Yooka-Laylee Hands-On Preview [PAX East 2017]

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I might be a card-carrying member of the nostalgic group that salivates at the very thought of a new, traditional 3D platformer, but I also sort of understand the annoyance that comes our way. After all, a look back at the heyday of the genre inevitably brings about the realization that very few of the games were actually that good — and I’m also not a huge fan of the “things were better then” thinking that tends to lead to regression in any given industry.

I mention this because part of the reason I’ve been impressed by Yooka-Laylee so far is that the developers clearly aren’t content to cash in on nostalgia. Yes, this is basically the Banjo-Threeie we’ve all been waiting 17 years for, but what I’ve played so far mercifully doesn’t feel like a title from 2002 or 2003; on the contrary, Playtonic Games seem to have struck a nice balance between satisfying a sense of nostalgia, challenging players with new ideas and addressing a lot of the complaints about the genre.

The PAX East demo I played took place in an icy level — apparently the second in the game, according to the Team17 member who got me started. If you grew up with 3D platformers, it’s hard not to get a little emotional with the first few steps into Playtonic’s bouncing, cheerful world. With a few notable exceptions, the entire genre essentially died off in the middle of the sixth generation of consoles, making it a little surreal to see new content of this ilk in high definition.

I can’t speak to how other players might feel, but I personally felt as though I had come home in a way; as painfully cliche as it is to talk about this, there’s no denying what an impact games like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie had on me as some of the first I ever played through to completion. Taking control of Yooka and Laylee and using their various moves immediately felt natural and comfortable in a way that’s sort of difficult to explain.

Yooka-Laylee Hands-On Preview [PAX East 2017]

What’s not difficult to explain is how much better these controls are compared to those in the 3D platformers of yore. It’s kind of funny; Yooka-Laylee plays how many people remember those old games playing, but in reality, it’s actually brought them up-to-date with an easy-to-maneuver camera and smooth-as-silk movement. Compare that to the infuriatingly sticky cameras and often heavy-feeling characters of the 1990s, and you’re happy to come away feeling the nostalgia without any of the frustration.

Similar updates seem to have been made regarding the level design as well — with Donkey Kong 64‘s ludicrous collectibles being seen as a sort of death knell for the genre, I quickly picked up on just how different Yooka-Laylee looked compared to your average Rare game from back in the day. Aside from some collectible scattered feathers, there’s not much to collect; the real focus seems to be on memorable set pieces spread around a fairly open, explorable world.

In that sense, it sort of feels like 3D platformers might be able to reach a potential they could never quite grasp now that the industry has made so many leaps forward. There’s a moment when this particular icy level transitions from small, enclosed caverns to a truly massive open section where you can see a bunch of interesting-looking locations in the distance, and I actually said “Wow.” Having just played The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild, you’d think I’d be used to this sort of experience by now, but it served as a reminder of just how far we’ve come with 3D games in such a short amount of time. Back in the days of Banjo-Kazooie, devs had to exploit all manner of tricks to create the illusion of big, 3D spaces, but in the years since, the possibilities have grown exponentially.

Yooka-Laylee Hands-On Preview [PAX East 2017]

Now, I realize the platformer genre in particular has the ability to really offer the “giant playroom” sort of experience that’s so desirable in the medium. Though I didn’t get to venture all that far into the different nooks and crannies around this world, I did get a sense for how the adventure might flow in the final product — see something interesting in the distance, platform your way to it, complete some sort of fun challenge and get rewarded for it.

In a way, 3D platformers have the potential to break one of the most damaging aspects of so-called “open world” games simply by virtue of not having a blinking waypoint or a quest reminder on the screen at all times. Part of what made those early games so exciting and fun, after all, was discovering the world’s secrets for yourself and finding out how to get from here to there. When I stomped a switch and saw a number of rings to fly through appear a short distance away, I instinctively knew what to do (and if I didn’t, I’m sure I could have figured it out).

That’s perhaps the most exciting aspect of Yooka-Laylee for me; that ironically, in its revival of something so nostalgia-fueled, it might actually influence the way current games are built and get them out of what I see as an irritating rut. That’s not to say I want a return to the days of unintuitive objectives that all but require a walkthrough to figure out — far from it — but rather that games allowing players to make discoveries and figure things out for themselves, rather than literally telling them where to go all the time, should be a design priority for the future. Playtonic Games’ labor of love launches on April 11, and I personally can’t wait to explore the world they’ve created without a compass, map or waypoint letting me know where to go.

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