Friday, January 10, 2020

Yooka-Laylee Review

After the success of Super Mario 64, everyone wanted to make their own 3D platformer. It was kind of a trend for a while. Unsurprisingly, one of the best at making 3D platformers in the Mario 64 mold was Nintendo’s own Rareware. They made 2 Banjo-Kazooie games, Donkey Kong 64, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. They even started their own trend among 3D platformers, the collectathon. Banjo-Kazooie was my jam back in the day, but I don’t particularly miss those games with hundreds of collectables of six different kinds in every level. There is definitely an audience looking for this kind of game, though. In 2015, 73,206 backers pledged over 2.7 million dollars to a Kickstarter campaign for the development of Yooka-Laylee, a Rare style 3D platformer made by Playtonic Games, a development studio founded by former Rare developers who worked the Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie series. Frankly, I haven’t heard great things about Yooka-Laylee, but I played it and collected around 115 Pagies, and I was pleasantly surprised. It definitely does the thing it sets out to do, give us another one of those Mario 64 clones in that cheeky Rare style.

The main draw of this game for me is how Rare-like it is. N64 kids should feel right at home here. Yooka-Laylee is more than Rare enough. It’s comically Rare. Everything about Yooka-Laylee is heavily leaning on the googly eyed characters that talk like “Hwa hwa hwa hwa hwa” thing, there are toilet jokes everywhere, and constant 4th wall breaking. Mostly by Laylee. There’s even an enemy that’s just a pair of bouncing googly eyes that possesses many different objects throughout the game. Anything can be a character with a pair of googly eyes! Yooka and Laylee themselves look like they could have been one of those other non-DK characters in Diddy Kong Racing. This is what the people wanted, right?

Playtonic has definitely made that game, but I think the thing that draws people to Yooka-Laylee is also the reason why it's not a great game. Yooka-Laylee totally looks and plays like a sequel to all those Rare 3D platformers on N64, but not like a sequel made this gen. It feels more like a GameCube era game remade for the current generation. Yooka-Laylee feels very old-school compared to how 3D Mario games have evolved since Mario Sunshine. Yooka-Laylee is full of gimmicky minigames, huge levels that are huge for the sake of being huge, and a pretty bad camera no matter which option you use.

My biggest issue with Yooka-Laylee is how gimmicky it is. It feels like half of the things you do to get Pagies (the Stars of YL) aren't even platforming. There's races, minecart levels, quizzes, shooting galleries, fake arcade games, and a bunch of transformations, like a snowplow and helicopter. Most of these aren't even fun to begin with, and yet they're repeated over and over throughout the game. Every level has the 5 ghosts, a minecart level, an arcade game, and something to do with a transformation. None of these are actual platforming, and they all end up feeling like filler. They’re just something to put in these huge levels to meet the 25 Pagie requirement for each one.

It's a shame that this game is so full of gimmicks because it plays really well. There’s some very good traditional platforming here. The Yooka and Laylee combo makes for a really fun character to play as in a 3D platformer. Aside from some iffy first person aiming, the game has great controls. Running and jumping around feels smooth and precise, combining your abilities feels intuitive, and you get a good mix of familiar and new moves throughout the game. You get a roll, double jump, glide, Sonic spin dash, a Crash/Jak-like spin attack, and also some weirder moves, like a Predator-like stealth mode (‘cause Yooka is a chameleon) and a sonar shot (‘cause Laylee is a bat) that reveals secret totems. I feel like the weirder, non-platforming abilities aren’t used very well, though. You barely use the tongue grappling hook outside of the swamp area, for example, and that only adds to the disjointed and gimmicky vibe of the game.

The levels in Yooka-Laylee are just too big for their own good. There really isn't that much to do in all this space. That’s probably why there’s 200 Quills in them. A lot of the Pagie challenges have you talk to an NPC that throws you into a minigame, or take place in a cave or dungeon separate from the main part of the world, so large chunks of the levels end up feeling like space that's only there to connect areas or like they’re only there to make the world bigger. These huge worlds also work against you because the game only creates checkpoints at doors. That means that long obstacle courses have to be retried from the start every time, and if you die while exploring deep into a level, you might have to run back there from the entrance.

