It is 2020, and Banjo-Kazooie is still one of the best 3-D platformers of all time.
Let’s get one thing straight from the start: I have no affection for Banjo and Kazooie. I hit puberty right around when Banjo was making the scene, and that resulted in some lingering issues regarding the goofy bear. Actually, to be clear, I officially became a teenager a couple of years earlier (right about in time for me to focus on other things in polygonal graphics), and that meant I was well and truly over it by the time the Nintendo 64 was hitting its stride. Did I still play videogames? Of course. But did I only play videogames for mature, highly sophisticated teenagers such as myself? Indubitably. Excuse me, Rare & Nintendo, I only have time for developed JRPGs right now. Did you see that tactics game insult God during the intro? I don’t think this fuzzy creature is going to offer me a similar experience.
So I didn’t play Banjo-Kazooie in its prime. Despite loving Mario 64, I had moved on to other genres by the time one was supposed to be collecting collectathons, so BK was dropped as easily as DK (he’s the leader of the bunch). And, as I eventually became a poor college student during this time, I didn’t wind up snagging the game in any capacity until the Gamecube had conquered the gaming continent (or at least the Nintendo island). Then I was able to pick up N64 games by the bucketful, as they had dropped in value from “hundreds of hours of fun should cost nearly a hundred dollars” to “you can have a new game, but you have to buy one less taco”. So Banjo-Kazooie was purchased with other titles that I had deigned too “kiddy” at the time (see also: Paper Mario). I played it for about a week, collected what I could, beat the bulk of the game, and then moved on to other adventures. There were new, better games out, and why should I waste my time on something so obviously past its prime? Just look at Eternal Darkness! Need I be more fair? Aim for something more in the same genre? Well, I recall jumping directly from BK to Mario Sunshine. “Now this is a modern platformer!” I exclaimed to an empty room while dropping bear ‘n bird forever…
And who knew that nearly 20 years later, I’d be writing an article about how Banjo-Kazooie kicks Mario Sunshine’s soggy ass?
Wait, heck, I feel like I have to elaborate on my own opinions again. I like 3-D Mario titles. Hell, I consider all of them to be some of the best videogames out there. I’ve spoken of it before, but the feeling of controlling Mario is unparalleled. There is nothing like perfectly leaping over obstacles to grab another star, shine, or moon. I like Mario Sunshine. It is probably the Nintendo Gamecube title I revisit the most, and that’s saying a lot when you consider how many smashing brothers reside in that system. 3-D Mario games are still the gold standard for moving and “playing” in a 3-D space.
And, to be clear, Banjo is no Mario. This bear might have the somersault jump, and something approximating Mario’s 3-D triple leap, but the similarities end there. Beyond that, Banjo’s moveset is a bit stiff. It’s not bad! It’s actually pretty great compared to some of the turds that appeared in the 3-D space in the late 90’s. But there are a lot of… little things that hold Banjo back in his first adventure. Shooting requires stopping and ducking, which is immediately frustrating when a witch is lobbing fireballs. Switching to Kazooie’s footwork is fun for climbing hills, but it’s another move that requires you stop and swap. And why are we even talking about a bird walking when she can be flying? Banjo’s Kazooie-aided float jump is pretty fun, but actual flight can be a bear. Landing and/or determining your exact location relative to the ground is difficult when you’re anywhere past about six feet off terra firma, and dive-bombing your opponents is nearly impossible to properly aim (and, half the time, you add injury to insult by losing health if you miss). Maybe it’s the familiarity, maybe it’s the focused design, but, somehow, Mario feels effortless to control, while Banjo is stuck in a number of situations where his abilities are lacking thanks to a combination of controls and camera. It should not take any more than a second to power-poop an egg into a hole!
But judging Banjo-Kazooie as merely a platformer does it a disservice. Yes, Banjo doesn’t control as well as Mario. Mario wins that match every time, against every opponent. But Banjo-Kazooie does beat Mario in its own, chosen field: Banjo-Kazooie is a better collectathon than Mario 64. What’s more, Mario, from Yoshi’s Island to Odyssey, has never beaten Banjo-Kazooie at its own game.
Banjo-Kazooie is every bit the collectathon your parents warned you about (“Stay away from that bad boy, and don’t waste time grabbing everything in a collectathon!”). Every one of the nine worlds in BK contain no less than 100 music notes, 10 jiggies, 5 jinjos (required to obtain one jiggy), 2 honeycombs (health), and any number of silver skulls, eggs, and feathers of all colors. And, like many collectathons, every last bauble and collectible is simultaneously optional and mandatory: you need to nab a certain percentage of everything previously listed, but you don’t need every last item if you stocked up on some in an earlier level. Regardless of required amounts, though, this does mean there is a lot to find in every level, which is always a blessing and a curse. It is fun to find a new jiggy, but it is also a pain when you’ve got nine out of ten and… where did that last one go again? Was I supposed to beat some manner of giant crab, or explore the depths of the ocean? It’s… somewhere around here… Right?
