I'm super psyched about the potential for this project. I've loved what these creators have done in the past, and I think we sorely need more games like them these days. But, since there's a lot of nostalgia at play here, I do want to focus on not exactly what I want in the game, but how I want it to play. Some game mechanics and ideas are timeless, and I think it's important to look back at what worked in the past, where it doesn't work now, and how we can get there. Thus, here's my super long, super detailed, not remotely qualified opinion on what I hope Project Ukulele will do:
1. Make Each World Feel Unique
Banjo Kazooie’s level design fell somewhere between Mario and Zelda: filled with plenty of wacky and crazy challenges, but put together with a sense of consistency that it still felt like a physical location rather than an obstacle course. These days, any game with a big cohesive world tends to fall under the sandbox umbrella which have only gotten bigger and more realistic with all the new technology. This is certainly good and has created fascinating experiences, but there’s more to making a game world interesting than just having a lot believable ground to cover. For all of the work Assassin’s Creed puts into getting historical landmarks right, the repetitive environment design makes it all blend together. It would be downright unplayable without the objective marker system, which is a sad compromise “realistic” games often make. For counterpoint, consider a level like Click Clock Wood. It’s literally the same map repeated but altered slightly for each of the four seasons. But, it never felt samey because each corner of the map had unique designs and landmarks so you know where you are, and when you’ve discovered a new area. The different seasonal effects weren’t merely cosmetic, but they changed how you’d traverse the world and how you solve puzzles. Consequentially, it made the locations you visited all the more memorable, to the point that they could actually test you on it in the quiz show section. This concept of making each level unique was more a staple of classic 2D side-scrollers, but the great thing about what Rare’s 3D games did was they somehow tied all of these wild concepts and level ideas and smashed them into one big cohesive world. It’s an impressive feat that games today sadly lack. We need more Click Clock Wood’s, Mad Monster Mansion’s, Frantic Factory’s, and HailFire Peak’s.
2. Make Exploring the Worlds fun
Like I said, Banjo’s design in general is sort of a hybrid between 3D Mario and Zelda titles. Like Mario, you have a lot of moves from the onset that all effect your traversal. You’ve got different jumps, different ways to adjust your descent, ground pounding, some attacks, etc. Unlike a Mario title where your moveset stays the same throughout the game [apart from temporary powerups], Banjo would learn more moves and gain more abilities as the game progresses. And while that’s similar to a Zelda game, upgrades in those are often used solely to be able to progress further, rather than something that makes progressing itself more fun. It also doesn’t help that you only have access to 3 items at a given time. That’s fine for the type of game Zelda is, but having to go to the pause menu to equip the item you want would break the flow for a platformer.
Flow is a tricky thing to describe. On the one hand, it’s all about preserving that sense of momentum you have with your character. The ideal platformer is one that is designed such that there’s a rhythm to moving your character through the level which you don’t want to break [see Rayman Legends’ music levels for a literal example]. Now, from a design perspective the player shouldn’t be punished harshly if they do break the flow, but it’s meant to be something in the back of their mind at all times. The idea that, “yeah, I did good, but could I have done it better?” And because the player strives to achieve that momentum, there needs to be some challenge in how to pull it off. Going back to what I said about Assassin’s Creed, I do want to praise how awesome it feels to climb and move around those cities. At least, it does for a while. While the animations look cool, and it flows very well, the truth is that very little thought or skill is required to get anywhere. Hold one button, move forward, and the rest of the game will practically play itself. Flow also means that while we’re trying to get through the place quickly, it’s not at the expense of bypassing on the levels themselves [see Batman’s zip-line glide in Arkham City].
Now, in terms of Banjo-Kazooie, nearly every move you learn is accessible without place-specific objects like the flight pad, or the running shoes. Even in those places though, you still have the freedom to do what you want with them. They open the world up, and not because each new ability acts as key to open up a specific door to progress through the game, but because they help with traversing the world in general. Each move has a distinct purpose, and they all flow into each other and in some cases build on what you’re able to do. It’s a very liberating, and since the transition from each move is so smooth, it manages to preserve that ever essential flow. To see how this can be mishandled, let’s look at Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. Full disclaimer: I haven’t played it, I can’t comment on it accurately, and I don’t want to treat it like a great big betrayal without firsthand experience. In any case, it appears they designed it by replacing learning new moves to getting new car parts, and those will open up and let you explore the world. It sounds similar, but the catch is that you have to rebuild your car every single time to do that. That would be absolutely deadly to the game’s flow, and while it could be a neat mechanic for a different game, it’s a terrible fit for a platformer.
