Yooka-Laylee [official site] is designed to feel like getting into a warm, foamy bath of nostalgia. The characters and world are new but the industry veterans behind this 3D open-world platformer know exactly which buttons to hit to ease you into comforting familiarity. Everything from the colours to the font transports you back to the 1990s. While playing I half-expected the Spice Girls to break down the door and throw a Tamagotchi into my hands.
Nostalgia is a tricky thing, however. Although the wildly successful Kickstarter (raising £2.1 million from 80,000 backers) shows that there is obviously a huge appetite for it, many people won’t have familiarity with games like Banjo-Kazooie. I have a strange third-person nostalgia for these games, as I never had the consoles growing up but did watch friends play them. Because of this, I wondered if Yooka-Laylee would grab me when I played it in the same way the mere idea of it had grabbed others.
Banjo-Kazooie is the most obvious reference point from the characters on down. You control Yooka (a lizard) and Laylee (a bat), a chirpy duo with different skills. As you progress, you gain new moves and abilities which are purchased by gathering Quills, one of the seemingly endless swathes of collectibles that will keep you constantly moving and searching. In each world there are 200 Quills to find, but also other collectibles such as Pagies, pages of a powerful book which unlock new worlds or expand existing ones. There are also little side challenges like kart racing, which seems clearly inspired by the Banjo-Kazooie-starring Diddy Kong Racing.
If you lack the point of reference some of Yooka-Laylee will look a little unusual. For instance you might be in a level that is entirely jungle themed and instead of each challenge fitting that theme, you'll be confronted with a giant lazerbeam or arcade machine sticking out in the environment like a technicoloured sore thumb. This isn’t to say that it looks bad - to the contrary, the bright colours and playful character design make for a very appealing look - but it might take a little getting used to for those who aren’t familiar with the original influences.
Similarities aside, Yooka-Laylee isn’t a carbon copy of its 90s predecessors. I spoke to Steve Mayles, Character Art Director at developers Playtonic about what they wanted to lose from the old 3D platformers. “The main thing was to take away the linearity of it. That's what we did with stuff around the expandable world, so there's a bit more player choice, and how you can buy moves in any order. In the old games you'd be unlocking a move and then straight away using that move, it was a very linear experience. Whereas now you might have a choice of three moves and each move can open up a new area on a level or you could even choose not to buy any of the moves and get enough pages so you progress onto a later level and get better moves.”
This more open approach to the world design and progression is what ultimately grabbed my attention while playing. In many platformers you can soon feel yourself going through the motions, but Yooka-Laylee had me darting from place to place in excitement at all the moves and activities to try. The levels felt like a playground packed with things to do. I started doing a little platform jumping and when I fell before the end of the course, instead of feeling frustration at having to do it all over again, my attention was instead drawn by a character off in the distance I had yet to meet. Soon I was racing a nice cloud lady around the level.
I was so easily distracted within the world that I asked Mayles about how they’ve managed to create an open world yet keep a player focused enough to be successful in exploring. “We might frame certain things in a certain way in the environment, or we might have the Quills as almost like a trail of breadcrumbs. So if there's a trail of five Quills leading you in this direction you know there's probably something significant worth doing there. ”
As well as the visuals providing the cues for exploration, they also deliver quite a few gags. The character Trowzer is a snake... in a pair of trousers... No prizes for guessing the innuendo with that one. But even the tiniest details have a touch of humour. Every now and again Trowzer whips out a huge brick of a phone to take a call, and written on the phone is “Brickco 1985”. In the levels you find Play Coins, another collectible which can be spent in an arcade machine run by a very low-poly dinosaur called Rextro who has been waiting for his friends to play with him since 1997 when they all went online.
There are a few more adult jokes peppered throughout the game, and talking to Mayles there seemed to have been more until it was toned down. “I think it was at E3 and it was a pollinating plant and it was just innuendo after innuendo about spraying seeds and stuff like that, and then the guy playing went to another challenge which was innuendo-laden as well. One of the developers says, 'Well, there's not that much in there, he just chose three challenges in a row that had innuendo in...' and I think that made him sit back and think, 'I probably need to take some of this stuff out.' Because there was one website which said 'Is Yooka-Laylee as filthy as Conkers?' or something like that [Probably this video. -Ed] and that definitely isn't the sort of thing we were going for but that's the impression that this guy got.” Talking about inspirations for the humour, The Simpsons came up in our chat, and I can definitely see that influence. In what I played, there’s enough there to keep the kids laughing but also a couple of references that only the adults playing will get.
Despite enjoying my time with Yooka-Laylee, an issue with the camera marred the experience slightly. I had to constantly battle to get it into a useful position and it often snapped back into an awkward place which made platforming difficult. An unwieldy camera in a 3D open-world platformer does take its toll on your patience.
After about an hour and 30 minutes playing I found myself losing track of the time as I ran about the 3D worlds. It feels like being let loose in a playground; take your pick of what you want to do and go wild. If the rogue camera in this build can be reined in, then both newcomers and nostalgia-seekers should get a great deal of fun out of it.