Amateur developers love to show off their abilities by recreating older games in the latest iteration of the Unreal Engine. These videos – ‘Ocarina of Time REMADE in Unreal!’, ‘Super Mario 64 Remake GAMEPLAY FOOTAGE’, etc. – are great showcases for how technology has evolved, but there’s always something missing from them, no matter how talented the individual or team behind them is. Perhaps the UI doesn’t quite gel, or the animation feels off. Perspective hasn’t quite been nailed, and suddenly the character feels too small, or the physics means they get stuck on walls or jump in a weird way. I watch these videos sometimes, and I think ‘this is a great showcase, but it would probably be a terrible game’.
Yooka-Laylee was made in Unity rather than Unreal Engine, but it’s got the same vibe to it, despite being developed and conceived largely by the same people who created the original game it evokes. It feels like a fan tribute to 1997’s Banjo-Kazooie, a game that has held up well. Each level in B-K represents a coherent vision, and Rare’s tendency to bloat their games with too many collectables wouldn’t manifest properly until Jet Force Gemini and Donkey Kong 64, two years later. It was, and still is, a truly great platformer. At the time some argued that it was superior to Super Mario 64, and while that’s not quite how history has remembered it, B-K at least belongs in the same conversation.
Yooka-Laylee is reliant on your nostalgia, which it mines expertly through every single aesthetic decision.
Yooka-Laylee is reliant on your nostalgia, which it mines expertly through every single aesthetic decision the designers have made. You explore big open worlds, collecting ‘Pagies’ (book pages with big cartoon eyes, like Jiggies in the original) and Quills (replacing B-K’s music notes). Pagies let you open new levels, or expand the ones you already have, making them much bigger and uncovering new objectives. Many of the Pagies are held by characters you’ll meet within the world, all of which are developed enough to have distinct personalities, delivering fun dialog alongside their mission objectives.
The worlds are bright and cartoony; the collectables glitter and hum like the ones you remember; the characters speak in funny mumbles instead of proper speech. The number ‘64’ appears more than once. It apes the basic progression structure of Banjo-Kazooie, right down to the level-specific transformations and collectable hidden characters (Jinjos have been replaced by ghosts, for some reason, which require specific criteria to ‘catch’). It can feel bloated at times, although not as badly as Banjo-Tooie was. It ticks a lot of the boxes you might expect.
But if Yooka-Laylee studied the history of 3D platformers, it closed the book too early. The developers, one suspects, may have missed Super Mario Galaxy. They never saw what Ratchet & Clank can do. They skipped over the weirder N64 platformers – the Glovers and the Space Station Silicon Valleys. Perhaps they looked at the PS2’s Vexx and said ‘people liked this, right?’. The game frames itself like a triumphant return rather than a step forward, as though the 3D platforming genre completely disappeared at some point.
Yooka-Laylee’s big open platforming worlds, its hub environment, and its gradual meting out of abilities all feel familiar. In fact, the whole game feels familiar, but it’s very rare that it taps into what made its predecessors truly great. A lot of the jokes in the script focus on the fact that everything here has been done before, as though the team is hoping that ‘oh, I remember that’ reactions will be enough to entertain. If you’ve played Banjo-Kazooie, for instance, think back to Clanker’s Cavern (perhaps the game’s most iconic level). Remember that feeling of swimming down, of seeing the giant mechanical shark, realizing that the level would take you in and around this thing? That’s a big part of what made Banjo-Kazooie so special-– it had a sense of place. There was a coherency to the vision of its worlds; in this regard, it excelled over even Super Mario 64.
Yooka-Laylee doesn’t have that. The worlds are massive, but feel disparate. Assets are stuck together in ways that occasionally produce interesting, but never iconic, environments, and there’s no sense of these places as singular ecosystems. There are only five levels, and they all feel like big open areas that you need to mine for challenge and collectables, with little sense of personality. There were moments where I fell onto ledges that were impossible to return from and had to leap to my death, and at one point I got trapped in a maze because I managed to glitch through an area I wasn’t meant to get into. With each area being expandable, it’s entirely possible to enter an area too early or complete half of a quest only to find that the second half isn’t there yet.
Combat has never been a strong point for most platform games, but it’s especially weak here. The enemies that are scattered around are universally boring, and your combat options feel limp with attacks lacking weight and feedback. The controls are awkward-– when Yooka curls into a ball and rolls around extra fast it feels like you’re controlling a glob of butter in a skillet, except the skillet is weirdly uneven. The game never quite feels like it has been built properly, like the wrong screws have been inserted into the wrong holes during construction, and the seams are bursting. It has bad game-feel, which is bad when the game is all about movement.
The game never quite feels like it has been built properly, like the wrong screws have been inserted into the wrong holes during construction.
Many of the minor details in Yooka-Laylee-– the details you wouldn’t think would matter, but actually totally do-– feel a little off. I couldn’t tell you anything substantial about Yooka-Laylee’s villain, for instance, and if there’s a reason why Yooka and Laylee go after him I lost track of it almost immediately. And while the script is, at times, genuinely funny (complete with a handful of solid pun names for recurring characters), Yooka and Laylee themselves don’t make much of an impression. Each level has an unlockable arcade game too, but they’re never fun, and thus don’t feel like good rewards for the effort required to unlock them.
That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of ambition. A huge chunk of the game’s ice world pulls you into an isometric perspective, which is faintly reminiscent of Rare’s earlier works (back when they were known as Ultimate Play the Game). This is used well for some relatively charming sequences. There are scattered moments that definitely work. A few neat little nods to other games made me smile, finding a new area in a level can be exciting, and a few of the objectives I encountered were solid fun.
These are but moments, though, surrounded by section after section where a character asks me to run, or jump, or roll through a series of rings really quickly. The game is obsessed with your ability to jump between hoops, a game trope that surely should have died the moment Superman 64 first asked us to solve Lex Luther’s infamous airborne ring “maze.” If you’re going to pay homage to that era, don’t pay homage to the whole era, you know?
The most damning thing you could say about Yooka-Laylee is that it lacks creativity. Creativity is absolutely king and queen in the realm of 3D platforming, but there’s nothing here that stands out as especially new, or even like a proper spiritual return of what was new twenty years ago. Yooka-Laylee looks at Banjo-Kazooie, says to itself ‘people liked that weird quiz thing at the end, right?’, and then replicates it right after the very first level. The project feels well-meaning, but largely misguided.
At this point, we may well have enough evidence to be able to learn something concrete about what happens when you try to crowdfund nostalgia. Saying ‘we will give you a thing that looks like the thing you remember’ will send people into a frenzy. But what we really want are experiences that make us feel the same way as we did back when we first had those experiences. Yooka-Laylee isn’t the new Banjo-Kazooie – it’s the old Banjo-Kazooie, but done worse.