This is the story of a bear and a bird, about whose success you may have already heard
Their graphics were slick and their writing was funny. They made Rare and Nintendo oh so much money
But is this old gem still a fun game to play? Is it really timeless? Or just a false claim to fame?
Don’t worry, I’m not gonna do the whole review in rhyme, but that’s part of what makes Banjo Kazooie such a memorable game. Anytime someone talking to a gamer-friend says “What was that N64 game that had the garbled speech and and the villain's lines all rhymed with each other?” That friend will almost certainly be able to answer with a resounding “That, my dear fellow, was Banjo Kazooie!”
Charm. Charm is something that Nintendo’s partner in 64-bit crime understood with almost all of their development outings on the Nintendo 64. Arguably second only to Nintendo on the system, chances are that, if your N-64 cart has a Rare logo on it, it’s gonna be fun. Donkey Kong 64, Jet Force Gemini, Blast Corps, Goldeneye 007, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, the list of hits on Rare’s mid-to-late 90s resume goes on and on, And if Nintendo is the King of memorable worlds and charming characters, then Rare is undeniably the Prince.
While all of the games listed above found success on their release, perhaps none was such a world-wide phenomenon as Banjo-Kazooie. Hailed with boundless critical praise on its release, Banjo Kazooie was largely considered to be the first 3D platformer (on N64 anyways) to give a certain red-clad plumber a run for his money. But, it is now 2018, and we’re here to answer the question, “Should you still play this today?”, and this writer’s answer to that is “Yes, but there’s some things you have to know first”.
To begin with the story, the evil witch Gruntilda is at it again. Her newest hairbrained scheme to terrorize the citizens of Spiral Mountain (and eventually, the world) is to create a device which can harvest the beauty and innocence of others and transfer it to her. By the witch’s reasoning, if she can reduce her haggish looks and become beautiful, no one will be able to resist her, and the whole world will answer to her every beck and call. After consulting her underling Clungo, he informs Grunty that the most beautiful person in the land is none other than Banjo the bear’s sister, Tootie. The witch then descends down to the peaceful mountain town and kidnaps Tootie for her nefarious scheme. This leads the brave, good-hearted Banjo to team up with his bird pal Kazooie and enter Gruntilda’s twisted lair in order to fight his way to the top and rescue his sister.
This premise, in my opinion, works very well. It’s not Shakespeare, mind you, but it really doesn’t need to be. It gives us a reason to go on our quest and see the game through to the end, and that’s good enough for me. Another aspect that helps keep the player engaged in the game are the characters themselves, as they are very well written and genuinely funny at times. Banjo is brave and loyal, but also rather clumsy. Kazooie is wise-cracking, sarcastic, and laughs in the face of danger, and Gruntilda is the epitome of a bumbling villain. All of these points come together wonderfully to give Banjo-Kazooie the feeling of a Saturday-morning cartoon, and the characters themselves are easily a high point of the game.
The game’s presentation also stands head and shoulders above many N64 offerings. Now, it is worth noting that even the best graphics from this generation of gaming are an acquired taste for gamers today, but Banjo-Kazooie certainly makes that transition process easier than some games from this era. Banjo himself is wonderfully detailed for the time, (as are most of the game’s models) and the characters animate as if they jumped right off of Tex Avery’s notebook. Furthermore, levels are large, detailed playgrounds and texture work is fantastic with not a hint of tearing, (a nasty little issue with how textures were applied in N64 and PS1 games) in sight. What really brings it all together though, is one of longtime Rare composer Grant Kirkhope’s most masterful soundtracks. Almost every single tune in this game is memorable, to the point where most Banjo fans can hum level themes on command. It’s as if the N64’s reputation for terrible, bit-crushed audio somehow simply didn’t apply to Banjo-Kazooie, as the game almost constantly puts out PS1 quality sound.
Gameplay, however, is where this game begins to show some cracks in its otherwise rock-solid foundation. Some of the issues here come from aged or outdated mechanics, true, and these are more forgivable. However, there are a couple of problems that may have been there from the beginning, and these are the ones that players today really need to know about. The controls are fine, exceptional even. Banjo moves with a certain fluidity to him, and the many moves that he can pull off, from gliding with kazooie to performing a rolling long jump, are all a joy to use. Banjo doesn’t stop on a dime like Mario though, and though this isn’t really a problem in the long run, the sliding could lead to one or two unwarranted deaths until the player gets familiar with it.
The main issue for anyone playing this game nowadays is just how brutal death really is. Now, retro gamers complain that games today are far too easy, and while there may be some credence to that, (certain games today seem like they could be completed by my 2 year old cousin) I feel that overall this is a positive trend. Modern games have difficulty settings, so that a wide range of players can experience the game. Whether it’s a side-effect of the time it was made or not, Banjo Kazooie is surprisingly unforgiving when it comes to deaths. To explain what I mean, let me start with this. Banjo Kazooie is a collect-a-thon platformer, meaning that the player’s goal is to explore each level searching for enough items to unlock the next level back in the hub world. Players will search for golden puzzle pieces (known as “Jiggys”), musical notes, health upgrades, and more. Jiggys and music notes are by far the most important items in the game, (Jiggys are used to assemble pictures which unlock stages and music notes are used to open doors to new areas of the hub world) and the player needs nearly 90% of both to unlock the final world in the game. This brings us back to death. Should you be unfortunate enough to kick the bucket in Banjo-Kazooie, you will keep your Jiggys (of which there are ten in each level) but you will lose ALL of your music notes (of which there are 100 in each level) and the entire level resets, meaning that any puzzles or tasks to unlock secret areas within a stage will need to be redone.
Unfortunately, this presents more of an issue to players of all skill levels than it may initially seem. Levels in this game are BIG, impressively so for the time, and players can easily spend 1 ½ or 2 hours in one stage. So, many players would likely get frustrated if they had spent the last 90 minutes getting all the notes they could, only to accidentally fall in a pit and lose all of their progress. The game does in fact save your highest note score for a level, but if that score is 68 and a door needs, say, 70 notes to be opened, that means going back to a level and collecting not just two that you missed, but all 68 of the ones you already collected before. This, along with other issues such as a frustrating lack of any way to save without leaving a level and (ugh) voiding your note score, inject unnecessary frustration into a game that is otherwise so charming and just plain fun to play. There is almost nothing wrong with the core gameplay itself. Again, controls are great, levels are interesting and varied, and there are side-quests and minigames to be found within all of them. It’s these unfortunate quality-of-life problems that make this game sometimes frustratingly hard to play, especially by today’s standards.
Overall, Banjo-Kazooie still comes recommended. Rare’s notoriously high level of character, detail, and polish shines through in every aspect of the game to make it truly stand out from its competition. However, it has to be noted that the game’s outdated systems and crippling punishments for death could make the whole package simply too much for some to handle. These aspects, unfortunately, do nothing but make the game age poorly and may even make it seem completely inaccessible to younger or less experienced players. Banjo Kazooie is undoubtedly fun, and I would wholeheartedly recommend playing it if you ever get the chance. Just be aware that some unnecessary frustrations could get in the way of your colorful, cartoon romp.