For many gamers, the golden age of platforming in the 1990s is but a distant memory. The era of video games that was largely defined by the innovative work of companies like Rare and through titles like Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel. As video games continue to evolve and become more complex, gamers are still trying to reclaim that high they first experienced 20 years ago. Realizing that this niche existed to be filled, the company Playtonic Games formed from Rare’s ashes with many of the company’s key personnel from the N64 era making the transition over to the new developer. Playtonic set out to make Yooka-Laylee, a throwback to the classical Banjo-Kazooie style of platforming from yesteryear. With the help of Kickstarter, the proposed game not only quickly surpassed its goals, but also became the quickest video game project on the crowdfunding site to hit $1 million. Now that Yooka-Laylee’s release is a reality, the title is meeting a curiously mixed reception. With the colorful platformer now having had enough time to percolate with players, Here Are The 8 Best (And 7 Worst) Things About Yooka-Laylee.
15 (Best) It Looks Gorgeous
Putting everything from gameplay, to camera controls, to nostalgia aside, Yooka-Laylee is undeniably beautiful. Playtonic puts the Unity Engine to work here, and the results are not disappointing. In fact, even though very pretty looking HD versions of both the N64 Banjo titles exist, the prospect of seeing them re-made with the Unity engine is drool-inducing. The majority of Rare titles make use of a vibrant, playful color palette, and Yooka-Laylee, developed by former Rare employees, is no different. Bright colors and varied environments pop even more when the proper graphical capabilities are pushing them to their limits. In many ways Yooka-Laylee is video game candy. It’s sweet, colorful, and conjures memories of childhood. Whether exploring underwater or soaring through the air, this candy never stops being a delight to look at. If the game's crisp look wasn't enough, the title also throws in the option to enable an “N64 Shader” that utilizes a graphical style reminiscent of the Nintendo 64’s limitations. It’s an entirely useless touch, but one that shows Playtonic knows what their audience wants. Some people like some age on their candy.
14 (Best) Its Lack of Hand Holding
Video games can talk down to their players. That’s nothing new. Countless titles will have audiences spend the beginning of their plunge into some new world on training tasks and menial objectives in order to prove that the controls are understood. Rare’s previous games were notorious for drowning gamers in these tutorials. Sure, Yooka-Laylee still has Trowzer explain the gist of necessary controls, but it never forces anything on gamers or makes players prove that they’ve mastered this new skill five times to move on. It even seems like Yooka and Laylee are both incredibly over the idea of training levels—or at least Laylee is. Many fundamental moves like swimming and flight might initially elude players, as well as the deeper intricacies that lie within abilities. It’s also entirely possible to go through the whole game without bringing things like tonics into the mix (although depriving the world of Vendi would be a cruel, cruel decision). All of this results in players preferring to troubleshoot and learn through trial and error rather than being spoon-fed gameplay decisions and getting a condescending experience in the process. Gamers can ask for help, if they need it.
13 (Worst) The Voices
Voices might ultimately feel like an inconsequential factor in a video game where the big selling point is that the title is a glorious return to platforming, but Yooka-Laylee proves just how important they can be. Back in 1998 when Banjo-Kazooie was hitting the scene, Rare did something rather clever when it came to the characters’ voices. Since full speech capabilities were outside of the Nintendo 64’s current limitations, Rare created a new sort of language that allowed the characters to “talk.” The result was a garbled kind of nonsense sounding something like, “Rah-rahrah-RAH-rah…” but believe it or not, it was charming for the time. Flash-forward to 2017 and video games not only feature full-on voice acting, but some revolutionary performances in the field at that. Playtonic could have chosen to add some delightfully silly voices that would only have heightened the universe that they’ve created here. Instead Yooka-Laylee errs on the side of re-creating that same vocal effect from the Banjo games. Only now it’s not charming, but actually really annoying. Furthermore, there’s no option to mute the dialogue without turning down the rest of the audio track with it. Gamers are at the mercy of these cacophony machines.
