By Marshall Garvey
Platform: Nintendo 64
Release Date: June 29, 1998
Genre(s): Platforming, action-adventure
Rating: E for Everyone
I’d just like to start this review by saying that it’s every bit as much a nostalgic salute as it is a professional review. Banjo-Kazooie is one of those games where, much as I can write to convey how spectacular it is as a video game reviewer, it just feels woefully inadequate to capture the experience in words. This is one of those games that I just lived and breathed, and 17 years after I clicked its cartridge into my Nintendo 64 for the first time, it feels less like a great game I enjoy and more like a part of me. Banjo-Kazooie showed my impressionable 9-year-old mind (and the minds of many other youngins) what *adventure* should feel like in a video game. Whatever you were doing at a given moment in the game, you felt wholly immersed in its every detail like no other game before.
Now, I don’t mean to say all this like it’s the single greatest game of all-time (although it’s certainly in the upper echelon). Nor do I mean to say it made all previous gaming journeys obsolete. But when Banjo-Kazooie was unleashed by the mad geniuses at Rareware back in the days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Saving Private Ryan, it was simply unparalleled. From its dazzling look to the kickass music, weirdly lovable characters to the endless exploration of each level, it was an explosion of innovation that took hold of the imagination and sent it soaring like a freed Jinjo. For me, the game was unequivocally an obsession. Hour after hour of my third and fourth grade life was gloriously sucked away by Banjo-Kazooie, to the occasional reprimand of my parents. But those stern lectures of having played too long were worth it. No amount of playing outside could equal the thrill of taking to the skies from a red feather pad, or figuring out a tricky puzzle to get an elusive Jiggy. Almost two decades later, with college behind me and a high-paying job, I’m just as singularly enchanted by it as ever.
The story of Banjo-Kazooie opens to an ominous beginning. The camera steadily travels through a stone building enshrouded in green fog and lightning, finally arriving at a hideously ugly witch standing over a cauldron. Her name is Gruntilda, and she has only one thing on her mind: Finding someone more beautiful than her to swap looks in her beauty machine. The cauldron shows a vision of a cute young bear whose looks she can steal. Gruntilda, with an evil cackle, mounts her broom and takes off to commence her plan.
Next, we’re transported to Spiral Mountain, the scenic area just outside Gruntilda’s Lair. In a tiny house, Banjo the Bear and his trusted bird companion Kazooie (kept in his backpack) lie fast asleep, while Banjo’s little sister Tooty frolics around outside, waiting for her lazy brother to come outside and play. Only one problem: Tooty was the vision of superior beauty Grunty saw in her magic cauldron, and the witch quickly swoops in to kidnap her and haul her back to her lair. Awoken by the commotion, Banjo and Kazooie learn from their mole friend Bottles of Tooty’s kidnapping. With Bottles teaching them crafty new moves every step of the way (and the added magical assistance of the shaman Mumbo), the unlikeliest duo in gaming history trek onward through the different worlds spread throughout Gruntilda’s Lair. It all leads to a final showdown with Grunty at the stormy top of the lair…after a game show to save Tooty, that is.
Being released two years after Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie was a clear attempt to further the N64’s capabilities in adventure platforming. (The similarities to Mario’s 3D debut are striking, chiefly the mechanism of unlocking new worlds by interacting with framed portraits of them.) With no disrespect to SM64, which was a crucial pioneering title, BK simply perfected the idea of a truly immersive platform adventure for the N64 and beyond. What sets this game apart from other adventures even today is, if I may steal a page from Willy Wonka, pure imagination. From beginning to end, the creativity of Banjo-Kazooie is abundant and joyful. You can tell everyone involved made every little detail with genuine love and care, giving the game an inviting quality that makes putting it down a challenge.
