Return of the Kings

bk2Banjo-Kazooie is one of gaming’s most revered and remarkable series. It is also, unfortunately, one of the saddest examples of how a franchise of seemingly fail-proof qualities can fall victim to the context within which it exists. The story, to those who are out of the loop, is marvelous and tragic.

When 3-D gaming was somewhere between crawling and trying to stand on its feet for ten seconds without clumsily falling to the ground, Super Mario 64 reigned supreme. It stood tall as one of the finest titles of the era and a masterful example of how what was once a sidescrolling platformer, and an untouchable classic, could be smoothly translated to the new realm of depth while simultaneously reaping glorious benefits and retaining its unique personality.

Tridimensional visuals have been around for so long it is natural to, nowadays, take that transition for granted. But it was no small feat. Thousands of other series would soon make that same leap, and many of the ones that succeeded hiked through the path Super Mario 64 had charted.

A few months before Ocarina of Time would take 3-D gaming up yet another notch, albeit in a very different genre, Banjo-Kazooie came in and topped Mario with style. A product of the house that had, on the previous generation, challenged the plumber with the Donkey Kong Country franchise, this time around that company was not simply aiming to undertake a fistfight for the platforming throne, but rather rip the crown straight out of the mustachioed dude’s head. And they did it.

bkWith Banjo-Kazooie, Rare topped Nintendo on the field of platformers. The colors were more vivid, the gameplay far more varied, the controls tighter, the songs were masterpieces, and the worlds stood as sights to behold and exercises in great game design. And, as if that was not enough already, two years later, Banjo-Tooie would take things to another level and improve on every single area; sometimes via technical prowesses and on other occasions through sheer megalomania.

But it seems truly great runs are never meant to last very long, so – as Rare was going through the tail-end of one of the most unbelievable creative stretches a company has ever gone through, dishing out undeniable classics like the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, Killer Instinct, GoldenEye 007, Diddy Kong Racing, Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark, Banjo-Tooie, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day on a six-year span – it was sold, transforming from Nintendo’s most valuable second-party to a Microsoft subsidiary.

Much of the brilliant staff that was responsible for that golden era abandoned the company on the years preceding and following the transaction; therefore, the magic was gone. What was an IP-creating machine was slowly relegated to rehashing its existing franchises, a process whose results were subpar efforts such as Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts: a game that, despite continuing the legendary franchise, stripped it away from all of its major twists by purposely making the titular bear too fat to perform any significant platforming moves.

To many fans, given its transfiguration of the series, the wait for Banjo-Tooie’s successor did not end with Nuts and Bolts’ release, it is still going on. Moreover, since through the last five years three of the four games produced by Rare have been a part of the Kinect Sports line, meaning that the company has gone from a factory of gaming magnificence to a studio focused on motion-based mini-game collections, the hopes for a sequel that would match the originals border on null; Banjo and Kazooie are likely not walking through that door in good shape.

ylThe next best thing, then, and currently the only source of hope to end that dreadful lull falls on the shoulders of a spiritual successor. Consequently, it comes off as a great change of outlook that Yooka-Laylee is precisely that, and as the beautiful cherry on top of the alluring cake is the little fact many of those involved in its production are former Rare employees that tackled numerous projects during the Nintendo 64 era, including Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie themselves.

The list of talents is astounding: Steve Mayles, the creator of the bear and bird; Chris Sutherland, the lead engineer for the two classic titles; Steven Hurst, the man responsible for the groundbreaking environments of the Donkey Kong Country series, and those of the Banjo-Kazooie games; Grant Kirkhope, the series’ original composer; and David Wise, the genius responsible for the masterpieces that were the soundtracks for Donkey Kong Country 2 and Tropical Freeze.

Given the team at Playtonic games could not, for obvious reasons, work with Banjo and Kazooie themselves, the solution was the creation of a new unlikely pair of goofy looking characters. Yooka is a male chameleon of good-willed nature, and Laylee is a female bat who might land somewhere between crazy and hilariously derisive (any coincidences are, clearly, intentional). Much like the classic duo, it is highly likely their distinct nature will open up the way for both team and solo moves that kick open the gates towards platforming level design heaven.

Yooka, a character whose flexibility – in theory – far excels that of Banjo, will likely have skills centered around his tongue, his coiled up tail, and his ability to camouflage. Meanwhile, Laylee’s wings will allow her to lift up her teammate and take on higher flights through worlds whose colors and art suggest a top-notch design, and her sonar will probably be a key tool to navigate dark locations.

yl2The game, which has an open Kickstarter campaign that reached the one million threshold faster than any other previously funded title, is far more important than a Banjo-Kazooie revival, though. The bear and bird are part of a long-lost platforming breed, one that focused on collection and exploration rather than clearing obstacles and getting to the end of a level.

Rare and Nintendo were masters of that realm, but while the former sadly walked towards irrelevance, the latter abandoned that style altogether. Its representatives that have touched on that kind of platforming have either moved on to more linear grounds, like Mario; or embraced sidescrolling as its home, like Donkey Kong. Although those choices have gifted the world with utterly spectacular titles such as Super Mario Galaxy and Donkey Kong Country Returns, they have left an entire subgenre devoid of representatives.

Yooka-Laylee’s ever growing budget, which now guarantees the game will have a fully orchestrated soundtrack, and people’s willingness to cooperate go to show how much the gaming community still trusts anyone with the Rare logo stamped on their résumés. More than that, however, it proves that – on the shoulders of the project – lies the hope to not only finally get to play the long-awaited true successor to Banjo-Tooie, but to also revive a gaming era that is still greatly admired and a gaming genre that has been sadly left behind.

yl3Yooka-Laylee has a long road to go in order to live up to those hopes, but the ones behind it are not the kind to shy away when faced with a challenge; they will tackle it head-on, and sooner or later we will get to see the results. Hopefully, it will be good enough to usher in a new era of explorative platformers.

