Metaphor and Mechanization in Banjo-Kazooie — Finalee

Note: This is the last in a three-part series on Banjo-Kazooie and Yooka-Laylee. While I recommend checking out the first and second installments, each is written such that they can be read in isolation, so it is not required to continue.

Yooka and Laylee fly through Hivory Towers

At this point I have spent much longer than I would like to admit hearing out various critical takes on Yooka-Laylee, both positive and negative. If nothing else I must say that it’s a beguiling example of designing the near-impossible: an intergenerational videogame that delivers to both fans of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie (which as discussed are almost entirely different in their appeal) as well as new players who may have never played a classic Rareware game in their lives. In other words, a kids’ game that is mostly not for kids. For a series that hasn’t had the continual output of Mario, Zelda or Sonic, the breadth of opinion on what makes Banjo-Kazooie tick is much more varied and disharmonious than the initial Kickstarter chorus had me believe. From its origins as Project Dream on the SNES Banjo-Kazooie was never destined to be yet another mascot platformer, but rather a 3D platform-adventure game hybrid — not the absolute first of its kind but the one that came at the opportune moment between the progenitor Super Mario 64 and the competitor Spyro the Dragon. It made an indelible mark on the future of game design, but also marred each imitator as an unworthy successor.

In Danielle Riendeau’s review “A Hat in Time is the N64 Throwback Yooka-Laylee Was Trying to Be”, she praises the similarly-positioned “collect-a-thon” revival by claiming it leans into a “B-game” aesthetic. However in my opinion Yooka-Laylee is actually at its best when in a comfort zone of middling mediocrity, right up there with Ty the Tasmanian Tiger, Rocket: Robot on Wheels and Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue — the sheer Gex-iness of it all (and not just because the player character is scaly green creature that occasionally throws snowballs). After all, at its core Yooka-Laylee is supposedly an original-IP Banjo-Kazooie clone, so why shouldn’t playing it feel like just that? Why are people telling themselves “This is the Banjo-Threeie we’ve been waiting for!” when it categorically isn’t — regardless of personal enjoyment or perceived faithfulness to a formula that was never set in stone in the first place.

And before I get into it, I don’t for one second discount the effort that Playtonic put into the game. For crying out loud, it’s an indie 3D platformer with HD graphics running in Unity that I played on a console whose existence wasn’t even public knowledge during the bulk of development! My main criticism of Yooka-Laylee has nothing to do with technical foibles like camera hiccups and game crashes; or surface-level observations like the annoying stamina bar or the subpar mini-games or the overpowered flight ability; or even the recurring theme of increased challenge through slipperiness (Oh, you’ve mastered slopes? Well now they’re ice slopes! Now do platforming with underwater physics!). It is simply that the game fails at the one thing it desperately needed to do: find an identity beyond Banjo.

Yooka and Laylee hit the books

Shortly after I finished my time with Yooka-Laylee I saw a video in my twitter feed from writer, artist and all-around cool person Annie Mok entitled “The Story of Yooka-Laylee”, which was subsequently retweeted by Grant Kirkhope (who for some reason, god bless, has become like a brand ambassador not only for Playtonic Games but the entire Rare milieu). It’s a breezy and unscripted first-impressions sort of video, and while I don’t intend to counter-argue her overall positive take on the game, she so happens to go over several key points that I was also thinking about at the time, and in roughly the same order in which I’d like to tackle them:
1) She likens the Grand Tomes to paintings from Mario 64
2) She compares the game favorably to Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts
3) She briefly mentions Super Mario Odyssey