The greatest masterstroke of imagination is none other than Banjo and Kazooie themselves. While many great leading duos have preceded (Sonic and Tails) and followed them (Jak and Daxter), there’s never been a gaming combo like this oafish bear and caustic bird. As a playable unit, they rival Mario and Link in terms of dexterity and personality. Hell, they may be the most fun controllable characters to ever hit any console. As you acquire more skills, steering them from objective to objective becomes exponentially more diverse. You can run, jump, tip-toe, fly, somersault, climb walls and cliffs, and more, sometimes even all in one volley. While they can’t be separated (that feature wouldn’t come along until Banjo-Tooie), they boast respective skills that complement the other’s strengths and weaknesses. Banjo, for example, may be relatively slow afoot and can’t climb up steep slopes. But he’s a nimble adventurer, capable of climbing up poles and stalks, as well as grabbing and climbing across ledges. Kazooie, on the other hand, can run much faster (as well as carry Banjo up steep areas), and take the two just about anywhere by flying.
Naturally, their personalities complement one another just like their skills. Banjo, lovable as he is, is none too bright, complete with a dim-sounding voice. This makes him an easy target for Kazooie’s sardonic quips, which she has plenty of in store for him and seemingly everyone they encounter. (Best are her exchanges with Bottles, including names like “Worm Breath” and “Soil Brain.”) Most importantly, their polar-opposite characters fuse as one to such an extent that it’s impossible to look at them individually. They’re admittedly not the only unlikely adventure protagonists players grew to love. (After all, they followed a nimble Italian plumber who does everything but actual plumbing.) But they seem to have just as much fun exploring every mysterious nook and cranny as the player, with a suffusive energy unlike any other leading characters in video game history.
Every bit as dynamic as Banjo and Kazooie’s characters are the worlds they venture through. From beginning to end, Banjo-Kazooie explodes with some of the most radiant, lively worlds in video game history. And I mean these levels are alive in every sense of the word. They’re saturated with detail that’s still impressive today, and teeming with so much going on you might spend days just soaking each one in. There are nine worlds total (in addition to Gruntilda’s Lair and Spiral Mountain), and each one is filled with countless sidetracks, caves, crevices, puzzles, temples, and hideouts to explore. And as you play, you just have an endless desire to do and find every, single, little, thing. It takes a lot for a game to draw you into every last part of the world it creates, and Banjo-Kazooie does so in innovative fashion.
Each world is so unique and feels so much like its own self-contained game, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Freezeezy Peak looks like it came right out of a Christmas card, and allows you to climb up a giant snowman. Mad Monster Mansion is genuinely spooky, as well as a clear predecessor to the Count Batula level from Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Gobi’s Valley provides a litany of ancient pyramids and temples to traverse through, while Treasure Trove Cove is relaxing with its seaside setting. The most sprawling is saved for last in Click Clock Wood, a giant tree whose features change in accordance with each of the four seasons. As for my least favorite (and seemingly everyone’s), well, I think we’re all in agreement on that one.
Even with engrossing environments, no adventure would be complete without a kaleidoscopic gallery of supporting characters to interact with. Banjo and Kazooie’s journey has them crossing paths with the most vibrant, weird collection of individuals. They’re aided in their quest by Bottles and Mumbo, who are every bit as goofy as they are helpful. Other crazy encounters include: Motzand, a giant ghost hand playing a church organ; Clanker, the giant mechanical shark who serves as Grunty’s garbage compactor; Gobi the Camel, the valley’s namesake who can’t find a place to relax; and Brentila, Gruntilda’s “good witch” sister who provides embarrassing facts about her wretched sibling. (Did you know that freshly burst boils is Grunty’s favorite smell?) For my money, nothing in this world can top Captain Blubber the Pirate Hippo, who speaks entirely in belches. Yes…belches. I laughed at it when I was 9, I laugh at it now that I’m 25, and you better believe I’ll laugh at it when I’m 62.
Tying the many genius elements of Banjo-Kazooie into a whole is the gameplay. As open-ended and multifaceted as you can find this side of an open-world epic, it allows the player to roam throughout each world in a fluid and varied manner. The central objective is to collect enough jigsaw pieces (Jiggys) to unlock other worlds, but this is far from the only thing to do. Throughout the game, Banjo and Kazooie acquire an arsenal of skills, including (but not limited to) spring jumping, flying, backflipping, Kazooie shooting (or pooping) eggs like bombs, various beak attacks, and a nifty dive-bomb while flying that’ll either take out a huge target or send them crash landing with a drained life meter. Additionally, collecting enough Mumbo Tokens allows BK’s magician friend Mumbo to transform them into a context-sensitive object. Be it a pumpkin, bee or alligator, each form allows them to explore a part of the world they otherwise can’t reach.
