Written by Drew Beyer // Edited and Uploaded by Andrew Busch
My mom is better than me at Banjo-Kazooie. She’s probably better than you at it, too, considering her most recent play through clocks in at seven hours and nineteen minutes, which ranks her in the top two hundred in the world according to speedrun.com. When she texted me to celebrate her new fastest time, I was hanging out with my friends and obviously I had to share. There was much rejoicing. I mention this because I finally got around to playing the Yooka-Laylee Toybox demo, and I’m ready to hop all aboard the nostalgia hype train because it feels, looks, and sounds so much like my mom’s favorite game. I realize I’m a little late to the Toybox party, but better late than never, right?
I’ve been following Yooka-Laylee closely because my mom’s skill at Banjo-Kazooie is one of the major reasons I got into gaming in the first place—some of my favorite memories of childhood revolve around watching her play Rare’s 1998 platformer. I probably have fond memories of playing the game myself, but when I think of Banjo-Kazooie I always remember my mom playing it. I even bought her the vinyl soundtrack this past christmas. We take Banjo-Kazooie very seriously in my family, if you couldn’t tell.
So while I’ve been reading every article and watching every video about Yooka-Laylee, I’ve always done so with a calculated apprehension. Don’t get me wrong, everything looks amazing: the worlds are vivid and gorgeous, the characters drip with old-school Rare charm, and I’d recognize Grant Kirkhope’s xylophone anywhere. I have nothing but faith in Playtonic, but Banjo-Kazooie is one of the foundations of my gaming DNA, and I’ve put it so high on a pedestal nothing can ever surpass it, much less come close to matching it. I don’t even consider Banjo-Tooie a worthy heir to the Banjo-Kazooie throne, because while most people would argue it’s a technically better game, it never captured me and my mom the way its predecessor did.
Having played the Toybox demo, I think Yooka-Laylee might have a fighting chance.
The first thing that strikes me about the demo is how unabashedly incomplete it is. Your guide, a cute little robot named Inept, constantly references how the demo doesn’t have repeat lines and that the artists ought to be fired because of frame dropping. It’s all very tongue in cheek, and very much in line with old school Rare’s sense of humor. I found myself laughing out loud in my empty apartment, which doesn’t usually happen with games. I willingly searched out Inept just to hear his next snarky line as I leapt from polygon to polygon in search of quills.
Speaking of quills, I find it serendipitous that Yooka-Laylee seems based heavily around writing. Instead of jinjos, we have ghostwriters; instead of notes, we have quills; instead of jiggies, we have pagies. I know it’s very self-centered and utterly irrational, but a small part of me feels very grateful to Playtonic for including so much of my favorite hobby in what I sincerely hope becomes one of my favorite games. It’s like they’re tailoring the game to me and my mom, despite knowing nothing about us!
Yooka-Laylee also offers a return to the collect-a-thon style of gameplay that I’ve been sadly missing from my life since around 2005. There’s something deeply nostalgic to me about scouring a level in search of a variety of things like a colorful truffle hunting pig. I don’t quite understand why the style ever fell out of favor, since it’s always been one of my favorites. Even Mario, arguably the original king of the collect-a-thon, abdicated his throne in favor of levels in Mario Galaxy and the other more recent 3d titles. While elements of collect-a-thons have entered into some more modern games with bonus coins and such, there’s something magical about a honest to god mcguffin hunt. You don’t need to explain why I need to collect quills— just tell me there are one hundred of them hidden around the level and I’ve got all I need. Maybe it’s a relic of a bygone era, and I admit it can be frustrating to get stuck at 98 out of 100, but who cares? The internet is a thing so collect-a-thons aren’t even that frustrating— game walkthroughs and collectable maps are ubiquitous online. Yooka-Laylee unabashedly harkens back to the N64 era of gaming, and that makes the child in me extremely happy.
Another thing that marks Yooka-Laylee as a willful anachronism is the amount of charm and color Playtonic packed into every movement of demo. I found myself hurling my little bat and chameleon off high ledges just to watch the frankly disgustingly adorable animation of Laylee picking Yooka up off the ground. The characters also speak in charming gibberish, making little grunts of exertion as they run, jump and roll, just like Banjo and Kazooie. Despite the number of times I heard the same identical soundbites, they never got grating because of how well they fit the characters and the tone of the game. Yooka-Laylee takes itself as seriously as a game about a bat and a chameleon collecting writing utensils should, and the grunts help to communicate that. I almost hate how much I love the little noises they make, the keyword there being almost. We’ll see if they manage to remain cute instead of annoying throughout an entire game, but like everything else I have faith.
I’m not sure how I’ve gone on this long without delving into the music, but oh man the music is amazing too. It’s vintage Grant Kirkhope- in fact, the xylophone run reminded me so strongly of Mumbo’s Mountain I had to youtube the Banjo-Kazooie soundtrack to check the two tracks against one another. They’re very different, upon comparison. They just touched the same place in my weird little brain. Considering I occasionally find myself wandering the streets of Chicago whistling the tunes from Click Clock Wood or Rusty Bucket Bay, this is very high praise indeed.
Finally, I’m struck by how much personality the game has, which is a weird sentence to type. In an industry where a good idea gets immediately ripped off and repurposed for every game, it’s refreshing to demo a game that feels so self-assured. Yooka-Laylee feels like Banjo-Kazooie but improved, rather than an amalgamation of the hot ideas wearing the skin of Banjo-Kazooie like an Ed Gein coat. It’s a game that’s confident enough in what it is to not pretend to be anything else, which feels great to me as a player. It’s nice to play something that opts to refine one particular type of gameplay instead of taking the jack of all trades, master of none route that much of the industry insists on.
Between this and Breath of the Wild, nostalgia is threatening to overwhelm my brain in the best possible way. I’ll admit, my interest in gaming had been eroding lately- I hadn’t really found a game to lose myself in since Dark Souls III, which is a long time to languish between game releases. But now I’m going to spend the next two months in a state of pure excitement, because of Zelda and Mass Effect and Yooka-Laylee oh my! I don’t feel like my nostalgia is being abused at all, either, because from what I’ve seen the people making these games care as much if not more about them than I do. They’re not just making these games to make money, although capitalism definitely plays a significant part— they’re making these games because they want to make them and people want to play them, and that’s how things should be.
I think what really made me fall in love with the Yooka-Laylee demo was the absolute joy and glee I felt while playing it. It was like going back in time—I was able to forget about all the chaos of my life and just lose myself in a colorful world, searching for quills. It was a lovely experience, and I certainly think we could all use a little joy in our lives right now.
Oh, and if you’re wondering- yes, I’m going to get my mom to play Yooka-Laylee. And she’ll probably be better than me at it, even if I beat it first or faster. I want to watch her play it, just like I watched her play Banjo-Kazooie all those years ago. It’s something we can share, and I’m very thankful to Playtonic for giving us the chance to go back to a world like the one from 1998. Consider yourself warned, mom.