The thing about the so-called story of Yooka-Laylee is that in all the fervent discussion around the game I have yet to see anybody attempt to interpret it on a deeper level, in the way I hope I have done so far with Banjo-Kazooie and Tooie. The gameplay has seen much criticism but the characters and worldbuilding have gotten off relatively unscathed. Skeptics can cross their arms and tell me that the writing doesn’t matter in these games beyond the goofy dialogue quips, but it absolutely does. People wouldn’t have made Flash animations, fan games or box art mock-ups from the mere mention of a Banjo-Threeie if they weren’t at least somewhat invested in the rivalry between a sorceress and an ursine-avian pair. Narrative is the thing which binds characters with themes, and in platformers especially good theming is the backbone of level design. But the consensus seems to be that Yooka-Laylee’s plot is quirky, inoffensive and serviceable, with the only remark I found attempting broader analysis coming from Mitchell F. Wolfe’s review for Super Jump, where he states that “Yooka-Laylee is one of the most important games of the decade because of how it frames critical design philosophies and what it says about auteurs in game development”. So, like Kazooie on a split-up pad, let’s unpack that claim.

First and foremost, Yooka-Laylee is not about books. It doesn’t have to be about books, Mario isn’t really about coins or stars either, but Playtonic spends an inordinate amount of time setting up a world where they are of grave concern, although Yooka and Laylee don’t seem to know that. In the opening cutscene Laylee says she’s been using the One Book — which contains all the games’ Pagies, our Jiggy analog — as a drink coaster. When Yooka suggests that it may be a valuable antique, Laylee suggests that they pawn it, and then when the book starts flying away she exclaims “Hey, my profit book! It’s being sucked away!” and “It’s worth even more now it’s a flying book!” Not exactly a noble call to action.

Within Hivory Towers there are five Grand Tomes which serve as the point of entry to each level. On its face I like these, and always get a kick out of how the covers slam shut on the protagonists — very Terry Gilliam — however these don’t nearly match the brilliance of how other games use media in a similar fashion. The genius of Mario 64’s paintings is that they not only reinforce the central jump interaction but also liken the act of projecting oneself onto Mario — using him as a sort of sense organ to intuit the game’s abstracted landscapes — to gazing at a work of art; running laps up and down the stairs of Escher’s Relativity. Banjo-Kazooie takes this idea and adds its own twist: it’s a game about recursively solving gameplay puzzles to solve literal puzzles, alluding to the adventure game origins of both itself and its developers. In Tooie this is further “gamified”, making collecting and handling Jiggies into its own pseudo-religious practice and emphasizing the interlockedness of its world. Even the television sets of the Gex series feel like a commentary on the engrossing banality of channel surfing.

The problem with the Grand Tomes is that they don’t represent anything crucial to Yooka-Laylee as a game or an artistic statement. The levels aren’t related to classic literature in any way and its hard to imagine the stories that are meant to go along with these worlds over and above “this is a videogame level”. If Sonic Mania is a mixtape, then Yooka-Laylee is a cover band, serving us variations on Freezeezy Peak, Bubblegloop Swamp (with a dash of Mad Monster Mansion), Mayahem Temple and Casinopolis(?), all of which seem entangled with Hivory Towers as they are filled with the same cameras, robots and floating metallic platforms found there. Galleon Galaxy is probably the most original but also feels like the team couldn’t pick between Witchyworld’s space sections and Treasure Trove Cove and figured “Why not both?”. Then there’s the Icymetric Palace sub-level which is an inexplicable homage to Knight Lore, a game that to my knowledge nobody on the team actually worked on. While it has some of the best exploration due to being doled out in discrete interconnected areas, it also has some of the clunkiest shooting and platforming from the forced perspective. Back to the books, it’s sad that Playtonic couldn’t even muster up any relevant puns, and novels found within the hub world are labelled with non sequitur things like “Pants and Why You Should Wear Them”.

