2017 was a spectacular year for gaming. With enormous games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Fortnite, PUBG, Nier: Automata, Destiny 2, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Resident Evil 7, Sonic Mania, Cuphead, Hollow Knight, Star Wars Battlefront 2, and so many more, there was truly something for every fan of every genre. There is one genre, however, that I would like to focus on in particular that saw a huge resurgence: 3D platformers. For what used to be a stagnant genre, 2017 provided an enormous comeback with THREE attempts to revitalize it: Yooka-Laylee, A Hat in Time, and Super Mario Odyssey. Now that I have beaten them all and moved on to other games, I want to look back and discuss each one and what they meant for 3D platformers as a whole.
Yooka-Laylee is a 3D platformer that launched on Kickstarter back in May of 2015 by Playtonic Games that claimed to be “A 3D Platformer Rare-vival!” Comprised of many key members from the company Rare during the Nintendo 64 era (responsible for classics like Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie, Donkey Kong 64, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day), Playtonic wanted to bring players back to the “Golden days” of 3D platformers while also delivering to the new console generations. To crank up the nostalgia even further, Playtonic brought back key composers Grant Kirkhope and Steve Burke, both of whom worked with Rare and were key to nailing down the wonky, fun tone the original games had.
Asking for $227,000, gamers responded excitedly with $2.6 million in funding and eagerly waited for the glorious return of their favorite childhood genre. Did the fans get what they asked for? Surprisingly, yes–and in a timely fashion as well! Yooka-Laylee released on PC, Xbox One, and Playstation 4 on April 11th, 2017, less than two years after its funding! Did the fans get what they want, though? That really depends on who you ask …
Yooka-Laylee was exactly what it pledged to be, a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie. Much like the Banjo games, it has a fun, colorful hub world (albeit a little confusing to navigate sometimes), a great soundtrack, goofy jumbled up noises, silly meta humor, tons of golden collectibles scattered through the worlds, really unique individual worlds, and some genuinely fun platforming. Unfortunately, there are a couple things it inherited from the past that make it somewhat “clunky” to play by today’s standards. The main problem was that it launched with a really bad camera that fought you the entire time. Playtonic implemented a “predictive” camera that tried to anticipate where you were going and automatically move to a new angle, but when you didn’t want this to happen, it would swing all the way around to a new view and make your character run off course thanks to the new direction it was facing. A couple months later, thankfully, this was fixed, but man was it difficult to play when even the movement fought back more than the enemies did. Back in the 90’s, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but by today’s standards for games, having a bonkers camera should never have been an issue in the first place. While that issue was addressed, there were still some things that sadly couldn’t be fixed.
3D platformers of the past were comprised of levels and worlds filled with platforms, boundaries, and layouts that were thought out and made sense. Yooka-Laylee sometimes succeeds in accomplishing this, but often the level and world design feels “tacked together” and like an afterthought. The first world, “Tribalstock Tropics”, is just a bunch of floating rocks with water pouring off of them and trees growing everywhere. Sure, it makes for a cool mountain jungle setting, but in order to avoid making creative boundaries, the world is just a floating island that keeps you contained in the middle. Around some of the edges, clusters of rocks are mashed together to make bigger cliffs, making the whole map feel like a quickly made Halo Forge Mode map. Some of the other worlds, like “Glitterglaze Glacier”, are good and feel complete, but others suffer from this feeling of laziness and corner cutting.
The same inconsistency in quality is seen in other aspects as well, from the boss battles, the side characters, the Pagie Quests, the transformation abilities; the list goes on. A lot of Yooka-Laylee works out quite well, particularly the soundtrack; but unfortunately the rest of it ends up feeling a little disjointed, stuck in the past, and honestly a bit unfinished. Some would argue that this is what classic 3D platformers used to be, and they may be right, but it’s hard to play Yooka-Laylee and not wish that Playtonic Games wasn’t so dedicated to emulating styles from the past.
