[ Editor’s Note: This feature was commissioned as part of the RetroPitch 2017 event. ]
Looking at Yooka-Laylee’s critical reception from the outside (IE as somebody who hasn’t played it), I find the variety of responses intriguing. Actually, it would be more accurate to say I find the lack of variety intriguing. Many employ the same critical approach and very generally agree that the game misses the mark, but contradict each other in how they think it misses the mark. Some claim that Yooka-Laylee has not been faithful to the original games it looks to for inspiration; that it’s missing some magic ingredient or creative spark that made Rare’s games the classics they are. Others claim the opposite: that the game has been too faithful to the originals; that because it hasn’t properly updated collectible platformers for a modern landscape, it repeats the genre’s worst excesses and demonstrates what we should have known from the beginning: that these kinds of games were never all that good in the first place.
This isn’t to say that the constant invocation of nostalgia is out of place. After all, that was the big push behind Yooka-Laylee’s development. However, the game’s reliance on it and critics’ acceptance of it as the only lens through which to interpret the game raise the same questions that other nostalgia-fueled games have raised but writers have rarely addressed. In fact, both serve to conceal our troubled relationship with nostalgia and our questionable approach to discussing older video games.
Despite whatever differences both sides of the Yooka-Laylee discussion may have, they rest on the assumption that the understanding we have of older games is both correct and absolute, derived directly from what these games were. This isn’t because of any recent experience with the game or some new revelation regarding it. In fact, that understanding seems to lie outside any one person’s experience with the game, existing as a sort of fixed object shaping that person’s experience. No matter how that object came into being (a topic that’s rarely broached), we generally treat it as a correct representation of what we’re describing.
The production of nostalgia-based video games takes this one step further. They posit that because it’s within our power to perfectly understand and recreate the past, doing so should always be our goal. This is just one manifestation of video game literalism, but in theory, it should be one of its more successful forms. Where blockbuster literalism dooms itself by trying to simulate the whole of reality to every last detail, nostalgic literalism deals with something more bounded and known. Color palettes, tiles, instrument sets – rendering these authentic to the original hardware is a major priority for artists and developers working with nostalgia. Because we know what these limitations are, achieving this goal should be possible.
Yet this view of nostalgia is not without its own problems. By definition, nostalgia requires enough distance between us and the object we hold in nostalgic fondness that we can no longer have that object in the present. Thus nostalgia can’t refer to a recent experience or concept, but one rooted in a distant past. Otherwise, there’d be nothing separating us from the object and no reason to call our relationship to it nostalgic.
We can break this down further and distinguish between the nostalgia an individual feels and that which an entire community feels. The former relies on personal memories one has formed around the object of their nostalgia. Notice how this nostalgia is rooted in memory. True, those degrade over time, but some memories may be so strong that this isn’t an issue. For example, I remember the glitched mirror roads in Grand Theft Auto III (a sign of an imminent crash), and playing Kingdom Hearts so much that the game’s load times broke and trapped me in Olympus Coliseum. So individual nostalgia is something that the individual doesn’t have to maintain if they don’t want to. That memory is content to stay in the past, accessible whenever the individual wants it.
By contrast, communal nostalgia requires constant maintenance on the community’s part. Personal experience doesn’t mean as much to this nostalgia as historical legacies and significance do. Only certain objects are worthy of this kind of nostalgia, and the community is constantly producing/furnishing evidence of that worth. And what’s the most reliable method of establishing that worth? What stands out; what endures over time? Personal memories don’t. Anything they could provide is too limited and too vulnerable to deterioration to be of much use.
This isn’t to say these two types of nostalgia are completely separate. The idea of personal experiences is certainly valuable for establishing legacies, but their reality introduces too many problems in practice. They’re unwieldy; the community is too diffuse; the information those experiences give may be completely irrelevant to the community’s needs; a person’s age at the time of those experiences (often childhood or adolescence) introduces certain methodological problems. Far more useful are sources like:
- Marketing campaigns
- The hype born from those campaigns
- After-the-fact commentary, such as
- Forum posts
- Top 10 lists
- Television appearances
- Even later video games which claim to model themselves after the object of nostalgia.
Each source serves the same function: to affirm the object’s significance and provide a tidy explanation for that significance. Value is proposed and accepted in the same move, with no party stepping forward to scrutinize it further. (This is especially the case with retro art and games that base themselves on it. They’re capable of creating a feedback loop to continually reinforce that value.) The downside, though, is that these sources put us at even more of a remove from the nostalgic object. In other words, communal nostalgia can easily avoid having to engage with the game or historical moment it holds in high esteem, instead limiting itself to perceptions and after-the-fact explanations. Despite their being modern inventions often made to serve some specific purpose, the confidence placed in devices like these gives them the authority of absolute historical fact.
