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.
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