Banjo-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.
With 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Yooka-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.