In recent times, in quiet moments, I find myself drawn to the sun-soaked world of a certain bug postman. Yoku’s Island Express is a true original, an adorable pinball Metroidvania with a wide-open world available on PC and console (including Switch). When a wayward dung beetle washes up on the shore of Mokumana Island, it is thrust into a new role as the island’s postmaster. This role involves delivering parcels to a host of endearing characters whilst solving the crises of ancient gods, but the catch is that you must make your way to each objective by using the pinball flippers cleverly positioned across the landscape.
Yoku is the debut game from Stockholm-based indie developer Villa Gorilla. The studio is the new home of industry veterans Jens Andersson (Starbreeze, LucasArts, Collecting Smiles) and Mattias Snygg (Starbreeze). Their collective credits consist of a number of AAA titles including Wolfenstein: The New Order, The Darkness and The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena. A lot of big-budget games that don't look an awful lot like Yoku's Island Express, in other words.
I thought that was interesting, so asked Andersson and Snygg about their tonal shift from gritty AAA to sun-soaked indie adventure.
“Jens [Andersson] and I wanted to do a project together that built on our individual strengths and this seemed like a perfect fit," says Snygg. "At the time, we were both longing for a change of tone and style to the projects we worked on, so it was a welcome shift for us.”
Moving on from large AAA projects and into independent development, the small team already had some understanding of what development processes were going to be important, and which were time-consuming and expensive. Ultimately, the bold new direction made it hard to gauge how the project would turn out.
"Every new project presents its own unique challenges, especially if you’re trying for something uncharted and new, which puts a limit on how much applicable wisdom you can carry over", says Snygg. "Case in point, when we started out we thought this would only take a year. It took five."
Andersson and Snygg first started development on Yoku’s Island Express with a very rough idea of an “open world pinball” game, creating a prototype by attaching pinball tables together. Inspiration had initially come from a certain office pinball machine that Andersson was fond of during his time as Lead Designer at Starbreeze.
"I used to spend quite a bit of time at the company’s pinball table and I especially remember the White Water one very fondly," says Andersson. Credit is also given to Digital Illusions' (now EA DICE) Pinball series on the Amiga. "Pinball Dreams was the first great video-game pinball I played, proving that pinball could work on a computer screen. Without that game that I don’t think we would have made Yoku’s Island Express."
As the concept developed, Villa Gorilla had a fully-working teaser version of the game that they planned to release but found that the project didn’t have a clear focus on adventure and platforming. Crucially, it didn’t live up to the original vision of open-world pinball.
"We decided against releasing anything — it just didn't do the things we wanted it to do", says Snygg. “It wasn’t until about a year ago that all of the pieces finally came together, and the ebb-and-flow of the experience started to feel right."
Due to the project being part of a completely new genre, the team found themselves constantly iterating and experimenting, using trial-and-error to figure out how to make open-world pinball Metroidvania compelling. "We looked at a tonne of pinball tables early on in development, mostly for inspiration on the low-level mechanics," adds Snygg. "There were millions of small clever mechanics to borrow."
Yet the team quickly realised that they weren't just limited to mechanical solutions and introduced features typical of video games. The main collectable and currency in Yoku's Island Express is fruit contained in bubbles, a concept inspired by Bubble Bobble.
One core tenet that distances Yoku's Island Express from other pinball games is its focus on world-building. Yoku's journey is more concerned with bringing peace to Mokumana Island than attaining a high score. It feels like a natural evolution of the small moments spent outside and in between machines seen in earlier pinball games like Sonic Spinball.
"I’m one of those people who think that every game is better with a story, and it’s even better if it has a proper world to take place in", says Andersson. I love pinball’s instant joy from the physical game-play, but it becomes very competitive when it’s high-score driven and is sometimes a bit too twitchy. Some people love that, but we wanted to make more of an adventure."
As the game progressed it became clear that the vision for Yoku dictated a stark move away from traditional pinball gameplay in order to build an open world and create a well-paced story within it.
