The Hit-Making DNA That Links 'Yooka-Laylee', 'Banjo-Kazooie' and 'Donkey Kong 64'

The Hit-Making DNA That Links 'Yooka-Laylee', 'Banjo-Kazooie' and 'Donkey Kong 64'

Kickstarter project 'Yooka-Laylee' is an unofficial sequel of sorts to the N64 hit, 'Banjo-Kazooie' Glixel / Playtonic

British developer Rare was a hit factory in the Nineties – now the same team is using an old recipe to make something new

British developer Rare was a hit factory in the Nineties – now the same team is using an old recipe to make something new

Once upon a time, the 3D platformer ruled the video game world. Among these colorful and freewheeling toy boxes, engineered for you to run, jump, and hover around at your own pace, one studio came to dominate: Rare.

On N64 and later on Xbox and Xbox 360, this storied British developer released beloved titles like Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, Conker's Bad Fur Day and Grabbed By The Ghoulies. But it hasn't made games quite like them for nearly a decade. Step forward Playtonic's Yooka-Laylee. Due for release in April for PS4, Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch, this new 3D platformer is made by many of the very same people behind Rare's classics, and it perfectly channels their idiosyncratic style.

But what, really, is the Rare magic? "I don't think we really had rules," says Gavin Price, Playtonic studio head and designer on Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and Grabbed By The Ghoulies. But rules or not, they share some special common qualities – all of which the team are bringing to Yooka.

Before you play any of the classic Rare games, their intros give a dose of their irreverent, silly, often crude, and (generally) charming sense of humor. Kazooie – the red gull that lives inside Banjo's backpack – throws insults at everyone they meet and she pops eggs out of her butt. There are jokes about nuts and dingalings and an improper use of melons. Nuts & Bolts continually makes fun of both itself (it has an Achievement called Pointless Collector) and Microsoft (in the Logbox 720 level you'll tour the innards of a game console and cause it to glitch out). And then there's Conker's Bad Fur Day.

"If these guys said something down the pub at two in the morning and it was funny and you remembered it in the morning, then it went into the game," says Price. "Or if someone was having a cheeky dig at someone else on a different team back at Rare and you had a suspiciously named character go into the game who acts in a particular way."

"I always like to think that the games we've made are a reflection of the team, so the humor is literally our office banter," says Mark Stevenson, who was lead artist on Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong 64 and Kameo. "The different games we did reflected the people on those teams, and that's something you can do with a team that size, which is the size we are at Playtonic."

They enjoyed fans trying to interpret the in-jokes they placed in their games, often seeing them getting close to the truth, which was often also close to the bone. "If it's funny enough that anyone can get the joke but it's even funnier to those who were in on it, that's fine," says Price. "If it's not funny to anyone else, we'd veto it. We had a bit of a system in place."

And they still do for Yooka-Laylee, leading to Trowzer the snake, which refers to a rude Britishism. "As soon as we heard Steve's [Mayles, character artist on the Donkey Kong Country series and Banjo-Kazooie] wife had been giving him grief over it we were like, that one's staying, it's brilliant," says Price.

The long-running joke about character design in the classic Rare games is that it was just about adding googly eyes to any inanimate object. "I wouldn't really call it a style as such, I think we were just so rubbish in those days that we'd just stick googly eyes on everything and thankfully people seemed to like it, so we continued to do it," says Mayles.

At Rare, Mayles would work on every step of the process of designing a character, from concept to modelling and animation. But by the end of his time there, he was making Xbox avatar T-shirts. Leaving to co-found Playtonic meant getting to work on the whole process again. "Yooka-Laylee was like the old days, except this time Chris [Sutherland, lead programmer on Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country] couldn't take all my animation frames like he did on Donkey Kong. I'd render out a lovely 16-frame run animation and in the morning it would be four."

As Yooka and Laylee evolved into becoming a chameleon and bat (Yooka was once a lion), their animation informed some of their moves. When Price imagined them transforming into a physics-based ball, Mayles rejected the idea. He saw a chance to animate Laylee running on top of a balled-up Yooka, which introduced the idea of the move being about speed rather than physics rolling.

The detail and visual richness of Rare's games on N64 usually surpassed Nintendo's own. "They looked fantastic in screenshots but they were moving at five frames a second," says Price, laughing.

Rare's culture of putting quality first was a product of the philosophy of founders Chris and Tim Stamper, who'd realised that good games sold better and drilled the message into their teams. But that also meant long hours. "Because you can't create time, some people would work their socks off," says Price. "On Diddy Kong Racing they did silly hours hitting the deadline to get it out, and it did really good business." Tim Stamper, after all, had told CRASH magazine in 1988, "I don't feel it's any good having engineers who only work nine-to-five because you get a nine-to-five game."

As an indie start-up, Playtonic wasn't quite in the comfortable position of Rare when it started making Yooka-Laylee. Another challenge that was new to the team was making a game for more than one platform after having been tied to Nintendo and Microsoft. They put the focus instead on character and creativity over complex graphics with high polygon counts, and the results live up to the legacy with at least as much verve.

Jiggies, Golden Bananas, Notes, Banana Camera Film – Rare's 3D platformers were stuffed with items to collect. And this was something the team really wanted to modernise in Yooka-Laylee. "You can make a lot of good games by cutting out the bad stuff, like Mark's Donkey Kong 64 collectathon," says Price. "In my defense, I built all the collectibles, but it wasn't my decision to put them in," says Stevenson.

Playtonic wanted to make Yooka-Laylee's collectibles (Pagies, Quills, Mollycools) have more relevance, driving other parts of the gameplay such as purchasing new moves and transformations. Placing them in the level, though, is an art they honed back at Rare. "There's always a handful of reasons to place them that appeal to different types of gamer," says Price. "You do the breadcrumb trail to get people around areas of the map and spot stuff. You might make a pattern where there's a hidden item, getting people to wonder why something is in a circle. Steve loves these ones, placing them in hard-to-reach areas and they're challenges in themselves, getting to them."

"I love them, but you'd get tellings off for doing them," says Mayles.

"There are still quite a few around," says Sutherland.

"It's an interesting challenge because the levels are so much bigger than they used to be," says Stevenson, explaining that 200 spreads surprisingly thinly over Yooka-Laylee's large expanses.

The whole team contributed to collectibles as well as many other of the things that have brought Yooka-Laylee to launch, from Kickstarter admin to marketing materials. But having worked together at Rare for so long gave them experience to make something that's both classic and new, as Price says. "We've done it before and we know what's going on in modern games and it's about cherry-picking the best of both worlds, modern and old."