There’s also an egregious early game “puzzle” that’s played for laughs where Yooka must extinguish a pile of flaming books to obtain a Pagie. Now I am not of the opinion that all print is automatically sacred, but for historical reasons that should be obvious book burning is an extremely loaded image, and here it is deployed carelessly and irresponsibly. Because what Playtonic essentially does here is equate Capital B et al with Nazis, and considering the methods by which Pagies are “rounded up” I could take the implication to an even darker place and it’s honestly not a huge stretch considering the type of unfeeling facility Hivory Towers portrays in these early moments. Thankfully I think this “baddies vs. books” angle is entirely upended once Yooka and Laylee reach a section of Hivory Towers called the Archive, however it also throws all of Capital B’s motivations into question. Does he want to destroy books or merely obtain them? Deeper in we find that Capital B has written his own book, showing he has at least some interest in publications that Yooka and Laylee lack.

Perhaps I am being too literal, and should really be talking about what books can symbolize rather than what they contain — things like authorship and creativity. To some Yooka-Laylee is allegedly about the plight of the little guy, whose freedom of expression has been usurped by a corporate entity. To those who know anything about how Playtonic was formed its impossible not to read Capital B’s actions as an analogy for Microsoft’s acquisition and (mis)handling of Rare. But if we’re going to go down that road, we’re going to have to talk about the last time Banjo made a non-cameo appearance on home consoles.

Banjo stands atop a hill in Nutty Acres

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts opens with a cutscene that recaps the events of the first two games by taking the player on a tour around Spiral Mountain, eventually ending upon Banjo and Kazooie who — with no Gruntilda to fight — have grown obese from eating pizza and playing Xbox Live. Accepting my assertion that Banjo-Tooie can be taken as a metaphor for the internet at the turn of the millennium, this cutscene demonstrates a cynicism with the state of gaming in the intervening years which permeates BK:NAB, as well as how it positions itself as The Alternative to such doldrums. From the hole that once lead to the Isle O’ Hags a body-less Grunty emerges, and right as the old foes are about to duel the scene is interrupted by glowing red comic sans text that reads “PAUSED”.

This serves as introduction to the Lord of Games (or L.O.G.), an all-powerful god-like being who doesn’t just break the fourth wall, but is the fourth wall personified, with a computer monitor for a head attached to a purple robe. The encounter leads into the now infamous bait-and-switch where Banjo and Grunty are presented with two trails of golden trinkets to pursue before L.O.G. glibly interjects again, frustrated with the lack of depth and originality in the exaggerated collect-a-thon convention. His solution to this? A motorized trolley which serves as Banjo’s main mode of transport in the game’s hub world of Showdown Town, as well as a magical wrench in lieu of Kazooie’s previous abilities. By now it should be evident that BK:NAB is a self-aware game, and it constantly lampshades how certain segments of the player base will hate these new changes. But is it possible for a game to become so self-aware it becomes a self-critique? As before let’s look towards the level design for further insight.

If Banjo-Kazooie represents the anthropoid and Tooie the cyborgian, then Nuts and Bolts is the full-on singularity. Its overriding sensibility is that of being trapped in the machine. The motif is repeated everywhere from Grunty’s mechanical minions to the ornate orbs used to unlock new worlds; a sort of idealized Gashapon encapsulation of the levels themselves. Unlike Banjo-Tooie where everything is seamless, or even Kazooie where the witch switches imply some form of interplay with the lair at large, Nuts and Bolts uses videogame-y portals for its level entrances, with no relation between the theme of the level and where they are located within Showdown Town. In fact, Banjo must enter through several magic doors to access near-identical “acts” of the same level which house different missions — something that probably could have been consolidated. Another change is the sitcom parody intros which play upon entering a level for the first time, with various returning characters cast in new roles for each of them. Both of these approaches create a sense of detachment from any sort of established game world, while preventing players from investing in any new lore, because like the old Super Mario Bros. 3 fan theory it’s all a stage production.

