Despite some annoying growing pains, collecting Jiggies is still as fun as it was over a decade ago.
Banjo-Kazooie's story follows Rare's kid-friendly vibe to the letter: Mean and ugly Gruntilda the Witch wants to be the prettiest creature in all the land. However, there's just one person fairer than her: Tooty, sister to hero Banjo. Not wanting to be outdone, Grunty kidnaps Tooty and takes her to the witch's lair, conveniently located in the same general vicinity as Banjo's house, in order to swap out Tooty's beauty with her ugliness via a diabolical machine. Thus it falls onto Banjo and his sharp-tongued bird friend Kazooie to storm Grunty's lair and teach her a lesson before she can complete her vile scheme.
As this is a Nintendo 64 game with a 3D engine, the game is littered with low resolution textures, jaggy lines, and 2D sprites in place of 3D models, but Banjo-Kazooie's presentation still has its high points. While the worlds don't stray far from the standard "Ice Level, Desert Level, Forest Level" archetypes, they're still fun to explore thanks to the bright and cartoony art style. The character models lack in polygons but make up for it with the charming "Googly-eyes on everything" fashion that most Rare games share. The music has also aged gracefully; despite being composed in MIDI, the melody-focused songs are a good mix of the quirky and upbeat style that Rare is renowned for as well as the more ambient pieces that seamlessly transition when entering a new area.
Also adding to the stylish presentation is the snappy writing and character. Each creature in Banjo-Kazooie has its own unique personality which comes through in several ways, from the way they talk (the voice acting is limited to a series of grunts and noises) to their movement and appearances. Mean Grunty speaks entirely in rhymes; Kazooie loves to run her smart-mouth; witch doctor Mumbo-Jumbo talks simply but in a way that makes him seem like the smartest character in the game; the list of memorable characters just goes on.
As mentioned, Banjo-Kazooie is a platformer focused on exploring several hub worlds and collecting items to advance the game. Plenty of collectibles are scattered throughout Gruntilda's lair and the nine worlds it holds within. The two most important goodies to get are the Musical Notes and the Jigsaw Pieces, or Jiggies for short. Notes are common in each world and needed to open the Musical Spell Doors and advance further into Grunty's lair. Jiggies, like the stars and shine sprites in the 3D Mario games, are much harder to come across and used to complete portraits in Grunty's Lair that open the doors to new worlds. Other items of note include Mumbo tokens to pay the shaman into turning Banjo into a special animal, Honeycomb pieces that extend Banjo's life bar, and molehills where Bottles the Mole will teach the heroes a new valuable move.
With the core gameplay at such a rudimentary level, Banjo-Kazooie is able to stay entertaining for much of its length thanks to its variety. The objectives to get each of the 10 Jiggies in each level are nicely diverse, ranging from simply finding stray pieces in special locations to battling a big baddie to solving clever puzzles like spelling out "Banjo Kazooie" in giant letters to playing unique minigames like eating more worms than a crocodile or helping a group of holiday lights reach a tree without getting eaten by monsters. The level design also matches the mechanic's level of variety as even the methods used to get to all the Jiggies change constantly. Some require navigating tricky platforming segments, while others involve swimming, climbing, finding switches or solving other puzzles first, or even flying to the desired location.
The impressive variety mixes with the vibrant art style to create Banjo-Kazooie's strongest point: You never quite know what's coming next. Not only does the game offer several large and deep levels to discover, but it's also able to make the player want to explore them. Even when the game runs out of new moves to teach in the last third of its length, the interesting levels and puzzles keep things fresh and engaging enough to make you want to hunt down every last Jiggy needed to see the end credits. It almost gets to the point where just seeing what new trick or trap you're about to take on is as much fun as actually playing with it.
Banjo-Kazooie is not all fun times, however. While the previous portions still hold up well even today, there are still quite a few parts that are seriously showing their age. Of biggest mention is the camera, otherwise known as the scourge of early 3D platformers. It functions decently for the most part, but there are times when the camera can get stuck in some very inopportune positions, such as imprecise angles for tricky platforming segments or even behind walls in a few instances. It's even worse while swimming or flying, as the C-buttons used for rotating the camera while on the ground no longer do anything. Speaking of flying and swimming, those segments also suffer from clunky controls that make fine-maneuvering a pain to pull off. Any mechanic that deals with aiming (like shooting eggs out of Kazooie's mouth and rear) also suffer from imprecise controls, part of which can be blamed on the N64's relatively flimsy analog stick. Finally, there are a few moments where the frame-rate slows down due to too much action onscreen, but these are mostly infrequent.
Despite these mechanical errors, Banjo-Kazooie has aged well enough to remain enjoyable even thirteen years after its initial release. Luckily, it can be picked up relatively cheap as well; the Xbox-Live Arcade version is only about $5, but the super-retro gamers can still track down a used N64 copy with ease for only a few dollars more. As such, Banjo-Kazooie is an easy recommendation for retro enthusiasts and recent gamers alike, as well as a good example of how solid game design can still shine through even decades after it first wowed gamers.