2.5 years after release, removed from expectations, Yooka-Laylee is a fun 3-D platformer throwback worth playing through

Yooka-Laylee was pitched as a spiritual successor to the N64 Banjo-Kazooie games , the first of which is widely considered one of the greatest games of all time and almost indisputably one of the best games on the N64, a system that was pitched more at children than the rival Playstation and thus has a lot more nostalgia attached to it even though it sold many fewer units.

Colorful graphics? Check. Simple geometry? Check. Clear signposting about where you're supposed to go? Check. Folks, we have a hub world.
Colorful graphics? Check. Simple geometry? Check. Clear signposting about where you're supposed to go? Check. Folks, we have a hub world.

I played the first Banjo game as a teen and while I never finished it (I barely ever finished games back then) I got pretty far and really enjoyed the game. I picked it up again on the Rare Replay collection and got even further but did not finish (I should really go back to that save at some point) but enjoyed it just as much as I had as a kid. I’ve never played the second or not-really-the-same third game, but my fondness for Banjo and my desire to see the remnants of Rare reform in the hopes they could recapture magic, as well as my general fondness for retro revivals, led me to back the Kickstarter.

Then the game was released just after the Nintendo Switch and I used my download code but never played it because I was too wrapped up in Breath of the Wild and other Switchy things (Fast RMX is so good! Finally got into Binding of Isaac. Really wanted to like Has Been Heroes but…don’t.)

The reception was…mixed to say the least. Most critics generally did not like it, some absolutely loved it, and a few, like Jim Sterling, hated it. Over time the game got patched and apparently improved but I continued to ignore it for other things, happy that it had at least been released and wasn’t yet more Kickstarter vaporware, but not exactly itching to play what was by most accounts a mediocre 3-D platformer, especially not with Super Mario Odyssey on the horizon and then quickly downloaded onto my Switch, where I played it to its very satisfying conclusion, filling my platforming needs for a long time.

The minigames can be janky, but they're fine. They're fine!
The minigames can be janky, but they're fine. They're fine!

Now, two and a half years later, Playtonic has released a new game in the series that’s more Donkey Kong Country than Banjo-Kazooie and it’s getting some good buzz (pun intended, since the bad guy in both games is an evil bee.) I pre-ordered a copy of that game, both because I really wanted that 64-bit tonic for nostalgia’s sake and in order to continue to support this kind of development, and decided to give the original a shot with the old Xbox copy I had from my original backing.

I realize that my experience comes after a number of patches and refinements and away from all the hype and expectations but after putting some time into Yooka-Laylee I can honestly say that…it’s mostly pretty good. My first impressions were extremely positive, mostly centering around that glorious soundtrack, which is by far the best thing about the game and easily calls back to Banjo and other Rare masterpieces from my teen years, but the base controls are also reasonably good (though certain abilities could have used fine tuning) and the game world is bright and colorful, with plenty of detail and some decent variety. The writing is fun and sometimes clever, there’s lots to see and do in the world with plenty of locations and minigames, and it fulfills that collectathon platformer niche. I recently played through the first two Spyro games in the Reignited Trilogy and it’s obvious that Yooka-Laylee is nowhere near as polished and well-designed as those titles, nor as the original Banjo, but it’s essentially an Indie Kickstarter game and it’s unreasonable to expect that it’s going to compete on that level. The game is definitely unpolished in a lot of ways. The animations are simple, the enemy designs kind of suck, and the little details aren’t always there (one reviewer complained about a skeleton in a pot who sticks around boiling even after you supposedly save her, and while that didn’t really bother me it’s certainly something that would have gone differently in a title with a bigger budget.)

Just like in Banjo Kazooie there are transformations. In this case it's a scientist rather than a witch doctor, but you still need to find tokens for her to transform you.
Just like in Banjo Kazooie there are transformations. In this case it's a scientist rather than a witch doctor, but you still need to find tokens for her to transform you.

