Yooka Laylee: A Retrospective Analysis of a Modern 3D Platformer
The good, the bad, and the ugly.
THE YEAR WAS 1998, the world was a simpler place, and Banjo-Kazooie was the most-played video game on my Nintendo 64. Like many other kids, I was mesmerised by the beautiful shores of Treasure Trove Cove, all the Christmas flavours of Freezeezy Peak, and the seasonal delights of Click Clock Wood. Secrets filled every nook and cranny. Strange, wonderful characters were all waiting to be rescued. Amazing transformations opened up worlds in a whole new way. Time simply ceased to exist each time the game loaded, because playing was just so unbelievably fun, and nothing could break the spell. No game had ever captured my imagination this way before. I poured endless hours into it, so inspired by its worlds I would design my own when the console was switched off, delighting in the possibility of new Mumbo Jumbo transformations, and all the secrets I hadn’t found yet.
Two years later, Banjo-Tooie was released. It expanded on its prequel’s design in almost every way, tweaking core gameplay to perfection and stretching out worlds to double and triple their original sizes. Sequels don’t always deliver the same magic as their ancestors, but Banjo-Tooie hit the sweet spot: We could suddenly control Banjo and Kazooie individually, shoot eggs underwater with precision, and the fabled ice key was finally up for grabs. I remember buying a walkthrough magazine for it because some of the puzzles were too hard, but I loved Banjo-Tooie regardless. We could glide through the underwater marvel of Atlantis without the restrictions of typical air-breathing mortals, tour the dingy, explosive laden caves of Glitter Gulch Mine, and be awed by the booming, bombastic, magma-coated aura of Hailfire Peaks’ unyielding lava world. It was sheer genius in full force.
Many fans, myself included, were hopeful for the series to continue with Banjo-Threeie, another 3D platforming adventure that would take us to brand new places. A sneak peek of the next game eventually emerged, showing off a decidedly larger Spiral Mountain. I remember feeling genuine excitement in my heart, eager for another shot at 90’s collectathon joy. But things would end up taking a very different turn in the next Banjo game: There were still jiggies, and there were still musical notes, but Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts was really all about building cars. As a standalone game, it was pretty well received. However, it also left many platforming fans with gigantic holes in their hearts.
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The year is 2017, the world is a more complex place, and Yooka-Laylee is the self described spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie I’ve been yearning to play since its kickstarter. It’s colourful, it’s cheeky, and Grant Kirkhope’s melodies weave through its worlds with their unmistakable charm. When my eyes first drink in the game’s environments, I feel myself smile, rather unconsciously. It’s beautiful. Yooka and Laylee are a lovely representation of the tongue-in-cheek dynamism that flowed between Banjo and Kazooie. There are quills and paigies, a one-for-one replacement for notes and jiggies. There are funny NPCs to be rescued, new moves to unlock, and secrets waiting to be unearthed. It’s an epic revival of a much-loved genre that’s been eclipsed by shooters, MOBA’s and survival games, and I could not be happier. But soon, I start noticing patterns.
Many critics begin to lament that Yooka-Laylee has design that’s stuck in the past. They say the camera is all over the place, that the levels are too big, and the puzzles are frustrating. On the other hand, several folks are quick to praise Playtonic for doing exactly what they set out to do – resurrect the golden era of 3D collect-a-thons, and deliver fans the Banjo-Threeie they’ve been waiting for. But hang on a second, which of these claims are justified? Well, it turns out there’s a morsel of truth in every review I’ve seen. However, I still feel that none of them have really gone beneath the surface and analysed how Yooka-Laylee is in fact different to the Banjo games, and I assure you, it definitely is. Here’s my take on what Yooka-Laylee did right, and what it did wrong.
Design that’s stuck in the past? I’ve heard this being echoed in a number of places, and it’s definitely what anyone might think without a closer inspection. But behind the lovely art work, Yooka-Laylee‘s design could not be more different from Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie. When I say ‘design’, I imagine it splitting into several branches including gameplay, art, music, and level design. As an entry point to Yooka-Laylee, Tribalstack Tropics is positively gigantic. It lives up to its name, too: stacks of ancient bricks pile up into endless towers of vertical exploration that we never had in the Banjo games. Glitterglaze Glacier follows the trend with humongous white slopes and a fantasy ice palace that’s perched at altitudes much higher than the snowman statue in Freezeezy Peak, and maybe even Chilly Willy’s fort. I’ll concede that structurally, most of Yooka-Laylee’s worlds seem to be built around a focal point of some sort, but they also nod to a more open-worldish design missing from both Tooie and Kazooie.
Fabulous art and music – Every inch of Yooka-Laylee’s worlds are positively teeming with bold colours and a complementary soundtrack. From the murky bio-luminescence of Moodymaze Marsh to Galleon Galaxy’s starry seas, it’s a real visual feast. Compared to the restricted polygonal output of the Nintendo 64, Unity allows for smoother, more realistically rendered landscapes that would be unimaginable in 1998. Yooka and Laylee are crisp and polished examples of solid 3D character design, and radiate personality with a single look.
Overall, I can’t fault the heavenly musical combination of Grant Kirkhope and David Wise. Both composers have an amazing legacy, and together, they create a dazzling soundscape that succeeds in dunking you headfirst into a diverse range of atmospheres. Not all tracks are as exceptional as the ethereal Glitterglaze Glacier, which has occasional glimmers of Danny Elfman’s ‘Ice Dance’ from Edward Scissorhands, but they still manage to deliver a distinctive mood that creates the illusion of a world beyond a game. The marriage between playful, catchy tunes of predictable tempo with ambient orchestral elements feels comforting and familiar, like a warm pizza on a cold day, but there’s enough pizzazz to keep things fresh, especially in the Kartos challenges.