Back in May of 2013, long before Playtonic Games came along claiming to revive the 3D Platformer, a tiny studio called Gears for Breakfast launched a Kickstarter that sought funding for their game, A Hat In Time. Asking for a mere $30,000 in the campaign, A Hat in Time claimed to be a “Cute as Heck 3D Collectathon Platformer” that looked like combination of Super Mario Sunshine, Banjo-Kazooie, Psychonauts, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Many gamers (myself included) were excited by this company’s aspiration and raised almost $300,000, while eagerly awaited the projected July 2014 release date. As that time drew, nearer, however, Gears for Breakfast realized that their vision grew far beyond their initial plans and wanted to create something bigger with their funding, resulting in multiple delays. Over three years later, on October 5th, 2017, A Hat in Time finally released. For a timeline comparison’s sake, Yooka-Laylee was announced, funded, and released ALL in between A Hat in Time’s funding and release! Now that the game released, however, none of that matters; what does matter is if it was worth the wait.
Initially adopting the structure of Mario 64 and Mario Sunshine, A Hat in Time has you playing as an adorable little girl with a purple hat named Hat Kid that lives in her spaceship Hub World. Similar to Peach’s castle, each room has a portal to a level that has different “acts,” each having one specific objective to retrieve that level’s Time Piece (the main collectible which is equivalent to Mario 64’s Stars). Each mission in the first world, Mafia Town, completely changes the atmosphere of the level, such as adding dark skies and rain, or something as ridiculous as turning all water into lava, making each level feel unique and fun it its own way. I say that it initially adopts this structure because all other worlds have a unique style that throws a spin on how you progress through the world. After Mafia Town, you venture to the Subcon Forest, where you sell your soul to a shadow being thing who has you complete certain tasks for him. Rather than being forced to go in a certain predetermined order, you can pick and choose which one to do as you explore the world, making it similar to an RPG quest book. The world never changes, unlike Mafia Town, but it is an open area that can be explored just the same.
Next is the Battle of the Bird, my personal favorite, which removes an open world and has you completing individual, unique objectives and levels for two Birds named DJ Grooves and The Conductor who are competing for the award of best film director. Each level is a movie set of some sort where you earn the most money possible for one director, which accumulates across all levels contained within the world. Depending on which of the directors you lead to making the most money, you will fight either one or the other as the final boss fight, both of which are completely different fights! Just when you get used to the idea of objective-based Time Pieces, A Hat in Time throws that all out the window and puts you in Alpine Peaks, an entirely open world with no direction or quests. Time Pieces are still scattered throughout this massive level, but you must discover them on your own, much like Yooka-Laylee or other Rare games. The willingness to throw out conventions and make each world its own unique layout and style kept me from ever feeling fatigue or repetition, and is probably the best way that A Hat in Time succeeds in evolving the Platformer genre to a modern audience.
In addition to successfully creating a versatile structure, Gears for Breakfast also managed to infuse as much charm as possible in every area of their game. The cel-shading graphical style makes a beautifully simple visual layout that emphasizes color and form over detail, making everything easy to look at and enjoy. The soundtrack, composed primarily by the (phenomenal) newcomer Pascal Stiefel and partially by Grant Kirkhope, gives A Hat in Time the necessary quirky and upbeat soundtrack to accompany your zany quest. The controls are tight, responsive, and intuitive. This, combined with a camera that works, makes the platforming and movement feel just right. There aren’t many different types of collectibles, but each have a good reason to exist and offer plenty of incentive to explore and collect everything you can, which is exactly what a Collectathon needs. In conclusion, A Hat in Time is exactly what it set out to be: a cute, charming, fun, and successful 3D Collectathon Platformer. It is surprising what this brand new team of developers at Gears for Breakfast achieved given their limited experience in the industry. Sure, it took longer than Yooka-Laylee did, but to me, A Hat in Time exemplified what Nintendo’s own Shigeru Miyamoto said: “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.”
