If there’s one genre that’s truly part of the DNA of video game history, it’s platforming. Duran Duran were still a promising new cutting-edge band when the first true platformer – the legendary Donkey Kong – leapt into arcades and then double-jumped into millions of lounge rooms, bringing a little Italian guy named Mario along for the ride and writing video game history in the process.
Some 13 years later, Donkey Kong paid a visit to UK studio Rare which, in what was an audacious and eye-poppingly gorgeous innovation at the time, introduced painstakingly rendered 3D sprites to the formerly flat 2D platform world. Donkey Kong Country almost single-handedly rewrote the book on platform games, made Rare a big deal almost overnight, and provided the DNA of many platforming games that followed in its wake (including, of course, later instalments in the Mario series).
These days, Rare is owned by Microsoft and Sea of Thieves is the thing they do. But many of the company’s former key developers left years ago to form their own companies – most notably Playtonic Games, which is almost entirely made up of former Rare team members. That’s why the release of 2017’s Kickstarter-funded Yooka-Laylee was met with a lot of excitement – after all, here’s a bunch of key people from Rare finally back working on the thing they do best! A game inspired by Rare’s classic 3D platformer Banjo-Kazooie, it was pretty good – but it suffered from many of the problems common to 3D platformers, particularly camera issues. For fans of the genre it was a welcome addition, but it came with the realisation that 3D platforming was a lot harder to pull off for an audience used to modern games with a more refined camera and controls.
A couple of years later, then, Playtonic has gone back to the drawing board for what’s described as a “spinoff” of that game. Describing Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair as a mere spinoff or side project is almost as misleading, though, as the game’s deceptively cheap asking price. For this entry in the series, Playtonic has basically pulled out the classic Rare platforming playbook, learned it by heart, then added a few new chapters of their own. Because like a glorious oasis in a platforming desert, Impossible Lair is a gloriously nostalgic 2D platformer (or “2.5D” if you’re willing to believe the illusion of depth is an extra half a dimension) that pulls out all the stops to be everything you think you remember from your platforming past.
The characters of this story are, of course, shamelessly modelled after Banjo and Kazooie. But instead of bear and bird, Yooka is a shiny green chameleon with a permanent intoxicated grin on his face, and Laylee is a bat – because in this universe, chameleons and bats living together is just the way things roll. As the game opens, after a short bit of platforming and exposition you find yourself pitted against your first boss. You steel yourself, move closer to the screen, prepare for battle, jump… and die in one hit.
This, as it turns out, isn’t you being bad. It’s part of the game’s design, and it’s quite a clever concept. The boss fight that just handed your shiny green behind to you was the Impossible Lair, the ultimate final boss fight of the entire game. But here, you can attempt that fight any time you like, and as many times as you like. In theory, you could smush your face into the thing relentlessly if you think you’re the sort of gaming god that Dark Souls fans bow down to, but, in reality, you won’t be beating it that soon.
The key to that final fight is in the shields and power-ups that you gather while playing the game’s chapters. Your mission is to rescue a bunch of bees. Chameleons, in the real world, like to eat bees. In this game, though, Yooka is obviously a “beegan” and prefers to befriend bees for their gaming usefulness. And yes, this also allows the game designers to pull out absolutely every bee pun you can think of, with dad joke piled upon dad joke as you navigate the game’s 3D overworld and chat to its denizens.
“Yooka is a shiny green chameleon with a permanent intoxicated grin on his face, and Laylee is a bat – because in this universe, chameleons and bats living together is just the way things roll.”
That 3D overworld is quite cleverly done. Effectively a “map world” as seen in many a platformer, it contains little platforming puzzles and secret rooms of its own, as well as a whole series of paywalls (yes, they’re actually called that) which make sure you don’t get too far ahead of yourself with the 2D chapters reached from that 3D map.
And those 2D levels? They’re absolutely sublime. Beautifully animated, drawn and designed, they pull out every platforming trick in the book to great effect, with hidden areas and power-ups, perilous challenges and satisfyingly crunchy brick-smashing all in the mix as Yooka navigates his way through with Laylee perched on his head to act as the usual one chance to mess something up. Along the way you discover coins, secrets and the all-important “tonics” which give you new ways to customise your gameplay – essential for the final fight. The checkpoints throughout the chapters are generous, restarting if you die is instant, and the compulsion to go back and “collect ‘em all” is very, very real.
Key to the game’s success are the tight controls, which really do feel perfectly tuned this time around. Yooka does have some forward momentum that can get you into hot water if you’re not paying attention, but it never feels unfair or out of your control. Yes, there are sections where you’ll need to be both fast and precise – but the game never seems to be trying to punish you. And Super Meat Boy this ain’t – the idea here is not to punish you until you reach perfection, but instead to encourage you to try things a different way (or use a different Tonic).
It’s incredibly rare (heh) to find a modern 2D platformer that’s not only well made, but that genuinely feels fresh and fun to play. But here, as a cut-priced spinoff of a game that firmly sat in the “not too bad” box, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair arrives positively bubbling with confidence, flair and a shamelessly goofy affection for the genre. It’s a perfect fit for the Nintendo Switch, but it’s arguably even more welcome for platformer-starved PS4 and Xbox One owners, where a night on the couch with this on your telly is the perfect pun-laden antidote to a “triple A” overdose.