Anyone who ever invested in Nintendo’s 64-bit console knows how synonymous Rareware’s name was with it. Apart from giving us some of the best games of the platform’s entire five year run, we were introduced to a multitude of titles, some which were original IPs, that either defined key aspects of their genre’s contemporaries or went on to sell gangbusters.
Banjo-Kazooie in particular has always been a game that’s stay closed to my heart. The Nintendo 64 had dozens of 3D platformers, even the Japanese juggernaut’s own flagship title that was Super Mario 64, but Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie series had its own distinct charm, visual style and quirkiness that continued to be the studio’s trademark for quite some time. Even when it was eventually bought by Microsoft and had numerous people leave, I still look forward to whatever they’re cooking up next (which isn’t just another Kinect Sports sequel, that is). To their credit, Sea of Thieves looks to be the game they really want to make.
But we’re not talking about the Rareware of today. We’re talking about Banjo-Kazooie, a game that didn’t see a proper sequel for nearly 17 years, not counting its platformer-meets-Bob the Builder spin-off that was Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts for the Xbox 360. While many series diehards have casted it aside (personally, I enjoyed it for what it was), the Banjo-Kazooie experience that they truly craved would never happen. At least, not in the form they were probably expecting.
Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign in May 2015 by several key ex-Rareware developers, fans finally got the spiritual successor that they were clamouring for: a 3D platformer in the vain of the Banjo-Kazooie series. But replace the bear and its bird, plop in an iguana and a bat, and you get Yooka-Laylee.
"From the minute you begin from its logo intro to its title screen, make no mistake, this is classic Banjo-Kazooie."
From the minute you begin from its logo intro to its title screen, make no mistake, this is classic Banjo-Kazooie. Everything from the updated and spruced up graphics, the way characters talk in their jibber-jabber, the Looney Tunes-style sound cues that play when you’re about to start a world, the familiar music beats – the nostalgia hammer hits you hard and never quite lets up.
Even narratively, the set-up seems all too familiar. Yooka the Iguana and Laylee the Bat stumble upon a magical book which contain golden pages (sentient beings called Pagies, because why not) within it. But before they can make any sense of it, the game’s corporate villain Capital B and his fowl assistant Dr. Quack use machine to steal all the books in the world and have them “digitized.” It’s up to the unlikely duo to make their way through the game’s hub world that is Hivory Towers, and find these mythical books that will grant them access to worlds where the remaining Pagies reside.
On the way, they’ll run into several characters that will give them a leg-up. For instance, if the player collects Golden Quills scattered through the worlds, they exchange them for new moves with the Snake-y Salesman, Trowzer. Some of these range from turning yourself into a morph ball while Laylee rides on top to using Yooka’s tongue and absorbing the attributes of power-up plants, like fire, ice or bombs.
Even your actions will also have you unlock ability modifiers in the form of “Tonics.” Pay a visit to Vendy the Vending Machine, and she’ll list out tonics that can boost your health, decrease the amount used for your power bar, and more. Or if you stumble upon Dr. Puzz and deliver her a molecule, she’ll let you use her transformation gizmo to turn the duo into a plant or a snow-plow pickup. There’s a fair amount of things to see when visiting each world, filled with ridiculous characters and silly situations that will net you some Pagies, with some wink-wink, nudge-nudge fourth wall humour for good measure. Because who doesn’t like joking about Next-Gen Cloud Gaming while racing an actual Cloud?
"There’s a real sense of exploration when trying to remember the different layouts and landmarks, further enhancing the satisfaction in finding a nearby Pagie or Ghost Writer, with some platforming and puzzle solving thrown in for good measure."
While Quills will expand your moveset, Pagies are vital to accessing newer worlds within Hivory Towers. The breadth of the first world is something that threw me off initially. For someone who hasn’t played a 3D platformer since the Mario Galaxy series, the scale and lack of an in-game map was intimidating yet really exciting. Not having to rely on marked objectives and trying to figure out how to navigate through each environment was refreshing, something I miss from titles today. There’s a real sense of exploration when trying to remember the different layouts and landmarks, further enhancing the satisfaction in finding a nearby Pagie or Ghost Writer, with some platforming and puzzle solving thrown in for good measure.
When you’re not busy scouting around, you’ll also have the opportunity to play some mini-games. One of these includes Kartos the Minecart where you’ll engage in a side-scrolling race to collect as many gems as possible. This is likely a nod to fans of Donkey Kong Country, the first three games which Rare developed in the SNES era. Or you can sample some of the arcade games from Rextro the 64-bit T-Rex, some of which can also be played in local multiplayer. However, I really didn’t find them all that enjoyable. Whether it was because of certain controls in games, or just how dull they came off, I struggled to play multiple sessions. Even as little diversions, they pale in comparison to the main quest’s platforming and exploration.
Because what’s here is very pretty. The first two worlds in particular really make an everlasting impression, and the fact that you can further expand their scope by using up your Pagies is a clever approach. Tribalstack Tropics (the first world) is probably my favorite for its lush green looks. Though if I had to nag, the later worlds don’t quite impress you as much the further you progress. However, bright colours abound and quirky characters are littered around nearly every turn with enough snarky dialogue and current in-jokes to warrant a smirk.
"It certainly doesn’t push the boundaries of the genre and that’s okay. Playtonic Games promised exactly what they delivered in what’s the best homage to the series that we’ll ever see."
On the other hand, the camera deserves some criticism. For the most part, I didn’t find it all too disastrous but there were certain situations where I wished I could pan out just a wee bit more. In some more enclosed spaces, the camera would get stuck or clip through the environment once in awhile. This was only really detrimental when trying to navigate in smaller areas or during one of the later obstacle-ridden slides that has you going through rings under a strict timer. That, and a few performance stutters were present but only in the fourth world, Capital Cashino. Otherwise, frame-rate was a solid 30 fps throughout on the PlayStation 4 and the day one update should further enhance the excellent performance. Playtonic Games certainly deserves kudos for working their magic in the Unity engine both aesthetically and technically. (Note: Performance and camera are known issues and be fixed in a future update).
If it hasn’t become obvious already, I’m quite smitten by Yooka-Laylee. If I had to be especially critical, it certainly is TOO much like Banjo-Kazooie, and that includes some of the qualities those previous games would carry. Some people may love it while others not so much. It certainly doesn’t push the boundaries of the genre and that’s okay. Playtonic Games promised exactly what they delivered in what’s the best homage to the series that we’ll ever see, until maybe Yooka-Tooie. If you’ve never played the Banjo-Kazooie series and often wondered what the big deal behind the gameplay style was, then Yooka-Laylee is a great introduction.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
A return to a style of platforming that we haven’t seen in awhile. Colorful visuals and goofy characters. Cheeky yet well-written humour that doesn’t take itself seriously. Tons of secrets abound.
Confusing camera in certain situations and some performance judders during the later worlds (which are both known issues and will be fixed in the future). Minigames range from meh to bleh.