12 (Best) The Bosses
Okay, so on paper Yooka-Laylee’s bosses might not resemble the most menacing rogues gallery. In fact, some of these foes might seem so blasé that characters from Rare’s past like Canary Mary or Tiptup the Turtle could be more of a challenge. That being said, Yooka-Laylee bucks expectations by turning their molehills into veritable mountains of creativity. The bulk of the bosses that Yooka and Laylee find themselves against are strangely anthropomorphic objects with an ax to grind. In the case of Rampo, Brrreeze Blok, and Planette, the game essentially has the platforming duo up against moving walls, yet still manages to inject these experiences with gaming magic. Yooka-Laylee’s bosses might be relatively straightforward, but they operate with such glee. All of these bosses are only encountered once, but are just dripping in personality that makes them compelling opponents (in the case of Planette, Yooka and Laylee straight up murder her husband…). Some of the later bosses in the game, such as I.N.E.P.T. and Capital B, put gamers through real endurance tests, but they still never stop being fun. Yooka-Laylee’s big baddies are a rag-tag bunch, but they all instantly capture Rare’s former charm and become highlights of the game.
11 (Worst) Dr. Quack’s Quiz Time
Another custom of Rare’s Banjo titles was the idea of adding a quiz-based gameshow or board game element to the platforming. It was a novel idea that actually leaned in the favor of the more meticulous gamers that were playing. Yooka-Laylee respectfully brings the quiz concept back into play, but Banjo-Kazooie featured one quiz before its final boss whereas Yooka-Laylee makes them a regular occurrence. Make no mistake, the quiz idea is still a lot of fun and the game handles them well, but there’s no reason for it to become a recurring challenge in the title that could have gone towards some other sort of obstacle. With quizzes being a constant threat, gamers are also consistently needing to count collectibles and worry about the minutiae of levels, fearing that it might end up being crucial quiz info. Even the game itself is making fun of the tedious nature of the quizzes by the time it’s done with them. Even the game thinks they’re a drag.
10 (Best) It’s the Banjo-Kazooie Sequel You’ve Been Waiting For
Yooka-Laylee is trying to be Banjo-Kazooie. That’s not something up for debate. The former platforming title was not only explicitly mentioned on Playtonic’s Kickstarter page when gaging initial interest, but the finished product still makes reference to the N64 title all over its marketing. The Banjo-Kazooie series has had a tumultuous trajectory following Microsoft’s acquisition of Rare. The XBOX 360 release, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts saw a major deviation in the franchise’s platforming roots and left many gamers scratching their heads. Yooka-Laylee fixes all of that, not just by honoring up Banjo-Kazooie’s gameplay and style, but in countless other ways meant to make gamers feels reminiscent. Yooka-Laylee contains the same sense of humor, character designs (right down to Yooka and Laylee being analogous to Banjo and Kazooie, even in regard to their abilities), absurd transformations from a mystic, and even the same font and sound effects. Yooka-Laylee even has numerous former Rare employee’s reprising their roles from Banjo-Kazooie, such as Chris Sutherland directing, Stve Mayles and Steven Hurst handling art, and Grant Kirkhope back composing music. If somehow all of those connections were missed, the game is also just constantly making allusions to the Nintendo 64.
9 (Worst) The D.N. Ray Transformations
Yooka-Laylee’s transformations have a ton of charm, but they feel like yet another unnecessary allegiance to the days of Banjo-Kazooie. Due to the handiwork of Dr. Puzz’s D.N. Ray, Yooka and Laylee are able to transform into some new sort of creature in each world that’ll help them on their quest. The idea of transformations isn’t inherently bad, but it just feels like every metamorphosis at Yooka and Laylee’s disposal is underwhelming. Maybe that’s the point and Dr. Puzz just practices shoddy science, but it doesn’t change the fact that these transformations often lead to the most frustrating passages in the game. Take for instance the transformation in Glitterglaze Glacier where Yooka and Laylee are turned into a snowplough. The two are now able to get rid of snow, but the vehicle also can’t move backwards at all. Each new form has an upsetting hitch or ends up being just plain weird (turning into a swarm of piranha?). Perhaps just bestowing Yooka and Laylee with more new abilities rather than turning them into misfit toys would have been a better approach. Or maybe just turning transforming them into things that are actually cool.
