Okay, let’s set the scene. It’s early Saturday morning, 1998, a 5-year-old kid has woken up especially early to run downstairs and eat his breakfast as quick as possible, as only a small excited child can. Milk and Coco Pops spill everywhere and once almost all of it is consumed he throws himself down on the carpet, laying wide-eyed in front of the TV as he flicks the switch to turn on the console in front of him. Reverently picking up a three-pronged controller he smiles as he hears the cheerful music start-up. The words “Banjo-Kazooie – Press Start” appear on the screen and our kid is smiling ear to ear.
That child was me, 18 years ago. Banjo-Kazooie was (is and forever will be) my favourite game of all time, it started a life-long obsession with video games. It makes me laugh, makes me cry and occasionally makes me shout with rage (breaking one or two controllers in the process….sorry Red…). It wasn’t the first of its kind, building on a similar style to that of Super Mario 64 which came slightly before it, but it was definitely the best.
For those that aren’t familiar you played as a bear called Banjo and his winged companion Kazooie who lives in his backpack. You go from world to world recovering notes and jiggies to work your way closer to the evil witch Gruntilda who has kidnapped Banjo’s younger sister in order to make herself young and beautiful again using a diabolical machine.
At this point you’re probably wondering “Spud what are you talking about? We’re here to discuss Yooka-Laylee!” well hang on, the background is important here. Banjo-Kazooie was very well received prompting a sequel, Banjo-Tooie, which was also an adventure/platformer masterpiece. Rareware made both games and they were great. Later Rare got bought out by Microsoft and became less well liked, keeping the rights to the Banjo franchise. Banjo-Threeie was rumoured and flirted with every fan the world over for years until we finally got a new Banjo game, Nuts and Bolts. It was different, it was strange…it wasn’t Banjo. They killed it.
The team that made it, didn’t like it either and they left. They set up a Kickstarter for a game called Yooka-Laylee, marketed as the spiritual successor to everyone’s beloved Banjo franchise. Needless to say the betrayed fans jumped all over the project, raising the requested amount in record speed. Playtonic immediately went into production, composed of most of the original Banjo-Kazooie team, to produce the game long-awaited by all.
16 years after the release of Banjo-Tooie, we are finally given the chance to play the Banjo-Threeie we deserve. The public and I got the honour of going hands on with an early build of Yooka-Laylee this year at September’s EGX event.
I sat down on the plastic stool, pulled on the noise isolation headphones and picked up the controller. Looking up, wide-eyed at the screen I was greeted by the words “Yooka-Laylee – Press Start” in an all too familiar font accompanied by Grant Kirkhope’s unmistakably beautiful soundtrack. I felt the five-year-old version of myself turn to look at me, we nodded at each other and pressed start.
It. Was. Perfect. It was everything they promised. You’re instantly transported to an archipelago of islands floating in mid-air and greeted by a snake, called Trowser, wearing a pair of shorts (he’s looped through them) who tells you about a good way to get around the level. You roll up into a ball and roll around at great speed, dealing damage to enemies but it depletes your energy bar which needs time to recharge.
You go around collecting the 200 “quills” of the level in order to buy new moves and skills that will be useful later in the game or necessary to reach new areas. Helping the NPCs dotted around the level will often reward you with a “pagie”, the new game’s jiggy equivalent, but occasionally you’re able to find them sat across a tricky platform section or behind a puzzle. The Jinjos have been replaced with a group of ghosts (I forgot their name…) that require different techniques to catch as you encounter them, adding that little extra challenge to hunting the pests down.
The use of Yooka’s chameleon based abilities feel as natural as breathing. First is his ability to eat butterflies to restore lost health or various types of fruit around the level granting the power to fire ice projectiles to reach far off targets or breathe fire to roast enemies. Next is his tail, used for attacking via spin attack or high jumping by coiling up underneath our duo and springing them into the air. Laylee the bat gets the ability to shoot sonar blasts that can be used to stun enemies or reveal/trigger hidden devices or platforms. This is as well as providing the flighty abilities enabling the pair to cross long gaps and glide gently to the ground to mitigate fall damage, reminiscent of Kazooie from the previous games (they aren’t directly related but they should be).
The controls felt familiar and firm, there were no clunky or slippery movements and every move was precise. You tease the left thumbstick forward and Yooka creeps forward, press firmer and he moves faster, ease up and he stops when you stop. No awkward sliding or momentum (unless you were rolling, third law of motion and all that) to throw you off while exploring or navigating a tricky jumping section.
Combat gave the option of using a small list of attack moves, handily displayed on the table next to the monitor, but for the most part the small blue minions that wandered about harassing you and the NPCs were easy enough to deal with by just rolling Yooka into them and carrying on your merry way. I dare say as the game progresses and you meet different enemy types you’re gunna need to up your game.
The sounds and art styles are undeniably similar to that of its spiritual ancestor games, bright colours and cheerful melodies everywhere you go. The character sounds are in the same style as the Banjo games as well, the all too familiar goobledeegook talk as the character dialogue appears on-screen. Speech patterns included the same wise cracks and quips between characters, both Yooka and Laylee but also with the NPCs as well, Laylee re-incarnating Kazooie’s sarcastic nature as expected. All of the characters you encounter have their customary big eyes and comical natures. Sir Scoffsalot is a knight who has an eating problem as well as missing his fellow knights, there’s a scientist who turned herself into an octopus using her transmogrification ray and hasn’t been able to change herself back along with a few other hilarious characters (including a cloud, yes a cloud).
You may be reading this and thinking “So it’s just the same game with a different skin on?” and you wouldn’t be wrong, but you wouldn’t be right. Year on year there’s a new FIFA or a new CoD that to the outsider looks like just the same game but with a new coat of paint, but to the old hand they play very differently with the minor tweaks and changes that add up to making something wholly different yet very much the same.
Yooka-Laylee is like that. It’s familiar, it’s friendly and fun and it’s just like the old games but that’s not a bad thing. After all, JJ Abrams made “The Force Awakens” by borrowing heavily from “A New Hope” and everyone loved it. It gets back to basics and it does it well! It’s been many years since the last decent collectathon game of a similar nature, hell we might even be going back to Banjo-Tooie to find the last truly great one. It’s a breath of new life into what was once an old dead genre of gaming. Every time I passed by their stand (debating to re-join the queue just to get another fix) there were gamers of all ages sat smiling and laughing at the game showing that it’s not just us old romantics it appeals to.