Yooka-Laylee is a game that’s stuck in 1998 — and I mean that as a compliment. Playtonic Games, a UK-based developer comprised of former core members of British game maker Rare, set out to create a spiritual successor to the classic Nintendo 64 platformer Banjo-Kazooie. Flush with nearly $2.6 million in Kickstarter cash, the company has spent the last two years creating a polished and refined love letter to the colorful 3D platformers that have been pretty much phased out by time.
Playing a near-final version of Yooka-Laylee last week reminded me of the giddy excitement I felt sitting in front of the N64 two decades ago. Playtonic has created a solid modern rendition on a classic formula, updating and tweaking the platforming systems Rare helped pioneer in the ‘90s while keeping the spirit fully intact. The game looks gorgeous and feels equally as satisfying to play. And Yooka-Laylee not only highlights the best qualities of its since-retired genre, but also feels bigger, bolder, and more challenging.
‘Yooka-Laylee’ rips elements straight out of ‘Banjo-Kazooie’
Many of the game’s elements feel ripped straight out of Banjo-Kazooie. Collectible “jiggies,” short for jigsaw puzzle pieces, are now called “pagies, while the colored “jinjo” creatures are now hidden “ghost writers.” Sorcerer Mumbo Jumbo has been replaced with Dr. Puzz, a tentacled scientist who can transform Yooka and Laylee into various other life forms and anthropomorphic objects, enhancing the duo’s powers and means of movement in level-specific ways.
Every character still speaks in an indecipherable form of gibberish, with text bubbles building the narrative in place of speech. That includes the walkie-talkie-toting snake Trowzer, the new move-set teacher that replaces the mole Bottles from Banjo. By spending quills, the updated version of Banjo’s music notes, you can gain new skills that help you breathe fire, jump higher, and perform any number of other platforming staples.
Much like the Banjo games, the story is ridiculous. The big baddie this time around is a corporate overlord named Capital B (who, upon closer inspection, is a bumble bee wearing a pinstripe suit). His company, Hivory Towers, wants to convert all the world’s literature into profit by way of a knowledge vacuuming machine concocted by Dr. Quack, a talking duck who’s head is encased in a jar of water, Futurama-style. This is how Yooka, an easy-going iguana, and his pal Laylee, a cynical talking bat, get coaxed into entering Hivory Towers and exploring the “Grand Tomes,” entire worlds brought to life my magical leather-bound books.
Taken collectively, these bizarre and absurdist narrative qualities serve as a good reminder for how quirky and groundbreaking ‘90s platformers were. Banjo-Kazooie routinely broke the fourth wall, and it used pop culture references in ways few other games dared try. Yooka-Laylee does the same. Your bat companion takes shots at first-person shooter games’ replenishing health bars, while Yooka notes how crouching is a “tutorial classic” during the game’s opening segment. A game’s loading screen comes replete with a sly message: “If cartridges were still popular, this game would’ve loaded by now.”
‘Yooka-Laylee’ lets you “expand or explore”
Where Yooka-Laylee seems to break some new ground is in the ability to expand levels. This feature, not present in either of the two N64 Banjo games, allows players to spend a certain number of collected “pagies” to open up a level, creating new structures, quest lines, and challenges. The game presents this as a way for players to better choose how they’d like to play. Instead of finding yourself stuck in a level you don’t like — or moving on from one you really do enjoy — you get pick and choose when you’d like to expand. This structure lets you really sink some serious time into a level you’re having a lot of a fun with, while also potentially skipping over tricky or frustrating ones later on.
For those who never played Banjo and its ilk — including Rare’s Donkey Kong 64 and Insomniac Games’ Spyro the Dragon — Yooka-Laylee might feel dated and tedious. These titles are, above all else, “collectathons,” a term coined to describe the design philosophy of Nintendo’s Super Mario 64 and the long list of games it inspired. In other words, most of what you’re doing in these experiences is accumulating a single type of item, like stars, bananas, jigsaw puzzles or, in Yooka-Laylee’s case, stolen book pages. Doing so often involves a bit of bumbling around and some serious repetition.
In my time with Yookee-Laylee’s sprawling first level, Tribalstack Tropics, I ran into numerous scenarios where I tried three or four different ways of tackling a puzzle or challenge before figuring out what I had to do. Sometimes, I just had to give up and move on. One hallmark of these games is a serious lack of direction, with game design that favors player exploration and experimentation above all else. You’ll often have to set aside your more compulsive urge to complete a level in one go. The sequel to Banjo-Kazooie often involved interconnected levels and coming back to early parts of the game with more advanced moves. So I expect the puzzle-solving in Yooka-Laylee will involve unexpected links between worlds that won’t reveal themselves until much later in the game.
Yooka-Laylee won’t please everyone. It’s not a game for players who find collecting items and obtuse challenges tedious. It is, above all else, for those who cherish the memories they had as kids playing these collectathons games and immersing themselves in these weird and wacky worlds. If you’re looking for a game that is essentially a distillation of that ‘90s gaming spirit, this is it.
Yooka-Laylee comes out for PC, Mac, Xbox One, and PS4 on April 11th. A version of the game for the Nintendo Switch is currently in development.