Let’s get something on the level before we get started into the nuts and bolts of this article: this may be one of the most difficult things I have ever had to write, because it involves one of my most beloved titles of all time, Banjo-Kazooie. It is not difficult because it is hard to dissect and pull apart; I have done that many times to my beloved Banjo-Kazooie in the past, to the point where I make a 100% run of the game an annual pilgrimage. Rather, it has put a lot of my thoughts on Banjo-Kazooie, and perhaps my love of all things collect-a-thon in the form of 3D platformers, into question. It has put new perspectives towards my ideas of what we used to love and possibly still do to this day. It has also made me question just how much I have changed in the small space of time that I have been writing these articles.
With all of that being said, we turn to Yooka-Laylee, the spiritual successor to the 3D platformers of old. A throwback to 90s 3D collect-a-thons created by the former Rare employees responsible for some of my greatest childhood moments? You can just sign me right the fuck up, son. I was unfortunately too much of a poor bastard to back the project, but I pre-ordered and played it from pillar to post, collecting all 145 primary collectibles and all 1,010 of those blasted Quills. I found the pirate treasures. I beat the final boss. I earned the platinum trophy. I soared to the top of Tribalstack Tropics, plumbed the depths of Moodymaze Marsh and cleaned out the safe of Capital Cashino. When I was done, I put down the game, hoping I would feel satisfied with my completion of the game.
I didn’t. This is where the difficulty of this article begins, with the question of why.
B R A C E F O R I M P A C T
Why didn’t I feel the same level of satisfaction with Yooka-Laylee that I felt when I played and completed other similar games, like Banjo-Kazooie or Super Mario 64? To start with, it is not a question of whether or not the game is simply repeating what came before it. The most talked about points with Yooka-Laylee is that it may as well be the ‘Banjo-Threeie’ that never was, with praise and criticism heaped upon the game in equal measure because of it. This may come as a surprise, but I didn’t really expect it to be anything more than a Banjo-Kazooie cosplay in game form. I understand that the developers hoped to give the game its own flavour and substance to distinguish it from its predecessor, but the writing was on the wall the moment I saw the finalized box art. If the name, the title font, the framing of the story, the main characters, the names of the major collectibles, the humour, the art style and the musical direction were all not enough to tell you what you were getting into, you are a dumb person and you should feel dumb. A unique game it is not, but it would be a bit silly for me to crucify a game for being too much like Banjo-Kazooie when I absolutely love the game’s source material.
This leads me to the more troubling question: have my love for these games died? I bloody well hoped not, but to put paid to this, I went back and jammed some old school Banjo-Kazooie as a comparison. Aside from grinning like an idiot for the majority of the time blasting through Treasure Trove Cove, I found myself having the same feelings that I had when I played Yooka-Laylee. Sure, my preference is for a greater variety of smaller worlds as opposed to a small amount of large ones, but that is a personal gripe more than anything. I was flummoxed. If Banjo-Kazooie still holds up, but Yooka-Laylee doesn’t cut it, what is the issue? Have I grown beyond new collect-a-thons? Is nostalgia for the old the only thing keeping me on? Answering the question came from the oddest place: the Game Over screen. Every time I would shut off Banjo-Kazooie, I would be infuriated over seeing the same cutscene of a leggy Gruntilda swanning out and glating over her victory. This time, I was pleasantly surprised, because it provided the very thing I was looking for. Framing.
At the core of every collect-a-thon, there needs to be a reason for why you are spending so much time collecting these things. Banjo-Kazooie has the rescue of your sister, and the subsequent fight with Gruntilda, while Super Mario 64 has rescuing the princess and listening to Charles Martinet yellow “so long, gay Bowser” repeatedly. Yooka-Laylee comes up short in this regard. The only reason for you to collect these pages for this book is to rescue the book. The importance of this book is a bit limited to “we found it, it’s ours, but someone stole it, let’s get it back.” Captial B didn’t have the charisma or drive to keep this pursuit going and while Dr. Quack had his moments in the quiz sections, I was too cross with the screeching halt to the action to really focus on the jarred water foul.
This jarred bastard cost me 30 minutes of my life.
There is a big difference between a collect-a-thon that asks you to collect everything for the sake of collecting everything, and a collect-a-thon that provides a payoff for the work that you do. Holding Banjo-Kazooie up as an example, every collectable gets you one step closer to a reward, either a narrative one or a gameplay advantage. Yooka-Laylee‘s biggest weakness is that it asks you to collect things for the sake of collecting them. This is not to say there is absolutely no reason to play the game: rather, the reason to collect the items is simply to progress, picking clean one world in order to see the next. It may sound like I am clutching at straws, but there is a large difference between moving from one world to the next because a number told you to, and moving forward because you have overcome a challenge and the story grows in that direction.
The core of any 3D platformer cut from this cloth is the spirit of exploration and adventure, and Yooka-Laylee‘s adventure asks you to explore for exploration’s sake, which works in the short term, but leaves a player feeling wanting by game’s end. This thought brings me back to that moment of expecting satisfaction, only to be left wanting. I suppose it is a sign that perhaps I am growing as a critic, to not simply stare at a larger number and be grateful for grinding at the machine until the large number hit triple digits. In an odd twist, it seems Banjo-Kazooie is the one ahead of its own time, using framing to make every small moment seem like a larger one, and Yooka-Laylee seeming too young for the present day. Yooka-Laylee is a game out of time; a playful love letter to losing one’s self in the adventure of it all, caught in a gaming landscape where making a game solely based on that does not quite cut the mustard.
So close, my friend. So close.
This does not make Yooka-Laylee a failure by any means. If anything, the fact that Yooka-Laylee has spurred so much discussion and done so well financially means we can expect more from them in the future. More to the point, I hope PlayTonic continue this idea in future installments of the Yooka-Laylee franchise, and I hope it earns a voice of its own instead of finding comfort in its spiritual predecessors. For now, despite the beauty of it all, I am stuck in the existential question of why I just burnt twenty hours to make the numbers perfect. “Why,” I would respond, “It was all in the name of fun.” It is a positive sign, then, that not settling for playful gratification, to reach for something deeper and more tangible, is the gut response that confirms the reasons that I do what I do.
Image credits go to PlayTonic Games for the Yooka-Laylee screenshots, and the rest is stock photography.