A few years ago, the 3D platformer was in a bad place. Mario was still around, but the genre had little support elsewhere. Colorful games like Crash Bandicoot, Pyschonauts and Jak and Daxter had vanished in favor of grittier, more realistic adventures. There was the occasional surprise, like the papercraft-inspired Tearaway, but nothing close to the breadth of games found on the N64, PlayStation and PlayStation 2. The market had moved on, publishers thought, and it no longer made sense to fund ambitious, big-budget projects like Beyond Good and Evil.
That all changed in May 2015. Playtonic Games, a small British team made up of former Rare employees, pitched a new platformer called Yooka-Laylee on Kickstarter. At their previous employer, they had worked on Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Country and Viva Pinata, all creative and well-received titles. Yooka-Laylee, they promised, would be a 3D platformer "rare-vival," bringing back the colorful words, collectibles and twin-protagonist gameplay that made the Banjo series so special.
The crowdfunding campaign was a huge success, raising over £2 million (roughly $2.6 million) and hitting all of its stretch goals, which included boss battles, local co-op and four-person multiplayer, as well as an orchestral score. Clearly, backers remembered Banjo with fondness and were willing to pay for a spiritual successor.
Since then, Insomniac has rebooted Ratchet & Clank, its weapon-centric space platformer, and Sony has announced a Crash Bandicoot 'N-Sane' remaster collection. Nintendo has chipped in too, unveiling Super Mario Odyssey, a successor to the likes of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, which is due to come out on the Switch this holiday. Yooka-Laylee, it seems, is at the center of a 3D platformer revival.
"3D platforming has its own subgenres, and they all satisfy a different itch."
"From our point of view it's coincidental," Gavin Price, creative lead at Playtonic says. "I would love to say we all got together and had a secret meeting, and said, 'Let's do this!' One big collaboration."
He continues, "But what's brilliant is that 3D platforming has its own subgenres, and they all satisfy a different itch. You have the action-platforming of Ratchet, the gymnastical approach of Mario and the open-world collecting of us. I feel confident that you could buy all of these games and not feel like you're playing the same game twice. They have this natural inventiveness and creativity that is purely unique to those titles and characters."
Playing Yooka-Laylee is an odd experience. It's at once familiar and alienating, like you've traveled to your childhood town only to find the houses and streets rebuilt. You're quickly introduced to Yooka, a green chameleon, and Laylee, a purple bat, two troublesome heroes who have stumbled upon a magical book. It's soon ripped from their grasp, however, with the pages scattered across distant lands. Laylee sits on Yooka's head and you control them as one, rolling along the ground in a ball or lapping up enemies with Yooka's tongue.
For fans of Banjo-Kazooie, the premise is nothing new. The worlds you're exploring, however, are more beautiful and interesting than anything Rare produced on the N64. As soon as the first cutscene ends, I found myself rushing toward a pirate ship and using Laylee's wings to glide where I shouldn't. Open-world collectathons have always inspired exploration, and the same holds true in Yooka-Laylee. I had forgotten about my objective completely -- to investigate a nearby factory that's hoovering up books -- and started testing whether I could open treasure chests yet.
The mechanics are familiar, and I quickly found my rhythm bouncing up walls and double jumping over large gaps. I soon met Trowzer, a snake who has stretched his long body to fit inside a pair of cargo shorts. To an adult, the joke is obvious, and I couldn't help but giggle as he explained the various upgrade systems. The pun-tastic humor is a trademark of Rare games, and I'm happy to see it preserved in Playtonic's work.