Nostalgia in Game Development: Useful Tool, or Accidental Barrier?

I have written this article 3 times now. First, it was a solo review of Yooka-Laylee, which felt kinda hollow as my critiques of it centred around something larger than just how the game played and felt. Then I decided to add in A Hat in Time to the mix to give some context about the things that made me upset about Yooka-Laylee, but it became directionless. A rant into the void with no reason as to why it existed. So here I am, at version 3.0, here to discuss nostalgia, how it can be used to make a fantastic experience, and how it can also become a crutch that ruins a game’s potential.

Let’s start with Yooka-Laylee. This game was released in early 2017 by Playtonic Games, a studio of Rareware vets determined to bring their idea of the 90’s back. With their expertise in making games from the SNES and N64 era, the team got to work making Project Ukulele, a spiritual successor to the now abandoned Banjo-Kazooie series. For me, this was a near perfect game pitch. Those games (specifically Banjo-Tooie) were major parts of my childhood. So I played the game to completion and had… Opinions on it.

The game is competent enough. I don’t want you to go away from this thinking that Yooka-Laylee is a piece of work that is irredeemable and not worth any consideration. Because the game is a decent emulation of Banjo-Kazooie and has a lot of clear passion in it. If you like the games that Yooka-Laylee is trying to remind you of, chances are you will like it. It plays on modern systems, is stable and consistent on PC, looks great, and can be a beautiful thing in some stages like Galleon Galaxy. The dialogue is funny enough to get a chuckle or two, while also getting those nostalgic feelings flowing for those who had an N64.

Seriously. Galleon Galaxy is a marvel to look at, and the strongest level in the game.

 

However, the major problem with this game is the fact that it is such a perfect copy of a game almost 25 years ago with so little interesting on its own to use. The game clearly wants you to think “Wow, it’s like I am playing a modern-day Banjo-Kazooie!”. For me though, the main thought I had was “I wish I was playing Banjo-Kazooie right now”, which isn’t a good thing to have the player think.

The controls in Yooka-Laylee are almost identical to Banjo-Kazooie, straight down to the very 90’s camera with major movement issues that can drive most gamers mad. There are many different moves to learn, memorize, and use in borderline gimmicky ways, just like in the game from 20 years ago. The art style is very reminiscent of… Ok, you get it by now. Yooka-Laylee is what one could charitably call a loving imitation of a game from long ago, nostalgia front and center. From the collectables, to the levels, to even the way the characters talk, it has all been done before in a near identical fashion when I was merely a toddler. Only now it can upscale to 4k.

Sadly the game has issues that go beyond what it inherited from its ancestor. The game makes a few choices when it comes to content that honestly baffle me quite a bit. One of the most common complaints of the game is that the levels are empty. I also want to echo this, as well as mention that despite this emptiness, there’s also a near overwhelming amount of things to collect in the barren levels. On average, each of the 5 levels in the game have 20+ of the main pagies to gather. On top of ghost writers, quills, Mollycools (the replacement of Mumbo Tokens) and many other things, the game throws a lot at you, with little to no direction in how the level is made. I can also barely tell the difference between most of Yooka-Laylee’s levels compared to ones from Banjo. Tribalstack Tropics feels like a more barren Mumbo’s Mountain and it is an absolute shame that the game is like this in one way or another.

If I had to sum up my frustrations with this piece of work in one sentence, it’s this: In attempting to make a game that was already made, on top of mistakes they made along the way, Playtonic inadvertently made Yooka-Laylee dead on arrival as its predecessors did almost everything better. The music is more catchy, the levels more fun, the content better paced, and my god, having quizzes to get to every level was so. Damn. Annoying. The quest for nostalgia hurt what could have been an incredible experience. Playtonic clearly had a vision that was so narrow they missed doing some obvious things that desperately needed fixing to update the formula.