Andersson's previous work at Lucasarts had a profound effect on the way Yoku's world and story was built. As well as its core loop of being thrown into pinball screens of increasing difficulty to navigate the map, you must also find items and solve problems for the island's quirky inhabitants that are spread across Mokumana's varying biomes. Its humorous dialogue and charm are evocative of Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer's writing work on 90s classic The Secret of Monkey Island, even if the Yoku's atmosphere has its own vibe.
"Monkey Island is one of the reasons I wanted to work with video-games in the first place," says Andersson. "It will always be an inspiration for games I work on, much [of which is] thanks to its mysterious but light-hearted setting. They were finishing up the remake right about when I started. Being able to touch that project, even just for a tiny bit, was a dream come true."
Compounding on this influence, Villa Gorilla enlisted Jesse Harlin to create the game's bubbly score. Harlin composed both of Lucasart's Monkey Island Special Edition scores and more recently, Star Wars: The Old Republic. "We felt like he was the perfect fit for that tropical island adventure atmosphere."
Much like The Secret of Monkey Island, Yoku's Island Express is set on one large landmass in which the player will explore and return to areas with new knowledge gained from their adventures. This was Villa Gorilla's first work within the Metroidvania genre, so creating and keeping within the confines of Mokumana Island was a technical challenge.
The solution to how the vast island of Mokumana works within Villa Gorilla's engine is thanks to lead artist Mattias Snygg. "A foundation for the art was to paint the whole island like one big canvas so that each area has its own unique textures and characteristics. I enjoy a painting that still has some raw brushstrokes in there that maybe show a bit of how it’s made, and I wanted to apply that approach to the whole game."
This results in a distinctive artistic style with a wide colour palette. Despite the woolly endearing world above ground, the dark underbelly of the island is full of atmospheric and disconcerting caverns full of creatures adjacent to realism. This is where Snygg's previous experience crafting the grimdark worlds of games like 2007's The Darkness can be found.
"I wanted the island to have a bright, colourful hazy summer’s day base tone to it, which felt fitting to the core idea of the game, but to contrast that with darker, slightly more unsettling elements", Snygg later explains to me over email. “The visual style is different from a lot of my other work, but not fundamentally so. It still comes from a painting tradition with an emphasis on the hand-made mark and from allowing a lot of happy little accidents.”
The inspiration for the artistic direction of Yoku was gleaned from Japanese animation, which can be seen most clearly in the Sootlings, fuzzy little creatures that will be instantly recognisable to fans of the Soot sprites from Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away. These creatures soon become core to your movement, allowing you to swing around flower buds to get to out-of-reach collectables and areas.
Snygg also cites Scandinavian artists like Tove Janson of Moomins fame and John Bauer, known for his muted colour illustrations depicting the eerie creatures of Swedish folklore. This all works to create a very unique art style that juxtaposes the adorable with the undiscovered. "With the polish that went in, some of the rougher edges have been smoothed out, but many areas balance between the highly refined and the raw and immediate, which is what I’d set out to do", says Snygg.
The team also used QA and usability testing extensively to work out the kinks in the layout of Mokumana Island, more than they had on any other previous project. "The game very much relies on what the player has done before, so every play-tester needed to play the game from the beginning, so we could see how things held up in whatever direction they went." The inherent exploration baked into the game is nurtured by the secrets and side quests peppered throughout the environment, involving everything from reviving an extinct species to solving the woes of a large talking fungus.
Villa Gorilla found this to be when developing Yoku's Island Express became exciting. "Once we had the basis of the story in place and had developed some basic lore, a lot of ideas started flowing naturally on how the different biomes related to each other", Andersson says. "We started spotting opportunities on the map for new areas that would make great side-quests and where we could introduce new characters."
The artistic vision and design iteration implemented by Villa Gorilla makes Mokumana Island a living, breathing open-world that is hard to forget once you've explored it. Particularly playing as a small bug like Yoku, the sense of scale feels exhilarating and actually inspires a sense of adventure in the player. Yoku's Island Express has come far from its beginnings as a pinball prototype, and is an unmissable tactile odyssey.