I’ve been a big consumer of YouTube content since rediscovering my love of video games around 2014. If there is one game I’ve heard more praise for than any other, it would have to be Rareware’s 1998 3D platformer for the Nintendo 64: Banjo-Kazooie. The Completionist, Antdude, videogamedunkey, they all laud the game as one of the best ever, a perfect, or at least near perfect, game. I’ve always liked 3D platformers, but haven’t played many from the N64 era, arguably the golden age of the genre, besides Super Mario 64. So I was excited to check out Banjo-Kazooie once I finally bought a used Xbox 360.
Upon booting up the game, the player is met with a Saturday morning cartoon’s worth of color and bouncy music. Everything, from the characters to the locations to the collectibles, are bright and cheerful, full of personality and charm. The music masterfully arranged, being catchy and bubbling and adapting to changes in the game like going under water or entering a differently theme area. There is a simple joy of picking up a collectible in 3D platformer and hearing a jingle play and Banjo-Kazooie is the best at this. Everything you pick up, be it eggs, feathers, or Jiggies, everything has a unique little fanfare that plays. Where the presentation fails is with repetitive noises. The stop-and-start gibberish all characters speak in is the usual suspect for complaints, but I didn’t find it too bad. It’s not great, but it’s charming enough to look past. The thing that started to irritate me most was Kazooie’s panting while doing the Talon Trot move. Seeing how this is the quickest way to travel, you will be using it a lot and hearing Kazooie’s “mer-her, mer-her” constantly.
The Talon Trot is the best mode of transportation because Banjo-Kazooie is a slower paced game than other 3D platformers. I was surprised how heavy the characters felt when starting the game. Banjo’s default walking speed feels like he has lead covering his paws, the swimming controls are slow and very slippery, and most utility moves have a delay to activate them. Attacks like the Rat-at-tat Rap and Forward Roll require the characters to jump or run (respectively) first before they can be used and even more situational moves like the Shock Spring Jump require the player to find a special pad in the world and hold down a button before it activates. It creates a game that feels more restrictive than the likes of Super Mario 64, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a different gameplay style. If freeform 3D Mario games are like jazz (as I have said in my Mario Odyssey post), then Banjo-Kazooie is a damn great pop song.
By far the best aspect of the game are the levels. There are nine levels (not including the opening Spiral Mountain and the hub world, Gruntilda’s Lair) and they are all vastly different. While most fall into the usual platforming template of forest level, desert level, water level etc., they are filled with uniquenesses that help them stand out. Gobi’s Desert if filled with pyramids and other tombs to explore, Freezeezy Peak is a Christmas wonderland decorated with lights, presents, and giant snowman as the center focus, and Bubblegloop Swamp is a southern bayou infested with poisonous water and alligators. Even the two levels that are strikingly similar, Clanker’s Cavern and Rusty Bucket Bay, feel completely different.
Along with varied levels, the collecting Jiggies is also very varied. There are the standard platforming challenges and a few boss fights, but you will also have to complete mini games, compete in races, collect Jingos, and even get flushed down a toilet at one point. Seeing as Banjo and Kazooie are a bipedal bear and a bird chilling in a backpack, all but sewn together like the pigeon-rat from The Simpsons, the game does a great job of exploring all the abilities those creatures would have when collecting Jiggies. However, some require the duo to change forms with the help of the shaman, Mumbo Jumbo, and I was nervous about this. I was expecting them to all have different play styles like the different characters in Spyro 3, an aspect about the game I did not enjoy at all, but the different forms in Banjo-Kazooie are not bad at all. This is mostly due to the fact that their controls are simplified to just being able to run and jump. The forms are really only needed to gain access to areas and collectibles Banjo and Kazooie cannot get themselves. For example, the walrus form in Freezeezy Peak can swim in the freezing water without taking damage and is welcomed into another walrus’s home, something they refuse to do for Banjo because they are afraid of him, being a bear and all. There is a great difficulty curve in Banjo-Kazooie with levels and the challenges becoming bigger and more complicated as the game progresses. However, a difficulty curve is not the same as pacing, and that is what the game struggles with the most, especially near the end.
I went into Banjo-Kazooie with the intention of 100% complete it, but by the end of the game, I had decided not to bother. Early in the game, the levels were great. Large and explorative, but confined enough to not drag on like the last few levels did. Longer levels are not necessarily a bad thing, but levels like Rusty Bucket Bay and Click Clock Wood feel artificially lengthen to the point of feeling bloated. This is mainly due to the harsh punishments for making slight platforming mistakes. Most platformers will either have something to catch a player if they fall during a long platforming challenge, cutting down on the amount they have to redo, or they make the time between failing and restarting short, ensuring players stay determined more so than frustrated. Banjo-Kazooie has a problem with this and the game suffers because of it. If you miss a jump while climbing the very tall central tree in Click Clock Woods, you are falling to the very bottom.
Rusty Bucket Bay is the worst offender of this seeming oversight. There is a ship in the center of the level with a Jiggy hiding behind its whirling propellers. To shut off the propellers, you must first enter the ship’s bridge to hit a button to slow down the fans in the engine room, then exit the bridge and go to the engine room. There you have to complete some of the toughest platforming in the game including walking across narrow paths, climbing spinning gears, and jumping through spinning fan blades that periodically slow down and speed up. It’s actually really tough, but the real kick in the shin is that it all takes place over a bottomless pit. If you make one mistake and fall into the pit, you restart at the beginning of the level and have to repeat everything again. You don’t restart at the beginning of the engine room section, which would be fair with such a harsh punishment. You restart at the level entrance and have to repeat the steps in the bridge to slow the engine fans down first. You have to do this every single time. It takes about a minute or two to have another chance to retry the section and in a game like this, that is forever
The only other real issues I have with the game are pretty minor. The first is Grunty’s Furnace Fun, the board game Gruntilda makes you play at the end of the game. Simply put: it isn’t fun and definitely not why I play platformers. It’s unique, no doubt, but it’s sluggish and having to answer trivia questions about the game feels little self-indulgent. The second issue is Gruntilda’s Lair, the hub world of the game. I’ve heard a lot of praise for this particular hub world but I don’t understand why at all. I found it to be overly spacious and not very interesting. Rooms and areas all have unique set dressing and atmospheres, you can even collect some Jiggies in it, but I always prefer a more contained space for a hub world. Make it smaller with more interesting things to find. Larger hubs like in Banjo-Kazooie just add a commute between levels, adding on to the other pacing issues I found in the game.
Overall, though, I still enjoyed Banjo-Kazooie, even if the ending did leave a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. It’s a great game filled with varied levels, a charming art style, and fun but kind of clunky gameplay. The pacing issues and overly long final levels means I cannot say it’s a perfect game, even for what it was striving to be, but it’s pretty close to it. To go back to the pop song comparison earlier: the game is still fun and I now understand the mass appeal of it, I am not immune to its charms myself, but it’s not my preferred genre and not the first thing I would think to pop in and jam out to.