What I loved about Banjo-Kazooie is what I hate about Yooka-Laylee. But why?

(The following post is an editorial based on my current game experience. The opinions expressed are mine as of the writing but may change in the future.)

When I saw Yooka-Laylee was going to be added to Game Pass, I was excited to finally get to play it.  I was curious about what a modern take on the ‘collect-a-thon’ genre would look like, especially from these developers.  I had skipped it at its release, for at least three reasons.  Middling reviews were one, plus I didn’t want to add a large (and unproven) title to my game backlog.  And lastly, I’m still not sure if I still had a taste for collect-a-thons anymore.  Completing Donkey Kong 64 to 101% kind of killed my interest in the genre, even two decades later.  But to check it out for ‘free’ on Game Pass?  Seemed like a perfect proposition. 

I have fond memories of the first three Banjo-Kazooie games (yes three).  The first one, in particular, was an N64 highlight.  Released nearly two years after the groundbreaking Super Mario 64, it took everything pioneered by that game and expanded it in all directions.  Many more location types, character transformations, much larger and more intricate levels, more detailed graphics, heaps more collectibles, and a much larger move set; Super Mario 64 looked quaint and simple by comparison.  As someone who had collected 120 stars several times by that point, this new, expanded world was refreshing, challenging, and exciting.

So I downloaded Yooka-Laylee.  Before I even booted it up I had made the decision that I was going to play it just for fun, ignoring the idea of working toward 100% completion. If I ended up liking it, I might try to complete it, but if not I can stop playing and simply walk away.  It can take me a little while to acclimate to a new game, so early frustrations aside, I was having a pretty good time bopping around with these new characters.  Everything was still new and I was coming to terms with how move upgrades and progression gating worked.  The first real unpleasantness was the first Dr. Quack quiz.  Yuck.  Unfun and gave me N64 flashbacks.  But I soldiered on.  But as I progressed, small nagging details began to add up to the feeling that I just wasn’t always having fun playing.  For one thing, it’s too much a carbon copy of the Banjo games.  This shouldn’t bee seen as a negative, that was pretty much the Kickstarter promise, but I was expecting a modernization instead of a retread.  The annoying voices, the forced humor, the antagonism between the main characters.  All too familiar.  Even so, I kept playing.  The annoying Kartos sections.  Kept playing.  Bosses with too many attack phases and no checkpoints.  Kept playing.  Eventually, as I was flying around as a helicopter to find feathers in every nook and cranny in Capital Cashino, which is a level that I was initially happy to see subvert my expectations, I wanted to stop.  I wasn’t having fun and it felt like busywork.

Is the problem with the game or with me?  Maybe it’s me.  Maybe I really am totally over the whole collect-a-thon thing.  But, wait a minute.  I really liked Super Mario Odyssey.  Isn’t that a collect-a-thon too?  So I booted it up.  I’ve spent several more hours in Super Mario Odyssey over the last couple of weeks working on finding more power moons and I think it helped me to see what I’m not loving about Yooka-Laylee.

Bigger isn’t better.

In Yooka-Laylee, the standard levels are so large, so very towering, that I found it tough to find or keep my bearings.  Too much open space, travel distances between objectives or collectables are too far for no reason.  This is without ‘expanding’ any of the worlds!  I’m not even sure I want to do that!

I had thought Super Mario Odyssey’s levels were also very big when I initially played through them, but in my return, I can see that they are in actuality intricately compact.  Super Mario is constantly rewarding where Yooka-Laylee is a chore.

I’m early enough in Yooka-Laylee that I can’t speak with authority on the subject of Yooka’s full move set.  But even at this early point, I have a lot more moves available to me than are useful.  Most exist just for gatekeeping purposes with no other usefulness besides.

By contrast, you have all of Mario’s moves from the outset, and almost everything that you can do in that brilliant game stems from three buttons, three basic actions.  Jump, throw, and duck.

But as I compare these two games, I’m not saying Mario is better.  Instead, I’m saying that for me, at this point in my life, I no longer get the same kind of enjoyment or satisfaction from forcing my way through a game when I don’t feel rewarded by the gameplay.  Perhaps it’s my age.  Maybe I value my free time differently than I used to.  Maybe it’s too much gaming experience.  Or maybe modern games are too generous with rewards and I’m no longer accustomed to ‘earning’ them.  At any rate, I stopped playing Yooka-Laylee weeks ago and haven’t felt the urge to start it up again.

I do want to retract something from the title of this article.  I don’t hate anything about Yooka-Laylee (so far).  I am very excited to play the sequel, Yooka-Laylee: the Impossible Lair.  It seems to be a game that’s much more suited to me.  And I’m sure I will cave in and give Yooka-Laylee another try soon.  Just let me find the rest of these moons first.

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