Image credit: Playtonic Games

'Yooka-Laylee' is at the heart of a 3D platformer revival

Colorful mascots are ready for a comeback.

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    Image credit: Playtonic Games

    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."

    Creature comforts

    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.

    Encouraging imagination

    Notably, there's no real voice acting in Yooka-Laylee. Instead, the game provides an endless supply of made-up gibberish, performed in slightly different accents to reflect the characters and their eccentric personalities. All the dialogue is explained through subtitles, however, so it's easy to keep up with the far-fetched story. Banjo-Kazooie was the same way, and Price insists the choice was an artistic one for Yooka-Laylee rather than a way to keep development costs down.

    "I'm a big fan of content that doesn't hand-hold the player and leaves creative gaps for you to inject some of your own thinking into what's going on and engage with the game on a deeper level," he says. "You want to decide for yourself exactly what Yooka is like. We provide some bits and bobs of information through the way he talks, and what he says, to inform you that this is the kind of character he is. But if we were to give him a voice, we would also be closing that door for the player."

    The platformer is also quick to poke fun at modern game design. Upon entering the factory, Laylee comments that Yooka "gave himself a short tutorial on the way in." Trowzer responds that while he'd like to help the pair, he has "an important call coming up with the World 1 boss." These references are littered throughout the game and emphasize the simple joy of 3D platformers. Sometimes you want a deep, BAFTA-nominated storyline, like the ones found in Firewatch, Inside and Oxenfree, but other times you just want something goofy that puts a smile on your face.

    That purity could be why the 3D platformer has found an audience again. "It's nice to embrace the fact you're a video game and play to the strengths of acknowledging you're a video game," Price explains. The team's intent is to create comedy that works on different levels, similar to The Simpsons, Wallace and Gromit and the Disney-Pixar films. As a child, it's all innocent slapstick fun, but as an adult you can appreciate the subtle nods and winks. In the opening world, for instance, you can find tins of multicolored paint around your home. "It's something we're a big believer in." Price says. "I'm sure kids won't even think about it, and say, 'Well, multicolored paint is a thing in this world, that's fine,' and not see it as a joke."

    Something borrowed, something new

    New 3D platformers offer more than upgraded visuals. While it's true that Yooka's environments are luscious, the underlying gameplay is far from a simple retread. Each world is now expandable, for example. Once you've collected enough 'Pagies,' you can unlock a new world or choose to improve an existing one. Either option will grant you new challenges, which can then be completed to repeat the process. It's a binary choice but one that gives you greater control over how the adventure unfolds.

    Yooka-Laylee also features a perk system. These unlocks affect your attributes in the game, simplifying challenges and catering to different play styles. In an early world called Tribalstack Tropics, I was struggling with a race that required me to roll around like a ball. Curling up consumes energy, and my stamina bar would always deplete before the finish line. I solved the problem by talking to Vendi, an enormous vending machine, who can lower the amount of energy required to perform the move. Playtonic says this perk system, and many other new features, were inspired by other video games outside the 3D platformer genre.

    "There was a lot to maintain and keep in terms of what worked in the past," Price says," but we wanted to update it with new ways of engaging modern gamers' tastes as well. I think that gives the game a unique, refreshed appeal that can satisfy the old people like myself who played this stuff years ago while hopefully attracting new audiences."

    Living the indie life

    Playing Yooka-Laylee, it's hard to believe the game is an indie project. Playtonic launched its Kickstarter with a six-man team, and during its development averaged 15 full-time employees. Now, two years later, the studio sits at 23. That's not a small team, especially by indie standards, but it's a fraction of the manpower that would normally be required to build a platformer of this size. As I tick off more challenges, I'm looking for the cracks, the places where the studio has decided to cut corners. Aside from the camera, which occasionally frustrates, it's hard to find any faults.

