To say Yooka-Laylee has been hyped is a huge understatement. The Kickstarter campaign for this Banjo-Kazooie spiritual successor saw success in the millions. Banjo-Kazooie was a huge hit when it released in 1998 on the Nintendo 64, developed by Rare. Compared to Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie was collectible heavy, special move reliant, and had a special brand of humor and character. The game saw a proper sequel (also on the Nintendo 64) in Banjo-Tooie, and later the mostly disappointing Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts for Xbox 360.
After Nuts and Bolts, fans never thought they’d see a true return to form for Banjo and Kazooie, the lovable bear and bird duo. However, with creative leads behind the original title and Donkey Kong Country forming Playtonic Games, Banjo-Kazooie fans are hoping to find a renewed sense of love with Yooka-Laylee. Does it live up the hype?
More Than Just an Imitation
Right from the main menu, you can see the Banjo-Kazooie inspirations start to pour out. In fact, Yooka-Laylee is a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie in every sense of the way. It’s also a much more refined and expansive platformer, but when it comes to tone, Yooka-Laylee matches its inspirations with triumph.
As you bounce from menu option to menu option, the small character portraits animate and exclaim, exactly like they did in Banjo. Selecting a single player adventure brings up three different save files to choose from, a relic of the ’90s. Before, games were contained to a single cartridge with no internal system memory. You could only have three individual save files going at once. While this means you’re restricted to auto-saves, it’s a nice touch that brings the feeling of an N64 Rare platformer home.
A Lizard and a Bat
Banjo-Kazooie didn’t have an incredibly dense plot, and neither does Yooka-Laylee. In the beginning of the game, we’re introduced to our main antagonist, Capital B. A rather large bumblebee with an evil corporate flair, he explains his evil intentions to rid the world of its books. By sucking up the world’s books, he plans to use their inherent power to boost his super evil corporation to unstoppable heights. Capital B’s right hand man is Dr. Quack, an evil scientist who also happens to be a duck head attached to a gumball machine. As Capital B activates his book sucking super machines, our titular duo are laying out in the sun enjoying some beautiful weather. Yooka, a bright green lizard, lays next to Laylee, a purple bat who is spread on a rock sunbathing. When their special book floats off towards Capital B’s Hivory Towers, they run off to investigate.
This starts a wonderful adventure through the Hivory Towers, jumping into Grand Tome worlds. The Hivory Towers serve as a hub world to connect you to the five different Grand Tome worlds you’ll explore. As you journey through the worlds, you’ll collect Golden Pagies. These magical artifacts make up the magical book you’re attempting to retrieve, and serve as the game’s main reward. These are similar to the Jiggies in Banjo-Kazooie, and Stars in Super Mario 64.
Massive Stories to Tell
Like Banjo-Kazooie, each world has its own central theme and contains a bunch of challenges and collectibles to find. These worlds are open and expansive, only limited by your current abilities. Each world has 25 different Golden Pagies to collect with a total of 140 across the entire game, as well as several categories of collectibles. There are Golden Quills (like Banjo‘s Golden Notes), five ghost writers (similar to Banjo‘s Jinjos), and other key items.
The gameplay cycle feels incredibly reminiscent of Banjo-Kazooie, and it’s obviously intended. However, Yooka-Laylee doesn’t just rest on its foundation, but rather builds upon it. Unlike the Jinjos in Banjo-Kazooie, the ghost writers all have different tactics required to catch them. The red one will require a quick bout of combat, the yellow one often hides in secret areas, and so on. Golden Quills don’t unlock doors, but instead are used as a type of currency to buy new abilities from the moves salesman, the snake Trowzer.
These moves are very similar to the moves you gained in Banjo-Kazooie, but with their own twist. By working together, the duo is able to roll quickly and traverse slippery slopes, hover and glide through the air, shoot sonar blasts, and more. Additionally, Yooka can eat elemental fruits by shooting his tongue at them, allowing him to shoot out ice, flames, and bombs. These are a just a few of the moves and abilities you acquire as you progress through the game. Controls are tight and super responsive, and I rarely felt cheated or frustrated by lack of accuracy.