8 (Best) Rextro’s Arcade Minigames
Minigames have sometimes been cause for alarm in previous Rare titles, but Yooka-Laylee manages to find just the right balance between entertaining and frustrating for its arcade-based portions of the game. Play Coins are hidden throughout each world of Yooka-Laylee and finding them allows access to Rextro Sixtyfourus’ (a poorly rendered dinosaur) retro arcade classics. Each world contains a new sort of old-timey challenge that engages a different style of retro arcade gameplay. Rextro’s minigames are a nice deviation from the conventional platforming that the game throws at players. On top of that, the initial challenges expected of Yooka and Laylee in these minigames are not too grueling. Obtaining the high score in some of these titles is another story entirely, but Yooka-Laylee never makes this a mandatory objective. While the unforgiving minigames in something like Donkey Kong 64 become necessary evils to master, here they’re simply bonus content to have fun with. Maybe down the line Playtonic will even experiment with a title that’s exclusively arcade classics from the past, coming courtesy of Rextro.
7 (Worst) The Flight Mechanics
When Yooka and Laylee are not transforming into things like pirate ships to solve their problems, they’re using the many skills taught to them by Trowzer. Trowzer has a lot of extra maneuvers up for grabs, but there are some compulsory tactics that are necessary to complete the game. The final skill that Trowzer teaches Yooka and Laylee is Flappy Flight, which essentially lets the duo fly around untethered. This ability is certainly a super useful one (there’s a reason that it’s held off until the end), but it’s also one that can cause a lot of headaches for gamers, too. The broader strokes of flying are manageable, but it’s when gamers require precision that it becomes their enemy. The ability appears deceptively simple, which makes it all the more frustrating. That being said, once decelerating, accelerating, and the finer points of the skill are rehearsed, it should be doable. It’s just a lot clunkier than it needs to be.
6 (Best) It’s “Collectathon” Gaming at Its Best
It’s all too ironic that the collectible-filled worlds that helped put Rare on the map to begin with would also end up being their undoing. All good things run the risk of hitting a breaking point and somewhere between the likes of Banjo-Tooie and Donkey Kong 64 saw Rare’s “collectathon” madness hitting a point of no return. This lengthy gameplay style of completing a laundry list of random items isn’t absent in Yooka-Laylee, but rather Playtonic incorporates it to the perfect degree. There is a lot to collect throughout Yooka-Laylee’s many worlds, but they’re the sort of collectibles that actually reward playing the game. Each of Yooka-Laylee’s worlds have its titular chameleon and fruit bat combo searching for lost Quills, Pagies, Play Coins, and Dr. Puzz’s missing Molly Cool. On top of that, there are also a myriad of life and power extenders hidden throughout the levels, as well as pirate treasure that’s especially tucked away. From an outside glance Yooka-Laylee’s grand total of 145 Quills and 1010 Pagies (plus all the other goodies) might seem exhausting, but they’re split up quite reasonably through the game. Yooka-Laylee’s collectibles make exploring fun, not a punishment.
5 (Worst) Mine Kart Madness
One of the most iconic thing about the Donkey Kong Country titles is their heart-pumping mine cart segments. The sequences are a brilliant take on platforming that require precision and quick thinking to determine the smartest route and survive. Yooka-Laylee enthusiastically turns to that idea, with mine cart gem challenges being a regular feature in the game thanks to the character, Kartos (wonder if he ever gets Kratos’ mail?). Kartos’ take on mine cart racing requires Yooka and Laylee to obtain a certain amount of gems in an allotted time. The majority of these challenges aren’t that brutal, but the one is Capital Cashino decides to be especially vicious. Kartos is going to conjure up a lot of rage in gamers, and if that wasn’t enough, Cashino’s boss, I.N.E.P.T., is fought exclusively on mine carts. And Yooka and Laylee have to last five rounds with the guy. The game doesn’t have to be cramming the mine cart business down everyone’s throats quite so hard. Less is more, Kartos.
