There have been many different pinball games over the years, ranging from Mario to Metroid, but none have the charm or breadth that Yoku’s Island Express does.
At first glance, it might be difficult to understand the concept of what this unique pinball game offers. It’s got pinball, sure, but once you grasp the additional movement options of rolling your ball around and get your first traversal upgrade, it all starts falling into place. Yoku’s Island Express is the only Metroidvania in the land of adventure pinball games, and its huge map, clever upgrades and boss fights might surprise you.
Yoku is a dung beetle and it is his responsibility to take over as the new postman of Mokumana Island. Instead of rolling around a ball of dung, Yoku has a trusty round rock which seems to suit him better and this rock certainly works better as a pinball. You can have him roll the ball left or right while on the ground, but you must use the help of the environment’s conveniently placed flippers to offer verticality.
Flippers come in three different types: left, right or both. It’s a little tricky figuring out the corresponding color that represents the left and right flippers when you’re in the middle of a timing-based puzzle, but eventually manipulating these flippers is as natural as playing a game of pinball. Most of the time, the game tends to leave the placement of the flippers in the environment relative to their corresponding side of the controller, which certainly helps.
There are other pinball staples in Yoku’s adventure too, with ramps and bumpers offering ways to gain keys that will unlock additional paths. Timing in this game is absolutely paramount, as you often come to areas that require you to use angled hits from flippers to alter the ball’s trajectory in such a way that you are flying towards difficult to reach paths. There are real consequences for draining a ball as well — the area between the flippers has thorns that will cause you to lose precious fruit, which serves as the game’s currency. With no health or lives system, it’s a minor inconvenience, but enough of one that you want to avoid it when possible.
Fruit on Mokumana Island is everywhere and you’d do well to pick it up, as many pathways are restricted by locked flippers that require fruit to unlock. Certain combinations in the more traditional pinball areas of the game, including hitting bumpers to light all of them in a series or multiple passes on a ramp, will offer huge bundles of fruit on the playfield, ripe for collection. There are also some additional uses for the fruit, such as unlocking sections on the appropriately named ‘Bee Line’ transportation system.
The Bee Line is a series of ball-lock mechanisms that allow you to move quickly throughout the island by shooting Yoku and his ball across long distances out of a bee-decorated cannon. You can travel left, right or even stop where you are and drop out of the cannon, allowing you quick movement and relative placement of where you are trying to go in a vast open world. You’ll appreciate the speed when you are solving one of the many fetch quests that the inhabitants bestow upon you, making quick work of an otherwise long journey between points.Yoku’s Island Express has a large, beautiful island to explore, which is made even more visually appealing due to the excellent use of scrolling, multi-layer backgrounds. The painterly environments pop with bright colors in the overworld and dark grungy textures below ground in some of the darker areas. Each area has a distinct design and makes it easy to distinguish between them, as does the wonderfully designed map system that showcases them in an easy to digest representation.
You can zoom in on the map to show the relative area you are in, with details such as ramps and passageways, or zoom out to view the island as a whole, with markers showing you your current tasks. The map by itself is a beautifully painted work of art and does such a great job of showing you items you missed — such as treasure chests, after getting the appropriate upgrade — that it’d truly be hard to even fathom playing without it. Parts of the map are only revealed after visiting those areas, so it also makes it easier to see what places you might need to visit to progress and perhaps find one of the essential creature-based upgrades that allows for additional gameplay options.
There are three main upgrades available to Yoku: slug vacuum, divefish and the sootling leash. The first one you get is the slug vacuum, allowing you to suck up explosive slugs, which you can then use to blow up pathways or blockades — there’s even a boss fight where you use it to help you defeat a huge spider. The divefish allows Yoku to dive deep underwater, accessing previously inaccessible areas and secrets below. Donning the sootling leash gives you the ability to swing on special flowers, launching you and your ball quickly in the air. All of these upgrades feel great to use and each one opens up new pathways to explore and discover as a result.
As there is no health or lives in Yoku’s Island Express, it makes sense that there are no enemies, but you’ll find there are many things wanting to keep you from your current task. As mentioned before, your ability to read timing comes off as your biggest challenge, but other creatures and obstacles in the game will knock you back after entering their path, such as forces like wind and water.
Boss fights tend to take this challenge a bit more seriously, with attacks that will throw you below your current set of flippers, sometimes into the thorns below. These boss fights also offer new multi-ball mechanics like hitting crystals so that you can bring in some robed helpers to help you defeat the boss. It’s moments like these where everything comes together in an epic fashion and leaves you with an adrenaline high as you battle these monstrosities. Once the final battle is over, you are free to wrap up finding all the collectibles and generally explore to your heart’s content, which is a nice bonus.
We are at the dawn of a new era of pinball games and Yoku’s Island Express is a fine jumping off point for future titles in this unique genre. It nails everything from the eclectic music to the brilliantly executed art design, making a game that simply feels good to play. If there was one thing I might be concerned about, it is the difficulty of executing some flipper angles, but ultimately it’s simply a matter of patience, and that’s not a terrible thing to ask of players, especially with a game this interesting and fun. Yoku may be a dung beetle, but he serves as a great roll model with a brilliant game that redefines what a Metroidvania can be.