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.