Uncharacteristic of a Banjo game Nuts and Bolts continually intonates interiority over exterior spaces. Although vast, Nutty Acres is literally astroturfed, highlighting its artifice with patchwork hills, giant gears and a motorized mobile of clouds all inside a domed structure. Cobbled together from landmarks from the previous games, Banjoland feels more like a storage hangar than a museum. The Terrarium of Terror pairs glass enclosures with the vacuum of space. The Jiggoseum is a dull sports arena (and while I’m on the subject, the game is particularly fixated with balls and ball-like objects) that’s encased yet again in a ceiling of windows. Even within the expanse of Showdown Town an invisible wall keeps players from exploring the intriguing locales situated on the horizon, not unlike the wall Banjo and Kazooie run headlong into in the teaser trailer for the game, a moment that’s played up like a Roadrunner cartoon but in context reminds me more of the end of The Truman Show.

The way Showdown Town starts small and extends in concentric phases as the trolley is upgraded is interesting and follows established Banjo logic, however its conical shape and asinine Jiggy retrieval system tends to magnetically draw players back towards its center. The game also has some troubling ideas about the carceral state. Literal pigs in hovercrafts will attack the player for “smuggling” rightfully earned Jiggies unless the police chief is bribed with notes, which could be construed as some sort of satire of civil forfeiture and/or corruption in law enforcement. But then there’s also side-activities about freeing Jinjos from jail cells — fine enough — however Banjo and Kazooie are further rewarded for kidnapping the now dark-skinned Minjos and imprisoning them instead. Yikes.

Then there’s LOGBOX 720, a multi-tiered labyrinth of wires and circuit boards which has to be the most meta Banjo level of all time, taking us inside an ersatz Xbox 360 console. As we are boxed in by L.O.G.’s machinations so too do Banjo and company — and the vehicles they drive — become boxy. There’s a tenseness between the characters and the levels they inhabit (read: held captive in), and the only time the world really seems to come alive and mesh perfectly with the gameplay is in the Test-o-Track, which features a high-octane rock remix of the Mumbo’s Skull theme that gives me flashbacks to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Rare seems to agree with me on this point, as the area was recycled for the L.O.G.’s Lost Challenges DLC, which is so slight I’m not even going to bother italicizing it. Where past Banjo levels offer the freedom to explore dangerous territory or the freedom to connect disparate lands, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts offers creative freedom — within rigid limits.

L.O.G.’s games factory

So, what conclusions can we draw about Nuts and Bolts as a whole from the level design? Well to me it all hinges on the moral alignment of the character with the most agency, the Lord of Games: is he Lawful Good, Chaotic Evil or True Neutral? Canonically L.O.G. is portrayed as the creator of all games and that is an inherent altruism; he is the auteur of our experience. If this deified status reigns supreme in the world of Showdown Town, then its worth asking who if anyone is the auteur of Banjo-Kazooie IRL? Well, there’s the self-proclaimed “Father of Banjo”, character designer Steven Mayles who left Rare to help form Playtonic after BK:NAB’s release. Then there’s his older brother Gregg Mayles, who created the majority of the original installments’ levels (along with Steve Malpass and Ed Bryan) and stayed at Rare to later direct Sea of Theives. The facets of character and level design are inextricably linked together, but there can only be one, and in big sibling fashion its Gregg who took charge as lead designer and is most prominent in the making-of documentaries produced for Rare Replay. Now does this make L.O.G. a self-insert character? Perhaps.

What if we look at L.O.G. in another light — is he is so benevolent after all? L.O.G. is an auteur but he is also a capitalist, and owns the giant videogame factory in the middle of Showdown Town. L.O.G. holds all the cards; he alone is responsible for giving Gruntilda her robotic body (yes, again), and by herself she’s no longer imposing or threatening and mostly loiters around the hub world occasionally getting in the way. Mow her down or shoot her with a laser, she’s powerless and unable to respond with non-predetermined violence. Can we then conclude that L.O.G. as the orchestrator of all that occurs, this propped-up “conflict”, is the true villain of Nuts and Bolts? I’m not alone in this conjecture, and some have even expressed surprise that L.O.G. wasn’t the final boss. If this is valid, then what does that say about what the developers think about those who hold capital? Could L.O.G. actually be a stand-in for Microsoft’s status as the powers that be?

