The idea of making a pinball game that ventures outside the pinball table isn’t new. Games like Sonic Spinball, Odama, and Kirby’s Pinball Land have melded the progression of a single-player game with the speed and timing of pinball to varying results. Yoku’s Island Express is the latest game to give the idea a go, and from I played of it at this year’s E3, it has a lot of potential.
Playing as Yoku the Dung Beetle, you land on the island of Mokumana to replace its current mailman. As is usually the case in situations like this, it’s not that simple. Pushing a small boulder around, you quickly find that much of the path has been blocked off, and can only be traversed tethering yourself to the boulder and and using the many flippers and bumpers strewn around the island to move around. Though the colored pinball components look out of place on the island, moving with the analog stick and bouncing around the island feels completely natural. After a short learning period, I never felt the instinctual urge to press the A button to jump. I did, however, occasionally forget which trigger to press to activate which flipper, though the game color codes these (yellow for right, blue for left).
The biggest obstacle in my way was a giant eel, which I had to feed despite the sign to its immediate left asking island residents not to feed it with a picture of a mushroom, which I took as my cue to find said mushroom and feed it to the eel. A nearby launching pad then begins a series of short treks through puzzles in contained areas similar to pinball tables. As in classic pinball, where the ball lies on the flipper when you press the right trigger, determines the angle at which you launch, and the puzzles had me mucking with angles to get into a few hard-to-reach places. I also had to hit a few obstacles along the way to progress. These puzzles were fun to solve, challenging me to use my pinball skills to scour every nook and cranny of a particular area. As I made my way around the island, I picked up fruits of various sizes. These fruits act as a form of currency, which I deposited at shrines around the island to collect upgrades that made it easier to traverse the island.
I was also able to take a quick glance at the map, in which undiscovered areas are obscured by clouds and which seems much larger than I had anticipated. A few cannons around the map act as fast-travel points, though I wasn’t able to test them out in the demo I played. This is where the game’s larger progression system factored in: Developer Villa Gorilla brought up The Legend of Zelda as a key inspiration for how it wants to structure the game, with a large overworld littered with more focused spokes to work through, and even a few boss encounters. Though you can’t fail or die as you bounce around the island, you can fall into thorny vines that cause you to lose fruits.
After bouncing around several small screens and completing a few puzzles, I was finally able to find the mushroom I was looking for and feed it to the eel, which opened up the path to the end of the demo. Though I only had a brief encounter with the mailman Yoku is supposed to replace at the beginning of the demo, Villa Gorilla promises the game will have some light story elements throughout Yoku’s journey.
The pinball mechanics had the immediate fun a good pinball game requires to hold players’ attention, but I’m curious to see how Yoku’s Island express holds up over the course of the hours Yoku’s journey will take, and eager to play more when the game hits PC and consoles next sometime next year.