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Don’t Hate on 3D Platformers Just Because 'Yooka-Laylee' Didn’t Deliver

Playtonic’s attempt at an N64-style platformer was a misstep, but the genre still deserves bright ideas and fresh eyes.

by Danielle Riendeau
Apr 12 2017, 4:00pm

Yooka-Laylee came out yesterday, and no, it's not very good. I've already written about how that fact breaks my heart a bit, as a superfan of the genre and of the Banjo-Kazooie games, of which Yooka is a spiritual successor.

It feels flat, with level design that just doesn't inspire the same awe as its predecessors—specifically through depth and verticality, with levels that were expansive but also crammed with secrets. Levels that begged to be explored, and always rewarded you for going off the beaten path.

Header and all Yooka-Laylee screens courtesy of Playtonic

My biggest fear with Yooka-Laylee is the possible backlash, that developers will see a failed attempt at a 3D platformer, throw up their hands, and declare that the genre is dead. That it was doomed to be an artifact of the mid-to-late-90s, a genre that Mario 64 started and dominated, with a few hits along the way. That they'll shrug noncommittally, saying "It's a lost cause, and it deserves to be, because most of those old games kind of sucked anyway."

That worldview is ugly, my friends.

The best of those games were transcendent, and still hold up today. Super Mario 64 plays beautifully today (camera issues notwithstanding), something I discovered last summer when I played through it on a Wii U gamepad. It's a beautiful game, designed so tightly around its main character's abilities that I continually wish someone would just make a competent-enough clone of it just to get more levels.

Super Mario 64 screen courtesy of Nintendo

Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie were expansive games that took the Mario formula and ran with it, adding adventure game puzzle elements and, in Tooie, worlds that connected and interacted in fascinating ways. Conker's Bad Fur Day featured a lot of crappy jokes that haven't stood the test of time, but structurally, the game was wonderful, leaning into those adventure game inspirations and eliminating 90% of the collecting, emphasizing quest design instead. Based on those strengths, these games really do hold up today, almost 20 years later.

And they contain so many lessons for modern day devs who do actually want to make a great 3D platformer in 2017.

All Banjo-Kazooie screens (Rare Replay edition) courtesy of Microsoft

Yes, it's fiendishly hard to do 3D platformers well. That's probably why so few teams attempt them! But when done right, the genre shines, showcasing the joy of larger-than-life movement, with beautiful worlds to explore. Platformers have always been my favorite genre (2D or 3D, I go back and forth and love them all), for that reason: I want to move in ways that feel great—running, jumping, swinging on vines, bopping heads, flying through obstacle courses.

While Mario 64, the Mario Galaxy games, and Mario 3D World are all incredible, there have been several non-Mario Nintendo games that have hit these goals in the last few years without being strict platformers: Splatoon's single player mode, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (a criminally under-appreciated puzzle-platformed with no jumping!), and potentially most impressively, Breath of the Wild.

No, it's not a platformer, in the strictest sense. But movement—running, climbing, paragliding—is such a massive part of the experience, and it feels so good, that it's hitting a lot of those buttons for me.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild screen courtesy of Nintendo

I've put something in the neighborhood of 100 hours into the game so far, exploring every corner of the world. I have upgraded versions of nearly every outfit, so I can climb and swim as fast as I can run. My stamina is upgraded out the wazoo, and I always carry plenty of elixirs, so scaling massive mountains is no big—I can practically jump the whole way up in seconds. Even though I've been to most of the places on the map multiple times, it's a joy to run (and climb, and swim, and shield-surf) around.

Even the more directed sections work on this level. Most of the shrines essentially are tiny, self-contained puzzle-platform levels (as are the more structured 'dungeons' of the Divine Beasts).

So, no, the 3D platformer isn't dead, it certainly doesn't deserve to be, and Yooka-Laylee is more a misstep than a nail in an old, janky coffin. Super Mario Odyssey is coming along, Psychonauts 2 will grace us with its presence, and I will hold out hope, forever, for a dedicated indie team to make something special from N64-inspired platformer roots.

It'll happen, one day.