If there’s an argument that supports this sort of subversive bite-the-hand-that-feeds message I’d say it comes at the very end of Nuts and Bolts, where as punishment for losing L.O.G.’s competition Grunty is banished to toil in his videogame factory. Given how Rare has coded production sites like Rusty Bucket Bay and Grunty Industries as nefarious in the past, the subtext here is that there is no worse fate than making videogames against one’s will, and that labour practices in the tech sector are not much better than business-as-usual manufacturing jobs (which are at least widely unionized). To quote The Who, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

Then again perhaps the truth is somewhere is the middle. Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts is not the work of a lone auteur nor of strict oversight, but of design by committee. It’s actually something that plays out mechanically. Though the player is encouraged to create unique vehicles for each challenge, the lack of variety means that the first-order optimal strategy is to use the same chassis repeatedly and add on attachments so that it can fly, float, shoot and go fast, ending up with something that looks and feels like The Homer. This sort of chimerical overwrought uber-machine shows the conflicted nature of BK:NAB and its creators. The game isn’t malicious but rather deeply self-conscious, second guessing every intuition (“Scrap the platforming! No wait never mind, have some platforming!!”), walking a tightrope between lofty goals and lackluster execution. I can’t pretend to know everything about the behind-the-scenes development, but seeing where the individual team members wound up it’s clear there was an internal rift within Rare; even if it went unspoken its evident in the design.

The machinic innards of the LOGBOX 720

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts is an unfit Banjo game, but I’ll be damned if it’s not fascinating, especially through the lens of mechanization. But at the risk of coming to the defense of a megacorporation, I think in the metanarrative of the rise and fall of Rare too much blame has been placed upon Microsoft, specifically when it comes to BK:NAB’s semi-failure. Its something Yooka-Laylee (ahem) capitalizes on quite disingenuously, when the truth of the matter is that the same creative team behind Banjo-Kazooie and Tooie were responsible for all the major decisions that made Nuts and Bolts fall short.

Ultimately BK:NAB’s very existence is a better criticism of the market forces that had platformer franchises chasing the Grand Theft Auto dragon in the aughts than the game whose antagonist is named Capital B. In a way Nuts and Bolts and Yooka-Laylee are like funhouse mirrors of each other: one on the inside looking out and one on the outside looking in. Both games also only manage to put up a measly five levels proper, though I’ll give the nod to Playtonic for having fewer resources at their disposal. They both have superb music by Grant Kirkhope et al, so that point’s moot. And for all the sound and fury about righting the wrongs of Nuts and Bolts and returning to form, it’s massively ironic that 3/5 of Yooka-Laylee’s transformations are vehicles.

I also think Steven Mayles’ new character designs are fairly half-baked and in dire need of a second pass, though perhaps not from Gregg who at one point tried to make Banjo a sneaker-wearing skater dude. It’s not all terrible of course, the main characters, Trowzer the snake (har, har), the not-Jinjo Ghost Writers and shopping cart NPC’s are all charming, but the Doctors Quack and Puzz and especially Vendi are flat-out abominations. Everything else is generic stuff like frogs and pigs that again remind me of Nuts and Bolts and its penguins and rhinos.

Unlike Nuts and Bolts, it is virtually impossible to assess Yooka-Laylee in isolation or on its own merits because of how obsequiously obsessed it is with the fact that it’s trying to be a new Banjo-Kazooie game, but cannot be officially. If BK:NAB is guilty of design by committee, YL is guilty of being reverse-engineered. Where Nuts and Bolts admonishes the past, Yooka-Laylee so badly wants to resurrect it with anachronistic characters like Kartos and Rextro (I mean damn even Klungo managed to make a better retro game under L.O.G.’s hegemony), and the B-K recipe is followed to tee in the hopes of getting lightning to strike twice. It actually makes me appreciate how different and peculiar BK:NAB is in comparison, and in an alternate universe where the game could be re-branded as Lego Racers 3 it would probably have more of a cult following. It wouldn’t fix all the glaring issues, but it would at least make a lick of sense.