The camera in Yooka-Laylee is problematic, but honestly, I got used to it. I used manual throughout the whole game. That's a lot of camera babysitting, but it's better than constantly fighting the regular camera.

Progression through the game is done pretty well. There are jokes about collectathons in the game, but I was not overwhelmed by collectables in YL, like in Banjo-Tooie and DK64. Each level has 200 Quills, 5 ghosts, an arcade token you use to play Rextro’s games, an HP upgrade, an energy upgrade, and a Mollycool to use the transformation machine. It's a lot of stuff, but you don't have to get all of it to progress. You get a Pagie after catching all the ghosts, one from collecting 200 Quills, 2 Pagies from the arcade game you play with the token, and a few with the level’s transformation, so you're not just collecting for the sake of it. You use Quills to buy moves and you open and expand levels with Pagies, so you always feel like you’re working towards a goal. It’s also worth noting that there’s 145 Pagies in the game, but you only need 100 to fight the last boss, so you can definitely skip some mine cart levels if you want.

I think Yooka-Laylee looks pretty nice. If they were going for a Rare box art CG look, then they pretty much nailed it. You could probably use a Yooka-Laylee screenshot for the cover of a YL SNES game. The environments have cliche themes like ice, jungle, and swamp, but they’re very lively, colorful, full of cartoony details, and totally remind me of Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie. I played the PC version, and it ran at 60fps with max settings at 1080p, but I did notice that there were some ugly graphical glitches, like flat black textures on some objects, like the ice cubes in the Icymetric Palace and one of the pillars in the casino level.

Yooka-Laylee's soundtrack definitely sounds like a Rare game. It's like part DKC and part BK, with tracks by both Grant Kirkhope and David Wise. It fits the game really well, but it’s not really my style. I’m just not into the horn-heavy, orchestral Grant Kirkhope stuff. It reminds me too much of old cartoons or something. I like the David Wise tracks much better. They’re usually the faster more electronic, DKC-sounding tracks.

I had fun with Yooka-Laylee, but there’s definitely a lot of crap to wade through. If this game had cut out half of those minigames and transformations and focused more on platforming obstacle courses, it would have probably been a much better game. Still, if you were a fan of Rare’s games back when they worked for Nintendo, you’ll probably have a good time with Yooka-Laylee. I’d be interested in another 3D Yooka-Laylee platformer, and I’ll definitely have to check out Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair soon.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

GOTY 2019

13. Tetris 99 - This literally came out of nowhere. Tetris spinoffs don’t usually turn out well, but Arika and Nintendo nailed it with this one. It’s such a simple idea. It’s Tetris battle royale. You vs 98 other players online. There’s some real killers online, and I’ve still never won a game, but this is a ton of fun regardless. It has single player Marathon and offline multiplayer DLC, too.

12. Shovel Knight: King of Cards - The final Shovel Knight expansion. And what a great sendoff for the game. It doesn’t seem to have gotten a lot of attention, but it’s a legitimately great platformer. Don’t let the card game scare you off. You don’t have to play it if you don’t want. King Knight is a really fun character to play as and the levels are some of the most challenging in the series. This is a must play for fans of 2D platformers.

11. Untitled Goose Game - The goose that laid the golden egg. Not only was it an instant hit when it came out on Switch, but it just surpassed 1 million in sales after its PS4 and XBO release. And well deserved. Untitled Goose game is hilarious and a lot of fun to play. I was legitimately surprised at how good the actual gameplay was. I thought it was just about funny goose memes, but I had a great time solving puzzles around the neighborhood.

10. Contra Anniversary Collection - This and the Castlevania collection had a few issues, like the Pixel Perfect mode on SNES and NES games actually being in Genesis Pixel Perfect aspect ratio instead of 8:7, but they’re both full of great games and well worth the price. Sure, you’ll get better options by playing these on your NES, SNES, or Genesis Classic, but this is probably going to be the only way to get these games on PS4, XBO, or Switch.

