I backed Yooka-Laylee within hours of it being revealed by a group of former Rareware developers [now calling themselves “Playtonic Games” ]. I grew up on Rare’s 3D platformers, and the possibility of game industry veterans making a spiritual sequel to Banjo-Kazooie has me legitimately more excited than any other game coming out in 2016. 18 years later, that original title has held aged remarkably well and stands as one of the prolific studio’s crowning achievements.
Even if it weren’t being made by old masters, I’d still be excited for any new upcoming 3D platformer because it’s a genre that’s all but died out. Whatever survivors there were seem to get by on brand recognition or by adapting to new trends in gaming. That’s not a knock against those games mind you, but it just feels like no one’s been able to fill that particular void in gaming left by Rare ever since they got consumed by Microsoft.
What little has been shown of Yooka and his winged buddy looks promising, but my cynical mind also remembers the last time I was teased with the return of everyone’s favourite bear and bird duo and how that turned into a car building simulator. I’d also argue that there was more to the original game than having a world where everything had google eyes and spoke in odd murmurs. With that in mind, here are 6 design choices that I think Yooka-Laylee needs to implement to truly capture the spirit of Banjo-Kazooie.
1. Make Each World Feel Unique
Banjo Kazooie’s level design borrows elements from Mario and Zelda titles. Like the former, there are plenty of wacky and crazy challenges, but they’re weaved together with a sense of consistency that fits the latter. These days, games with a big cohesive world tend to become sandboxes, which have only gotten bigger and more realistic with newer technology. As impressive as that is, there’s more to making a game world interesting than just having a lot of believable ground to cover. For all of the work Assassin’s Creed puts into nailing its historical settings, the environments blur together due to how repetitive they are. That makes it really difficult to develop a complete sense of geographical awareness and is sadly why “objective markers” have become so prominent recently. Banjo Kazooie had no need for those though since every corner of the map had something unique and distinct to look at. This not only made it easy to recognize where you’ve been, it made you anticipate each new thing coming around the corner. Even a level like “Click Clock Wood”, which is literally the same map repeated 4 times, managed to avoid staleness. Each version had a different aesthetic related to the 4 seasons and said season would inform how you could travel and which puzzles could be solved. Hell, the game’s locations were so memorable that the developers were even able to quiz the player on them near the end of the game. [Side note: more games should have deadly quiz shows as a lead-in to the final boss]
2. Make Exploring the Worlds fun
Going back to the aforementioned comparison, like Mario you have a lot of moves from the onset that all effect your traversal [different jumps, ground pounding, rolling, etc.], while, like Zelda, you’re constantly learning new moves and abilities. In that specific case, though, most of the upgrades were used solely to unlock the next section. They usually don’t make the traversal itself more fun. It also doesn’t help that you only can only quickly access a handful of them without having to navigate menu screens. Granted, that’s fine for the type of genre Zelda occupies, but for a platformer, it would have completely killed its flow.
Actually; quick digression on flow because it’s sort of a hard concept to pin down… The ideal platformer is one such that movement through the level has an almost musical rhythm to it [see Rayman Legend’s music levels for a literal example]. Preserving that sense of momentum with your character is in the back of the player’s head at all times. They should always be thinking: “yeah, I did well, but could I have done it better?” Consequentially, this means that there needs to be some challenge in pulling it off to make this sensation gratifying. Going back to what I said about Assassin’s Creed, the initial thrill of clambering around rooftops dissipates when you realize how little thought or skill is required to get anywhere. Hold one or two buttons and hold the joystick forward, and the rest of the game will practically play itself. It’s also worth pointing out that simply getting from point A to point B faster isn’t a solution to maintain flow if it’s at the expense of bypassing the levels themselves [see Batman’s zip-line glide in Batman: Arkham City].
Going back to Banjo, it’s important to note that nearly every move you learn is accessible with a mere 1-2 button combination. They each had a distinct purpose that built on your previous abilities and they all transitioned into each other smoothly. That quickness of being able to react and perform a move meant the game never wasted your time. To see how this can be mishandled, let’s look at Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. Full disclaimer: I haven’t played it, I can’t comment on it accurately, and I don’t want to treat it like a great big betrayal without firsthand experience. In any case, that game’s major design decision was to replace getting new moves with getting new car parts, and having those open up the world instead. It seems similar, but the catch is that instead of a few button presses to bypass an obstacle, you potentially have to pause, go to a menu, and rebuild your car with the new components you need. Doing this every single time you get stuck strikes me as being absolutely deadly to the game’s flow, and while it could be a neat mechanic for a different game, it’s a terrible fit for a platformer.
