In our era of risk-averse game publishers and nostalgia-baiting Kickstarters, the term “spiritual successor” gets thrown around a lot. At best, these psuedo-sequels are a chance for developers to salvage some worthy concepts from a long-gone creation and reinvent them with the benefits of hindsight and modernity. At worst, they’re Yooka-Laylee, productions so wrapped up in recreating past glories that they never bother to reconsider them and look forward.
That’s not to say Yooka-Laylee, a near-exact replica of the Nintendo 64’s Banjo-Kazooie games by a team of developers who helped make them, doesn’t improve on the ancient (in video game years) texts it’s invoking. In terms of actually controlling the game’s stoic lizard and wisecracking bat, the legally distinct reincarnations of BK’s bear and bird, Yooka-Laylee takes advantage of the nearly 20 years of progress games have enjoyed since Rare unleashed its googly-eyed wonderlands on the world. For the most part, Yooka moves with a precision that Banjo, who debuted during the rocky formative years of 3-D gaming, never did. The worlds players visit are cleverly designed to deal with the sloppiness inherent in 3-D platforming, and the camera, the frenemy of all three-dimensional heroes, is hardly ever a problem. But beyond those requisite refinements, Yooka-Laylee is little more than an inoffensive Banjo retread. When sticking to the script, it’s a perfectly functional throwback whose cardinal sin is that, other than the fourth-wall breaking pun-laden dialogue, it’s bland and unimaginative. However, the minor changes it dares bring to the very specific formula it’s reviving make matters worse.
There are five self-contained, thematically distinct worlds to visit in the game. That’s half the number in the original Banjo, but each one is far larger and you can make them even bigger by exchanging a handful of Pagies, the MacGuffins you’re jumping through hoops (sometimes literally) to collect. It’s a great way for the developers to get more use out of the worlds they’ve built, but anything that’s gained from these larger, more intricate levels is lost when you consider how much repetition they add to a genre that’s already bemoaned for its tedium. Instead of cozier playgrounds where the creators could really concentrate on cooking up a handful of objectives that feel distinct and tailored to that environment’s theme, Yooka-Laylee’s worlds supplement their innocuous platforming challenges with recurring activities that are either mind-numbing, like pushing balls into holes and racing clouds, or actively infuriating, like mine-cart-riding mini-games. Early levels also contain Pagies that you can only acquire after you’ve visited later stages and learned new moves, so while the size of the sandboxes does guarantee a sense of exploration and discovery every time you enter a new one or expand an old one, it also makes it near impossible to come back later and remember which particular hole in a wall leads to that suspicious thing you saw several hours ago.
In its Kickstarter, Playtonic also promised to imbue Yooka-Laylee with many extraneous nods to Rare history, and this is where the game falters hardest. The aforementioned mine-cart challenges (a direct link to Donkey Kong Country) are buggy and unwieldy, and yet they show up in every world. Similarly, each level features an appearance from “Rextro,” a digital dinosaur who’ll give you Pagies for playing his boring arcade-style mini-games, kind of like how Jetpac and Donkey Kong were built into Donkey Kong 64, except those games are way better than Rextro’s originals.
And then there are the quizzes. Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel famously put players through a faux game show before they could reach the final boss fight. After dozens of hours of exploring, it was a clever curveball and asked players to recall the comical trivia they’d learned about the game’s villain. Being an exact replica, it was only natural that a quiz would appear in Yooka-Laylee, but instead of saving it for a silly change of pace at the end of the game, it puts you through three tortuously slow multiple-choice gauntlets. And the questions are often about very specific statistics, like how many feathers you’re currently holding, that you’ll only know if you paused the game ahead of time and checked. Three wrong answers, and you’re sent back to the beginning. Considering you can’t speed up any part of this exasperating process, that’s the worst punishment imaginable.
It’s not all bad, though. One of the game’s strongest moments comes from another Rare reference. Hidden in the second world is a sub-stage called the Icymetric Palace, where the camera retreats to a fixed overhead perspective, turning Yooka-Laylee into one of the isometric platformers Rare (then known as Ultimate Play The Game) helped invent with 1984’s Knight Lore. The Palace is a welcome, lengthy detour that’s unlike anything else in the game. Instead of simply replicating a relic from the developer’s past for a cheap nostalgia rush, it recontextualizes it into something new and infinitely more pleasant to play than the original, an unexpected amalgamation of Rare’s storied place in the history of platformer games.
That glimmer of self-reflection hints at what a revival like Yooka-Laylee could be, but in reality, the majority of this game is exactly what the studio promised it would be and raised $2.5 million to make: a faithful return to the Banjo template that so many people fell in love with all those years ago, myself included. And while it’s tempting to blame the game’s lackluster final state on its nostalgia-chasing Kickstarter or the inherently dated nature of its genre, Yooka-Laylee shouldn’t be used as evidence to condemn either. The fault lies squarely with Playtonic, who, by merit of the game’s better half, has shown that this singular style can work just fine in 2017, but whose spotty execution and lack of vision will undoubtedly lead many to shout otherwise.
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