Nostalgia is big business in video games, and unsurprisingly so. The hobby often begins early, so it’s only reasonable that the many now grown-ass adults (like me) who grew up on video games might look back fondly on their childhood games. As lifelong video gamers have come of age into the game industry, we’ve seen a rise (a glut, even) of retro-styled platformers and shoot-em-ups; countless “spiritual successors;” and even gaming legends returning to their old stomping grounds, in titles like Thimbleweed Park.
Yooka-Laylee, by an English studio (Playtonic Games) made up of former Rare developers, harkens back to N64 platformers - specifically Rare’s classic Banjo-Kazooie. Like many throwback games, it was crowdfunded, literally capitalising on fan nostalgia, hewing close to the formula Rare brought to a state of - for the time - near-perfection. There would be colourful, themed worlds to explore, a range of moves to learn, and lots of hidden secrets, all slathered in a fresh coat of Unity Engine paint. I was as excited as anybody: Banjo-Kazooie (and its antecedent Super Mario 64) occupies a special place in my memory, and will likely confuse the hell out of my caregivers when I eventually succumb to the dementia into which I’m genetically predisposed to sink.
The comparison to Banjo-Kazooie begins at the most basic level. Chameleon and bat protagonists Yooka and Laylee are essentially interchangeable from their bear and bird predecessors, right down to their range of jumping, gliding and attacking moves. In so many respects, this is a modern-day reskin of the 1998 release, featuring many of the same little touches. Iris-outs, oom-pah music, text- and emotive noise-driven dialogue, and even trivia quizzes make a return, for better or worse. The game’s five worlds, set in a jungle, an ice shelf, a swamp, a casino, and a pirate cove in spaaace, and conjoined by a hub world - feature a range of platforming challenges dotted around their colourful landscapes, all granting Pagies - golden book pages, the game’s central collectible - upon their completion. Anyone who played a 3D platformer in the late ‘90s will be well at home here.
Advancing through Yooka-Laylee, you’ll find challenges that seem impossible. Some of them are just poorly designed (combining strict timers with imprecise controls), but others rely on moves discovered later in the game, making revisiting old haunts a must. As irritating as traversing the sprawling, confusing hub world is, it’s satisfying to return to a particularly vexing puzzle and crush it with a newly-unlocked move (especially flight. I’m talking about flight here). As you collect more Pagies, they can be spent on unlocking new worlds or expanding existing ones, a process which almost doubles the size and density of the levels. Once expanded, the worlds are almost too big, jumbles of ideas with little flow.
Still, it’s fun, provided you can revert to the appropriate mood. The best-designed of the Pagie challenges are clever and amusing, especially as you learn more moves, and they’re lent a goofy sense of play by cartoony environmental and character design. If you’re into dad jokes, you’ll be in hog heaven with Yooka-Laylee’s groan-inducing dialogue. There’s a recurring NPC, for example, the pants-wearing snake Trowzer, whose name is only the tip of the pun iceberg. It’s all very broad stuff - forced, even - but likely to appeal to the game’s twin demographics of children and, er, inner children.
Yooka-Laylee, like Thimbleweed Park (in mind merely because I reviewed it recently), might scratch the nostalgia itch, but it also raises the question of how much it really needs to be scratched. Games like Banjo-Kazooie emerged towards the start of the 3D gaming era, operating on the N64’s weird three-pronged, single-joystick controller. Consoles had limits as to what they could process, and game cartridges could only hold so much data. Nowadays, there’s no reason to present dialogue in Rare's irritating, squawky style. Unskippable cutscenes are a no-no. Even the basic mechanics of video games have moved on: the simple platforming challenges of Yooka-Laylee feel outdated next to tighter, cleverer, more focused platformers like Super Meat Boy or Fez or Portal. Hell, Nintendo itself has largely reverted to 2D (or 2.5D) for its platforming games of late.
Added to the game’s general sense of anachronism is the fact that it’s just a little rough in places. The camera, in particular, is absolutely diabolical, constantly veering off into places you don’t want it to, disobeying thumbstick controls, and getting stuck in unhelpful positions. During moments where the camera is scripted to cut to a different angle, character momentum isn’t maintained through the cut, making it easy to get stuck in a feedback loop running between camera angles. Even basic platforming is rendered imprecise and difficult by the camera, which - in addition to incredibly loose controls - makes it all too tempting to overcorrect. The level design, too, needs a comprehensive collision-detection pass; I constantly got stuck on bits of geometry (the tops of ledges, for example) that felt like they should be scalable. These aren’t glitches, per se, but the game definitely needs a bit more quality control to smooth out its irritating issues. It’s unpolished in many of the ways the early forays into 3D platforming were, lacking the conventions that developed in their wake. When I wasn’t captured by the game’s joyous naivete, I was cursing its very existence.
That's only really infuriating, though, when you’re trying to get through the game comprehensively and quickly - for a review, perhaps, the great injustice of criticism. Yooka-Laylee suits a more relaxed pace of play: the pace, say, of a lazy afternoon playing games after school. And how much does it even matter whether the game is good? If you want Banjo-Kazooie by a different name, Yooka-Laylee nails it - to a fault. But people never know what they want until presented with it, and sometimes people don’t really need what they think they want. We didn’t need Yooka-Laylee. Not when Banjo-Kazooie exists (and even got remastered a few years back). But as Kickstarter demonstrated, we did want it. Better face the consequences.