'Yooka-Laylee' Has the Feel of a Nineties N64 Game, But Not the Discipline

'Yooka-Laylee' Has the Feel of a Nineties N64 Game, But Not the Discipline

The setup – you control both Yooka and Laylee – makes 'Yooka-Laylee' a spiritual sequel to 'Banjo-Kazooie' Playtonic

This love letter to 'Banjo-Kazooie' feels rushed, despite nailing the wit and sharing talent with the original

This love letter to 'Banjo-Kazooie' feels rushed, despite nailing the wit and sharing talent with the original

Rare deserved a better fate. The UK studio was at the peak of their powers in the late Nineties, producing an endless supply of vibrant platformers like Banjo-Kazooie and Conker's Bad Fur Day that were known for their intuitive puzzles and hilarious, sardonic writing. Then Microsoft bought them. Rare's modern catalog comprises either adored niche titles that failed to sell (Viva Pinata, Grabbed By the Ghoulies) or motion-controlled flotsam like the Kinect Sports franchise, which was about as dead-on-arrival as the Kryptonite-for-gamers that was the Xbox One DRM policy. Rare's magic touch has been missing for quite some time, so people were understandably excited when former employees Steven Hurst, Kevin Bayliss, and Grant Kirkhope joined a new studio called Playtonic, and promised Yooka-Laylee – a spiritual successor to the much-loved Banjo-Kazooie.

In 2015, Yooka-Laylee duly became the fastest game in Kickstarter history to reach a million dollars in crowdfunding. It was clear that people missed Banjo-Kazooie, but more specifically, they missed an era where the Saturday-morning-cartoon 3D platformer was a big budget venture. The shape of the games industry has changed a lot since 1998. It's strange to think that when the Xbox debuted in the early 2000s, Microsoft was throwing money at half-baked mascot adventures like Voodoo Vince and Blinx: The Time Sweeper as a way to create their own Mario (or hell, even their own Crash Bandicoot.) Obviously that changed pretty quickly when Master Chief became a household name. Video games haven't been about talking animals and bottomless pits for a long time. Yooka-Laylee tries to argue that we've lost something along the way.

The setup is appropriately Rare-like. You take control of Yooka-Laylee – a duo consisting of a kindhearted lizard and the shrill bat that sits on his head – in their idyllic home of Shipwreck Cove. A very loose plot sets up the machinations of an evil corporation called "Hivory Towers," who intend on converting all the world's literature into profit. With almost no convincing, Yooka and Laylee set out to disrupt that evil plan in the only way they know how – by travelling to five themed worlds, and gathering lots of trinkets.

All the fundamentals are in place. Kirkhope's score retains that strange, roly-poly bounciness that made his Rare work so indelible. The writing is sharp, and still manages to make even the most obscure characters memorable. My favorite is the vectorized dinosaur who runs the arcade machines hidden in each level. When you first meet him, he says that the rest of his friends are playing "on the line," but they told him they'd be back soon. When you ask how long he's been waiting for them, he optimistically responds "about 1998." Playtonic work hard to bake homages to their previous work into every inch of Yooka-Laylee. There are jinjo stand-ins called "ghost writers," you'll (somewhat regrettably) find a quiz show or two, and I rode a minecart a la Donkey Kong Country. It's heartwarming stuff, and that's exactly what makes its failure so disappointing.

Yooka-Laylee's camera is wonky and undisciplined. It turns the platforming into a chore you mostly want to avoid. The trials in each level can be offensively rote. (Water five plants. Jump through six hoops. Play a terribly conceived on-rails shooter.) I don't remember Banjo-Kazooie being so mindless, but if it was, it certainly doesn't play in 2017. Some of the level structures are broken up into frequent, disorienting loading zones, and the textures are often muddy and uninspired. Mechanically, Yooka-Laylee feels like one of the knockoffs lesser companies used to publish to try and take a bite out of Banjo Kazooie. I'm not even sure if that's all Playtonic's fault, either. In fact, the one thing I kept thinking about while I was playing Yooka-Laylee was the cold, harsh realities of game development. This was a Kickstarter product on a short development cycle. We don't want another Banjo-Kazooie, we want another Nintendo-published Banjo-Kazooie.

In 2007, Rare released Banjo: Nuts & Bolts. It was a strange, proto-Minecraft vehicle puzzler that introduced the characters to the Xbox 360. It didn't sell or review particularly well (which is a shame because it's better than you might think), but there was one moment in the beginning that always stuck with me. Before Nuts & Bolts presents its radical vision for Banjo-Kazooie, it spawns you at the base of Spiral Mountain with an endless string of golden collectibles drifting off into the horizon. You waddle through them for a few minutes, watching a counter in the corner slowly increase, before a character named The Game Master interrupts the tedium and transports you to a new reality. Rare have always been self-deprecating, but this felt like the ultimate send-up of their roots – "this style of game doesn't work anymore, so we're trying something new."

Yooka-Laylee still prays to that god. It's a game that intends to resist Nuts & Bolts' burial, and stand as proof that the N64-style 3D platformer still has something to say. I want to believe that too. If nothing else, Yooka-Laylee proves how much fun it is to write Banjo-Kazooie jokes, or make Banjo-Kazooie music, or draw Banjo-Kazooie characters. But missing Banjo-Kazooie was always the easy part, and Playtonic just learned that the hard way.


Yooka-Laylee releases for PS4, Xbox One, PC and Mac April 11 and for Nintendo Switch later this year.