But that is exactly where Banjo-Kazooie excels. By clearly defining the number of essential collectibles for every area, a simple checklist is immediately generated. By limiting the size of levels to something that can be easily traversed in minutes, you’re never stuck in an area that is far too large to explore for that final music note. By transparently outlining “extras” in an area with the assistance of a friendly mole, you always know if there is still a new move or ability to find. And when every world gives you a clear goal and a constrained play area, you wind up not having to sweat the small stuff. Found eight jiggies, have a general idea on the locations of those last two, but haven’t completed their associated challenges yet? Great! Now you can caper around the area at will, and all you have to worry about is eventually returning to those last few pieces of gold. When you know the parameters of every world’s challenges, you can have fun within those borders. No need to obsessively press A next to every nook, cranny, and NPC to hope for the best…
And this is a lesson Mario never seems to learn. Mario 64 vacillated between “you can earn every star immediately” and “you must complete challenge A before moving on to challenge B” from level to level. Mario Sunshine decided to focus on sequential challenges, and wound up making each “world” more of a “level” in the process (and aggravatingly tossed unaccountable blue coins all over the place in the process). The Super Mario Galaxy games focused even further on making “courses” as opposed to “exploration worlds”, and would once again hide a collectible or two around a level, but never a consistent amount. Mario Odyssey finally returned to the exploration of Marios gone by… but every area suddenly contained an unruly number of moons. Would this mundane block randomly grant you a moon? Or do you have to defeat a mighty boss to get the same reward? How about jump roping for thousands of hours? All the collectibles were equal in value, but violently varied in their collection methods. And, since that “final moon” for the level could be found through something as routine as throwing a hat at an unexceptional frog (basically how I spend my Tuesdays anyway), a player without a distinct guide was forced to try every goddamn thing in every world about six times. Hey, sorry to bother you again, but maybe you are the one skeleton dude that will hand over that final moon…
Banjo-Kazooie doesn’t have this problem. Banjo-Kazooie doesn’t have autoscrolling levels, flying shyguys hording red coins, or areas that require six kinds of backtracking. Every one of its nine worlds is very honest about its challenges and collectibles, and, if you’re getting lost, there’s probably a googly-eyed toilet around that will shout some clues at you. There are no situations where you will have to repeat an entire area just for one last jiggy, and (by my count) there is only one possible challenge that requires a powerup out of sequence with the rest of the game’s flow (that would be the running shoes in the ice stage, for the curious). Everything else is straightforward to a fault, and you’re every bit as capable of immediately finding everything in the first world as you are at the finale. Banjo-Kazooie is designed in such a way to help a player understand the rhythm of its worlds very quickly, and then, once that is accomplished, gently guide play from one challenge to the next.
Banjo-Kazooie is an expertly planned collectathon that wholly avoids the greatest pitfalls of the genre. That makes it one of the best 3-D platformers ever committed to cartridge. It is, to this day, a smashing success.
FGC #529 Banjo-Kazooie
- System: N64 to begin, and then it migrated over to the Xbox 360. It’s currently available on Xbox One, too, as part of the Rare Replay collection. This is ideal, as N64 games make my eyes bleed.
- Number of Players: This is one of the few “Nintendo” N64 games that didn’t at least try to use all four controller ports. So one player here.
- Reused Game: As I have stated before, I generally do not delete old save files from used games if I can help it. This is because I have brain problems, and treat save files like precious children. So, speaking of children, here’s what the previous owner of my copy of Banjo-Kazooie was up to…
33 hours, and they didn’t even beat the game. Tell me your secrets, N64 cartridge! Did someone just like running around in circles for hours? That’s perfectly okay! Just tell me what happened!
- Port-o-Call: Okay, I might insult the graphics of the N64 on a routine basis (I think it goes back to that teenage angst thing mentioned earlier), but the controls of Banjo-Kazooie really were made for the N64 controller, so playing it on the original hardware at least once adds a little context to how the whole “using a gold feather” thing made sense on at least one console. That said, definitely play the Xbox360 version, because at least that unlocks new features for other Banjo-based games.
- Are you talking about the Stop ‘N’ Swop Eggs and the Ice Key? Yes. Please don’t get me started on Nintendo Power lying to me yet again. I’m still grumbling about Crash Man.
- Hey, Mario 64 called, it wants its everything back: There was a lot of discourse in the 90’s that Banjo-Kazooie wholesale ripped off Mario 64. There’s a desert level full of pyramids and flying, a huge castle filled with secrets and portraits, and, perhaps most damning of all, an entire ice level themed around an impossibly large snowman. And, while these are all great points, it’s important to note that Banjo-Kazooie is 100% its own adventure. How can you tell? Well, you don’t see oversized cartoon eyes on Mario 64’s ridiculous eel, do you? Check. Mate.
- Favorite Level: Tick Tock Woods actually disproves my thesis, as you are repeatedly returning to the same area with slightly different changes, and then have to explore the whole area all over again. It’s like a dry run for Donkey Kong 64! That said, it’s the exception that proves the rule, and I enjoy even the slightest scraps of time travel, so I’m down. Also, it contains the only worthwhile magical transformation in the game, so I’ll take it.
- Everybody Talks: If I’ve got one complaint about Banjo-Kazooie, it’s that absolutely every damn thing has something to say, and 90% of that dialogue is awful. I don’t need a shark explaining that he is trying to eat me, Rare, he’s a shark. And the whole Gruntilda thing could be fun from a “she’s a scary/gross Halloween witch” perspective, but the entirety of her interactions with the world boil down to “she’s fat”. Over and over again. Same joke. She’s fat, and nobody likes her because she’s fat. And it’s wonderful to see that joke continued into the most recent Banjo adventure…
- The goggles do nothing: And they insult people for wearing goggles!
But I guess it gets better.
- Did you know? Diddy Kong and Donkey Kong are not disguised as a basic chimp and guerrilla lurking in the first world. Those are totally different characters, and, if you want Banjo and Diddy to interact, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.
- Would I play again: Probably! I was impressed by how Banjo-Kazooie fares compared even to its own direct sequels, and I’ll probably give Banjo another go in the future. It’s fun collecting things when a game is designed around placating my OCD, and not just running it into overdrive.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Little Nemo: The Dream Master for the NES! Yes, that’s right, it’s inexplicable bee transformation week here at Gogglebob.com! Please look forward to it!