Perhaps the best example of this would be the Zelda games for the CD-i (specifically Wand of Gamelon and Faces of Evil; Zelda Adventure has never received all that much attention). Given both the rarity of CD-i systems and the byzantine nature of emulating said systems, it’s incredibly unlikely that the majority of people who hold opinions on the games have had any direct personal experience with them. Despite their lack of experience with the games, though, many are not only certain in their judgments regarding their poor quality, they’re certain enough to project it back into the past as objective historical fact. “These games have always been bad and were always recognized as such”, the argument goes. “The poor quality of the animations and voice acting are all the proof you need. Anybody who says otherwise is a contrarian denying an all-too-apparent reality.”
Yet the history of video games resists such easy explanations. Far from being dismissed at release, the games were actually very well received by reviewers at the time, often for the very reasons they’re criticized today: the animation, the gameplay, etc. It wasn’t until it became apparent that the CD-i was a failure that opinions of the two games soured. This suggests that the reputation initially formed as a way to disassociate one of Nintendo’s most significant properties from the CD-i’s failures.
Even this explanation falls short. It accounts for those who first saw the games in the early 90s, but this represents only a small fraction of the people who see these games as bad. The majority almost certainly encountered it in contexts that primed them to see the games as worthy of derision: YouTube Poops, Worst Of lists, historical retrospectives contrasting the two against better Zelda games, etc. For Japanese game enthusiasts, we can narrow down the potential sources to just one: a translation of the Angry Video Game Nerd’s reviews of the game.
In each of these cases, we see the source give people an opinion on the game, package it as basic knowledge for participating in enthusiast spaces, and justify one’s not taking the effort to back up the assertion by playing the game for themselves. It’s a process that plays out especially often with bad games (no, Superman 64 doesn’t control nearly as bad as people say it does), but it’s by no means limited to them. In fact, game critic Amr Al-aaser has written about this as it applies to the Metroid series, Metroid II in particular. Whether it’s because we never played the game in question, didn’t play it until long after its initial release, or the sheer amount of discussion around a game (or even the fact of its being discussed) has turned a single interpretation into accepted wisdom, we see the historical significance assigned to a game precede and come to define any judgment we may make about what the game is.
Several consequences entail from this view of nostalgia. The most important of these is that because the community in question was originally based around the constructed image that is the gamer, and because of the context that previously discussed sources (marketing, reviews) situate games in, the objects of nostalgia are treated as consumer products above all else. They’re seen as fixed objects instead of ever-evolving modes of artistic expression that were trying to find their place in a complex media landscape. And to that end, that landscape becomes an object of its own; something more provincial, but more stable and much more identifiable as a result. The larger historical situation, the artistic team’s intent, the group of people they hoped to reach – these are often disregarded in favor of a historical significance that the community sees as more immediate.
And if the objects of nostalgia are ultimately consumer products, then the power to define what that nostalgia looks like theoretically belongs with the strongest group of consumers. While this should translate into an ever-shifting definition of nostalgia (as consumer groups rise and fall in buying power), the timing of the video game industry’s commercial and creative growth has resulted in such a ubiquity of material (games, writing, art) that the meaning of “retro” may have frozen in place, referring to what this generation sees as nostalgic: games from the 1980s and 1990s. Where Generation X’s nostalgia for the Atari 2600 dominated the late 1990s, games in that style today don’t even register as retro. Conversely, while Super Mario Galaxy is roughly as old now as Final Fantasy VII was when the former was released, the former will never be seen as retro, despite the latter having achieved the same by the time it hit this same milestone.
How does all of this apply to Yooka-Laylee? As I’ve discussed, part of communal video game nostalgia is its tendency to unconditionally value its own objects, inevitably leading it to value that object as a vague presence divorced of all context. In asking for a revisit to the Banjo Kazooie style of play, fans never answered the question of what, if anything, was worth reviving in these ancient design philosophies. It’s an especially important question if one considers that style of play not as an easily identifiable constant, but as a continually evolving approach to digital world design. Banjo Kazooie’s holistic world design is different from Donkey Kong 64’s retreading colossal realms is different from Banjo Tooie’s interconnected world design.
Rare’s style was ever in flux, with games like Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts completely abandoning collection as the focus of play. The latter was a source of contention among fans, who criticized Rare for deviating from an established formula to explore unproven concepts. The Yooka-Laylee scenario presents a reverse of this situation: fans connecting the game’s failures to its inability to affirm their communal nostalgia.
