The fact that Yooka-Laylee even exists should be enough to earn it high praise. The “Rare-vival” earned $2,613,466 on Kickstarter in June of 2015. The team at Playtonic was made up of former Rare employees who had worked on the super-popular Banjo-Kazooie, and who wanted to produce a game as a spiritual successor.
The game, of course, could only be a spiritual successor because it could not be a literal one. In the 1990’s, Rare was an independent game company, working in partnership with Nintendo. It was during this time that they created Banjo-Kazooie and the Donkey Kong games for the Nintendo 64. But when Microsoft bought the company they sidelined most of the talent. Few interesting games have come from Rare since, but all the character licenses remain locked away in Microsoft’s vaults.
So instead of being a direct sequel, Yooka-Laylee is a spiritual one, with direct 1-to-1 stand-ins for the most popular characters from the original game. Instead of our protagonist bear and bird Banjo and Kazooie, we have a protagonist chameleon and bat, Yooka and Laylee. Instead of a problematic witch doctor who turns you into different animals, we have a scientist who turns you into animals. Instead of a mole who teaches you all your new moves with the precision of a drill sergeant, we have a snake who sells them to you.
That’s only the beginning of the many similarities between Playtonic’s new 3D platformer Yooka-Laylee and the N64 classic Banjo-Kazooie. The mechanics of the game are updated a bit to take advantage of modern processing power, but by and large, the gameplay is the same. The player still has to explore a litany of new and exciting worlds to capture as many different collectibles as they can, taking advantage of the new moves they learn in that world to solve puzzles along the way.
Many of the games most ardent critics are using all these as points against the game. Somehow, to most video game critics, the fact that Playtonic Games delivered on their promise to the Kickstarter investors is some laziness or lack of creativity. The plot is too McGuffiny, the combat is too boring, or the puzzles are too played out.
In fairness to the critics who seem to think that the video game industry has made so much progress over the last few years, Yooka-Laylee fits in perfectly on the shelf next to every other game on sale today. The plot is no more ludicrous than that of any other game. The combat is not any easier than the point-and-click mechanics of the over-hyped Call of Duty franchise. And if the game’s puzzles feel like they lack originality than its best that you go back to leading Master Chief into battle on Halo for the 6th time.
The thing that Yooka-Laylee brings to the table that no other game has delivered in a few years is a level of real fun that can not be beaten. The game is great to play. Full stop. The round colorful characters look beautiful as they move around the screen and the bouncy music as the game boots up fills the air with anticipation. And the game isn’t fun because you are shooting aliens, stealing cars, or taking out terrorists on a covert mission. It’s a fun little game. Its humor is tongue in cheek and approaching inappropriate at times. But that laid against the backdrop of the colorful world of Yooka-Laylee makes it even more enjoyable.
The game or, rather, the game’s developers are also completely aware of where it fits in the landscape of video gaming. They have even written in off hand lines of dialogue about memory or game cartridges that wink at the player, reminding them that this is the same old game with a new coat of paint. And the meaning behind that wink should be obvious. When Banjo-Kazooie came out in 1998, it was fun. And when Yooka-Laylee came out, almost 20 years later, it was fun too.
Critics might say that the developers are spinning their wheels, doing the same exact tricks we saw in the previous versions of the game. But if they take a moment to look up they’ll notice that most of the video game industry is stuck in that same snow bank. The big difference is that major developers have the cash and the latitude to take a significant risk, if they ever wanted to that is. Playtonic Games was given an investment on a promise, and they delivered on that promise to the letter.
Yooka-Laylee is the most fun available on a current generation system. The world is inviting. The characters are endearing. And the gameplay is intuitive. It is a remarkable game well worth the price of admission.