Yooka-Laylee recaptures some of the best aspects of platforming. You run, jump, and climb your way around dazzling levels. But it also tries too hard to recreate the past without building upon the lessons old games taught us. We take a closer look in this critical video.
Banjo-Kazooie doesn’t exist. More specifically, the version of it that we remember never existed. Nostalgia warps perception and colors what we recall. Banjo-Kazooie is a great game. The characters are fun, the music is charming, and the exploration is top notch. But it’s not perfect and no matter how much we might want to return to it, we can never return to the version that never was. Yooka-Laylee tries to recreate everything we loved about Banjo-Kazooie but it never asks if old flaws could be improved or if the thing it wants to recreate ever existed. It’s fun but slowly begins to fall apart as time goes on.
Yooka-Laylee follows the tale of a cartoon lizard (Yooka) and his fruit bat friend (Laylee) as they hunt down an assortment of pages from a magical book that has been stolen from them. In structure, it grabs all the building blocks of its inspiration title Banjo-Kazooie. Levels function as half theme park, half puzzle box where players can engage in a host of activities to earn rewards and can explore far flung regions to find hidden treasures. Special moves mirror those from the source game; the reptile roll replaces the talon trot, flappy flight has Laylee soaring about instead of Kazooie, and you even get a similar crouch jump. It retains a hub world with self contained levels and even incorporates the quiz game that guarded Banjo-Kazooie’s final boss into a recurring mini game.
Functionally, Yooka-Laylee grabs older structures, mechanics, and aesthetics to cobble together an approximation of the things players loved about Banjo-Kazooie. Approximation is the key word, however. In stitching together various pieces of previous titles, Yooka-Laylee is decidedly uncritical and never seeks to improve upon its inspirations. The end result is a game that ultimately recreates some of the most glaring flaws of the source material. It pads playtime with demanding an arbitrarily high amount of plot trinkets to proceed, it retains floaty and unsatisfying combat, and it generally fails to build up the foundation of the original game. So what happened? Well, to explain that I need to get more pretentious than usual.
There was a French philosopher named Jean Baudrillard. One of his many concerns was the study of symbols and simulation. In one piece of writing, he talks about the efforts of historians to preserve the body of Ramses II. In noting cultural fascination surrounding the preservation of Ramses II, Baudrillard observed that what people were really striving to protect was a specific outlook on history. They weren’t trying to preserve Ramses II; they wanted to protect the notion of history he represented, a mythical history where western civilization drew intellectual strength from past rulers of agreed upon significance.
We can apply this concept to Yooka-Laylee. Creating Yooka-Laylee is a bit like preserving an old mummy. We dress up a version of past events that positions certain games as more significant than they were. The goal is not to make a fun game; it is to make a game that reinforces a romanticized outlook on game history that places excessive emphasis on the Nintendo 64 and early 3-D platformers.
This conception of the medium’s history then fails to understand that games like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie were a groundwork to build upon rather than the apex of platforming. They’re good but they’re blueprints that developers can use to build a sound structure before embellishing and adding new features and complications. Yooka-Laylee doesn’t do this because it doesn’t see the need.
Baudrillard had another example that’s applicable. He looked at Disneyland and noted that the commercial for Disneyland isn’t actually selling you a ticket to Disneyland. The point of the commercial is not the ticket sale because the thing that you’re actually buying is more abstract. You’re buying an experience. You’re buying a promise. When you buy your ticket, you’re trying to buy a return to childhood. Not the childhood you had but an ideal childhood that doesn’t really exist.
Yooka-Laylee is something similar. You’re not buying Yooka-Laylee. You’re buying what it represents. The triumph of old design over new. The singular success of a genre. The undeniable efficacy of a cherished console. The game is secondary to these things. We want to head back to our childhood. Even if the childhood we want to head back to is nothing more than a dream. Yooka-Laylee is a time machine. We buy it in the hopes that it can transport us somewhere else. Everything the game does in the that service of the goal of sending us back.
This doesn’t stop Yooka-Laylee from being good. I think it had flaws but there are moments of genuine fun to be found as well. I think fans looking for a throwback collectathon will get exactly what they want. But I also think Yooka-Laylee is a case of nostalgia run rampant. It looks back at gaming history and fails to learn from mistakes, repeating them for the sake of misplaced authenticity. It wants to go back and largely succeeds. Unfortunately, it never asks if going back was a good idea to begin with.