You could probably build a fairly tedious argument around the premise that video games have two key parental figures. There’s pen-and-paper RPGs on one side, with all the stats, the loot, the character sheets and the narrative choices. And then there’s pinball on the other, a sticky bar-room game that favours reaction-time and dexterity and intricate layout design, that rewards you – and draws you in – with glorious sounds and lights. Pen-and-paper RPGs gave us Baldur’s Gate and Deus Ex; pinball gave us Mario and GTA (the original GTA actually started out as an explicit riff on pinball, I gather; a little of this survived via the in-game text that aped the wonderfully garish displays of pinball machines). Or, you could forget all that and play Yoku’s Island Express, a platformer with more than a little RPG to it, in which you control a dung beetle postman who hops around an island not using a jump button and a dash move, but by bouncing from one point to another while being whacked with flippers.
Gosh, it’s a beautiful system. You can move Yoku back and forth with the stick, but to see him truly race across the world you use the triggers, one of which controls a golden flipper while the other controls a blue flipper. Yoku pushes a ball ahead of him – I hope it’s a ball – and it’s the ball that takes the battering, rolling and bouncing and falling and spinning while little old Yoku hangs on behind it.
The flippers reveal that the game’s bucolic island setting is in fact a fantastically well-tooled machine. You scale cliffs by rebounding off twangy drum-like stuff or riding wonderfully sculpted flumes. A little bump in the road will be enough to block off a path, while a hole may give way to a race-track made of wire that carries you miles away from its starting point. This is one of those rare games where moving around really feels like exploration, and each new discovery makes you both aware of your own powers and limitations a little more, and eager to go back to earlier locations and try out a new trick that has just occurred to you.
This is fortunate, because underneath everything else, Yoku’s Island Express is a metroidvania of sorts. Mokumana Island has been beset by troubles and it’s up to you to put them right. You do this by taking on missions that will send you in every direction – far off to the east and the west, down into the briny, bubbling deeps, and up into the frosty mountainous heights. New paths are unlocked both by paying to open up fast travel points and new bumpers – the the fruit you collect as currency is generously scattered about the place – and by learning new abilities. One minute you’re given a vacuum cleaner that allows you to suck up explosive slugs – don’t ask – that can then be used to smash through certain types of rock. The next you’ve got a doodad that allows you to swim underwater. Almost all of these new abilities are fun to use – there’s one introduced right at the end of the main campaign that is borderline maddening – but more importantly they all make you revisit the things you’ve already seen and just play about with them a bit. Such playfulness! It took me a while to recognise Yoku was a metroidvania, in other words, because while it has the precision and intricacy expected, it has not given into the kind of cold cleverness and the smugness that can rot away at the heart of many of the genre’s more recent examples.
Pinball keeps Yoku honest, I think, and there’s almost nothing this ingenious game is not willing to try reworking with ball bearings and flippers. Boss fights become screen-filling pinball layouts – and often multi-ball bonanzas too – but so do puzzle sections and traversal challenges. The map to Mokumana Island is surprisingly huge – I finished the main campaign while still being below 50 percent overall completion – but it’s filled with these bespoke mini-tables that work beautifully as set-pieces, rewarding frantic hammering of the flippers at first, but eventually giving way to moments where you really need to understand the game, which means understanding which part of the flipper will send you in the direction you really want to go in.
All of this is delivered with gorgeous art, alive to wildlife in its unlikeliest forms. Yoku’s Island Express is a deeply sweet game, but it is wonderfully eager to deliver nature at its strangest and ugliest. The result is an adventure that feels weirdly honest, even if you are playing as a beetle who delivers the mail. The world is exhilarating and beautiful, but it’s also frightening and gross. It is, to borrow a phrase from David Chang, an Ugly Delicious kind of deal – and what a perfect way of summing up this magnificent and loveable oddity.