Exciting, colourful and full of energy, the eagerly-anticipated Yooka-Laylee harks back to a golden age of 3D platforming. We spoke to the people behind it
If there’s one word the creators of much talked-about platformer Yooka-Laylee want to emphasise, it’s ‘fun’.
Perhaps that’s no surprise considering that the development team, Playtonic, is largely comprised of former Rare developers who worked on the enormously entertaining ’90s classic Banjo-Kazooie – and this is a long-overdue spiritual successor.
At a time when the Triple A industry has become more and more dry, serious and design-by-committee edged, it certainly feels like a breath of fresh air.
“A game like this can’t be planned for upfront in a board room,” says Playtonic writer and communications director Andy Robinson.
“We want everyone who plays Yooka-Laylee to, above all, come away with a big smile on their face.”
Fans of Banjo-Kazooie flocked to back the game’s initial Kickstarter campaign in 2015, to record-breaking effect. And anyone who remembers the Nintendo 64 era fondly will understand why.
The console celebrates its 20th anniversary this very day, and Rare were responsible for some of its most cherished and memorable games.
Robinson was actually the first non-Rare alumnus to join Playtonic’s development team. But as a long-time enthusiast of the company’s classic output, he is consequently in a great position to represent a nostalgic fan perspective when it comes to Yooka-Laylee.
“It’s really important to us that we capture the ‘look and feel’ of that ’90s era,” he explains, “while continuing to innovate and bring core gameplay up to date.
“We’re evoking classic games with stuff like our old-school UI, and the iconic ‘gibberish’ character voices which our composer Grant Kirkhope and lead programmer Chris Sutherland have recreated.”
Gone, of course, are lovable bear Banjo and quirky bird Kazooie. But the replacements stepping into their illustrious shoes more than hit the necessary charm and cute-factor.
The eponymous dynamic duo, a colourful lizard and a plucky bat, look absolutely adorable – though the platforming pin-ups of Yooka-Laylee might have turned out quite differently.
Initially character artist Steve Mayles experimented with a tiger, but the developers felt that such a fierce animal didn’t quite fit the ‘underdog’ archetype they were looking for.
“There was also the suggestion of an insect at one stage,” notes Robinson. “But who likes insects? Actually a few of us…just not Steve Mayles.”
As it turned out, Yooka and Laylee both seemed a natural fit for the kind of experience Playtonic wanted to create, as well as having aesthetic appeal.
“We felt that their innate abilities would make for naturally fun platforming gameplay,” explains Robinson. “Laylee being a bat, for example, has a whole roster of sonar moves which she can use to stun enemies and smash objects.
“Yooka meanwhile, as a chameleon, can camouflage and sneak past enemies, plus he has a whole host of tongue moves such as the ability to eat objects and absorb their properties, or use his tongue as a grapple hook.”
Bags of personality
If this all sounds like something from another era in a mainstream landscape populated by ‘realistic’ shooters and gritty action, that’s precisely the point.
“As consoles became more and more powerful, the way developers would show off that power is to make their games more realistic.
“There’s been a trend in that direction – maybe now people can see that you can go the other way and opt for a more stylised theme and create something that’s just as impressive.”
Robinson is quick to point out that Playtonic’s approach and ethos differs heavily from the norm now established in the wider industry.
“Playtonic is a studio that encourages creative freedom and natural design evolution. Everyone can do a little bit of everything, and you are not pigeonholed into doing a certain task for the lifetime of a project. We are all doing lots of different stuff. It’s creatively freeing and lots of fun.
“As the industry has evolved, especially in the Triple-A space, it hasn’t really worked like this anymore. But at Playtonic there’s no heavy documentation process. With our kind of approach, by the time it takes to write a document, we can just build an idea, test it and discard it or take it further if it’s fun.”
At a time when many gamers are lamenting the decline of long-standing old-school features in modern day titles – especially the joys of couch co-op – Robinson and the rest of the Yooka-Laylee team seem more than switched-on to these concerns.
Their aim, ostensibly, is to serve up the best of both worlds.
“The team are big fans of local co-op and multiplayer, and on top of that the fans made us very aware that they really enjoyed many of the team’s older single player games, and often had a friend or relative watching too, and it was the perfect excuse for us to build local co-op and vs multiplayer into Yooka-Laylee.
“Our ethos was that if someone else is there watching let’s get them involved too. But if there isn’t then the game shouldn’t be negatively affected.”
You can really sense the enthusiasm among the developers.
As to whether their 3D platformer can combine both old-school flavour and modern mechanics into a satisfying overall experience, only time will tell. But you cannot doubt its creators’ sincerity.
“This is a game that everyone on the Playtonic team is super passionate about making,” says Robinson. “We hope we can rub some of that joy onto players.
“We’re trying to inject as much fun as possible into every single area of the game, whether it’s music, character designs, dialogue or the instruction manual.”
Fun. There’s that word again.
Fingers crossed Yooka-Laylee can deliver on its exuberant promise.
Yooka-Laylee will be released early next year.