But before this conflict emerges, we see a much more fundamental misconception precede it: the very existence of the collectible platformer. When fans and writers discuss 3D platformers, it’s generally with the assumption that collecting various trinkets is what defined them. Nuts & Bolts references (and thereby reinforces) that image in its introduction by satirizing it, and reviews of Yooka-Laylee are at least aware of that legacy in their analysis:
- “Following the traditional template laid out by Banzo-Kazooie and main-series 3D Mario, Yooka-Laylee’s core objective is the collection of Pagies, anthropomorphised book pages used to unlock new Worlds and expand currently open ones in order to access new, harder challenges, to a total of 25 in each.” (GamesRadar)
- “If you’ve been waiting for a new Banjo-Kazooie then this is it, or the closest you’re going to get to it. Swap Yooka and Laylee for bear and bird and you’ll be doing pretty much everything you were back in the 90s. Wandering around a large open playground space, filled with different planets full of collectibles to progress and unlock new abilities. This is a quintessential Rare adventure.
Yooka and Laylee must collect ‘Pagies’ from their book, which has been stolen by the evil Capital B, who’s trying to please his shady CEOs. After your book is taken and its 145 Pagies scattered across the land, you’re free to explore and find them.” (TrustedReviews)
- “This game, though, isn’t just a spiritual successor to classic collect-a-thons, but rather, it’s a spirited one—a work born not just from nostalgia, but from a genuine love of cheap jokes, colorful characters, and imaginative worlds.” (Slant Magazine)
In spite of how strongly these reviews present collectible platformers as things of the past, the idea that collecting defines games like Banjo Kazooie is a surprisingly modern one. To illustrate this, we turn to contemporary reviews of the genre, which unfortunately impose severe limitations on what information we can get. Because reviews analyzed games through the lens of “does this uphold the brand it sells”, unless a review was criticizing a game for not meeting expectations, it was almost identical to marketing material for that game. In addition, the critical focus on how a game emotionally affected the reviewer leaves out whatever context that game or the reviewer inhabited.
But putting these issues aside, a consistent theme emerges. Reviewers weren’t impressed by or even concerned with the act of collecting, but instead praised the breadth of these virtual realms and the player’s unfettered ability to explore them. Writing about Super Mario 64, the GameSpot Staff (no individual is credited) said of the game, “With realms so vast and detailed, and yet so graphically clean and simple, one instinctively wants to go exploring.” (This quote also serves as the review’s lede.) IGN would echo this language in their Banjo Kazooie review with phrases like “non-linear”, “total freedom”, and “Huge worlds, complete freedom, lots of action — problem solved.” The closest I’ve been able to find to reviews that focus on collecting are toward the end of the genre’s heyday with these reviews of Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Yet these exceptions prove the rule, since collecting is mentioned only in the negative (IE as a non-presence), and, as the second review demonstrates, the worldly focus lingered even in the genre’s late days.
All of this suggests that the collective platformer is an apocryphal invention; a genre rooted not in any defining feature of these games (our ability to defines these games through any single feature has been thrown into question), but in our need to create a defining feature once:
- The 3D platformer waned in popularity
- 3D as a whole became a norm and exploration became too neutrally coded to belong to any one genre
- Open world games came to be defined for their vast worlds.
Considering all this, it looks as though Yooka-Laylee’s failure was written into its very being from the moment of its conception. Pining for a past that never existed, fans demanded the impossible from a game that alleged it could deliver just that. Once it became apparent that Yooka-Laylee couldn’t deliver, players rejected the game while preserving the conditions on which they initially praised it.
My goal in writing this isn’t to correct people’s misunderstanding of old video games by supplying the “correct” interpretation. Nor do I intend to argue that all we can know about video games are our own particular experiences with them. Instead, I wish to illustrate how we construct those understandings in the first place. They’re not immune to question, and they’re not necessarily rooted in the reality they purport to describe. They emerge from very specific conditions to fulfill whatever needs the community employing them has.
If this compels us to abandon certain long-held beliefs about video games, then it also opens us up to others that we’d left ignored. We can review the histories we’ve built and construct them on more stable ground if we see fit. Failing that, we can avoid understanding games through a pop-historical lens in favor of what we experience in the now. Either approach (and whatever others I haven’t considered) will likely lead us to a deeper understanding of and engagement with games than what we currently have.
Brian Crimmins is a writer whose work often focuses on critically examining older, lesser known games.