3. Give the Player Some Freedom in How They Want Progress
Rare’s become synonymous with the unofficial “collect-o-thon” genre, wherein you must collect an assortment of shiny trinkets to beat the game. I maintain though that it wasn’t merely the compulsion to get 100% completion that made this work, but the amount of freedom they gave the player to get there. While there are some Jiggys that need to be obtained first in order to get others, it’s otherwise left pretty open. You got dropped into these big worlds with all sorts of things to see and do at your own pace in whatever order you desire. It’s what made it feel like an adventure. For all that openness, though, they were still able to structure an appropriate difficulty curve by limiting progression based on the amount of notes and Jiggys you found. It’s a great balancing act of never making the player feel too constricted while providing enough structure such that the game can elicit specific reactions from the players. Even players who did want to uncover every secret were rewarded for their diligence with earning extra health and a bonus ending, so this freedom doesn’t simply devolve into an “everyone wins” outcome.
4. Trust the Player to Think for Themselves
Egoraptor already pointed this out, but it’s worth repeating… It’s amazing how modern titles aim for “mature” and “grown-up” audiences, yet treat the player like a child who doesn’t know how to follow basic instructions. When the game feels the need to constantly remind you what every button does, what you should be doing at this exact moment, or flat out telling you how to progress, you lose that sense of excitement and discovery. You’re no longer playing a game; you’re following instructions. Players want to uncover new locations on their own, master techniques, and figure out the solutions to puzzles. Fortunately, Rare encouraged those elements because they trusted the player to think independently. They didn’t need objective markers or text prompts because all the information you needed came from the world and the characters’ dialogue. They also knew that they could have complex challenges as long as they were fair and not 100% essential to complete the game. Banjo-Tooie had some of the most devilishly clever interconnecting challenges I’ve seen in a game but still allowed less experienced players to keep progressing should they feel some of it was too hard.
5. Keep the World as Seamless as Possible
Honestly, this entry is more just to address a complaint I’ve always had with the otherwise fantastic 3D Mario titles. Like Banjo, you have a game with a bunch of worlds to explore with each one having its own series of objectives to complete. Unlike Banjo, after collecting each star/shine sprite, they pull you out of that world and you have to dive back in to get more. It’s a minor gripe, but it suddenly makes the game world feel less like a big place to explore, and more like a series of disconnected levels. The goal of any game should be to fully immerse you and make you forget you’re playing a game at all and having pointless roadblocks can suck you out of the experience. To be fair, it’s one thing if the level has changed completely for each objective [this is seen more in Super Mario Galaxy], but otherwise it needlessly disrupts the flow, which, as stated, is crucial for any platformer, be it 2D or 3D
6. Give the World, Characters, and Gameplay Compatible Personalities
A lot of people like to cite the humor, vivid colours, and the overall quirkiness as to what made Rare games special. That’s all true, but I want to stress that it wasn’t those elements individually that gave them their identity, but how they all worked off each other. There’s no shortage of games that are funny, have great art styles, or eccentric characters. What’s tricky is getting all of these elements to fit together. For all of the absurdity, self-awareness and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall found in these games, there was a consistency that made the universe seem believable. Just look at our main character. We play as a bear wearing yellow shorts whose best friend is a rude bird living in his backpack. Yet, Banjo walks upright like we do, and the dynamic he shares with Kazooie is similar to that of two roommates, or an old married couple. Because they keep some aspects grounded in reality, they manage to create something quite silly that remains relatable. This carries over to the seeming cliché plot where you must rescue your kidnapped sister from an ugly witch who’s jealous of her beauty. As overused as that trope is, I doubt that in most of those interpretations the two sides sparring were neighbours; one living in a quaint little house while the other in a giant lair shaped like her head.
That clash of the regular with the strange is ultimately what informs every other aspect of the game. The worlds all have familiar settings [Beach, Swamp, Desert, etc.] with exaggerated characters and landmarks populating them. The moves are conceptually ridiculous [like having Kazooie stretch her legs and suddenly start carrying Banjo], but they all serve a practical purpose. The dialogue can be cheeky and self-referential, but it primarily served to illustrate the dynamic between the characters to make them credible. It all culminates to a game that would happily acknowledge the absurdity of its own world but always believed in it. This particular detail was, unfortunately, something else that Nuts and Bolts didn’t appear to grasp [at least, that’s how the introduction comes off]. They happily mocked how inactive the bear and bird duo have been by wasting time playing video games and how the old game mechanic of collecting various knick-knacks was archaic and dull, and that this game in question would need to avoid it. These gags, in particular, are sour because it seems like Rare is just being mean to its fans and itself for no good reason. It goes beyond self-depreciation straight into self-shame, which ultimately makes it less fun and belittles the goodwill they earned from fans in the past. Need I remind you that that goodwill is what managed to fully fund Yooka-Laylee in less than an hour?