What makes one retro-styled platformer fly, while another – released just days later – flounders? This is the tale of Snake Pass and Yooka-Laylee.
It’s easy isn’t it? Sugary, bright colours; big, bulging eyes; glowing, golden eggs (or feathers, or crystals) strewn across vertiginous levels of fire, ice, jungle – ‘we can remember it for you wholesale!’ There is innocence in the desire to relive old glories and it’s something that Kickstarter (Bloodstained, Mighty No. 9) is very effective at delivering. It illustrates the nostalgic hunger that lives in the masses – but there’s more to it than piecing together a mosaic of memories.
A pair of games has come along within reaching distance of one another: Yooka-Laylee and Snake Pass. One is a cautionary tale about the perils of nostalgia; the other provides an antidote. Yooka-Laylee is a throwback to the classic Rare adventure platformers of the ‘90s, replete with puns, the aforementioned collectibles, and a duo of critters (one sitting atop the other) working in tandem to stop bad things happening. Snake Pass is a smaller project, the result of experimentation, of play, and something that seizes the essence of those old greats while, vitally, capturing something new in the process.
It’s not called the wheel
Getting the band back together is often something people think they want, until they actually get it. When they do, the law of diminishing returns sets in, and it isn’t quite what they thought. You can’t go home again. It’s summed up, to my mind, very succinctly by Don Draper – he has a habit of doing that. He says of nostalgia: “In Greek, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound’… a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.”
I’ll wager that if you’ve been faithfully tracking down those Pagies, making your fleet-footed, flappy way through Yooka-Laylee’s sugar-coloured worlds, then you’ll have fallen afoul of that camera. It may not happen often, but when it does it can mean death. How’s that for pain from an old wound?
It’s daft to get the band back together warts and all, when in fact you’ve got a wart cream that would do very nicely. Camera trouble can stay a faded memory thank you very much.
It runs deeper than that in Yooka-Laylee: it’s the bones of it that grow weary after a time, and when the ‘collect-a-thon’ mentality comes home to roost, it’s more tiring than anything else. Level-after-level, rinse-and-repeat, until the last vestiges of fun are wrung from it like an old bar towel somewhere around the second world. It’s dogmatic adherence to outdated design that drags it into the mud, and while it pays mind to the tropes we remember, it pledges them to us as though they alone were why we loved those old games. It plays now like its heart beats only out of habit.
Don was wrong, incidentally: in Greek, nostalgia comes from two words – Algos, meaning ‘pain’, and Nostos, meaning ‘return home.’ It doesn’t matter how much self-aware, irreverent humour is ladled on; Yooka-Laylee’s attempt at going home was still painful. Dave Foster Wallace once said, “Irony is the song of a bird who has come to love its cage,” and while it doesn’t do anything terrible, the inertia you are mired in while playing feels like just that: a cage.
‘New’ creates an itch
Yooka-Laylee is happy to slap on the forearm of nostalgia, exposing an old vein, but Snake Pass delivers an intravenous hit of something new along with it, and it does so by journeying back to the start of the 3D platformer boom.
In the beginning, there was the double-jump. Much has been said of this mad little mechanic, but its importance was in the way it illuminated the feel of playing in increasingly vibrant 3D worlds. Inhabiting the bodies of kooky creatures – bandicoots, dragons, whatever Jak is – was the warm, chewy centre of play in the early days; the colourful fantasy worlds were there merely to provide the vehicle for you to play.
That double-jump was a dextrous feat of grace, and reaching new heights, exploring the nooks up where the air was thin felt great. The collectibles that littered those worlds were there to give us a reason, on paper, for doing these things but we didn’t really need one. Snake Pass understands this. It reintroduces the feeling of satisfaction that the double-jump once gave us: the joy in precisely and masterfully controlling a new body. And what a body it is! Each undulating kink spiralling around shafts of bamboo, the soft rumble of tensing muscles, the left-right momentum of meandering forward motion – it’s never felt better to have one’s belly connected with the earth.
The reason one fails where the other succeeds is very simple: consider the source. Yooka-Laylee comes from the desire to relive, repackage, and re-animate an aged template; its design must have looked like a list of check-boxes. Snake Pass, on the other hand, was borne of play; an idea was forged through fiddling with a length of rope in Unreal Engine 4, and iterated upon until it shone. As James points out in his review, there wasn’t anyone clamouring for this. There wasn’t any crowdfunding; Sumo Digital was accountable only to itself.
It’s a more organic way of developing games, and one that’s produced something that feels new, while wearing those calling-card flourishes that pull on our heart strings – those elemental levels, that playful David Wise soundtrack, and the glinting brass of collectible coins tucked just out on the edges of your periphery. These surface details are a nostalgic skin that Snake Pass could happily shed and still shine.
In Tom’s review, he talks about Yooka-Laylee being like listening to a cover band. The thing about bringing the band back together is you still have to perform tonight, and not twenty years ago when you were all more beautiful, and interesting, and modern.