Make no mistake, Yooka-Laylee definitely isn’t shy about its status as a spiritual successor to Nintendo 64 platformers like Banjo-Kazooie. One of the first things Yooka-Laylee shows you, developer Playtonic’s logo, speaks volumes about its intent.
In this brief animation, a pair of sentient googly eyes creeps onto the screen, jumps onto the logo, and, after getting itself situated with its new form, it leaves the screen with this newfound torso. Considering the character design for games like Banjo-Kazooie amounted to “stick googly eyes on (insert inanimate object here)” these first few seconds of Yooka-Laylee are there to assure you Playtonic knows exactly what it’s doing.
New Technology, Same Premise
Yooka-Laylee largely patterns itself after the N64 classics Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie—which, in turn, patterned themselves after Super Mario 64. Even if you never played any of the aforementioned games, you’ve definitely played ones inspired by them. Essentially, Yooka-Laylee goes for a more old-school take on the open-world genre, meaning it presents a series of large, disconnected environments full of things to do and find. Not all collectibles are created equal, though: some, like the Pagies, are used to open up new worlds, while others, like the Quills, unlock new moves for the titular titular lizard-bat duo. And thankfully, clearing a world of all its collectibles feels much more satisfying than crossing off entries on a checklist.
While Yooka-Laylee features a collection of sprawling worlds, they’re each implicitly broken up into dozens of mini challenges. Over the course of one level, you’ll be tasked with transforming into a flower to make your plant brethren bloom, tracking down a group of knightly pigs by piecing together vague clues, and saving a skeletonized explorer from suffering further humiliation by surrounding enemies. Though the levels share certain challenge types, like mine cart races and finding a group of five “ghost writers,” they’re usually implemented differently enough to not feel too repetitive. That said, some of the simpler joys in Yooka-Laylee come from figuring out a way to successfully traverse from Point A to Point B, then looking down upon the land you will soon conquer (or already have).
Empowering Abilities, Lovely Levels
As in Banjo-Kazooie, Yooka and Laylee don’t start with all the abilities they’ll possess by the game’s end. While you begin with just enough in your repertoire to feel empowered, the developers find an effective way to slowly dole out new moves without making it seem like you should’ve had them at the outset. And this type of design discourages you from grabbing everything in one level before you move on since things always seem to go much easier when you return to an old location with some new abilities in tow.
Yooka-Laylee’s levels don’t stray too far from the same selection of themes we’ve seen since the dawn of platformers, but developer Playtonic still manages to find interesting things to do with these reliable ideas. Yooka’s levels are big, but not overwhelmingly so, and feature a healthy supply of landmarks to assist with your sense of direction. Above all, Yooka-Laylee’s levels are ideal for exploration thanks to how cleverly the developers have placed nooks, crannies, caves, and other secret areas that require hard work to find. But even if you only end up discovering a few measly Quills, somehow, it still manages to feel rewarding.
Not Everything’s Aged Well
Unlike the N64 games that inspired it, every machine you’ll play Yooka-Laylee on features a right analog stick for smooth, instant camera control. (Seriously, consider yourself lucky if you grew up after this was a standard feature.) Even with this upgrade, though, the camera doesn’t always cooperate and often pulls in too close when you need it further away from the action. It doesn’t happen too often, but just enough to be slightly annoying.
And then there’s also the problem that Yooka-Laylee’s old-school design—while it amounts to a thoughtful refinement—still features one of the biggest problems from its inspirations. Once you have very little of a level left to complete, tracking down those last objectives can grow tedious simply because there’s nothing left to do on your way to them. And since you’re never really nudged in the proper direction, 100-percenting a level often means scouring every corner for that last Quill or Pagie. But on the bright side, you can always move on to another area if you’ve seen far too much of one locale for the time being.
A Worthwhile Upgrade
To be completely honest, the state of games in this first half of 2017 makes the prospect of playing Yooka-Laylee less interesting than it should be. With so many different games and genres brilliantly reinventing themselves, playing a throwback to turn-of-the-century game design doesn’t feel like much of a priority. But if you meet Yooka-Laylee on its own terms, you’ll find that it’s more than a throwback to N64 platformers of old—unlike those aged games, it’s a production made with nearly 20 years of hindsight. And with Super Mario Odyssey coming up later this year, there’s clearly some life left in this nearly forgotten genre, even more so with games likeYooka-Laylee reinvigorating it.