    "The middleware tools have been a big help," Price says. "But being a smaller team, creatively led, you don't have to worry about disrupting other cogs in the machine. You can be a lot more reactive, nimble and productive. During the day there are no meetings, and we're in an area that's similar to the size of this room [he looks around and gestures -- we're in a small bar] so if you need to shout and ask someone for something, you can just stand on your chair and say, 'Hey, come and do this!'"

    Price comes across mellow and carefree, but deep down he's nervous. Yooka-Laylee is an important game for multiple reasons. For one, it's a Kickstarter game. The crowdfunding platform is divisive: For every success like Shovel Knight, there's a dramatic failure such as Yogventures or Mighty No. 9. Yooka-Laylee will inevitably fall into one of those camps, twisting people's perception of the platform accordingly. For another, it's the first game that Playtonic has released. If it's successful, the company will have the creative freedom to tackle new types of games.

    "Back in the day, we were never defined by our games in one genre only. We tried our hand at all sorts."

    "Back in the day, we were never defined by our games in one genre only," Price explains. "We tried our hand at all sorts. As a business proposition, that's actually really difficult to do. For a large company to say, 'Well, we're not going to be the racing game studio,' or 'We're not going to be this genre only.' That's the challenge we've now given ourselves, because the Kickstarter funding went so well. It's become a bigger opportunity than even we realized."

    A Playtonic empire

    Playtonic has made a conscious effort to design supporting characters who could appear in their own games. Like the Mushroom Kingdom, which allows Yoshi, Wario and Princess Peach to star in their own spinoff titles, Yooka-Laylee is the starting canvas for weird and wonderful heroes (or, potentially, antiheroes) to emerge. Playtonic's goal is to become a two-game studio, developing projects in tandem. That's important, Price says, because he and his friends are older than the average indie game developer.

    "None of us are getting any younger," he says. "We're becoming indie developers at the age of, well, double the age most indie developers are. I remember looking at a list of game ideas we had for various characters and saying, 'Hang on, if we did all of these, I'm going to be 70!'"

    Playtonic is working with Team17, best known for the Worms series, to publish Yooka-Laylee. Success will prove to creators and publishers alike that the 3D platformer can thrive again through new, alternative methods of funding. It could help avoid the problems of the early 2000s, when many middle-tier developers struggled and were ultimately forced to shut down.

    "None of us are getting any younger."

    "I don't want to see other creators make fantastic games which ultimately kill them and mean they can't carry on," Price says. "It's been really frustrating for me, to see games that I've really enjoyed and thought, 'Oh, they didn't get the love they deserved.' That can happen to big people as well, like Ubisoft and Beyond Good and Evil. I thought it was one of the best Zelda games I've ever played. To see it not perform as I thought it deserved was gutting. But there's certainly a lot of support out there now, and ways of making content like this viable."

    The future for 3D platformers

    The 3D platformer's future isn't certain. It's possible that the renewed interest will quickly fade, leaving Nintendo as the sole flag bearer once more. Yooka-Laylee's Kickstarter, however, suggests that a small but viable market exists for the genre. These games have the potential to attract two different types of audiences, after all: new, younger players who never grew up with Croc, Gex or Spyro the Dragon in their home, as well as older video game enthusiasts who remember them with (mostly) fondness.

    In some ways, it feels like the video game equivalent of the Western. Movie depictions of the Wild West were popular in the 1950s and '60s but then quickly fell out of favor. In recent years, however, they've made a comeback, with Slow West and The Revenant succeeding at the box office. To feel new again, 3D platformers needed a similar amount of time away from our screens. It's why recently there's been a surge of 2D revivals: The point-and-click adventure game has been reborn with Broken Age and countless Telltale episodic series, and 'Metroidvania' games, inspired by Metroid and Castlevania, have been revived through titles like Axiom Verge. For the 3D platformer, it was simply a matter of time.

    "Because it hasn't been served so much for so long, maybe that passion has naturally pent up and pent up," Price muses. "And now it's just burst out."

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