A Collection of Challenges
These moves are put to good use in Yooka-Laylee‘s expansive worlds. Although there are only five worlds, they’re all massive. Each world feels like the size of three Banjo-Kazooie worlds, often incredibly large and bursting with activity. The locations Yooka-Laylee takes you to are exotic, but they touch on the classic themes of platforming greats. Of course there’s an ice level, but there’s also a giant casino full of slots and games of chance. Despite the world’s theme, each one is bursting with a variety of challenges and mini-games to play.
Golden Pagies are always rewarded for completing a challenge, not just collectibles you stumble upon. Challenges are entertaining and designed well, showing off a true ingenuity in game design. Some of these are repeated challenges brought to you by reoccurring characters. Of these, my favorite was a minecart challenge that seemed ripped straight out of Donkey Kong Country. This challenge was always prefaced by a meeting with an old prospector minecart named Kartos, whom Laylee quickly reassures is not the “god of war”.
Exploring each world and checking its in and outs is tons of fun, and each new world feels like a fresh experience. This is doubly effective, as you can expand previously explored worlds once you’ve collected enough Golden Pagies to afford it. Unlocking new worlds also costs Golden Pagies, so this can present a choice of whether to check out a fresh world or expand a current one. Expanding worlds is no small deal, either. Spending the extra Golden Pagies often results in completely new areas to explore with their own challenges and mini-games.
A Bright Cast of Characters
While combat is a feature of Yooka-Laylee, it’s not exactly a focal point. There’s not a huge variety of enemies within a singular world, but you won’t often find yourself in long fights unless a challenge dictates it. Instead, the game is constantly introducing you to bright new characters with small stories to tell. These characters always present a gameplay feature, whether over arching or specific to that world.
As I already pointed out, the suggestively named snake Trowzer serves as your move salesman. Besides him, there’s Rextro, a pixelated T-Rex who owns an arcade. Rextro lets you play his arcade cabinets if you find the hidden play coin in each world, and these arcade games can also be played multiplayer from the main menu. Vendi, the giant vending machine, offers tonics that can be equipped on Yooka and Laylee, each giving a unique passive ability. You can only have one tonic equipped at a time, and additional tonics are unlocked by completing tasks in the game. Defeating 10 enemies underwater might give you a tonic that lets you breathe underwater longer. This also presents a nice progression of reward, and allows you customize your play style a bit.
Much like Banjo-Kazooie, you also get to transform into new creatures in each world. The tentacle and fish bowl wearing Dr. Puzz will transform Yooka and Laylee into a new creation if they find the molecule shaped collectible Mollycool hidden in each world. Honestly, not all of these transformations are as cool as I would’ve liked, nor are they utilized as much as they could’ve been. Not all of the transformations were lackluster, some are quite inventive. I specifically enjoyed turning into a small school of fish, which allowed me to get through tight spaces and swim quickly.
A Flood of Nostalgia
Yooka-Laylee pulled an overwhelming sense of nostalgia out of me, and that’s mainly due to its direct parallels to Banjo-Kazooie. As you progress through the hub world, Dr. Quack will descend upon you with a 10 question quiz. These multiple choice questions ask you to recall specifics about the game’s worlds, your collectible numbers, names of characters, and more. This is exactly like the final quiz show section in Banjo-Kazooie, and feels entirely ’90s. The whole game has this constant feel of both old and new, a culmination of nostalgia and modern flare.
Each world features a giant final boss, often spouting insults and puns at you while you figure out their strategy. These encounters felt like they were sucked out of an era gone by; I truly felt like I was sitting in 1998. In a way, bosses feel like Conker’s Bad Fur Day villains, large googley-eyed objects brought to life with pure imagination. Look no further than World 1’s boss, Rampo.
Self Referential Bliss
Yooka-Laylee knows what it is. It’s a crowd funded revival of ’90s 3D platforming, releasing in 2017. Playtonic uses this to their advantage, filling the game with self reference and industry commentary. Laylee’s quip to Kartos about being the “god of war” is one of many references to video gaming and the industry around it. Yooka and Laylee are very intelligent characters, often recognizing their situation and appropriately commenting on it. They’re rather endearing characters, and I grew to love them and their honesty more and more as my time with the game continued.