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About Matt

A Brazilian gamer with a great love for playing Nintendo games, and a hobby of writing about his gaming experiences and thoughts. Even though that is what I mainly do for fun, I also love listening to music (especially rock) and watching movies (especially animations), so also expect a few posts on those matters.
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11 Responses to Return of the Kings

  1. Red Metal says:

    I did like a lot of Rare’s output back in the nineties; Donkey Kong Country 2 is still my favorite 2D platformer of all time. In hindsight, it was amazing how quickly they adapted to the 3D era of gaming, as Goldeneye was released only about a year into the Nintendo 64’s lifespan. Unfortunately, as you know, the bottom fell out once the company was sold to Microsoft.

    Outside of the superb Super Mario Galaxy games, we haven’t had that many collectathons lately, and I think we’re due for another good one. I think I’ll have to keep an eye on this project.

    • Matt says:

      Donkey Kong Country 2 is my favorite 2D platformer of all time as well, so you have good taste! =P

      I go even as far as saying it is my favorite sidescroller ever.

      Rare did get the hang of 3-D gaming pretty quickly. Their games of that era (with the exception of Goldeneye) have a timeless quality to them that is not replicated by many titles released around those years… the only titles that compare in that regard are, in my humble opinion, Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.

      As for collectathons, we are long overdue for another fantastic game of that kind. Hopefully, Yooka-Laylee will be that game!

      • DKC2 is one of my all-time favorites as well. The only thing preventing me from outright saying it’s the best 2D platformer ever is Super Mario World. But if your only competition is Super Mario World, then you’re still king of the mountain as far as I’m concerned.

        I think the Banjo titles are, along with Mario 64, Ocarina, the timeless Paper Mario and some smaller big N games like Kirby and Star Fox, among the only N64 games that are still fun (I simply can’t play Goldeneye or Perfect Dark any more). Time has not been good to that era, but there are still a few gems.

        Sorry, always have to toss in my two cents.

      • Matt says:

        Your two cents are always welcomed!

        In my book, the main competition for DKC2 consists of Super Mario World and Super Metroid, but I put Diddy’s Kong Quest a a notch above both.

        I forgot about Paper Mario, Kirby and Star Fox! Yes, those three titles have aged very well as well, I am not sure about Mario 64, though.

      • Red Metal says:

        Likewise! I’d say that it’s my favorite sidescroller as well.

        It helps that Rare’s games had their own distinct style. That goes a long way in helping stand the test of time.

        I’d say that Ocarina of Time holds up because of its great level design. Majora’s Mask still manages to be great because of its unique premise and gameplay mechanics.

        Here’s hoping that this new project turns out amazing!

      • I suppose we also have to throw Yoshi’s Island, Symphony of the Night, Tropical Freeze, Mega Man 2 and Super Mario Bros. 3 into the sidescroller argument as well. They all deserve a mention somewhere.

        I honestly think the only thing that’s aged in Mario 64 is the camera (and the blocky graphics, obviously). But I still think it’s a greatly fun game that still boasts a great sense of imagination. Banjo might hold up better all around, but for being the first big game from Nintendo’s most-aged console, Super Mario 64 is doing alright for itself.

        Paper Mario might be the most timeless of the lot though. I don’t think it’s aged a day (I know you, and most, prefer The Thousand-Year Door, which is an excellent game, but the first one is still the one I most enjoy). It would feel at home as a SNES game.

        • Matt says:

          I agree Yoshi’s Island, Symphony of the Night, Tropical Freeze, Mega Man 2 and Super Mario Bros. 3 should be added to the discussion. They are all up there on the same unreachable pantheon of greatness!

          It’s a fair assessment on Super Mario 64. The camera has aged badly because it was one of the first attempts at that kind of camera control, but the gameplay and level design is still solid.

          As for Paper Mario, count me among those that prefer The Thousand-Year Door. But both are epic games that are among the finest Nintendo products ever. And they have not aged one tiny bit.

  2. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was as excited for a game as I am for Yooka-Laylee. It’s somehow even outdone Mario Maker in terms of personal hype! I can name a handful of games from my younger days that created a similar excitement from me, I’m happy that a modern title can rekindle that feeling. It reminds me of how excited I was for the original Paper Mario way back when.

    I had never backed a game on Kickstarter before. Even ones I wanted to, like Might No. 9 and the new Toejam & Earl, ended up unbacked by myself do to wallet limitations. But for Yooka-Laylee I made an exception, and gave it more money than I could probably afford to give. I only wish I were a rich man, I would have paid the 7K to go to the UK and record a gibberish voice for the game in a heartbeat.

    I only hope the villain can stack up to Gruntilda.

    • Matt says:

      I have yet to back it up, but I will soon!

      And yeah, it is one of the games I am looking forward to the most right now. It’s up there with Splatoon, which I think is going to be awesome.

      I am curious to see how the villain will look like. I know I love the design they chose for the duo’s tutor… a snake with pants is just…. fantastic.

      • I am also super excited for Splatoon, which comes out in just a few short days here in the States. I’m also probably more excited for it, Mario Maker and Yooka-Laylee than I am for the new Zelda (but don’t tell nobody).

        A snake with pants…named Trowzer. Oh, that Rare humor! Apparently Playtonic is debating whether or not the villain should rhyme. I kind of hope they do.

        • Matt says:

          I didn’t know that! Rhyming is a must for the villain!

          I am also glad to see the Rare humor is still alive and kicking.

          The thing with the new Zelda is that details on it are very scarce, and I am under the impression it is gonna go through a considerable redesign before it is released. I am not even sure it will be at E3.

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