However, there is a game that was released only a few months after Yooka-Laylee that I think utilizes nostalgia in a much more effective way. The scope of the project’s inspirations was larger, yet the end product more refined in what it does. With the platformers of old inspiring it, Gears For Breakfast went on to make one of my personal highlights of 2017, and a game that I will absolutely recommend to anyone who even vaguely likes 3D platformers: A Hat in Time.

For starters, this game is not a love letter to one specific game, but an entire era of design and implementation. The game takes inspiration from Banjo, Super Mario, Spyro, and even Luigi’s Mansion on the Gamecube. I know, nostalgia galore. A Hat in Time also carves its own path in design and style that makes it a charming adventure for vets of the genre who grew up with it, or someone who has never played such a game. The game may have an obvious lineage, but there is so much fun and uniqueness to how it is done that it is easy to get lost in.

Controls are incredibly simple and effective as well. Instead of forcing you to memorize many different moves, the abilities of Hat Girl are divided by hats which the player can swap out at will when they need to. While I will admit having sprinting as a swappable ability was odd, the rest of the hats made perfect sense and can be used in every level. The addition of pins as well add another layer of swapping, which I think makes the game a little easier to play than Yooka as memorizing the moves isn’t as difficult.

The aesthetic oozes with so much style that the game has undoubtedly deserved its moniker of “cute-as-heck”. Another benefit of the design style is that it feels completely its own, without feeling too much like one game or another, or simply nostalgia fodder. The variety of locales ranges from an island town full of Mafia members, to a spooky forest, to a movie set, all of which feel brimming with activity, and all unique in look. The game doesn’t even stick to one type of level layout, with some having the Super Mario 64 layout, with others going for a Spyro or Banjo feel with open exploration of the levels.

Hat Kid is truly the star of the show here!

Another benefit to the design philosophy of A Hat in Time is that these levels don’t fall into the trap Yooka-Laylee did of feeling both empty and like it had too much to do. With only 5 levels, 40 Time Pieces used to advance the story, yarn for hats, and gems to gather to buy upgrades, the game has a laser sharp focus. Shaped into different chapters, with parts and a finale boss fight, the game has a rhythm set into it that makes the game easy to navigate. The cast of overall characters in each feels diverse, and like I am in a living breathing world of strange shenanigans.  The boss battles are to me an absolute treat, especially with the killer soundtrack.

Did I mention how absolutely wonderful the music is in this compared to Yooka? Playtonic’s 3 composer team of award winners and veterans of the industry managed to make a pretty boring OST. Meanwhile Pascal Michael Stiefel managed to create a list of music that absolutely nails it. Each level has a voice that feels its own, in addition to everything else it has going for it. Definitely not just nostalgia.

Overall, looking at these two games has been to me a real eye opening look into nostalgic inspirations in making media. While Yooka-Laylee did nothing objectively wrong in its goal of making a true sequel to Banjo-Kazooie, it left many gamers dissatisfied for a variety of reasons, myself included. The team’s love of the games they themselves made in the past left them making what many saw as a soulless ripoff of their childhood. I personally see it less as that, and moreso a failing to take into account that it isn’t the 90’s anymore. People may want things that are like their childhood, but we also want to see them do something different. We want to see something be built upon what came before it, and in failing to innovate, Playtonic eventually took 5 steps back. Is it a bad game? No, but it misses out on so much potential that could have been tapped in that it can hurt to think about what could have been made

On the other hand, you have a game that wanted to take notes from an entire era of gaming, while making something entirely its own. With this goal in mind, Gears For Breakfast made a short, sweet title. While it’s not the next evolution of platformers like Super Mario Odyssey, it has its place in the world of gaming as a touching tribute to games past, and it kills a good amount of time while making you glad you picked it up.

About Ellie Callaway 7 Articles
Hailing from the far off distant land of "British Columbia", I enjoy cyberpunk, RPGs, strategy games, and a good slice of pizza. The concept of my favourite games becoming retro is terrifying, but it gives me more ideas to write about! Come watch me play games and be silly at https://www.twitch.tv/the_callaway

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