Yooka-Laylee is a kickstarter success story. The project made its initial goal in thirty-eight minutes and raised over a million pounds sterling in twenty-four hours. Playtronic Games’ pitch for the project was simple: a faithful successor to the Banjo-Kazooie franchise developed by former Rare employees who had been involved in the making of the original two games. After Banjo-Tooie was released in 2000, every game the iconic characters appeared in were spin-offs or remasters. The desire for a revival likely came from not just the fondness for these classic games but also from a degree of disappointment in the prior attempt to modernize the Banjo-Kazooie collect-a-thon style in Banjo-Kazooie Nuts & Bolts. Yooka-Laylee is an unapologetic throwback that replaces the bird and the bear with a bat and an iguana and keeps almost everything else the same. It is a time-capsule with a new paint job that captures the strengths and weaknesses of its inspiration.
Yooka-Laylee tasks the player with collecting enough “pagies” (the new jiggies) to climb through Hivory Towers and face the villainous Capital B. Before the player enters the first of the game’s worlds they are introduced to a blend of bright colors, cartoonish characters, and a familiar if immature sense of humor. Yooka and Laylee, the game’s playable duo, meet a snake named Trowzer who sells them their first technique. There are many more jokes like that. There are good jokes, too, but time has not been kind to the hit-or-miss approach of puns and barely-even-innuendos from the Nintendo 64 era of Rare games. Still, a bad joke or two can be tolerated if it means getting to enjoy the game’s vivid cartoon aesthetic. This is not just clear in the vibrancy of colors, or the way particle effects add detail—ice sparkles with light, Yooka the chameleon’s skin glows like fire after he eats smoldering coals, and pagies glimmer like gold—but the visual themes for each of the game’s levels feel more defined. After the novelty of exploring them wears out these areas still feel different from each other aesthetically, and these differences are worth appreciating. The game’s style both enriches it and dates it.
The paradox of being a throw-back winds throughout Yooka-Laylee’s DNA. It controls like a smoother version of a game from twenty years ago, with the familiar joys of completing races, obstacle courses and puzzles. The soundtrack, composed by David Wise, Steve Burke and Grant Kirkhope, is brimming with atmosphere and sentiment. The worlds the player unlocks become more and more fantastic, with a final level that would fit into Super Mario Galaxy. Even navigating the hub world becomes more fun as the player buys more abilities from Trowzer. Unfortunately, Yooka-Laylee also imitates frustrations that are remarkably distant from modern games. Some of these result from technology, like dealing with a rigid and difficult third person camera. Others are hold-over design choices found inside its inspirations.
Plenty of Yooka-Laylee’s nods to prior Rare games feel unnecessary and out-of-date. Both the transformations, where the player character is turned into a different form with new powers, and the boss fights inside each world feel like an item on a checklist. One boss is a talking ramp called Rampo. Would that even have been funny twenty years ago? Two other fights call attention to the weakness of some of the game’s gimmicks. One fight takes place while transformed and almost all of the difficulty comes from unfamiliarity with the transformation’s controls. Another boss-fight happens during a mine-cart riding segment—an homage to Donkey Kong Country that feels much worse to play because of its rigid controls. While that mine-cart boss fight stands out as pointless, none of the other fights feel relevant either. Those moments are where nostalgia fails and the decision making from 20 years ago actually feels 20 years old.
Yooka-Laylee even mocks its own nostalgic designs with a tyrannosaurus called Rextro Sixtyforus. He’s made up of sharp angled polygons and detailed with scan lines and blocky pixels, wearing an arcade coin around his neck like a medal. These arcade coins are collectables that let the player try gimmicky mini-games from Rextro’s Arcade. Rextro comes across as a parody of the kind of player who wanted Yooka Laylee to happen. The game is full of meta-humor like the Rextro character that plays with and calls attention to arbitrary or out-of-style design choices. Those jokes may not change the mind of a player frustrated by excessive nostalgia, but they work well enough that the laughs are not at the game’s expense.
Playtronic Games created a successor to Banjo-Kazooie by blatantly reassembling parts from it. The blatant desire to be what it is, to seem classic instead of modern, courses throughout Yooka -Laylee. Even when it is fun, it is more of the same fun. It doesn’t revitalize or even attempt to change the formula. Despite that Yooka-Laylee is colorful and musical and comforting. Yooka-Laylee may not represent a revival for the collect-a-thon genre, but it is an acceptable sequel, successor, parody and homage to a game now regarded as classic.
Yooka-Laylee was developed by Playtonic Games and published by Team17. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Switch and Mac.
Delilah Sinclair is a shy writer based in the Pacific Northwest. You can follow her @vorpalfemme on Twitter.