Genre: Platformer, Action-Adventure
Developed by: Rare
Published by: Nintendo
Platforms: N64, Xbox 360
Feeling Like: Steak
Banjo-Kazooie comes from a very particular time in gaming. Super Mario 64 had completely changed the landscape of what we thought a three dimensional game could be; while the protagonist may have been front and center, the star of the show were the levels themselves. Great attention was paid to ensure they were as fun as possible; they were playgrounds to be approached and challenged, rather than doom-impending obstacles. Each area had its own theme song, most of the time catchy as hell and entirely unforgettable. Enemies were usually unique to that area, along with a very distinctive color palette. Ask anybody who’s played Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie and other platformers of this era what their favorite level was and they’ll immediately have an answer.
This genre doesn’t really exist in the same traditional sense, most of the time you’ll see open-world games dominate the modern landscape in terms of cultural relevance. Team 17, a developer made of Rare veterans, attempted a modern version in this style called Yooka-Laylee, but it was met with mild applause only. The “collect-a-thon” had long since passed in terms of updated sensibilities, it seems. Levels may be fun to traverse, but as Donkey Kong 64 showed us, there’s a limit to how many version of feathers, honeycombs, coins, doo-dads, brooms, bottles, Jingos, hats and any other item that can be drawn with googly-eyes players can be expected to want to seek out. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, the spiritual sequel, was better in every regard and focused more on traditional platforming and level design.
The reason I mention all of this is that I’m not sure if you would enjoy Banjo-Kazooie today. Everything done in this game in 1998, aside from some of the charm, has been done better in other games since. What a thing to say about a game that I consider a better experience than 221 other games on the 500, but here’s the thing – this game could be dozens of spots higher and I wouldn’t bat an eye. Gruntilda’s dastardly rhymes, the puzzles to obtain the honeycombs and flying around are all wonderfully fun, even upon a replay 10 years ago. When Banjo-Kazooie launched in 1998, there were immediate comparisons to Super Mario 64 and rightfully so. Very few would say the Bear and the Bird could hold a candle to the Italian plumber, but at the time there were many defending it as a worthy experience.
Learning new moves throughout the game meant a better sense of progression and less confusion about what moves could do what. The controls, to this day, feel great. The levels may have seemed massive at the time, but now they’re almost bite-sized. Because of the excellent soundtrack and the relaxed pace of the journey, turning a corner can be a truly rewarding experience. What is around it? And how do I get that Jingo over there?
Initial confusion turns to discovery quickly. Removing a simple rock can mean an entire new set of possibilities, because now you can run to the top of the hill and who knows what’s on the way up there? The moderate freedom given to players ensured that not every puzzle needed to be unwrapped before moving onto the next area. Each stage got progressively more difficult and elaborate, but by the time you reached them, you had mastery over your moveset and you had a very good idea about what the game was looking for.
If you weren’t around at the time, it’s very difficult to explain the kind of magic Rare and Nintendo had during the N64 days. They were one of the few third party developers that really got what Nintendo was looking for and pumped out an astonishing amount of high quality games. In a three year span, from 1997 to 2000, Rare released Goldeneye 007, Diddy Kong Racing, Banjo-Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini, Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark, Banjo-Tooie, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day, among others. That level of output is…well, you know. What it meant was when a Rare game was announced, or previewed in a gaming magazine, N64 fans flocked to it like seagulls to an inattentive family’s picnic table. Every new title seemingly meant Rare had discovered another magical formula, or another way to stretch out the limitations of the console. Bigger levels, more multiplayer options, more cinematic cut scenes. With David Wise and Grant Kirkhope composing the music, it was a seemingly all-star combination of talent, creativity and business and gamers couldn’t get enough.
That magic was ever-present in Banjo-Kazooie. Lumbering around the hub world trying to find the next portrait to fill in order to gain entrance to a new world was a task I never tired of. The rendition of “Teddy Bears Picnic” is immediately identifiable, and changes slightly depending if you’re near a spooky Hallowe’en area, or a pleasant beach stage. I had a hard time not attempting to collecting everything I could see, or sense. If I sensed I was wandering around aimlessly, I switched areas. More than likely, I needed a break or I didn’t have the correct move to obtain the final piece of the puzzle.
Even though the series didn’t necessarily spawn a gaming empire, the legacy left behind is stubbornly steadfast. The emergence of Banjo and Kazooie in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a testament to fan’s desire to see the combo in future iterations. They’re about as 90s mascot as you can get, but their sound effects that accompany every move in the game are so endearing and the fundamentals of exploration, platforming and action are so wonderfully crafted in the game that it’s easy to see why some legacy remains.