In the hierarchy of Nintendo characters, Yoshi – the green, egg-laying dinosaur with a lizard-like tongue – may lack the superstar status of Mario, but he has always been irresistibly cute.
Never more so than in his latest starring vehicle, Yoshi's Woolly World, which adopts the Arts & Crafts style pioneered in 2010's Kirby's Epic Yarn so enthusiastically that more or less everything in its game-world appears to be made from wool or fabric, Yoshi included.
The end result is so gloriously tactile that even the hardest-hearted cynic will find him or herself gripped by an irresistible urge to hug and squeeze everything that appears on-screen. Does it stitch-up to be the tightest platformer ever made, or do its seen-it-before familiarities see it unravel?
Cute with claws
Yoshi's Woolly World is, by some considerable distance, the cutest game ever made. But don't be fooled by that into thinking that it's in any way twee or trivial. It is, after all, a Yoshi game, and from those we demand side-scrolling platform action that comes in at the harder end of the scale – which is precisely what it delivers.
Sure, it eases you in somewhat at the start, but with six eight-level worlds, it offers a much meatier gameplay experience than you might anticipate, and long before you reach the half-way stage, it presents a stern test of your manual dexterity.
In Yoshi's Woolly World, the eponymous hero has three main abilities: his classic jump, after which he can hover for a while; the ability to flick out a tongue and swallow certain enemies like a gecko catching mosquitos, then regurgitate them as balls of wool; and the ability to fire those balls of wool at objects in any direction, thanks to a targeting marker that rotates around the screen.
At various times, he acquires other skills, such as firing a stream of watermelon seeds, which, for example, come in handy when carving paths through areas apparently made of foam-rubber. Tiny cotton-wool clouds (which are sometimes hidden, only appearing when you jump into them) must be hit with regurgitated wool-balls in order to reshape levels so you can progress, or to yield crucial items like keys.
Setting a new standard
Typically for a Nintendo game, the level-design in Yoshi's Woolly World is breathtakingly good – it simply sets new standards for side-scrolling platformers.
There's plenty of replay value too, as the levels are choc-full of collectables; each has five hidden balls of wool, for example, and if you find all of them, they combine into a new Yoshi (each with a different colour-scheme) which you can then swap to. There are also five woolly daisies to collect in each level and countless jewels, each cluster of which generally gets you a stamp representing a Nintendo character or enemy.
Every world has two bosses, one in the middle and one at the end. And the whole game can be played co-operatively by two people on a drop-in, drop-out basis; although there's plenty of scope for you to hamper your fellow "co-operative" player's progress.
Sewing up the cuteness factor
With every few steps Yoshi makes you'll encounter sweet little grin-inducing touches – for example, whenever you see a little bow sticking out of the environment, you can get Yoshi to unravel it with his tongue; little woolly baskets contain balls of wool which Yoshi can knock out with his head; and platforms that exist only as outlines can be given woolly form by chucking a ball of wool at them.
The collectible jewels even operate as a usable in-game currency – at the beginning of each level, you can cash some in for Power Badges, which bring different, often useful, extra abilities such as bouncing straight back up from any abysses into which you fall, or spawning endless watermelons for Yoshi to use as seed-ammunition.
In typical Yoshi fashion, there are some puzzle-solving sequences, which often involve finding keys or testing your spatial awareness by, for example, letting you move into and out of two-sided areas of scenery.
Drawing from experience
Even those with gnat-like attention spans won't tire of the gameplay, which is constantly, and wildly, inventive, and often draws inspiration from Nintendo's vast back catalogue of bizarre, surreal enemies. Chomps, for example, appear as frameworks which you can flesh out with wool, then push down slopes, squashing enemies as you go, before lodging in holes as platforms that let you reach hitherto inaccessible places.
Physics often enters the equation too. There are, for example, pivoting platforms made from wool stretched between knitting needles, which you must tilt by standing at one end or the other.
If we had to raise one quibble about Yoshi's Woolly World, it's that that bosses are perhaps a bit easier to defeat than they ought to be – although sometimes it takes you a while to work out how to prevail against them. But that's a minor criticism indeed, and probably highlights how close it comes to gaming perfection.
Yoshi's Woolly World is a platforming wonder that, once again, proves Nintendo's factory-like proficiency in knocking out gaming masterpieces. It's a shame it won't attract wider exposure because of the largely shunned Wii U's reach.
The game also has great Amiibo support, if you're a collector of the toys. Nintendo is preparing to release a selection of literally squeezable woolly ones, such as the yarn Yoshi who comes in the £50 boxset. If you're not into Amiibo then the standalone game's £30 price tag pays for itself given how downright cute and joyful it is.
If you know someone who thinks all games are mindless, violent and uninteresting, just show them Yoshi's Woolly World in action, and you won't ever have to hear their carping again. It's an utter delight, only marginally let down by its easy-to-beat bosses.