Similar to the recently released Thimbleweed Park, Yooka-Laylee revels in its awareness, playing to it for laughs at every chance. I chuckled hard when a loading screen tip appeared that said “if cartridges were popular, this would’ve loaded by now.” I also found myself grinning at Rextro’s ignorance to modern technology, getting confused at how gaming has evolved beyond his beloved arcades. Capital B also has some pretty funny lines, once even stating that “to continue, you’ll need to wait 12 hours or spend 1.99 on special coins.” This hard jab at the free-to-play market was smart, and showed intelligence through sarcasm.
A Visual and Audible Treat
Not only are Yooka-Laylee‘s environments and characters varied and fleshed out, but they’re also great to look at and hear. The game has a very cartoonish look to it, but it’s clean looking. The style reminds me of the recent reboot of Ratchet & Clank for the Playstation 4 more than anything else, but not as high budget. You won’t see any insanely flashy particle effects, but rather great looking textures and beautiful art design.
Yooka-Laylee is bright and colorful, but those sentiments aren’t purely contained to its visual style. The game’s soundtrack is absolutely wonderful, and contains some incredibly catchy tunes. The music also adapts to your situation, much like Banjo-Kazooie did. Diving underwater sees a switch to a dreamy version of the current theme, giving you a decisive switch in atmosphere. That atmosphere is what really makes the game stand out. Yooka-Laylee constantly looks and sounds cheerful and bouncy, save for the dreary swamp level. Although slightly muted, that world also has a great feel and pace to it as well.
On a negative note, some sound effects can get annoying due to their repetition. Transforming into a giant plant was enjoyable, but hearing an obnoxious “boing” every time I bounced was annoying. This was even worse considering the somewhat slow movement from the transformation and the never ending repetition of bounce after bounce. While I wasn’t completely bothered by them, some players might find character voices a bit abrasive. Instead of fully voiced dialogue, each character is essentially a mixture of grunts and sighs, played quickly in succession. This is an exact replica of Banjo-Kazooie‘s voice design, so I wasn’t entirely put off by it. Those who don’t have the nostalgic connection might find this design choice a bit perplexing.
Technical performance is pretty solid as well, rarely seeing a drop in frame rate. There were a few times where I saw some dips, but these were few and far in between. Pop-in is non existent, as the draw distance is absolutely fantastic. Standing on top of a vantage point will allow you to see the entire world with great clarity. I encountered a few hiccups with the camera, but barely enough to be notable. As a graphical and audio package, Yooka-Laylee also exceeds expectations and impresses.
The Bottom Line on Yooka-Laylee
Banjo-Kazooie was one of my favorite N64 games, and I can’t help but be disappointed with where the series has gone. When Yooka-Laylee came out of the gate with such a powerful similarity to my beloved bear and bird duo, I couldn’t help but be excited. As the initial gimmick of playing a very nostalgic platformer wore off, I started to appreciate the game for what it was. If I have any complaints, it’s that the game only has five worlds. For a mid tier priced title (the game retails for $39.99 USD), Yooka-Laylee is one of the most well put together experiences I’ve had in a while. The game was able to make me giggle with joy, a feeling I rarely get from games anymore.
I have hope for a potential sequel, as there are occasional references to “future games” in Yooka-Laylee. The world and characters introduced feel alive and interesting, and deserve more time to shine. As I wrapped up my playthrough at 22 hours, I was immensely satisfied but still craving more. Yooka-Laylee is a ’90s platformer without the frustration but all of the polish. It’s an intelligent and humorous adventure not just as a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, but completely on its own. It feels both classic and inventive, both old and new. A game that will be fun regardless of age, Yooka-Laylee manages to be refreshing and unique all while feeling comfortable and familiar. If you’re a fan of N64 era platforming, or enjoyed Banjo-Kazooie at all, there is no question… you must play this game. It’s not a perfect game for a ’90s kid like me, but it’s pretty damn close.