There was a time when the N64 ruled the world, and it’s not hard to see why. It was the successor to one of the most successful consoles ever made, it birthed both the conventions and the genre of the 3D action platformer in Super Mario 64, and it taught every kid and college student that playing as Oddjob is a bitch move. For seven years, cartridges and blisters ruled the Earth.
Several games also came to define the generation. Most notably and most obviously there was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but there was a breadth of releases that somewhat inadvertently ended up cultivating the Nintendo aesthetic. Snowboard Kids, Chameleon Twist, and even Conker’s Bad Fur Day somehow became the raunchy exception that proved the rule.
This more or less culminated in a hot and fresh franchise in 1998 from Rare called Banjo-Kazooie. It was everything the system became known for: bubbly and adorable characters, romping around a segmented but open world, and collecting the fuck out of some mysteriously critical baubles. The franchise even bookended the N64 with the 50% more successful Banjo-Tooie and permanently affixed the bear-bird combo as a cult classic.
Enter Yooka-Laylee, spiritual successor to both the Banjo and the Kazooie. Announced (kind of) back in 2012, the game has been touted by its collection of ex-Rare devs as precisely that: a revival of the classic game and its classic design. You can even see it on the game’s website where it describes itself as a “Collect-em-up for the Modern Era.” As if you needed to say anything else to the frothing mass of fans that grew up to be money-earning members of society itching to spend that cash on nostalgia.
Case in point: their Kickstarter hit its £175,000 goal in 38 minutes. That’s, like, pizza delivery time. It went on to hit £1,000,000 in 21 hours before totaling up to a whopping £2,090,104. Wrap your poor brain around that, you goddamn pleb. What do you even do with that kind of money? (I mean other than carefully budget it because making games is crazy expensive.)
The answer, apparently, is completely and unabashedly fulfill your promise to your 73,206 backers. It is absolutely and fully what it aimed to be: a revival of everything you remember about Banjo-Kazooie. The problem, however, is that it doesn’t seem many people remember quite what that is even if Playtonic Games super, super does.
Simon Parkin of The Guardian—as he always does—puts it best: “Yooka-Laylee is not so much a love letter … as a full exhumation of the late 90s platformer.” It drags that corpse, dead as it is, out of the ground and puts a controller in its cold, rotten hands. And to be fair, certain modern niceties are bundled in.
You move, for example, with a precision that Banjo couldn’t achieve even on his best day. And the camera, while not the best, is no longer a permanent, undefeatable enemy made to fight with you at every step. And, at first, it even leads to you believe that it’s collectathon mentality had taken a backseat to free and unfettered exploration.
It is, however, a ruse. It never quite asks you to partake in the myriad of varied monotonous exercises required to collect Pagies until it’s too late to realize you actually do need them and now everything feels like backtracking. And once you are forced to stare down the barrel of transforming into other things and fight baddies do you wonder if it was this grating all along.
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Do you remember how Banjo-Kazooie operated on giving you timed resources to enable your abilities? That’s all back and just as exhausting and frustrating. What about the interminable awfulness of shooting things with your weird little Kazooie eggs? That, despite almost two decades of shooter innovations, is still a slovenly pile of terrible.
And as you embark on activity after activity, each one more inventive but less fleshed out than the last, more of these aged cracks begin to reveal themselves as if all these years out in the sun has dried and split the spackle. Playing a gigantic mini golf game, for example, is neat and sounds fun but it quickly unleashes all the unpleasantries of the game in 300-style volleys.
Metroid-style ability gates but a lack of a useful minimap? Perfect. Huge, expansive worlds with distinct themes but themes that dictate repeating and droning objectives? Fantastic. And just as a cherry on top, let’s throw on the trivia game show from Banjo-Kazooie but made worse, tortuous, and insipid.
As much as the game exists solely because of its revival status, the things that work the best actually have little to do with its source material. The more open and clever design of the game’s worlds, for instance, lend it to a more exploratory and fun-seeped experience rather than one that is fun-adjacent. An isometric platforming section similarly breathes life into the proceedings.
Yooka-Laylee is not a bad game; it just has bad parts. Unfortunately for all the fans that backed it and anticipated it for its Banjo-Kazooie roots, it’s those parts that are bad and the parts that are present in prodigious numbers. There’s a lesson there that, if someone is listening, is worth learning.