I have a vivid memory of being a young kid–somewhere around the age of 10–who would continuously go to the rental store, get Banjo-Kazooie for my Nintendo 64, play through it until Mad Monster Mansion, then have to return the game before I could beat it. Every time I’d get the game back, my save file would have been wiped, and I’d happily start from the beginning in a long standing loop of late 1990s platforming. I never actually finished the first game until I was an adult, but I loved every second of getting to Mad Monster Mansion all those years ago. I can tell you where to go and what to do almost exactly up to that. I also have very fond memories of playing the sequel, Banjo-Tooie, as well as the other Rare-developed 3D platformer of the era, Donkey Kong 64.
With clever writing that consistently makes me laugh out loud with its breaking of the fourth wall and jokes, as well as gameplay that felt fun and intuitive, Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel were games that I long considered peak 3D platforming of the era. They’re two of the few games I have actually gotten every achievement for on my Xbox 360, and I own the Rare Replay package for the Xbox One just to replay them as I please, despite the fact that I also own them on my 64.
When I heard that the original team behind these games created a Kickstarter to make a spiritual successor to the Banjo series, which they called Yooka-Laylee1, I immediately threw my cash their direction.
I waited, I got updates, and finally, I got my download code a little over a week ago. It all started well. It seemed that the game itself looked fantastic with all the excitingly bright colors, and I felt the writing about set to be on point when I ran up to Yooka and Laylee’s ship house and saw the name they had given it.
I felt like I was in for a treat–a strong reemergence of a genre which I loved as a child that has long been on life support. As I continued to play, though, it began to feel more like Weekend at Bernie’s. There is an illusion of the genre being alive and what you wanted, but it’s just a dead shell of what it used to be. While some may claim that my ascension into adulthood has also made me a dead shell of what I used to be and that is why I didn’t enjoy Yooka-Laylee, keep in mind that I did very, very recently replay the Banjo games. I enjoyed replaying those, and I felt like they held up extremely well. They had a soul.
You know what doesn’t have a soul? This monstrosity of character design.
What even is this? What’s it meant to be, besides horrifying? I felt like the characters in Banjo were all fun and lively, but here we have this horrible mix between Spongebob and the old Donkey Kong animated tv show. A lot of the characters are similar to this. Dr. Puzz is a notable character that you also interact with often, and she is legitimately terrifying as well. While the main two characters look great, and characters such as the cameo of Shovel Knight are also wonderful, overall design feels like a giant miss. I didn’t feel an attachment to these guys like I did Bottles and Mumbo Jumbo. There just feels like a lot less heart in this game. Instead, it unfortunately feels like a quick cash grab for those seeking nostalgia, which I can fully admit worked on me.
The game itself also just doesn’t work, though. Much like the older games, you get your moves from a NPC, but in this case, the explanation for the moves weren’t exactly clear. I tried to solve a puzzle for 30 minutes before I got frustrated, left the level, and was told by a caged pagie that you can actually aim your shots with a click of a stick. Who knew, especially after I felt I had pressed every damn button under the sun thinking that they would have that ability, much like Banjo-Kazooie did. The move definitely exists, but it would’ve been nice to have some kind of indicator of it.
There is another move that spins the two characters into a ball, and you use that to move up slippery slopes or steep inclines. When you’re just going up, it works fine. When you have to jump to clear obstacles, which is a whole damn lot, it does NOT work. At all. It is finicky, annoying, and not a good gameplay mechanic that you just slide all the way down whatever you land on. It’s frustrating to go into a boss fight and get hit by a million logs trying to even reach the guy because your jump didn’t work for whatever reason. You also can’t adjust the speed of the roll, so I hope you enjoy barreling to your death. Gameplay issues like that just aren’t acceptable for a 3D platformer. It has to feel smooth with tight controls, and it has none of these things going for it.
There is also a retro arcade within each level, and for the one game that I played, it was a slog. It wasn’t fun, the controls were horrible, and I understood what they were going for in terms of aesthetics, but it just did not really stick the landing. Given that there is one of these in each level, I was not exactly champing at the bit to get to more of them.
Honestly, I did not even continue the game after trying to force myself to get through the first level. I learned that there is another strange mechanic of “expanding” a level, which you use earned pagies to extend the current level to have more explorable areas. While this sounds like a neat idea, when I did not connect at all with the world in the first place, it was hardly encouraging that I had to expand it even further. Even with the expansion, it felt extremely devoid of any love or interest. It was just there. My intense level of disappointment at this point was apparent, and I decided that I shouldn’t torture myself to play and finish a game just because I liked the games that came before it. I’m not sold that the genre itself is dead, but I am convinced that the old Rare is in fact dead. They are just toted around with sunglasses on to try and convince people that they’re still alive and ready to have a good time.