A lone Steam Gardener in the Wooded Kingdom

While Playtonic was lucky that they shifted away from the ill-fated Wii U port in favour of the much more popular Switch and found a receptive audience there, the pushback of the release date to December of 2017 was also rather unfortunate as it put Yooka-Laylee in the position of following up Super Mario Odyssey, which was on my mind during my entire playthrough because frankly I believe Nintendo bested them at their own game.

Although it most readily references Mario 64, in many ways Odyssey is a spiritual successor to Super Mario Sunshine, including but not limited to: the presence of birds, different outfits, a variety of NPC’s, secrets/sub-areas, a talking companion and an emphasis on narrative in which levels are contextualized as travel destinations. If the connection wasn’t obvious for the first half of the game it becomes crystal clear in the Seaside Kingdom, wherein a Gushen enemy can be used as a water-propelled jetpack to clean up icky paint-like lava in a nod to Pianta Village Episode 3: The Goopy Inferno. There’s even a landmass visible on the world map which vaguely resembles Isle Delfino.

But perhaps most apparent similarity is the new primary collectible of Power Moons, which are a logical extension of the sun-shaped Shine Sprites of SMS (though there were hidden 3-up moons in Super Mario World as well). In the lead-up to Odyssey’s release it was heavily advertised that unlike previous games the player would not be booted out of a given level after collecting a moon, getting right back into the action after a little dance and jingle. Some criticized this because there actually are instances, like after defeating bosses, where the game will send you back to start. Personally though, what bothered me more was the idea that this was innovative at all, because the collecting of these key items is done in the exact same manner as Jiggies in Banjo-Kazooie and virtually every 3D collect-a-thon that came after it. Genuinely it’s more difficult to think of any non-Mario game that actually uses SM64’s specific approach: where — not including 100 coin stars — only one task can be completed at a time, yet the player is also allowed to go off-script and collect a star other than what was selected on the interstitial menu.

Another borrowed concept that was apparent right from the E3 reveal trailer was the Capture mechanic, where Mario can throw his hat (Cappy) to possess enemies akin to Banjo’s trademark transformations, with the very first of these shown being a Tyrannosaurus Rex straight out of Terrydactyland. While these have the side effect of making most enemy encounters trivial, it also lets players mix-up the gameplay at will without having to haul their way to the nearest designated “changeroom”. There’s also a multiplayer mode where a second player can control Cappy independently, and this has been likened to Bottles’ Revenge, a canned feature from Tooie where a second player uses the mole’s evil spirit to take over nearby grunts. The former is co-operative while the later is combative but the parallel thinking is striking.

In my eyes the biggest back-step Yooka-Laylee takes from Banjo-Tooie is in its warp system, or lack thereof. It begins in the hub world where you’ll occasionally open up a shortcut allowing the player to travel between levels marginally faster. Some of these are miniscule and others are far-reaching, and in one instance Yooka must use an ability unlocked in the second level to even be able to cross a narrow bridge with wind-machines at either side. Hivory Towers is also hard to read spatially, and I was surprised to find midway through that a lot of it is outdoors. Unlike the rising action of Grunty’s Lair or the digger tunnel pursuit in the Isle O’ Hags there’s no real through-line, and it makes a lot of the level locations feel like little more than detours. Thankfully in one modernization the game remembers the last level the player was in and places them at the corresponding Grand Tome after saving, quitting and returning — an innovation that only took 19 years!

Then there’s the intra-level warps within the worlds themselves, where players eventually glean an unspoken rule that while small openings usually lead to contiguous rooms, large openings can lead practically anywhere. This didn’t bother me in Tribalstack Tropics where these basically act as elevators between lower and higher plateaus, but in Glitterglaze Glacier there are two doorways which nonsensically connect complete opposite corners of the map. It gets worse in Moodymaze Marsh where a series of tubes leads to various parts of the level, but they’re all identical-looking so good luck remembering which goes where. By the time I got to Galleon Galaxy I learned to not even bother with the vacuum-tube teleporter thingies and simply used Laylee’s infinite flight powers to traverse the series of islands.

