How Playtonic Games returned to their roots with Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair

By Paul Cecchini, Contributor
The team at Playtonic Games have had a colorful history in the video games industry, from their fledgling days collaborating with Nintendo on iconic franchises like Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie as part of famed developer Rare, working under Microsoft, then breaking off into their own independent studio. Their most recent title, 2D platformer Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, is to Donkey Kong Country what the original Yooka-Laylee was to Banjo-Kazooie: a love letter to the platformers they developed during their '90s heyday.

Even during the development of Yooka-Laylee, adding hidden 2D sections throughout was an appealing concept for Playtonic Studio and Game Director Gavin Price, who went so far as to experiment with some prototyping and course-building. “They never quite made the cut,” says Price, “but they showed enough promise that we thought, hey, this could be really fun.”

The idea of 2D platforming in a Yooka-Laylee title soon spun off into Impossible Lair, a new title that Price and crew had a lot of confidence in—in no small part due to the pedigree behind it. Several members of the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy team were on board, including Steve Mayles, Mark Stevenson, and Kevin Bayliss as character artists; lead programmer Chris Sutherland helping with coding; Steven Hurst doing environment art; and even Donkey Kong Land design team member Gary Richards helping direct. “We had a mixture of experienced [developers] and big 2D platformer fans. It was a good mix,” says Price.

In true Playtonic fashion, this new game would set out to twist 2D platforming conventions, giving it a unique flavor to help it stand out from what came before.

Players get to experience that uniqueness right from booting up the game, when they find themselves deposited into the game’s titular Impossible Lair, an intense platforming gauntlet that would push even the most skilled 2D platforming fanatic to their limits. Mercifully, players don’t have to beat it then and there, only getting a small taste of the ultimate challenge they must eventually overcome.

First, though, players make their way through an extensive top-down overworld, seeking out portals to the game’s various 2D levels—an exploratory aspect inspired partially by Super Mario World. “I thought that game was amazing,” says Price. “It really gave a sense of ‘place,' that these 2D levels existed in a world.” Building off that, the overworld was designed in such a way that players weren’t restricted to a path, as they're able to go any direction and find levels in any order.

The question the developers had to answer then became this: why complete these other levels when the final challenge is right there in front of the player? “Normally in 2D games, you complete a level to build a path forward to the next level and eventually connect all the way to the final boss,” says Price. “We didn't have that in this game if you explore it in any direction.” So, what was the point in conquering these other levels? “We thought, if you came out of every level with a resource that helped you, in some way, complete this final challenge, why don’t we make that the purpose of completing 2D levels?”
How Playtonic Games Returned To Their Roots With Yooka Laylee And The Impossible Lair Climb
At the end of each stage is a captured member of the kingdom’s “Beetalion” army. Each bee soldier freed grants Yooka and Laylee an additional hit point when they feel ready to tackle the Lair again. “The more levels you complete, the better chances you have,” says Price. “That’s how it really came to be…no pun intended. I think it helps players get a sense for how good at the final level they are and how many regular levels they'll have to complete. It remains accessible. You can always retry and see how your current progress on the regular 2D levels has furthered you.”

Gameplay-wise, Playtonic sought to appeal to as wide a variety of gamers as possible. “Something we noticed in the first game is we seem to naturally—unintentionally, but naturally—appeal to speedrunners,” says Price. “We were very mindful when we were creating the Impossible Lair to kind of break the rules a bit of 2D level design and come up with tricks so you couldn't just rely on muscle memory alone. We really wanted to see what people would do when they actually got the game in their own hands and see what their appetite was for. Hopefully it did appeal to a broad spectrum of gamers—completionists, speedrunners and everything in between.”

The game's levels aren’t without their own unique twists. By performing various shenanigans in the overworld, the buddy duo can unlock an alternate version of each stage, complete with new layouts and hazards. Formerly dry factories become flooded with water. Once dangerous buzzsaw mills are covered in sticky honey, gumming up the works and crafting a new set of platforming challenges. One level is flipped from horizontal to vertical. The goal was to give players something familiar, yet fresh.

“We did lots of brainstorming, everyone on the team throwing in ideas from every department,” says Price. “What really helped us narrow down was when we’d given ourselves the difficult task of making sure every level could be completed in two states. I think some levels would have been great, but we just couldn't figure out how it was going to work switched into another state without reusing too many of the same ideas. I think a great 2D level has to have, to a degree, a sense of relatability and smoothness to it. They didn't make the cut, sadly, but I always think it's good to have a decent cutting room floor should you want to do a sequel.”

Being a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, it made sense that the original Yooka-Laylee would have a similar sound, especially with the legendary Grant Kirkhope taking the lead on composing duties. Impossible Lair’s soundtrack, on the other hand, has much more of a Donkey Kong Country vibe. This style change was intentional, but for a more subtle reason than one might expect.

“The first game is a lot more exploratory, and the music is more setting the tone for the sense of place and being there,” explains Price, “whereas the music in the 2D game is more attuned to creating a sense of style to the gameplay you're trying to create, the action and the pace. I think the music plays a much more important role in terms of giving you a sense of urgency in the gameplay and forcing you forward, being much more high energy in a 2D platformer.”
How Playtonic Games Returned To Their Roots With Yooka Laylee And The Impossible Lair Factory
Listening to the soundtrack, one could easily mistake the majority of tracks for the work of equally legendary Donkey Kong Country composer David Wise. However, while Wise did contribute to the soundtrack, the majority of the tracks were composed by Dan Murdoch and Matt Griffin, tutored by Wise himself to emulate his style.

“I thought it was important we train up our own in-house composers to be able to do fantastic music for many, many years to come, and who better to learn from than Dave Wise, one of the greats?” Price says. “I remember them both saying to me, ‘Wow, this is incredible. If you had told me five years ago I'd be doing this kind of game with Dave Wise hands-on, spending time learning his style …it’s amazing.’ I’m very proud of Dan and Matt getting mistaken for David Wise. That shows the quality they achieved.”

Thankfully, unlike the original Yooka-Laylee, the team developed Impossible Lair without additional attention having to be allocated to other matters, like starting a studio. “We really wanted to show everybody how the team could perform away from a lot of the startup issues we had with the first game,” says Price, “in terms of managing the Kickstarter, starting a company for the first time, the first time using middleware and shipping on multiple systems at once. We really wanted to push ourselves and go the extra mile for fans. The quality of the game we were able to make with ridiculously tight resources—that comes down to, I think, the passion, skill, and commitment of the team. The first game was kind of done to a budget. This game was done more to a quality bar. I think we really came up with a fantastic mixture of new, fresh ideas and ways of executing on a 2D platformer.”

It's been almost five years since Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, and while Price is keeping mum on what’s next for the buddy duo, he assures that something is in the works. “I think these days, we've lost the element of surprise a bit as an industry,” he says, “so hopefully we can bring some pleasant surprises in the future and people enjoy them.”

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is available now on the Epic Games Store.