4 (Best) The Level Design
And speaking of exploring those big collectible-filled levels…Yooka-Laylee might have a ton for gamers to find through their experience, but it’s at least got some beautiful worlds to spread everything around in. Yooka-Laylee only has five worlds to explore (plus its main hub), but they’re gigantic environments that each cater to a different platforming world. They also sparkle like crazy in the shiny Unity engine that powers the game. These are huge areas that are bigger than anything seen in Banjo-Kazooie or even Banjo-Tooie. The feeling of exploration is real with these designs. Additionally, Yooka-Laylee introduces the inspired idea of “expanding” worlds to unlock new areas hiding in locations that gamers have already visited. While the game easily could have had somewhere between eight and ten different worlds that were only half the size, Yooka-Laylee’s confidence in its playgrounds is encouraging. These fully immersive worlds feature themes like space, the jungle, snow environments, and more staples of the genre. Banjo-Kazooie’s own Steven Hurst is once again responsible for the game’s 3D environments, plus Kevin Bayliss (of Donkey Kong 64 fame) and Ed Bryan are the ones filling these levels with such unforgettable characters.
3 (Worst) The Camera
Yooka-Laylee is a delightful, fun game that’s a throwback to a simpler time, but its camera is certainly programmed by the Devil. Yooka-Laylee’s camera is definitely the title’s biggest technical issue and source of rage. The camera has a frustrating tendency to instantly snap to behind the player whenever they try moving around. This provides a unified perspective, but it’s deeply restricting. Players are able to toggle the sensitivity of the camera, but are unable to zoom in or out, which is also incredibly limiting. Many an unnecessary death has resulted due to “forward” now becoming “left” courtesy of an abrupt camera pivot. On the more positive side of things, Playtonic has been very receptive about correcting problems in their game, with a drastic patch arriving on day one that already has smoothed out a lot of glitches. With that precedent set, it’s very possible that Playtonic could continue to refine Yooka-Laylee’s camera and find a less distracting balance for it.
2 (Best) It’s Embracing of Old School Platforming
Video games have exploded from a casual pastime to an obsessive lifestyle. The medium has grown to be so popular that ESPN is airing competitive video game tournaments. They even have their own league. As video games have progressively moved in the direction of reflecting status and popularity, many nostalgic gamers long for a simpler time that values gameplay over bells and whistles. Yooka-Laylee may look great and indulge in a number of current next-gen tendencies, but it’s also the best place for gamers to find classical, old school platforming. There’s a reason that this style of game was met with such excitement—it’s a genre that’s largely fallen extinct in favor of achievement systems and online tournaments. At many opportunities Yooka-Laylee decides to embrace its inner ‘90s kid and focus on complicated jumps and well-timed moving obstacles rather than fancy gimmicks or re-inventing the wheel. There’s nothing gameplay-wise here that couldn’t be pulled off in an N64 title, and Yooka-Laylee is proud of this rather than embarrassed. With Yooka-Laylee adopting a serious return to classical platforming, hopefully the impression that Playtonic’s gem leaves on audiences will lead to more of a trend in this direction.
1 (Worst) Nostalgia
Nostalgia is very much a double-edged sword. Yooka-Laylee was made to be a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie and it’s a title that retains all of the game’s best features, but at the same time it also includes all of its worst tendencies, too. In the end, it’s impossible to perfectly re-create titles like Banjo-Kazooie because their shortcomings were a part of their time. These games were seen as formative titles that helped push platforming along, but not the pinnacle of the genre period. So recreating those games as if they were can be problematic. It’s impressive how much Yooka-Laylee tries to ape Banjo-Kazooie’s style and tone, but Playtonic easily could have evolved the medium with how far gaming has come in 20 years. If Yooka-Laylee were the game released in 1998 and Banjo-Kazooie were the title being put out now, people would rag on Banjo-Kazooie over the same things they are with Yooka-Laylee. Nostalgia can be beautiful, but it can also hold back originality, especially when it’s stick to so thoroughly. Yooka-Laylee going out of its way to mirror Banjo-Kazooie characters and gameplay aspects ultimately takes away from it doing something genuinely original. It holds itself to a ghost’s standards.
How did your experience with Yooka-Laylee turn out? Game of the year? Lost in the past? Or are there other wonderful and abysmal aspects of the title that were completely overlooked here? Grab those Pagies, re-count those Quills, and sound off below in a way that would make Capital B quake!