I was especially bitter about all of this because Odyseey did so much better with its checkpoints by simply copying Tooie’s warp pads; even improving on the design by adding a Zelda-style fast travel map screen so the player can warp to any place they’ve been before at any time, even within a sub-area. For this reason even though the post-game content has Mario revisiting levels multiple times a la Tooie, not a single critic has labelled this as being indicative of “back-tracking”, while the same cannot be said of Yooka-Laylee.

One perceived shortcoming of Odyssey’s “new” multi-objective kingdoms is that those featured most prominently in pre-release footage are also the largest, and in the final game some are little more than boss arenas. However, I think one must be pragmatic about the labour it takes to build out these environments, and to me the fluctuation in level size made for a more enjoyably varied experience. Smaller more linear kingdoms like Cascade, Lake, Bowser’s and (WORLD’S MOST FORESHADOWED SPOILER ALERT) Moon are also made up for with memorable post-game challenges. While it’s valid to say SMO suffers from an overabundance of redundant moons, Nintendo absolutely nailed the ratios of the secondary collectible Purple Coins, of which there will only ever be 100, 50 or 0 per kingdom and come in convenient groups of 3–4. Compare this to Yooka-Laylee where each world boasts 200 Quills, a few of which are strays hidden in non-obvious places, and yet some argue that there still aren’t enough of them to serve as effective bread-crumbing.

Unlike Purples which can buy costumes to unlock doors or accomplish goals, Quills are used in the same manner as Tooie to buy moves from Trowzer (which by the way if YL is supposedly an anti-capitalist allegory what does it say that your main ally is a shifty stock-broker type?). Except he’s also inconsistent and will give abilities for free but only within Hivory Towers. Even worse is the fact that the player only needs less than half of the 1010 total quills to unlock every move, and unlike BK where excess notes open endgame doors to give item refill bonuses for the final battle, the only reward for collecting every Quill is more Pagies. I found that the real most valuable commodity in YL are Butterfly Boosters, the health-increasing Honeycomb equivalent, but again unlike their counterparts they are much harder to come by, and in my estimation most players will need them to survive the cheap obtuse attacks of the drawn-out final boss fight with Capital B. Where Purple Coins encourage scouring Odyssey’s kingdoms, Quills only highlight how much of Yooka-Laylee is dead space that is nevertheless reachable — where gameplay is dictated by level design and not vice versa.

On the subject of collectibles Yooka-Laylee also features tonics, which I guess Playtonic figured they had to include for fear of false advertising, as if the appeal of Rare games was collecting objects made from rare minerals? These tonics are sort of like contemporary achievements crossed with a streamlined version of the Cheato pages of games prior. However, the specific effects of the tonics feel less like legitimately appealing buffs and more like the team wasn’t quite sure how to balance the game, and so I barely bothered with them.

Mario encounters Mecha-Wiggler

Another debacle is Yooka-Laylee’s “Expand or Explore” rhetoric. When first entering a given level the player will often come across dead ends and walled-off junctions. This is because every world in the game can be expanded upon by backing out into the hub world and using Pagies to make the Grand Tomes physically larger — probably the only way in which the game’s bookishness adds up. The thinking is that novice players will choose to explore to prevent becoming overwhelmed while the dedicated collect-a-thon crowd will choose to expand. The problem is that expand/explore is an utterly false dichotomy not only conceptually (by expanding the levels am I not creating more opportunities to explore? by exploring the hub world am I not expanding my knowledge of what lies ahead? ) but also practically, because its actually impossible to fulfill the 100 Pagie requirement to access Capital B’s office and beat the game without expanding at least once.

