Since the days of River City Ransom, genre mashups have been a cornerstone of videogame design. The best of these, like Typing of the Dead, Crypt of the Necrodancer and the Camelot Mario Golf entries, are better than the sum of their parts. But Yoku’s Island Express takes it further and in doing so, enters unicorn territory: it makes the constituent parts better as a result of the combination. The things that make pinball special are surprisingly complemented by metroidvania trappings and somehow, incorporating a lost language of locomotion enhances the feeling of exploration in this pathfinding delight.
If it isn’t clear by now, Yoku’s Island Express is a mix of pinball and metroidvania. It sports gorgeous hand-drawn art in the vein of Ori and the Blind Forest and Rayman Legends. Like the game itself, verteran composer Jesse Harlin has crafted a soundtrack with surprising fusions. Welcome to Mokumana Beach features expected steel drums and island flutes. The next couple tracks present a moody keyboard and jazzy bassline reminiscent of film noir. Track 5, Spina and the Skullgangers, meshes both of these disparate sounds while maintaining the trademark record scratches that appear throughout the project. Worthy of its praise independent of the game, I definitely encourage you to take a listen.
The game opens with your avatar, a Beetle, approaching an island on its trusty ball. An ominous event occurs on the otherwise peaceful land just before you’re taken under by a wave that washes you ashore. As you roll your inatimate companion, the first NPC you encounter is a Pterodactyl Postmaster trying to escape and in doing so, is handing you his delivery duties. All of the dialogue is charming and completely unobtrusive. From there, the mechanics are gradually introduced. You can’t jump but you can spring blue and orange flippers with LT and RT respectively. For the most part, these are in the form of traditional pinball flippers but, there are also trampoline-like platforms that shoot you straight up into the air when the corresponding trigger is pressed. Fruit are scattered all around the playfield and these will serve as your currency to unlock new flippers and therefore, new paths. On your way to your first quest goal you’re treated to a view of your greater surroundings.
As you navigate from section to section, you naturally fall into caverns that make up the majority of the pinball gameplay. In these, there is the time-honored 2 flipper setup and your goal is to use your prowess to hit particular hazards or navigate through small entryways. Progressing through the game reveals ever more detailed arenas that eventually ask you to complete several different phases in order to make your way to the next goal. Often spanning multiple screens, these reward your curiosity in a way that feels like a microcosm of the metroidvania. The more complex the setups get, the more paths you have to play around with. In getting a feel for the arena, you’ll learn the sequence of unlocks needed to make your way out of the cavern and back to more natural exploration.
Of course, outside of those pinball fields your movement is still tied to flippers. It’s funny how daunting a small gap can be once you take away the jump button that gamers are so incredibly used to. This small mental barrier has compounding effects when you look at your map and consider how you will get to the nearby small room whose treasure chest beckons you. This is important in a genre where part of the fun, like exploring a strange city for the first time, is to get lost and find your own way. The feeling of triumph is inextricably tied to feeling adrift.
Naturally, there are also drawbacks to having to recalibrate your mental model. Backtracking through taxing pinball arenas to get to a secret exit required patience as I attempted a series of pixel perfect shots. The excellent bosses were also guilty of this. For instance, the giant spider in Space Monastery would send you back to a lower region if you missed a shot. This was especially frustrating if I had just gotten the timed explosive material that would damage my foe if only I could hit him before the timer expired.
To be fair, the pinball mechanics have been given some quality of life improvements that alleviate frustrations. Thankfully, the designers opted to eschew tilt altogether. Instead, you have more granular control of your ball near the flippers. Slow it down by holding the opposite direction so that you can approach your shot more carefully. Or even walk your ball backwards altogether and then, use the downhill momentum to hop over to the opposite flipper. Furthermore, a small portion of the flipper lights up at your location on it. Now you can see exactly where you’re taking a shot as you fire – if you miss, you have a better understanding of how to adjust.
Being a metroidvania, there are a healthy amount of unlocks that change the way you move around the world. For example, a fast travel system that’s a lot more fun than teleportation rooms and a swing move that’s reminiscent of DK King of Swing. Of course, there are fun collectibles and stretch goals too. Your mileage may vary but I probably reached credits in about 6 hours. I’m 9 hours in now and still have plenty to explore. More importantly, Yoku’s Island Express challenged my expectations and managed to lighten my mood after every playthrough. For those reasons, it sits alongside Celeste and Into the Breach as one of the best experiences I’ve had all year.