s hand-drawn look with oodles of felt and textiles. Given the visual trailblazing of Yoshi’s Island, the coloring-book aesthetic of which dazzles to this day, it’s a natural fit to inherit the vibrant craft-supply worlds of Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Yoshi’s adventure pushes that concept to new extremes, though. Cotton-ball snow comes crashing down in pillowy avalanches. Water is little more than a few strands of gently undulating blue yarn. And decorative flourishes help illustrate each level’s theme with careful stylistic consistency. A woodsy stage that’s full of destructible logs gets festooned with bits of flannel, for example, and unfinished wicker towers dot a tropical beach like so many thatched warp pipes. They’re small touches, but the levels are dense with these defining details, and they go a long way to setting each apart.
But more than those bells and whistles, it’s the game’s complete dedication to change that keeps things from getting stale. Like Mario Galaxy and Mario 3D World before it, Woolly World’s stages are these singular microcosms, each with their own drastically different sights and rules. In one stage you’ll be bumping blocks to raise and lower the water in a flooded felt cavern, and the next, you’re hanging onto curtains as they careen down the tracks of a homely roller coaster in the sky. And outside of the odd unlockable bonus level, that’s it; you’ll never ride curtains again. Though plenty of enemies and tools recur, their new surroundings demand players constantly reassess how they approach them and learn new ways Yoshi can use them to his advantage. All that variety means every level is a fresh opportunity to experience the thrills of discovery and mastery, and while it’s not a design technique that’s unique to Woolly World, the continuous stream of creativity displayed in this barrage of pithy concepts is just as astounding as it’s ever been.
Thanks to the other half of the Mario 3D World formula, that mandates an idea be presented slowly and safely before your meddle is tested, all this constant rewriting of the rules never becomes overwhelming. When tackled head-on, most levels are short and painless, but if you’re trying to take your time and collect every bit and bob a stage has to offer, they pose a far greater challenge. And you might actually want to collect everything. Finding a level’s five bundles of magic yarn unlocks an often-adorable new pattern for you to rock, and if you nab all 40 Smiley Flowers (those happy little daisies from Yoshi’s Island) spread across a world’s set of eight levels, you open up a bonus stage.
Woolly World has a handful of devious tricks for hiding its doodads, and even when scouring through a stage with a careful eye, it’s difficult to spot everything on your first time through. A level that might take three minutes to clear if you’re just running from start to finish can easily turn into 15 minutes of backtracking and searching and replaying large swathes should you die attempting to snatch a particularly perilous flower. And while most of the level concepts are novel enough to hold up to that kind of extensive kneading, several—mostly the few maze-like courses—overstay their welcome. It doesn’t help that the layout of each level’s checkpoints doesn’t seem to take those collectibles into account. Death also means losing everything you’ve snagged since the last checkpoint, and they’re just far enough apart to cause some serious headaches.
That’s part of the beauty of Woolly World, though. It’s only as difficult as you want it to be. If you can’t figure out how to get that bundle of magenta yarn tucked away behind a towering water monster, you can just forget about it and move on. The developers included some more uninspired means of making the game even easier—you can use the gems you’ve collected to activate special powers for a stage, like immunity to fire or a magnet that sucks in collectibles, and “Mellow Mode” grants Yoshi a pair of wings to just fly over a stage entirely—but the levels are designed in a way that provides a natural method to adjust for frustration or boredom. After all, wouldn’t you rather find out what new knitted wonder is waiting just around the corner?