Could Yooka-Laylee Be the Rebirth of a Dead Genre?

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  1. News Bot

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    Like a dead language, the 3D platformer has its romantics, clinging tight to the culture of a past time: the era of Super Mario 64, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, Ratchet and Clank, and Banjo-Kazooie. Gavin Price is one of those people.

    He joined developer Rare in June, 1999, working on the QA team and rising through the ranks as the years passed, amassing a portfolio with titles such as Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark, Conker's Bad Fur Day, and Banjo-Tooie. These were the "golden years" of Rare, he says. As the 90s came to a close, Price held onto the spirit of those years. Some might call it nostalgia--others idealism. Regardless, 15 years after he joined the studio, Price left, intent on recapturing the lost tenets of a forgotten time.

    It's a sun-soaked day in London and Price is waving circles in the air. He's a kinetic speaker, illustrating his thoughts with gestures: he spreads his hands apart as he talks about open worlds. He pinches his thumb and index finger together to describe small, memorable moments. He raises his palms toward the ceiling, shrugs, and laughs before apologizing for "rambling."

    He's describing Yooka-Laylee, the game he hopes will rekindle the golden years, and put Playtonic Games on the map when it releases early next year. So far, it seems the studio might be onto something. Comprising former Rare employees with a similar affinity for 3D platformers, Playtonic announced a Kickstarter for Yooka-Laylee on May 1, 2015, asking for £175,000 ($226,074) in funds, and getting £2,090,104 ($2,700,100) instead.

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    Playtonic works in a small space outside of London, but today, several members are in the city to show Yooka-Laylee's progress to fresh eyes. Even now, in its alpha state, Yooka-Laylee is forward with its influences. Hailed as a spiritual successor to the Banjo series, Playtonic's reincarnation features a semi-open world gated by collectibles, and a duo of protagonists that combine for special abilities.

    The playable demo follows the titular pair--an amphibian and his small bat companion--across Tribalstack Tropics, the first of Yooka-Laylee's numerous worlds. In true Banjo style, the characters scour the area for various odds and ends. These don't just include items, either. A group of ghosts hide in secret passages and high up on clifftops, challenging both Yooka and Laylee with platforming puzzles before joining the heroes on their journey. These phantoms are reminiscent of Jinjos from Banjo-Kazooie and Tooie, the small creatures Rare challenged players to collect across the platformers' sprawling vistas.

    The Banjo similarities don't stop there: the very pause menu is almost identical to those of the Banjo games, albeit with different kinds of collectibles listed in a floating cartoonish 2D style across the screen. Then there are Pagies, the overarching collectible goal in Yooka-Laylee. These function like Jiggies from the Banjo series, opening new worlds and, in Playtonic's new games, unlocking new areas in each disparate world.


    3D platformers were the fashionable genre. But no one's been making them for a while. When consoles came along, people started pushing for realism.

    Gavin Price, Playtonic Games​

    All of these details combine to form something extremely familiar, if somewhat fresh. In a modern landscape of military shooters, free-to-play action games, and size-focused open-world games, Yooka-Laylee feels like a colorful, comforting throwback.

    "3D platformers were the fashionable genre," he says. "But no one's been making them for a while. I think the power of consoles came along, and people started pushing for realism--first-person shooters, sports games, racing games became the driving force. You couldn't move in a game store for the shelves being packed full of those titles."

    But now, Price says, something curious is happening. Like the return of vinyl records or Moleskin notebooks, remnants of video games' past are becoming relevant again. A new Quake game is on the horizon. Doom rebooted to and critical success. The first Ratchet and Clank, a 3D platformer from 2002, was revived and revitalized for Sony's PS4.

    What's more, the focus on realism has shifted to accommodate more outlying projects. "I think there was a creative spark that let independent projects stand out, and get a lot of exposure. We reference the same games over and over: Flower, Braid, Journey, Fez, Super Meat Boy. All of a sudden, 'different and unique' became 'cool.'"

    [​IMG]

    Yooka-Laylee appears to be a combination of those two trends--the eccentricity of an outlying indie project, and the retro appeal of a vintage style. It's a veritable hipster revival project.

    Despite the fact that the stars seemed to be aligned, it's still a risk to break off from an established studio to create a passion project. But as Price says, there is some stability.

    "It can be tricky setting up a new company dedicated to creating and owning its own IP. Once a publisher gets involved, it becomes even more complicated. And crowdfunding, it's made so many leaps and bounds over the past five years. It's given creators like ourselves the means to build a business, but also the security of making a game and holding onto the property."


    The times are different. But we're reaching back into what made the golden era of 3D platformers great.

    Gavin Price, Playtonic Games​

    This is where Price reveals his true ambition: crafting a shared universe between Yooka-Laylee and any future Playtonic releases. He mentions character cameos, familiar heroes, cross-game storylines. "Kind of like the Marvel Universe," he says. "All of the different superheroes can have their own films, but then come together in the same film, Avengers-style. Maybe we'll do multiplayer games in the future, with these huge rosters."

    It's as if Price needs to challenge his 20-person team. They're driven by passion for a forgotten jewel, and they're digging in the recesses of video game history to find it again. But at what point does this pursuit become fruitless? At what point does nostalgia stop fueling creativity? Will Playtonic's inspiration stay the course?

    "The times are different," Price says, waving his hands in the air once again, smiling this time. "We're reaching back into what made the golden era of 3D platformers great, and we're reshaping it. We're making something new."

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