20 years ago, 3D platformers ruled the gaming roost. Starting with 1996’s Super Mario 64, this genre gave us a new and refreshing take on the side-scrolling journeys we experienced since the inception of console gaming. But nothing lasts forever, and this genre slowly faded away as first-person shooters took over as the dominant force in gaming towards the beginning of the 21st century. These days, the rare Ratchet & Clank game is basically all we’re left with.
If you grew up playing 3D platformers, you likely feel an urge to return to those carefree, colorful, and (most importantly) collect-y games of the past. Thankfully, the former developers from the studio Rare—which basically did nothing but make 3D platformers during the N64 era—are looking to bring new life to the genre with Yooka-Laylee. Nearly two years after its Kickstarter campaign, Yooka is due for PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 on April 11. And, after playing two hours of it at a recent event, I’m happy to report it’s much more than just a simple throwback.
A Vision Fully Realized
If you played 1998’s Banjo-Kazooie, Yooka-Laylee might seem awfully familiar—in fact, there’s so many similarities between the two games, listing them all here would get pretty tedious. But that doesn’t mean Yooka is shamelessly stealing from the past; instead, it feels more like developers refining their old work with the power of hindsight. And being designed for modern hardware certainly gives Yooka-Laylee an unfair advantage over past 3D platformers. It runs at a smooth 60 FPS, its environments feature a greater level of detail and scale, and the presence of a second analog stick for camera control—something the N64 never had—certainly makes Yooka play much better.
For my two-hour session, I stuck to the first true level, Tribalstack Tropics, a jungle-themed environment featuring crumbling ruins set against a tropical backdrop. Immediately, I took note of just how dense Yooka-Laylee makes its environments. They’re not claustrophobic, exactly, but you only have to run a few seconds in any given direction to discover something new to collect or do. Over the course of a few minutes, you can find yourself jumping into a kart-racing mini-game, then transforming into a flower for the sake of watering six of your plant friends for a reward. Overall, though, the most fun in Yooka-Laylee comes from exploring every nook and cranny of its huge levels for every last collectable and secret.
Not Entirely Trapped in the Past
To be fair, Yooka-Laylee doesn’t completely escape the collect-y nature of 3D platformers reviewers of the era often griped about. You collect a lot of things in Yooka, but not for the sake of collecting. Instead, everything you pick up leads to a goal that empowers you in some way. The quills that litter every world, for instance, act as a kind of currency to buy special moves, which in turn allow you to access more of the given level. Pages—Yooka’s ultimate collectable—allow you to unlock new worlds, or, in a great twist, expand the sizes of existing worlds.
Even though I made the most of my time with Yooka-Laylee, I devoted myself to the first level instead of immediately moving on to the next as soon as I could. At the two-hour mark, I still had a lot on my plate in that first level, but I wasn’t close to being bored. Developer Playtonic games really knows how to make accomplishing goals feel rewarding—instead of just crossing out items on a checklist—and I couldn’t fight the urge to 100% that first level. I haven’t touched the rest of Yooka’s levels, but the feeling of pure joy it gave me in Tribalstack Tropics definitely bodes well for the rest of the game.
Yooka-Laylee releases on April 11 for PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Mac, and Linux. A Nintendo Switch port is also coming, but, as of this writing, publisher Team17 has not announced an official date.