Before playing the much hyped Yooka-Laylee, I always planned on replaying the classic platformer, Banjo-Kazooie. Released smack in the middle of Rare’s legendary run of games released in the mid-to-late 90s, this game was Rare’s first dip into 3D platformers. After Rare’s initial success with the Donkey Kong Country franchise, their core team began work on a brand new IP for the SNES. Not long after, their ambitions warranted a move over to the new Nintendo 64 system.
However, after Super Mario 64 totally changed the playing field for platformers, Rare was forced to reconsider the direction of their game, and eventually transformed the it into what is now Banjo-Kazooie. While it does indeed owe a lot to Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie goes so ridiculously far above and beyond in some aspects that it truly deserves to be remembered the way it is 20 years later.
Banjo-Kazooie is a 3D platformer embodying the term “collectathon.” Like in Super Mario 64, you are thrust into open, non-linear worlds, and are tasked with finding collectible trinkets. Each single collectible has a purpose and functionality in Banjo-Kazooie. Jiggies are the hardest and most important to find, since you need them to unlock more worlds. Notes are the Mario coin stand-in, and are used to unlock new areas in the game’s hub world, Gruntilda’s Lair. Hollow honeycombs are used to expand your health, red feathers are used to fly for a limited amount of time, and Mumbo tokens are used to unlock new transformations. If Banjo does anything right, it’s the fact that none of the item collecting in this game is done for the sake of collecting. Every item has a tangible reward that makes you feel accomplished as you progress in the game.
The thing that sets Banjo-Kazooie apart from Mario is its titular heroes. Where Mario has a relatively simple run-and-jump controls, Banjo and Kazooie have a complex set of hops, leaps and charges that are unlocked over the course of the game’s levels. This is complimented perfectly by the game’s excellent learning curve, which eases you into the game’s challenges, which can get to be infuriatingly difficult by the time you reach the game’s final levels.
Where Banjo truly and decisively succeeds is in its presentation. This is a bright, colorful game, and its unique visual style makes it an enjoyable title to look at, even today. The characters are all brilliant, and the dialogue is consistently hilarious. The soundtrack is similarly unique, and each level has an extremely peppy track to go with it. The music is dynamic, as well–it shifts and changes as you play, adapting itself to your current situation.
For all that Banjo gets right, though, it’s not as perfect of a game as you might remember. While the core of the game, collecting Jiggies, is fun, trying to collect all 100 notes in a level can become a more frustrating task. This is mostly due to the fact that when you run out of health and die, you have to start from the beginning. This worked for Mario 64‘s levels, where the levels were designed for you to run through them several times from the start with differing objectives. In Banjo-Kazooie, the levels are designed so that you have to get lost in them and explore over an extended amount of time. You often will be doing level runs that last a half hour or more, and dying can mean losing that entire amount of time in progress for notes. Additionally, you are required to 100% nearly every one of the game’s levels’ worth of Jiggies and notes, turning what would have been a small annoyance into a more significant issue.
Another thing that can get to be an issue is the game’s camera. This one often gets more of a pass, since not many games in this era ever really got camera controls down correctly. Much the time, it actually works relatively well here. You have full control of the camera via the Nintendo 64’s C buttons–a 90s approximation to today’s dual stick movement/camera control standard. However, the game inexplicably removes camera control from you at many points. Sometimes it makes sense, placing the camera in a static location to grant a better view, but some times it places it at odd angles that make it difficult to move or make certain jumps. Last, but not least, sudden and dramatic changes in camera angle can happen when moving in certain areas, jarringly changing the camera angle mid-movement.
While I may sound a bit negative up to this point, I want to stress that this is a fantastic game. When Banjo gets things right, it gets them damn right. This game is just so ridiculously wacky, so fun in tone, and I have a renewed appreciation for it as an adult. Like I mentioned before, the characters–be it the sassy Kazooie, the no-shit Bottles, the hilarious Gruntilda and her sister Brentilda–are all really funny and endearing. The fourth wall-breaking dialogue is hilarious and even a slight suggestive.
These levels are still some of the best 3D platforming worlds in any platforming game, be it the creative Mad Monster Mansion, Click Clock Wood, or even the game’s hub world itself. While the game has aged in some respects–the years have not been kind to the camera in particular–this game is every bit as fun as I remembered. I would argue that it is neither the best platformer on the Nintendo 64, nor the best Rare game on the system, but it is a pivotal moment in Rare’s development history, from which their games would become much more complex and definitive.
- The fourth wall-breaking humor and dialogue is fantastic.
- The characters are all funny and endearing, from Grunty and Mumbo to Banjo and Kazooie themselves.
- The worlds are large and creatively designed for you to get lost in while searching for collectibles.
- The dynamic music is fantastic, changing itself depending on your current situation.
- Banjo and Kazooie’s moveset is large and enables a huge variety of actions.
- The cartoony visuals hold up even today thanks to its unique style.
- Each trinket you collect has a tangible reward to it. There aren’t any useless items here.
- The camera can be a mess at times, removing control from the player and making sudden jumps and shifts.
- Having to restart your hunt for notes every time you die gets old very quick.