9. Blazing Chrome - Blazing Chrome is not actually a new Contra game, but it is a much better Contra game than the new Contra game, Contra: Rogue Corps. Blazing Chrome takes the sidescrolling run ‘n gun action that made Contra III and Contra: Hard Corps so great on SNES and Genesis and does something a little more modern with it. There is no 30 lives code here, but you do have infinite continues and can do some of the levels out of order, so this game is much more about memorizing levels and improving your skills. If Contra Anniversary Collection left you wanting a new Contra, you should check out Blazing Chrome.

8. Castlevania: Anniversary Collection - Yeah, this is missing all those great Metroidvanias, like SOTN and Aria of Sorrow, and it doesn’t even have all the Classicvanias, since it’s missing Rondo of Blood and The Adventure ReBirth, but there's a lot of great Classicvanias in this thing, and it’s only $20. This also has the only English release of Kid Dracula for NES, which is not great, but is interesting if you’re into retro game oddities.

7. Luigi’s Mansion 3 - Even though the Luigi’s Mansion series goes all the way back to the GameCube days, it’s never been one of Nintendo’s big series. Luigi’s Mansion 3 feels like the game that’s going to change that. This feels like a AAA Luigi’s Mansion. This is by far the biggest game in the series and one of the best looking games on Switch. I thought the controls were a little awkward and felt like the game was asking a bit too much of Luigi near the end, but it was otherwise a great game.

6. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night - I was one of the backers that got burned by the pathetic Switch version, but after playing this on PC, I can’t bring myself to hate it. It’s just too good. There are a lot of indies games trying to be Symphony of the Night 2 out there, but none of them do it as well as Bloodstained RotN. Iga delivered and I can’t wait to see what’s next for the series.

5. Devil May Cry 5 - The Devil May Cry series has been flirting with Resident Evil and Zelda style puzzles since the very first one, but I don’t think they ever really clicked. The series needed to pick a style, and it went with pure action. Devil May Cry 5 drops nearly all the puzzles and exploration, and is much closer to a Bayonetta in structure than a DMC4. I think it worked out well. This game is non-stop action, both Nero and Dante are a lot of fun to play, and even though the story doesn’t make sense sometimes (to say the least), it’s fun in a dumb action movie kind of way. This party’s crazier than ever!

4. River City Girls - I love WayForward and River City Ransom is one of my favorite NES beat ‘em ups, so this is a match made in heaven for me. The combat system is nearly as deep as a fighting game’s and the presentation is bursting with style. It has beautiful 2D graphics, one of the best soundtracks of the year, and the story is hilarious and full of colorful characters and clever dialogue. I hope to see more of Misako and Kyoko in the future.

3. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening - It’s Link’s Awakening with more buttons. That automatically makes it the best version of Link’s Awakening. This remake lets the amazing game that was always held back by the limitations of the GB shine through. It’s a shame that they never fixed the uneven framerate on the overworld, but the game is fantastic otherwise. It has some of the best graphics on the Switch and the soundtrack is by far the best Zelda music in a game outside of Smash Bros.

2. Super Mario Maker 2 - Even after Pokemon, this is still my most played game of the year It was basically an expansion to the Wii U game but with a worse UI, but I got totally into making levels again. Nobody plays my levels, but that’s another story. I just have fun making them. It’s a creative outlet for me. The single player was also pretty good. Still waiting on Swoops, Nintendo!

1. Pokemon Sword and Shield - This game was the most fun I had all year. I was totally addicted to it for about a month and I still play it every day. I loved how the story focused on trainers and the spirit of competition, and I'm still having a lot of fun raiding, shiny hunting, and breeding competitive Pokemon. This series was heading in a bad direction with Sun and Moon and its handholdy campaign and terrible characters, like Hao and Lillie, and while Sword and Shield are not the Breath of the Wild of Pokemon, they’re a step in the right direction. This is by far the best Pokemon game to come out in a very long time.