3. Give the Player Some Freedom in How They Want Progress
Rare pretty much coined the unofficial “collect-o-thon” genre, but I think the name does a disservice to what about their design was so engaging. Personally, I’m not just looking for a new game where I’m able to collect 100 puzzle pieces, 4 differently coloured pigeons and 102 exclamation points per level, etc. Don’t get me wrong, they made the collecting fun, but wasn’t what you were finding but how you went about doing it. Despite some jiggys needing to be obtained first in order to get others, they generally left it pretty open. You got dropped into these big worlds with all sorts of things to see and do at your own pace in whatever order you desire. It felt like an adventure. For all that openness though, they were still able to have an appropriate difficulty curve by limiting progression based on the amount of notes and jiggys you found. It’s a great balancing act of never making the player feel too constricted, while providing enough structure that the game can elicit specific reactions from the players. On top of that, should you choose to be a completionist, you earn extra health, feathers, eggs, and even a bonus ending, so collecting everything is rewarding.
4. Trust the Player to Think for Themselves
Egoraptor pointed this out, but it’s worth repeating... It’s amazing how modern games aim for “mature” and “grown-up” audiences, yet treat the player like a child who doesn’t know how to follow basic instructions. Granted, a lot of this is to make games more accessible, and given how impenetrable some games from the early era were, it’s understandable. But, at a certain point, when the game feels the need to constantly remind you what every button does, what you should be doing at this exact moment, or flat out telling you how to progress, something’s lost. Suddenly, you’re not playing a game, you’re following work-like instructions and that sense of discovery and excitement dwindles. There’s a lot of ways to make that sense of discovery engaging through gameplay, be it uncovering a new location, figuring out a technique you couldn’t do before, or finding the solution to that puzzle. Fortunately, Rare encouraged those elements because they trusted the player to think independently. They didn’t need objective markers because the game worlds’ were well designed and distinct enough that you could intuit what the important areas to visit were. They had little need for text prompts because all the information you needed to figure out the progression came from the characters’ dialogue. They also knew that they could have complex problems as long as they were fair. Banjo-Tooie has some of the most devilishly clever interconnecting challenges I’ve seen in a game, untangling that web made the eventual triumph would be all the sweeter.
5. Keep the World as Seamless as Possible
Honestly, this entry is more just to address a complaint I’ve always had with the otherwise fantastic 3D Mario titles. Like Banjo, you have a game with a bunch of worlds to explore with each one having its own series of objectives that when completed will reward you a shiny glowing item. Unlike Banjo, after collecting each star/shine sprite, they pull you out of that world and you have to dive back in to get more. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it suddenly makes the game world feel less like a big place to explore, and more as a series of levels you can do in any order. The goal of any game should be to fully immerse you and make you forget you’re playing a game at all, and having pointless roadblocks can really suck you out of the experience. To be fair, it’s one thing if the level has changed completely for each objective [this is seen more in Mario Galaxy], but otherwise it needlessly disrupts the flow, which I’ll reiterate is crucial for any platformer, be it 2D or 3D
6. Give the World, Characters, and Gameplay Compatible Personalities
A lot of people like to cite the humor, the vivid colours, and the quirkiness as what made Rare games special. That’s all true, but I want to stress that it wasn’t those elements individually that gave them their identity, but how they all worked off each other. There’s no shortage of games that are funny, have great art styles, or eccentric characters. What’s tricky is getting all of these elements to fit into a cohesive whole. For all of the absurdity, self-awareness and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall found in these games, there was a consistency that made the universe seem believable. Hell, just look at the premise… The main character is a bear wearing yellow shorts whose best friend is a rude bird living in his backpack. It’s silly, but relatable. Banjo walks upright like we do, and the dynamic he shares with Kazooie is similar to that of two roommates, or an old married couple. See also how they handle the plot. It’s a common enough story; rescue your kidnapped sister from a witch jealous of her beauty. Despite that trope, I doubt that in most of those interpretations the two characters were neighbours [one in a very quaint little house, the other in a giant lair shaped like her head]. That’s part of what gives the game such a unique identity because everything in addition to plot supports that idea. The world is bright, colorful and exaggerated, but has a consistent aesthetic. Some of the moves are conceptually ridiculous [like having Kazooie stretch her legs and suddenly walk for Banjo], but they all have a purpose. The characters may be silly and not super serious, but they also know when to take things seriously. Kazooie’s nasty remarks aren’t just punchlines for the player to laugh at, but show the dynamic of how these characters play off each other. I think the key to this is that while the game would acknowledge the absurdity of its world, it never got to the point where it didn’t believe in it. To see the opposite effect, let’s take another look at Nuts and Bolts. The intro seems content to mock how inactive the bear and bird duo have been, how they waste time playing video games, and how the old game mechanic of collecting various knick-knacks was dull. Notice how none of these jokes had anything to do with the characters, the world, or the plot. They live or die on whether you know what they’re referring to or not, and even then, they work better as subtle “easter egg” jokes sandwiched in between the big jokes.
7. Avoid Teasing a Game Mechanic that May or May Not Work
Let’s not have another Stop & Swop fiasco, shall we?