Speaking of Nintendo, the company responsible for the first 3D platformer (Super Mario 64) also threw their hat into the ring with their release of Super Mario Odyssey on October 27th 2017. Originally announced in January 2017, Super Mario Odyssey was Nintendo’s return to form of the traditional 3D platformer (mostly). Since Super Mario Sunshine, Nintendo released Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 (both phenomenal games, but ones that were linear and lacked the open world layout), and Super Mario 3D Land and World (again, fantastic games, but not in the style of Mario 64 or Sunshine). Many fans were itching for a true return to form of a Mario game with smaller open worlds that encouraged exploring every nook and cranny to collect everything possible. Super Mario Odyssey not only returned to the old style of gameplay seen in 64 and Sunshine, but found a way to successfully evolve the game to new heights by adding some fresh mechanics and style changes to the formula.
Nintendo not only went back to the old layout of open worlds, they went and filled each one with a remarkable amount of puzzles, hidden objects, and creative ways to find the hidden Moons. Rather than having just 7 or 8 Stars or Shine Sprites per level, Odyssey’s worlds can have over 50 scattered moons that can be found! Taking inspiration from Banjo-Kazooie, collecting a Moon doesn’t kick you out of the level as it would in all the other games, but instead it lets you keep going immediately to find more hidden goodies. I was scared that it would be far too easy to find these moons, but some of them are devilishly hidden and require some creative thinking to find them. It’s a different mentality than previous games where the objective is shown right at the start of the level, but it works so well for a game like this and Nintendo just absolutely nailed it.
As discussed in my review – Mario Odyssey is simply a joy to play. The controls are better than ever, and the introduction of Cappy allows for some creative combinations of jumping that allow Mario to venture through the worlds with ease and finesse. Similar to A Hat in Time, the worlds have so much color and character to them, giving each one a unique personality of their own. Other than maybe the Kingdom Hearts franchise, where else can you play a game that has a Tim Burton-esque Halloween-type town, an Eskimo village with bouncy polar bears, a metropolitan city, an ancient castle with a dragon, and a world made entirely of food? Not only are the visuals unique, the music that accompanies each world perfectly complements each aesthetic theme to make them stand out even more. Ranging from jazz, Japanese flutes, full orchestras, to 60’s beach rock music, the soundtrack covers all bases and does a phenomenal job of adding the extra layer of quirkiness to a world. All in all, Mario is a return to form in the best possible way: respecting the past but not being afraid to take chances and evolve.
As a side note: I absolutely loved the addition of the camera mode, which allowed me to capture all of these beauties during my playthrough:
Overall, 2017 was one of my favorite years in gaming history, thanks to the extra help of the revitalization of the 3D Platformer. Yooka-Laylee started off the year and reminded us what made the old games fun, but also carried the baggage of the games forgotten in our rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. While it’s not a bad game at all, and is one that fans should definitely play if they haven’t already; it’s hard not to be frustrated by the numerous design choices holding it back from its true potential. A Hat in Time, however, was able to see the pitfalls of older games and ditch them entirely, making it a much more cohesive, unique experience. With its overwhelming optimism, creativity, and fun, Gears for Breakfast was able to capture the magic of the past and keep it alive, all with a small, young, and relatively inexperienced team! Nintendo, however, came out of nowhere and released Super Mario Odyssey and blew us away. It took what was best of its past games, borrowed from the success of others, and was not scared to make fundamental changes to its formula. What resulted is a masterpiece that permanently made its mark on the industry and has become the new gold standard for platformers.
It’s not necessarily fair to compare A Hat in Time and Yooka-Laylee to Mario Odyssey, as Nintendo had far more developers and money to throw at the project, but it goes to show how talented the smaller teams can be with the limited resources available! The fact that they actually hold their own against the king of the genre is a feat in and of itself, and it fills me with hope for their future as they learn to evolve and glean from each other’s successes and failures. If there is one thing I know for sure after 2017, it’s that the 3D platformer is not dead and will continue to evolve and be just as vital in the industry as it ever was in its glory days — and I cannot be more excited for where it heads to next!