For about the last seven years, Grant Kirkhope has been trying to convince people in the gaming industry that it’s time to make a game similar to 1998’s Banjo-Kazooie, one of the great 3D platformers of the Nintendo 64 era. Says Kirkhope: “I was told: ‘Grant, you’re talking nonsense. No one wants this game. Platformers are dead.’”
Kirkhope and I had this conversation last week in a borrowed meeting room at the Los Angeles Convention Center, several yards away from thunderous booths for Capcom, Activision and EA. Next to him, a TV was running an early build of Yooka-Laylee, the spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie that—screw the doubters—he and a growing team (seven so far) at indie studio Playtonic are making.
We were talking on the day after the Kickstarter for Yooka-Laylee ended. Playtonic had asked for $270,000—less than they needed, admittedly, but enough to pool with personal investments to confirm there was interest. Fans gave them that much in 40 minutes. By the end of the Kickstarter, a month later, they had made $3,286,082 from more than 73,000 backers.
“I got something right for once,” Kirkhope said.
Video of Yooka-Laylee’s E3 build that was posted to YouTube by the folks at GamExplain certainly shows a game that looks and sounds like a successor to the great Banjo games.
It’s a third-person game involving running, jumping, enemy-smashing and item collecting, starring one colorful character who rides on the back of the other. It’s not quite a bird riding in a bear’s backpack, but it’s close. Yooka is a lizard. Laylee is a bat.
There is zero coincidence about this.
Playtonic is staffed by developers who worked together at the legendary game studio Rare, and most of them worked together on previous Banjo-Kazooie games. The game’s project director was credited, third-from-top-billing, as Banjo-Kazooie’s “chief keyboard tapper” (read: lead programmer) and also did the voices for the title characters, as he is now doing for the heroes of this new adventure. Steve Mayles, character art director on this new game, was the “chief scribbler” and character designer for BK. Steve Hurst was BK’s “scene crayoner” and is now the guy creating worlds in Yooka-Laylee. Kirkhope was the N64 game’s composer. And so on.
There’s just one non-Rare veteran on Playtonic’s staff, Andy Robinson, and I don’t gather they’re holding that against him. Robinson was at E3, too, and he had even more ex-Rare people to boast about: “Kevin Bayless is in the office every week,” Robinson said. “He drew Joanna Dark, redesigned Donkey Kong, and designed Diddy Kong. He’s making characters for us.”
As much as Yooka-Laylee looks like like what most of these guys made before, they promise they won’t make a clone. “We’re not making a retro game,” Kirkhope said. “We’re not making a copy game, either. We’re adamant about that. What we’re trying to do is look over our shoulders, pull the bits out that we thought were fun and that we think make a good game and then add the things we’ve learned over the last 15 years.”
“People ask us all the time,” said Robinson, “’Are you going to have a character like this? Or a character like that?’
“’A witch?’” Kirkhope chimed in, referencing Banjo baddie Gruntilda.
“The answer is,” Robinson said, “Well, we want to make a spiritual successor, not a knock-off. You see lots of games do that over the years, and the fans turn sour after a little bit. It’s about capturing a tone and a feeling and a style of game that has not been around for a while. It’s not just a platformer either. I wouldn’t say that Banjo was a strict platformer. It was an exploration game, it was an adventure game. You spent some time with lots of different kinds of characters.”
Banjo was funny, too, with characters regularly mouthing off at each other. Kirkhope says the Playtonic crew is already having plenty of laughs internally, so presumably that’ll seep into the new game.
Above boxart via GameFAQs.
Banjo-Kazooie came out in 1998. It itself was seen as a spiritual successor to the pioneering Nintendo 64 launch game Super Mario 64, two years its senior. The Mario game started a generation of 3D platformers as game designers learned from its lessons and adapted the level design ideas of two prior generations of sidescrolling run/jump/attack platforming games into three dimensional gameplay.
There may well have been more 3D platformers on the N64/PlayStation generation of consoles than there were, say, first-person shooters, but the former genre is, no pun intended, a rarity these days. Nintendo has reverted to channeling most of its platforming designs into 2D games. Rare spent its recent years making casual sports games. Even Nintendo’s 3D Mario releases have been funneled into designs that are, at best, a compromise between full 3D design and 2D.
The Rare guys themselves had seemed to tire of the 3D platformer pretty quickly, certainly of the Banjo rendition of them, Kirkhope recalled. “I think with Tooie we were tired of it at that point,” he said referring to 2000’s Banjo-Tooie. “We’d done two games, and, if you do continual sequels—Rare didn’t like to do that—we didn’t want to do another Banjo game. And that’s why it kind of ended there.” Many on the team went on to make Donkey Kong 64, but that was about it for 3D platformers at Rare.
There are many possible reasons for the demise of 3D platformers more than a decade ago. One theory: the genre gorged itself on its own gameplay. Kirkhope admits that Tooie, for example, simply had levels that were too large. More problematic was all the stuff people were asked to fetch in these games.
Rare’s 3D platformers in particular were notorious for being loaded with items to hoard, a nightmare mutation of the relatively reserved coin-collecting in Super Mario or even the charming-if-pushing-it collecting of items in the first Banjo.
The worst offender was Donkey Kong 64 and its hundreds of collectible bananas, each color-coded to indicate which of the five playable members of the Kong family you had to be controlling to pick them up. “Tooie and DK64 were too much,” Kirkhope said. “We know that. We’ve been around the block so many times we know the right way to do that.” Collecting stuff will be an element in the game, “but not so much.” (It surely helps that Playtonic is managed by Gavin Price, who started in game-testing at Rare. “When he was in testing,” Robinson said, “he had to 101% Donkey Kong 64 something like four times a week for three months.” Poor guy.)
Robinson promised that Playtonic will contain level-sprawl in their new platformers as well by initially introducing smaller levels to Yooka-Laylee players and having those levels expand as the player explores them.
Robinson and Kirkhope say that their team is on track with the game. The team is staffing to about 15 people and targeting an October 2016 release for Wii U, Xbox One, PS4, PC, Mac and Linux. They’re pouring the unexpectedly generous Kickstarter donations right back into the game and are adamant that they won’t use the money to over-scope the game and add excessive features. They don’t want to go crazy making their game fancier only to have it be less fun. “I’m so tired of games looking great, sounding great and playing like shit,” Kirkhope said. “I’m sick of that. Let’s not do that anymore. Let’s make it play great as well.”
To their backers, they say thank you. “You want to kiss them,” Kirkhope said. “You just want to go: ‘I love you forever.’”