While your playstyle mileage may vary, for me the ideal algorithm was to 1) Locate Trowzer 2) Get enough Quills to purchase all available moves 3) Get enough Pagies to expand the level as soon as possible 4) Play until bored and move on. There is a single instance however where the game’s gating is completely arbitrary: to trigger Trowzer’s last hub world appearance — where he’s weirdly in two spots at once — the player must collect at least one Pagie from the game’s fourth and lamest level, where a thinly disguised Capital B exchanges them for tokens (yet another total breakdown of the game’s monetary metaphors). At first, I thought this occurrence was an easter egg, because I coincidentally had 64 Pagies at the time. It totally fits the game’s modus operandi, however there wasn’t any correlation.

A second justification for expand/explore is that expanding appeals more to Banjo-Tooie fans. However, in my experience Banjo-Kazooie partisans are far more particular about the most optimally efficient way to clear levels in one sweep as evidenced by its speedrunning scene. I do not consider myself a completionist, however I found Super Mario Odyssey with its highly legible task management and not one, not two, but three helpful hint systems to be imminently conducive to 100%-ing, and obtaining the 880 unique moons flew right by (the coin-grinding to get the true ending on the other hand, was no fun at all). SMO also has an analog to the explore/expand style of progression, but executes it wordlessly through UI. While each kingdom has its own micro-narrative usually revolving around something stolen for Bowser’s wedding, none of the story beats are required aside from a handful of bosses. Nintendo understood that it’s not “casual” players who want to get through the game quickly, if anything they’re more prone to take their time, rather it’s the high-level speedrunners that this design decision advantaged most.

There are a few more subtle ways which Odyssey takes after Banjo, particularly Tooie, such as the abandonment of the lives system, the comprehensiveness of its totals screens and both it and Yooka-Laylee agreeing with Jolly Roger’s Lagoon’s assertion that underwater levels ought to do away with oxygen meters and/or provide different forms of swimming altogether, whether it be via submarine, piranhas or Cheep Cheep. There’s even a one-off musical sting in Luncheon Kingdom that sounds eerily similar to the main Mumbo’s Mountain motif. Above all else Super Mario Odyssey feels like a grand adventure, where the player is constantly driven to see what’s next and old tropes are reinvigorated in a new light. Yooka-Laylee by contrast is a contrived slog, where everything there is to do has been done better long before. I mean seriously three quiz shows?!?

Capital B gets beaten

In Yooka-Laylee’s closing cutscene things still feel off. After defeating Capital B its revealed that he is not the head honcho, but rather was working at the behest of a shadowy cabal. Then when he and Dr. Quack make a final play for the One Book it’s the minor character Blasto who accidentally saves the day with a decongested cannonball as he wanders into frame. The ending undercuts both protagonists and villain — Capital B is a bit player and Yooka and Laylee don’t even get to be the heroes of their own game. After all, how can we be critical of Capital B for wanting to acquire the One Book when procurement is the thrust of all collect-a-thons? As Laylee remarks she’s going to put the One Book “straight in the safe when I get home” to “appreciate in value!”.

It turns out that the story of Yooka-Laylee is more subtext than text. It puts up such a fight for its turn on the soapbox — breaking free from the strictures of corporate rule — but when it finally reaches its platform it suddenly has nothing to say. I’ve yet to play the sequel Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair to receive closure on the lore, but in the grand scheme the retreat into the security of 2.5D speaks volumes.

Traditionally Banjo-Kazooie games end with a character parade, and Yooka-Laylee’s attempt to replicate this is to shove every character within Shipwreck Creek, coming full circle. This celebration is followed by the three-hour long backer credits; yet there’s this funny inversion happening in Yooka-Laylee’s dual finales. What should be the emotional height of the game feels sad and numb — it is both too soon and too late for these characters to have left an impression that would have me delight at their return — while what should be a boring list of names feels awesomely humbling. In Yooka-Laylee’s credits I find myself awash in a deluge of David’s, each with their own unique notion of what the game could have been.

David is a writer from Southern Ontario, Canada