The biggest problem the game has, however, is in the level design. The levels are way too big and sprawling, both in terms of being able to navigate them to return to challenges or areas you want to find, and in terms of the tightness of the challenges themselves, which often require a fair amount of uninteresting but tightly timed traversal to get through if you want to, for example, bring a powerup you need to the place you need to use it before it runs out. Combined with the not great camera and so-so controls when using certain abilities it prevents the game from ever achieving that sense of tight control and concentrated focused challenge and fun that the best 3-D platformers have. Playing through Yooka-Laylee just isn’t as moment to moment rewarding as playing through something like Spyro is, even though the games offer similar types of challenges at times, and the Reignited trilogy clearly had a higher budget in terms of both graphics and polish.

But despite those flaws I still enjoyed Yooka-Laylee. While it started a bit slow and the second world, which is ice themed, was kind of annoying, as I unlocked more moves and got used to the game’s issues I started to appreciate it on its own terms as a pretty good 3-D platformer with some decently designed areas and challenges mixed in with all the jank. The third and fourth worlds, swamp and casino themed respectively, were especially fun, with nice art design and a nice suite of puzzles and challenges to engage with. The third world boss fight in particular felt like it could have come directly out of a classic N64 3-D platformer (including a certain amount of cheapness) and by the time I beat him I was smiling. The fifth world was my favorite, with its serene beauty and by far the best musical theme in the game. It is also laid out as a bunch of small islands on a galactic sea, making it easy to navigate. You also have the flight power at this point, which generally helps with the level design issues by allowing you to go where you want to quickly, though you can also use it to bypass a bunch of the platforming challenges. I even enjoyed the minecart segments and faux retro arcade games, despite their jank, because of the focus on concentrated action and memorizing a reasonably sized course. Not expecting Banjo levels of polish allowed me to enjoy the sparkly bits mixed in with the problems.

I’ve been on something of a platformer kick over the last couple years, including a fair number of 3D ones. I’ve played 2 of the Spyro Reignited games (fantastic) and intend to go back for the third. I played Mario Odyssey (transcendent), Sonic Forces (a bad game that I had some fun with) and Super Lucky’s Tale (A mixed bag that I had a lot of fun with.) Yooka-Laylee fits comfortably in the middle of that pack, ahead of Sonic Forces and Super Lucky’s Tale, but not as good as the stone cold classic Spyro games or the modern apex of the genre that is Mario. There were definitely times when I cursed the game and smacked my leg in frustration (sometimes it asks you to do things with more precision than the controls and bad camera will allow) and a few times when I didn’t know what to do, but more often than not I just allowed myself to get lost in its vast worlds and enjoy the pleasant, laid back, action.

That final boss fight can go to hell, though. It took me probably 10+ tries to get right, and having to go through a bunch of lengthy phases to get to the part I was having trouble with was frustrating, boring, and annoying, especially when the bad camera led to cheap hits. I hate most final bosses and this cheap bastard is in line with a lot of the ones from the 90s, but I felt only a sense of relief that I wouldn’t have to play the earlier parts yet again when I beat him, not triumph or accomplishment.

The game can be very beautiful and atmospheric.
The game can be very beautiful and atmospheric.

But that’s Yooka-Laylee. It was pitched as a throwback and that’s what it is for both better and worse. There are a few nods to modern design (no lives, pretty generous with health, the level of graphical polish and the sheer size of the environments) but they are wrapped around a platformer straight out of the 90s. Even the janky minigames and not great camera feel almost intentional in the way they mimic those games (acceptable for the minigames, not for the camera.) It doesn’t try to answer the question of “what could a 3-D platformer be in 2017 if we implemented all the lessons of design and tech from the last 20 years” like Mario Odyssey does, it just gives you a slightly updated version of the thing you used to like way back then, warts and all.

I put over 20 hours into Yooka-Laylee, and then went back to mop up some easy achievements, showing that I wasn’t sick of the game after all that time. That says a lot to me. I will have fond memories of the game and even though the story is pretty standard (albeit with some funny lines) and the platforming isn’t anything truly special, I’m glad I backed it and finally played it. It definitely scratched that nostalgia itch as a throwback game, and I’m looking forward to playing the second in the series much sooner than a couple years from now.

Oh, and even if you’re not interested in the game itself, do yourself a favor and check out that Galleon Galaxy theme. It’s tremendous.

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