Metroidvania games are one of the more popular genres for smaller developers to tackle in recent years. That’s a great thing for players like myself, who grew up playing those types of classic exploration adventure games. However, if you had told me that a game starring a postmaster (who happens to be a dung beetle pushing a pinball across a tropical island) would be the next standout hit for the Switch, I’d have asked what you were smoking. Clearly the developers of Yoku’s Island Express had a bold vision when they pitched this concept. Somehow it not only works, but it’s one of my favorite games so far in 2018 – and that’s saying a lot!
When I watched the first footage of Yoku’s Island Express I wasn’t sure what to make of it. In fact, I figured it was just a cutesy spin on a pinball game. It wasn’t until I got my hands on the game and played for a few minutes that I realized this wasn’t any ordinary game. From the beautiful title screen with the soothing Caribbean soundtrack to the witty dialog at the start, I was hooked. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, you play as Yoku the Dung Beetle who is tethered to a pinball. You move about like any side-scrolling game, except everywhere you go you push the ball along. It’s your job to deliver the mail across the island, but first you have to make it to your post! That won’t be easy with a huge creature blocking your path, so you have to improvise.
I had initially believed this would be a pinball game with adventure elements, but in reality its more the opposite. You’ll traverse the open areas, which are filled with crossing pathways, hidden areas, and fruit to collect (more on that in a bit). In fact, the game progresses more like a Metroid game, where you’ll need to find an item to unlock new areas. For example, early in the game you’ll gain a power that will allow you to swim – up to that point you’d float across the water, passing up fruit floating just under the surface. Once you’ve gained the swimming ability you can head back and explore the depths that you previously only skimmed over, revealing more of the world and its secrets.
The way the entire world has been designed is genius. There are bumpers and flippers everywhere, which can be activated with the simple press of the shoulder buttons. Some paths are locked until you pay the toll: fruit – the currency of the land! As such, you’ll want to seek out as much of the tropical delicacies as you possibly can. Much like a Zelda game, you’ll come across opportunities to expand your wallet so you can carry even more fruit at once. Trust me, you’ll want those expansions as soon as possible because it doesn’t take long before you fill up on fruit and you’ll want to be able to have as much of it on-hand as possible.
As you unlock new paths you’ll often be treated to areas more traditionally found in pinball machines. These areas are a ton of fun to mess around in and often yield the most fruit, especially if you find all of the paths the ball can travel. Sometimes you’ll be locked into an area until you’ve managed to break a crystal and collect all of the shards to unlock a door. If your ball falls down out of the playfield between the flippers, there’s normally a set of spikey vines that will shred up some of your precious fruit as a penalty. Thankfully the game is rather forgiving and will often spawn more fruit so you don’t lose too much for making a mistake. The developers really nailed the ball physics for these sections of the game and if you’re at all a fan of pinball games these areas will bring a smile to your face.
It can’t be overstated just how beautiful Yoku’s Island Express is, with its lush tropical forests, beautiful water, and enchanting secret coves. The warm colors are inviting and it’s honestly a place I’d love to visit if it really existed. The art is simply breathtaking and reminds me slightly of the Rayman Origins series, but more organic. This place feels like it could have been lived in. The soundtrack fits the game to a tee. I love the tropical beats and the dynamically changing music as you enter a dark forest or dive underwater. Small details, like how when you meet a new character and they give you a quest, the game simply zooms out to show you where to go and then zooms back in – all in one take without going to a separate screen. That’s pretty impressive for a smaller development studio and shows they put love and care into every aspect of the presentation.
Yoku’s Island Express managed to inject pure happiness into my veins. The game has a very upbeat tone to it and I felt happy the entire time playing. Sure, there are frustrations here and there, just like any game where you get stuck, but those were few and far between. I’ve never played a game quite like this one, and that’s saying a lot! With unique gameplay mechanics, clever level design, and beautiful world to explore, there’s plenty to enjoy here. Who knew that combining pinball with Metroidvania would work so well? Perhaps this will spawn a bunch of clones and we’ll have to come up with a new genre: Pinballvania?
Yoku’s Island Express was reviewed using a final retail Nintendo Switch download code provided by the publisher.