One of the greatest titles to be released for the Nintendo 64, Banjo-Kazooie cemented Rare’s position as the top developer for Nintendo’s 3D console. Colorful characters and expansive levels gave this 3D platformer as sense of identity and personality. The simple story of Banjo and his friend Kazooie as they try to save Tootie, Banjo’s sister, from Gruntilla, the evil witch who lives in a castle, lays the foundation for a game that isn’t driven by its story but by it’s addictive gameplay and entertaining personalities. When it was released in the summer of 1998, the game was a big success and was praised for developing on what Super Mario 64 had established as the foundation for a third dimension platform experience. However, as games have evolved, how does the title hold up today?
By today standards, the graphics in Banjo-Kazooie are blocky and almost devoid of quality texturing. However, they are still vibrant and colorful. Everything still pops off the screen. In later levels, it can become too dark which doesn’t help you see where you’re going but mostly everything is very bright. Not to the point of blindness or agitation. Just right. The soundtrack of the game is all in different styles and genres, as much as the N64’s sound chip can do, but it’s all based around the two titular character’s musical names, a banjo and a kazoo. This gives the music a familiarity whenever you hear it. The music during the pause menu will become familiar soon enough, which may be a good or bad thing, depending on how you personally like the music. I myself found it to be endearing but I understand why someone might find it insufferable due to constantly hearing it.
Presentation is well done in this game and it’s evident when you turn on the game. The introduction sequence is a fun introduction to the game and helps set the tone of the humor and attitude of your experience following, even if it really doesn’t have anything to do with the game’s plot at all. During cutscenes, character models are actually quite mobile and aren’t stiff at all. Animations are constantly repeated but it adds to the cartoon feel of the game. Characters don’t move their mouths when talking (or spitting out gibberish as they don’t actually talk), but they do emote. Eyes blink, body’s sway and arms move. N64 games tend to have 3D models that are stiff in movement but then there’s games like Banjo-Kazooie that prove that it doesn’t have to be that way. Dialogue is funny if you are nine years old or if you have a young sense of humor (like me). So if you like watching Looney Tunes or Scooby Doo, you’ll enjoy the banter between Kazooie and your tutorial friend, Bottles.
Once you finish the initial tutorial though (which is skippable by the way), you’ll head up to Gruntilla’s castle where the game proper begins and you’ll have 100 jigsaw puzzle pieces called Jiggies to collect, 900 musical notes, and 24 honeycombs to collect. You’ll do this by traversing across nine levels as well as Gruntilla’s castle, which serves as the hub world for the game. Each level is different from the last and in very different ways. One stage will have you in a winter wonderland and the next will send you into a haunted house. You’ll be beachside in one and in a metal shark thing in another. The variety in the stages keep monotony from settling in and keeps the action going.
However, it doesn’t keep it away for long. Essentially what you do in each stage is the same, which is search the level looking for the aforementioned Jiggies, Notes, and Honeycombs and collecting enough so you can move on or all of them if you want to complete the game at 100%. As you progress, the enemies and levels become increasingly harder and eventually, you’ll be looking for honey pieces to keep your health up as you’ll lose all your notes that you’ve collected in that level if you die. They’ll still be added up to the overall total but to collect all 100 in the stage, you need to stay alive. What all this boils down to is that you are treasure hunting and this inherently becomes tedious. What’s worse is to collect a Jiggy, sometimes you have to collect some other item, like worms or Jingos or treasure (how meta is that).
Another problem with the game is the control. Now the controls are actually quite good and save for a few times when you think you made a jump only to see your character just slide off the platform, Banjo-Kazooie handles great. Camera control though is a problem and it’s hard to get over that today. The camera moves in fixed angles and not smoothly like most games today. The other problem is the Nintendo 64 controller’s analog stick isn’t too good at handling slight movements and I’m sure this is only noticeable now that we had analog sticks in all our gaming devices. I found myself falling off a ledge or swimming in the wrong direction because I moved a little more than I intended to. I should say that I have two N64 controllers, one with a tight analog stick and one without. I tried both and I’m basing this on the tighter one. Side note: playing Banjo-Kazooie with a loose analog stick is miserable, as it is with any game really. What’s more is that I owned the XBLA version of this game and I also played this game on an emulator, both times using a Xbox 360 controller and I didn’t slip or go in the wrong direction nearly as much as I did in the original version. This is mostly noticeable on the second to last level, in which you need to get across ship gears and the control and the camera constantly killed me, whereas I got through it the first try on the other versions.
Despite the rough analog control and the treasure hunt gameplay, this doesn’t mean that the game doesn’t hold up or that it isn’t fun. Quite the contrary. Banjo-Kazooie is a blast to play even today. There’s isn’t too much variety in the way you collect things but there is variety and you be doing the exact same thing every time. Also, there’s isn’t too much collecting like some other simian Rare game. There is a great sense of satisfaction in beating up giant crabs, beating a sled riding bear, and pounding on a camel (that didn’t come out right). Quick tip: when you run into the enemies that come out of the wall, if you jump and press B to do Kazooie’s rat-tat-tat attack, that will take them out in one hit. Just learned that 13 years after the game came out. I’ve just been avoid them this whole time. Throughout the levels, you’ll run into Bottles and he’ll teach you new moves like how to fly, how to spit eggs and even how to become invincible for a brief period. Also, Banjo-Kazooie has a very satisfying final battle and ending, something many games today lack.
In conclusion, Banjo-Kazooie is a fun game but the foundation of many of the first 3D platforming games has not aged well. However, this game is still a great representation of the best that style of game design has to offer and shows Rare at their peak. This brings us to an auspicious moment. Banjo-Kazooie is a great game and any fan of the Nintendo 64 should have this in their collection, if they don’t already. However, for those who just want to play the game, I would have to recommend the XBLA version over this one. It has HD support, achievements, tighter controls thanks to the 360’s controller and smoother camera controls. I haven’t completed the XBLA version but it is better than the N64 original in my opinion. Maybe I’ll write a follow up review of the XBLA version when I get an Xbox 360 again. For the time being though, less serious gamers should go for the updated version and only collectors should get the original.