Yoku's Island Express

A game by Villa Gorilla for PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch, originally released in 2018.
Pinball has a long and storied history, going from barely-interactive distractions to electrified coin-operated equipment with flippers, gameplay objectives, and scorekeeping systems that allowed players to employ strategy. In many ways, pinball machines stand as early precursors to arcade machines, and at the very least, the two forms of entertainment were cozy neighbors during the arcade heyday. Pinball machines continue to be developed to this day, as do video games that attempt to emulate classic tables, or create impossible constructions limited only by the imagination.

But somewhere in the middle of all this are genre crossover video games that use pinball mechanics as a basis for their core gameplay. There have only been a handful of such games over the years, but they are always notable, if for no other reason than their sheer strangeness. One early example is Pinball Quest, a role-playing game where the player uses flippers to knock a spheroid character across the environment and into enemies. Another such game is Odama, which sees the player operating flippers and using a microphone to issue commands to an army as they lay siege across battlefields in feudal Japan.

Often, studios intermix characters or gameplay elements from popular video game franchises into more traditional pinball settings, with examples including Pokemon Pinball, Sonic Spinball, and Metroid Prime Pinball (which is ironically not a pinball metroidvania). More strange are the games that see the player exploring esoteric fantasy worlds and completing quests, such as Flipper Critters or Flipnic: Ultimate Pinball.

Yoku’s Island Express is a metroidvania set in a colorful fantasy world that just so happens to be lined with bumpers and flippers that are set into otherwise organic environments. You take on the role of Yoku, a dung beetle who rolls around a ball – that doesn’t look much like a poo, but that’s for the best – on a mission to deliver mail to across Mokumana Island. Along the way, he encounters numerous citizens in need of assistance, and some monsters who must be overcome, which is done mostly through the use of pinball mechanics, as well as some new abilities that are unlocked during his adventure, per genre standards.

Yoku sails toward Mokumana on his dung ball, which has been outfitted with a makeshift sail. As he approaches, a wave washes over him, knocking off his postman’s hat and washing him up on the island with nothing but his ball and a messenger bag. Right away, he is given a mission by a shark mailman, who tasks him with making a delivery. After that, he’s off to explore an open world filled with oddball characters and creatures, and more than a few pinball-oriented environmental challenges.

Yoku can only move to the left or right, and his movement speed is quite slow compared to other adventuring heroes. All movement is done by pushing along a dung ball, to which Yoku is tethered. Yoku cannot jump, but rather relies on flippers and bumpers to move him through the world. Throughout the environment are blue flippers, which are activated by using the left-hand controls; yellow flippers, which are activated by using the right-hand controls; and blue-and-yellow flippers which are activated regardless of which button is pressed.

You are able to control Yoku while he is standing on the ground, but not while he is flying through the air or getting knocked around by flippers and bumpers. As such, environments are often crafted to allow a very specific set of movements that send Yoku bouncing along bumpers to pass from one opening to another, eliminating the challenge behind a lot of environmental traversal and making for something of a casual experience outside of the dedicated pinball challenges. In this way, the game mirrors some of the speed-based sections of the Sonic the Hedgehog series where you can essentially set down the controller and watch the events play out… only at a significantly reduced speed.

Yoku travels at traditional video pinball speeds when getting batted around by flippers, which makes up for the otherwise plodding pace of his movement. Often, the player must repeatedly bash an obstruction in order to pass through, or complete several circuits around a given path to drop seeds which must be collected to open a doorway blocking the way forward. Early on, Yoku gains access to a noisemaker that allows him to pop bubbles, spin windmills, and activate certain objects.

Later in the game, the player encounters bodies of water that can only be traversed along the surface, until the player earns the ability to dive below, which is one way in which progress is gated until the player gains a new skill and backtracks to take advantage of it. Other obstacles include blocks that can only be destroyed using explosives, and the nearby environments are often littered with explosive enemies. Once the player gains the vacuum ability, he can suck these creatures onto the side of his ball and then ram destructible objects to destroy them… as long as he reaches them before the creatures explode on their own.

One challenge sees the player entering an overheated area filled with steam geysers. The steam pushes the player around until he can get behind boulders and push them onto the vents to block them. Later, the player is able to open a doorway where multiple pill bugs roll down from above, effectively acting as a multiball. The player knocks these bugs around a pinball arena until he blocks off numerous steam vents, eventually overloading the pressure to blow off steam without damaging the village above.

Throughout the game, Yoku travels back and forth on the island, and the map offers a zoomed-out view of the world. Unfortunately, due to the purposely circuitous pinball-like nature of the level designs, it’s not always clear how to get from one area to another, and sometimes you need to repeat pinball challenges to cover old ground. That said, there are numerous flippers that may be unlocked by spending fruit – the game’s currency – often creating shortcuts to previous areas.

Fruit appears as a reward for completing environmental challenges, and all of the pinball-oriented challenges spit out fruit in varying denominations when you hit bumpers or overcome obstacles. Fruit can then be spent to unlock flippers, purchase wallets with greater carrying capacity for fruit (by default, you can carry 100 pieces), or unlock the game’s fast-travel system which lets you move around the island quickly, bypassing ground-based obstacles.

The player occasionally discovers side passages that lead to caches of fruit and other collectibles, and the game’s nonlinear design means that the player can take multiple routes and engage with NPC’s in a variety of side quests, many of which can be undertaken in any order. The player can earn additional fruit by delivering letters… although humorously, it doesn’t matter which letters get delivered to which mailboxes, so long as the mailboxes get filled. It’s also possible to lose fruit by taking damage, such as landing in a bed of spikes in the gutter between flippers, but losses tend to be small compared to how frequently fruit is doled out.

Boss battles represent unique challenges, with some requiring indirect assaults that impact the environment around them, and others requiring head-to-head combat by repeatedly knocking the ball into them. Depending on your pinball prowess, these encounters can take a long time to play out, as failure results in getting dropped down to a lower area and/or repeating a sequence of events.

Aesthetically, the game is incredibly vibrant and takes place across multiple themed areas, including beaches, a jungle, cave systems, hot springs, and snowcapped mountains, and the game is accompanied by a lighthearted soundtrack. The story is cheerful, with the player encountering numerous colorful characters who – per action-adventure standards – need the help of the protagonist to overcome obstacles, retrieve lost items, and smash boss monsters.

Yoku’s Island Express was developed by Villa Gorilla, a studio based in Stockholm, Sweden, and founded in 2013 by Jens Andersson and Mattias Snygg, with Linus Larsson joining the studio in the following year. Jens is credited with design and programming, Mattias is credited with design and art, Linus is credited with game design and level design, and the game’s music was composed by Jesse Harlin (creator of music for Mafia 3 and several games in the Star Wars universe). This was the studio’s first release.

Jens and Mattias previously worked together at Starbreeze on such games as The Darkness, and they both worked on games in The Chronicles of Riddick universe. Jens is also the founder of Collecting Smiles, which developed Colors! 3D on Nintendo DS in 2012, and prior to this, he worked at LucasAarts. Linus previously worked on Ruckus Rumble.

The game was published by Team 17, the studio behind the Worms series, with some versions of the game published by Sold Out. The studio also published Blasphemous and The Knight Witch.