[Best of 2018] How Yoku’s Island Express Cleverly Revitalized the Pinball Genre

It’s hard to be a fan of pinball in 2018. I’m fortunate to live within driving distance of a handful of hotspots, but a machine in proper working order is a rare sight for the average Joe. Maybe that’s why so many video games have attempted to capture the spirit of pinball in digital form. While some have stuck to pure table recreation, others have attempted to mold pinball mechanics into a more complex structure. It’s the harder feat, and many have fallen to the burden of combining flippers with more traditional game design. The fact that Yoku’s Island Express pulls off this combo with such ease is just one reason why it’s one of the best games you could play from 2018.

Yoku is a little pill bug with a noisemaker and a big job to do. He’s taking over as the postal worker on a tropical island filled with colorful residents. As his species are wont to do, Yoku gets around via rolling a giant ball. He has a great grip on it too. No matter if it’s flinging through the air or speeding through underground tunnels, Yoku is keeping a good grasp. The entire setup is sunny and adorable, just like the flipper-filled island you’ll be exploring over the adventure.

Best of 2018 – Super Jets

Yoku's Island Express

By both learning from and improving on what came before, Yoku hits what a pinball adventure needs to hit. To start, you get standard platforming controls, rolling around the island and gaining momentum. Quickly, you’ll discover one of the hundreds of flippers and plungers that dot the island. These will give you height, launch you across gaps and open otherwise hidden areas. You can’t jump by default, but that doesn’t stop you from zipping through the air in the first five minutes.

Since Yoku’s Island Express takes inspiration from Metroidvanias as well, you’ll get power-ups that help in your exploration. A fish suit might help Yoku dive underwater. The Beeline gives you access to a host of grapple points, acting as a fast travel system. When you’re not playing pure pinball, you’ll be combining these traversal mechanics with freeform flippers to perform amazing movement combos. Even outside of the traditional restraints of the table setup, Yoku‘s Island Express displays its love for the sport of silver balls.

Best of 2018 – Bring Up the Bumpers

Yoku's Island Express

Once you get on one of the critical paths, you’ll start to run into tables. It’s here where the game’s pinball design shines through the brightest. You’ve got the standard bottom flippers and a dead zone between them. You need to aim at critical targets in order to open up the path to the next table or platforming section. Spinners charge up to give you items and buttons switch paths open and closed. If you’ve played any amount of pinball before, you’ll be right at home, but Yoku doesn’t just stop at traditional table design.

Perhaps the smartest decision by the designers was to make the pinball sections less than punishing. Dropping between the flippers doesn’t bring up a game over screen. Even better, you don’t fall back to a previous table and face ten minutes of repeated content. Each one is self-contained, and you can throw yourself at it as much as possible to get it done. Sure, the game does reward players who are able to beat these sections the first time out, but it doesn’t care too much if you’re just learning the ropes.

Best of 2018 – Pinball Wizard

Yoku's Island Express

In the same vein, Yoku’s Island Express features a small tweak that I can’t stop thinking about, even months after my initial playthrough. Aiming your shots is the hardest thing in pinball, much like real life. It’s not intuitive at all, especially in the early days when you’re just trying to keep your balls alive. However, once you master your basics, placing the ball exactly where you want it to be is the next step in mastery.

Yoku requires you to hit pretty specific targets over the course of its campaign. If it didn’t help you towards this goal, a lot of newer pinball players would drop the game out of frustration an hour in. Thankfully, Yoku has a system where a flipper will light up in sections as the ball rolls over it. This gives you a visual indication as to where the ball is on the flipper, and you can start to link the lights to each target. Despite playing pinball for years, even I felt more confident during a run of Medieval Madness after I had played Yoku’s Pinball Express. It’s a brilliant little mechanic that makes the wider world of pinball more accessible to all.

Best of 2018 – Loading Up the Quarters

Yoku's Island Express

By switching between traditional tables and more freeform pinball platforming, Yoku’s Island Express keeps up the variety. It never gets caught up on clearing that one last drop target or hitting a hard to reach spinner. Instead, it’s all about perfecting your targeting and moving forward, like a ball blasting down a ramp. So many other games have tried to introduce failure states or graft progression onto keeping your ball in play. By making pinball a theme instead of the main mechanic, Yoku lets you enjoy pinball much more consistently.

There’s plenty to like about Yoku’s Island Express. The environments and characters all pop off the screen with vivid colors and amazing style. The clever level design encourages exploration, and the game’s shorter length means that you might just be able to uncover every secret there is. However, to me, Yoku‘s biggest accomplishment is what it does for digital pinball. Any game that can translate this weird esoteric arcade relic into something modern should be celebrated. The fact that Yoku does this while also packing in a side-scrolling adventure on top is nothing short of extraordinary.