In addition to Jiggys and Mumbo Tokens, you also hunt for red feathers (for flying), gold feathers (for a brief invincibility move), eggs, musical notes (for unlocking doors), extra lives, Jinjos (adorable little creatures kidnapped by Grunty), specialized shoes that enable you to run fast or walk through hazardous areas, and honeycomb parts to expand your life meter. The key to these collectibles’ appeal, however, isn’t so much the collectibles themselves, but how they’re spread throughout each level. Some will be in plain sight, while others are tantalizingly tucked away in an obscure alcove that requires your best skills to reach. This not only keeps Banjo-Kazooie from being a rote collectathon, but makes the journey endlessly rewarding from beginning to end. The feeling you get acquiring your 87th jigsaw piece in some impossible-to-reach crevice is every bit as satisfying as the first few.
Another area where Banjo-Kazooie achieves top-shelf quality is its ecstatic musical score. Composed by renowned Rareware musical workhorse Grant Kirkhope, it matches the diversity of the levels impeccably. Each composition is absurdly catchy and invigorating. How can you not get excited when the mysterious strains of Gobi’s Valley kick in, or feel blissed out by the tropic tinge of Treasure Trove Cove? My favorite is always the tune for Freezeezy Peak, which is so incredibly warm and fuzzy I’d always be sure to play the level when the holidays came around. (Seriously, it should be on any of those garden variety Christmas CD’s alongside Gene Autry and Elvis Presley.) There’s also a unique quality to the way the music changes form when you enter another big room or go underwater. Walking from one area into a completely different room, accompanied by the seamless transition in the music’s arrangement, subtly augments the sense of adventure and mystery at each turn.
For a transformative game closing in on its 20th anniversary, there’s close to nothing in the way of flaws or dated limitations. One notable issue is the constraint caused by the camera, which will sometimes awkwardly position itself when you’re trying to make a risky jump. Another problem is the fact that, despite the wide breadth of worlds you can access within Gruntilda’s Lair, the game always starts you at the beginning of the lair. This makes for a lot of backtracking to get to later levels, even after activating a few shortcuts via cauldrons. Most frustrating for me is the strict limitation on collecting musical notes. Every time you re-enter a world, you have to recollect all the musical notes you did before in order to get a higher total. (For example, if your previous high was 86 notes, you’ll have to collect those 86 and then the others you didn’t get.) Worse, when you die on a level, you lose all your musical notes. Fortunately, the gameplay is so seamless and uniquely tailored to various skills that you might not even die once on some levels. Others, on the other hand….
While doing a recent live stream of Banjo-Kazooie with my colleague Sean Willis, we noted how, even in the broad field of platforming games, there’s been remarkably little like it since its release (the renowned 2000 sequel Banjo-Tooie notwithstanding). Fortunately, a crop of the premiere former talents from Rareware have announced they’re uniting under a new banner to create a spiritual successor to the franchise. Not to mention, as of this writing, there’s a significant push by some fans to vote the underrated duo in as a DLC playable character for Super Smash Brothers, an idea which received the blessing of none other than Xbox’s Phil Spencer.
Aside from the perfect timing of coinciding with my Hall of Fame Review, all of this serves as poignant evidence of the lasting impact of Banjo-Kazooie. Even though it unfortunately hasn’t had as many iterations as some of its platforming contemporaries, its place in the hearts of gamers is an unshakeable one. If you were every bit as much a BK kid as myself and many others, all of this praise is probably superfluous. But if you have yet to sink your teeth into the sheer joy of Banjo-Kazooie, I certainly hope my words have persuaded you to take a reprieve from our current world of achievements and endless pre-orders to give it a spin. But like I said earlier, my words can only go so far in conveying it. Just pop that gray cartridge into an N64, press the start button, and let the adventure take hold.
Author’s Note: In case you were wondering, Banjo-Tooie will be my next inductee in the Last Token Gaming Hall of Fame. Stay tuned!
Original commercial for the game: