Articles have been floating around about Yooka-Laylee, using the word “nostalgia” a lot. Most of the perspectives towards nostalgia seem to be negative, claiming that it is false interpretation of the past—a rosy memory of a time that did not truly exist. This has led to a number of negative reviews of Yooka-Laylee. The game has been identified as a perfect recreation of late 90’s platformers, right down to its quirks and flaws.
I haven’t played Yooka-Laylee yet—I’m waiting for it to come out for the Switch—but I’m a big fan of those N64 Rare games, so I’m eagerly anticipating it. This probably makes me biased. I do look back fondly on those games, and I want Yooka-Laylee to be a good game that captures the essence of that period. Let’s just get that out of the way so you know what camp I’m in.
Considering that I haven’t played the game yet, it’s probably not in my best interests to criticize the game reviewer community for their belittlement of late 90’s collectathon platformers. Yooka-Laylee may very well have flaws that haven’t been commented on in the articles and I might only learn of them later. But I think it’s fair to warn this community that they shouldn’t go attaching the word “nostalgic” to games as a way to diminish them.
The modern world of video games is steeped in nostalgia, many different forms of it. “Retro-gaming” is a term that gets used more frequently. People are going back and dusting off their old systems as a way to truly recreate gaming experiences from past console eras. The NES classic was popular because it recreated the exact format people used to play those games on. A lot of people are currently angry with Nintendo because they haven’t outlined a plan to continue the Virtual Console, which is just a machine to bring back old games.
All of those things are considered respectable forms of gaming and they are absolutely connected to nostalgia, yet there doesn’t appear to be any negative connotation.
Some of the reviews on Yooka-Layle have voiced displeasure over the camera controls. They say it doesn’t do exactly what they want them to do. This is reminiscent of late 90’s platformers. I can remember playing Mario 64 and getting angry because I wanted the camera at my back for a long jump I was about to try, but it wouldn’t go there because a solid object was in the way. Over time, I grew accustomed to situations like this. Although it feels unnatural to pull the joystick backwards in order to progress forward, it became a dynamic of the game for the player to move in “uncomfortable” manners to reach their objective. What I was initially frustrated with eventually became difficulty, and there’s nothing wrong with a game being difficult.
I started playing games during the N64 era, so I missed the NES and SNES. Many of the Mario games from the NES and SNES are widely regarded as classics that are timeless, as fun now as they were back then. Having played nearly all my games with a joystick, going back and using a D-pad to move seems archaic and awkward to me. I could say that people who are fond of the D-pad are nostalgic and refuse to believe that cleaner forms of gameplay exist now to put that kind of controller to shame, but I know that’s not true. This is just a different form of gaming that I’m not used to. Just because I’m not comfortable with it does not mean that it’s bad. It even has a place in the modern world of gaming. It offers a traditional style of gaming that challenges people like me who did not grow up with it.
So where does frustration stop and challenge begin? A lot of gamers are opposed to discomfort, probably because the activity of gaming is supposed to be leisurely. Yet they want their games to challenge them at the same time. Seems like an arbitrary line to draw, declaring when games are uncomfortable rather than challenging. There are certainly games that don’t run smoothly or they have controls no one likes. But maybe we should reevaluate what are poor mechanics vs. difficult schemes, especially when it comes to games that specifically emulate older games.
That’s hard to define though. People’s comfort with a game might not be best way to determine if the game is good or not, especially with games that are unabashedly paying homage to older ones. Let’s look at this a different way.
Let’s say that games that prey upon people’s nostalgia are inherently bad games. In this case Yooka-Laylee would be an inherently bad game, but let’s reassess a few other games. New Super Mario Bros Wii was a very well received game. Critics loved the series’ return to a simplistic 2D format. There were new items and an enhanced multiplayer. Did this game offer anything else new though? At its core it still plays like the same NES and SNES Mario games that most people love, with a new coat of graphics on it. Doesn’t this sound nostalgic? Then there’s also games like Super Mario 3D Land that fuse the format of 2D and 3D Mario games, taking the best elements from both kinds and making a game meant to appeal to multiple generations of Mario players: also a well received game. Again, this did not take the series in a new direction, and it plays the same as other Mario games. Why is there not a negative nostalgic association with this game? And don’t forget about HD remakes, which have all received positive reviews. These were classic games, assuredly, but studios are obviously selling them to take advantage of the renown the games earned without offering anything new besides a moderately updated appearance. Isn’t this preying on nostalgia? Why is this not only acceptable but applauded?
There are also newer games that utilize nostalgia to enhance the player’s experience. Breath of the Wild follows the same story path as other Zelda series entries—there’s a little more flexibility this time around, but it’s still essentially dungeons + puzzles and then a showdown with Ganon.1 A number of the songs in the game are also remixed versions of songs from other games. And the tones for receiving a heart container still haven’t changed. This is a technique that builds upon legacy. Because the player shares a long history with this series, dating back to their childhood most likely, there’s a sense of warmth that comes with playing the game, something that has grown up and developed alongside you. You can’t even properly assess these new entries anymore because it’s essentially become family, and I think we all know how much more forgiving we are of someone if they’re family. Are we forgiving these games too? Are we setting them to a different standard simply because they’ve been with us the whole way?2
Maybe that’s why Yooka-Laylee is getting a bum rap. There is a clearly a disconnect, time-wise, from what it is building off of. Other series have been continually putting out products, so the association with nostalgia is not as intuitive. Since some time has passed, it might be easier to call something like Yooka-Laylee parasitic, using the esteem of previous games as a cheap way to gain attention. Don’t be so quick to denigrate the game because it comes across as parasitic though.
There’s a lot of parasitic media out there right now. Nostalgia is one form of parasitism, using the renown of the past to boost sales for a modern product. Another form can be seen in franchises like Marvel, DC, or Star Wars. The Avengers movies might be the best examples of parasitism available. Not only do you have these superheroes who come from standalone high-grossing movies, you also have the layer of A-list actors who have their own respective fan bases, and all these networks are piling on top of each other to rake in as many viewers as possible. Many music artists specifically use the “Featuring: artists-name-here” as a way to pick up on other artists’ fan bases.
Obviously, people are drawn to these “collaborative” types of works. But as consumers we have to ask ourselves: is the work that’s being produced standing on its own two legs or is it simply using familiarity and celebrity to garner attention?
That’s why I’m picking a bone with the negative nostalgia talk. Yooka-Laylee may very well be a failure because of its overreliance on previously earned fame. If that’s the case, let’s start calling out all the other gimmicks we’re getting shoved into our faces. If not, give the game the same breaks that everyone else is getting.
1. Someone might note that I’m focusing too much on Nintendo games. There’s a reason for that. These franchises widely receive acclaim from most critics, meaning that they are agreeably not nostalgia machines rehashing the same kind of material over and over again. No game reviewer seems to be dissenting from this stance either. So it’s weird that, collectively, reviewers are using the word nostalgia to disparage some games while other forms of nostalgia are going unnoticed.
Also, Banjo-Kazooie was a Nintendo game, and while Yooka-Laylee is not an exclusive Nintendo game, it does blatantly hearken back to one. So comparing it to other acclaimed Nintendo games seems relevant.
2. Certainly, some series have not been able to maintain their quality over time. Sonic might be a good example of this. But at some point it might be good to question the longevity of these series. We all remember our first time experiences with certain games: playing as Master Chief in the first groundbreaking Halo game, exploring the rich world of Morrowind, using the limited resources available in Resident Evil. Part of the reason why we have such good memories of these games is because of how new they were to us, how they took us by surprise. By committing ourselves to what we’re familiar with, we’re cutting off our opportunities to get taken by surprise again. So maybe it’s a good idea to say, “OK. No more Mass Effect. We told a great story in the time we had. Let’s preserve its quality and move on to something new.”
If you’re a music kind of person: It’s like the Beatles music catalogue. Yes, it would’ve been interesting had they stayed together and made music for another twenty, thirty years. But with the time they had they compiled a very strong body of work. It’s over now, and that’s alright. They managed to do something with their legacy that the Rolling Stones are failing to do: stopping before it all gets too ridiculous, when people can tell the only things perpetuating the act are the money and the fame.
Or if you’re a TV kind of person: It’s like the Sopranos. It was wildly popular, and spinoffs would have definitely brought in ratings. But by giving the series an end they managed preserve the quality. The series holds on to a legacy that is limited, terminal, but it is also free from the taint of selling out.