Great set of moves – Sure, Yooka and Laylee might be doing their own versions of flap flip and beak buster, but the moves beyond that are really inventive. Like Kazooie and Tooie, YL has you purchasing moves from your resident anthropomorphic training guide. This time, there are moves that let you breathe underwater, emit sonar beams, latch onto objects by using Yooka’s tongue as a hookshot, and even turn invisible. They’re incredibly different from abilities like wonderwing, beak bomb or hatch, and are a clever tribute to Yooka and Laylee’s identities.
Lack of enemy variety – Look closely at the enemy design. Although there was effortless diversity in Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, most of Yooka-Laylee‘s enemies are rehashed corplets with the same sound effects in a different skin. To me, that just screams lazy development. What’s more, there’s a constant mumbling from groups of corplets wherever you go, never giving you peace, and they’re almost always in unnecessarily large groups. Whatever happened to exploration without interruption? Whatever happened to variety?
Don’t believe me? Take a look at the wiki’s for Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie. They document 43 and 55 different enemy entries respectively, whereas Yooka-Laylee comes up short at 20. That’s less than half. What’s worse, each world in Kazooie and Tooie features enemies with different attacks, different voice acting, and remarkably different character designs that don’t look like they’ve just been tacked on. I can’t say the same for Yooka-Laylee. Including more enemies in clusters – which are often very intrusive – does not compensate for lack of unique design.
Transformations are underutilised – Remember the pumpkin in Mad Monster Mansion? Or the back-pack wearing croc from Bubblegloop Swamp? They had access to places Banjo and Kazooie could never reach, even the opportunity to tackle a mini boss. Terrydactyland’s T-Rex could even be enlarged with a spell! Transformations were just fun. Compare that to the flower on Tribalstack Tropics, whose function is limited to just watering plants for a paigie, or the piranha from Moodymaze Marsh that can barely swim beyond the tiny block it starts off in and is deprived from exploring the whole world- it’s just disappointing. Manoeuvring the snowplough feels unnecessarily cumbersome, particularly if you use the van from Witchyworld as a plane of reference.
Fortunately, the final two transformations kick things up a notch. The chopper can soar throughout Capital Cashino and launch grenades at enemies, and even has helicopter specific challenges to complete. Similarly, the Pirate Ship is free to circumnavigate Galleon Galaxy’s stunning shores, and has a hilarious boss battle all to itself.
Confusing level design – It’s even bigger than Banjo-Tooie, but that doesn’t translate to better in this case since it’s extremely easy to get lost. The worst offender of messy level design is Moodymaze Marsh, thanks to a dimly lit series of identical looking swamp islands. It’s the first level to introduce pipes as a shortcut mechanism, but because of their nondescript nature it’s difficult to remember which one leads where. I felt the same sense of confusion on Tribalstack Tropics; ascending the tower involves entering and exiting a number of doors, but their matching coats of paint won’t help you memorise the area anytime soon. Considering the sizes of Yooka-Laylee’s worlds, I found it rather inexplicable that there were no warp pads, a feature which was seamlessly implemented into Banjo-Tooie and gave the game a great deal of clarity.
Better designed levels include Capital Cashino, which had distinct, conspicuous landmarks despite the absence of any warp pipes or gates, a feature implemented in Galleon Galaxy which also generally suffered from vagueness. Luckily, Galleon Galaxy largely avoided any major problems because of the massive central lake you could use to get your bearings.
Atrocious flight controls – Surprisingly, not even my proverbial rose tinted glasses could blind me from what were painful flight controls. Flying, as demonstrated by Banjo and Kazooie, is supposed to be joyful. An expression of freedom as your wings beat against the air in rebellion to gravity. Flight in Yooka-Laylee feels like a battle against the camera.
It keeps pushing you too far to the left or right, preventing you from moving freely, and consequently, being able to genuinely enjoy what is supposed to be a highlight of a 3D platformer. There’s a certain challenge in Glitterglaze Glacier which requires you to fly through a series of red and white hoops, but instead of being fun, it becomes a chore. For me, flight is so quintessential to the move set that half-baking its mechanics feels like a real shame.
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Yooka-Laylee is still an enjoyable game overall. It’s a flawed but fun tribute to a golden era of gaming, and I think it dares to try a lot of new things in its design, and often succeeds. But because it tries to cram too many ideas together without fleshing things out first, things get messy, and it doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of Banjo-Kazooie or Banjo-Tooie. If anything, I would call Yooka-Laylee a game heavily inspired by them rather than a true spiritual successor. It had all the right ingredients – gorgeous artwork, an amazing OST, interesting worlds – but the execution fell short. In all honesty, I’m kind of heartbroken that Yooka-Laylee set out to do more than it could achieve, and I feel like it rests a bit too much on its laurels. Clearly, a lot of love went into this game, but for me Yooka-Laylee proves one thing: If you don’t cook something properly, it doesn’t matter how delicious the ingredients are. I’m still hoping that one day, Banjo-Threeie will pick up where Tooie left off and give fans the game they were looking for.
Disclosure: Author supported Yooka-Laylee on kickstarter.