Yooka-Laylee: Crafting the spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie

A team of former Rare game developers have taken Kickstarter by storm, smashing through their funding goal with a new 3D platformer.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
5 min read

Yooka the chameleon and Laylee the bat. Playtonic Games

Yooka-Laylee, which landed on Kickstarter just this week, is like a dream come true. An old favourite video game, returning from what seemed like the dead. It might be a little different in a few ways, but it's the sequel you'd always wanted and never dared hope for.

The game is a spiritual successor to 1998's 3D-platformer Banjo-Kazooie, by a team of veteran Rare developers, most of whom worked on either Banjo-Kazooie, the iconic Donkey Kong Country, or both. Now the developers are flying the banner of their new studio, Playtonic Games.

The game stars Yooka and Laylee -- a chameleon and his wise-cracking, flying bat companion -- in a gorgeously coloured 3D world, collecting (probably music-themed) objects to unlock new game levels and secrets. They'll also have a suite of special moves to be unlocked: Yooka has a sticky, whippy tongue to grapple with and Laylee can fly and unleash a sonar blast, but there will be definitely more to come.

"The idea for bringing back 3D-platformers is something that's been on our minds for years now. We love making and playing this type of game and have missed doing so," explained Gavin Price, managing director of Playtonic and creative lead on the project.

Yooka, Laylee, flying and (musical) collectibles. Playtonic Games

The 3D-platformer has fallen on hard times in recent years, with blockbuster development turning towards more serious, "gritty" styles, like action RPGs and first-person shooters. This has edged out whimsical, all-ages adventure games like Banjo-Kazooie that seemingly had no place in the latest generation of consoles.

It seems fans disagree, though: Yooka-Laylee hit its funding goal of £175,000 (around $270,000) within 40 minutes of the project's Kickstarter launch. Within 24 hours it had broken the £1 million mark (around $1,547,000). It made Kickstarter history as the fastest game ever to reach $1 million in funding.

"We didn't anticipate this much fan excitement so quickly and so strongly but we're very appreciative of it. It's so energising!" Price said.

"Already we feel like Yooka and Laylee have been around for many games due to the sheer amount of love for them -- we've had tons of fan art already and it spurs us on to deliver the game and experience that us and our fans want to see front and centre. We're all aligned in terms of our gaming tastes and it's scary how much discussion goes on in forums and online that mimic our thoughts."

Yet maybe it shouldn't be so surprising. The game's credentials are seriously impressive. On board are character artist Steve Mayles, who designed Banjo the bear, Kazooie the breegull and now also Yooka and Laylee; composer Grant Kirkhope, who wrote Banjo-Kazooie's tunes, as well as Donkey Kong Country composer David Wise; composer Steve Burke, who created the sound effects for Banjo-Kazooie; and Banjo-Kazooie environment artist Steven Hurst, among others.

Environment art by Steven Hurst. Playtonic Games

And, while it's obviously inspired by Banjo-Kazooie, the title will bring its own unique gameplay to the table.

"We're looking to make the experience less linear than games in this genre have been before without losing the pleasure of unlocking successive worlds and special moves. The worlds can be expanded with collectibles called "pagies," or the player can choose to spend them unlocking new worlds; and, with the moves, each world opened unlocks a new move and then the moves within that world can be unlocked in any order. Combined with the worlds unlocking, players will often find they unlock moves in an order quite different to that of others," Price explained.

"We're developing a feature around 'Play Tonics' (where did that name come from...?) that when activated will modify the gameplay in some way that could be super useful if done in the right instance or create some comedy moments too that surprise the player. The experience throughout the game will be more varied and surprising than ever before -- and more replayable too!"

Yooka-Laylee (ukelele, get it?). Playtonic Games

So far, the game has hit most of its stretch goals; at time of writing, the full orchestral soundtrack at £1.5 million remained just out of reach, but it's unlikely to remain so for long.

Excited backers have unlocked a lot: day one release on PC, Mac and Linux, as well as Wii U, Xbox One and PlayStation 4; a boss battle on every level with special boss music for each one; co-op multiplayer for two players, and local versus multiplayer for up to four players; professional translations into French, German, Spanish and Italian; an N64 shader mode; and a developer walkthrough and commentary.

What's amazing is that there's more to come.

"The surprises we've not talked about yet really excite us, as it's such a great feeling letting fans know some more and watching the reaction happen live on the internet (though this can be very scary too!)," Price said.

"We love how we're making a future universe of characters to discover too and that fans will meet them throughout Yooka-Laylee and hopefully we can get them wondering what games and genres and roles they will have to play in our future releases."

And we can't help marveling that, just a few years ago, this would have been impossible. Playtonic is just one of a growing number of studios banding together from industry veterans, turning to crowdfunding to make the games that people want to play.

"At the heart of everything we love to do is creating games focused on fun gameplay built around characters and owning the creative process to deliver them," Price said. "For years now, many of us have cast an envious eye over the indie scene, as it reminded us so much of how things were when we started out."

It was the response of the fans that gave the team the impetus to turn to Kickstarter, helping Playtonic realise that people wanted to see the game made -- and wanted to help the developers make it. And, because the team has worked together before, they know they can do it again -- and create something that they know they love to create.

"The exploration, the humour, the scenarios and the sheer fun of having characters that are so much fun and inherently awesome to control give creators like us so much scope to delight players that it's such a pleasure to make this kind of game. Awesome ideas can be born from any team member and discussions naturally flow and guide the best ideas to fruition. It's a great combination of making a game we love in the way we love to make games."