I spent one summer doing nothing but play Banjo-Kazooie. I’d start playing in the morning and carry on until about six and a half hours later I’d beaten the game 100%. The next day I’d do it again. Of all the games I’ve played it’s probably the one title I’ve played through from start to finish the most number of times and was instrumental in my becoming a Nintendo fan.
Banjo-Kazooie is one of the great number of platformers that owes everything to Super Mario 64. It’s the best of that game’s many copycats, not because of how well it emulates the earlier classic but because of how it carves out its own identity. Dual-character single-player gameplay was nothing new in 1998; it was something Rare had been doing since the original Donkey Kong Country, games like Sonic 2 and Mickey Mousecapades did it before that. But where in all those previous games the second character was a tag-along, contributing little real gameplay merit, the dual-character concept of Banjo-Kazooie is at the heart of everything.
Banjo the bear is the hero who does all the leg-work, running, jumping climbing etc. He wears a blue backpack which is home to Kazooie, a red-crested breegull (whatever the hell that is). Kazooie is the lifeblood of everything that’s cool about the gameplay and her presence gives context to all the complex moves you can perform. She lets you jump higher, swim faster, run up steep slopes, attack with greater force, shoot eggs as projectiles and, of course, fly. The two characters blend so perfectly they become like one and playing the game is every bit as fun as Super Mario 64 as the move-set gets everything out of the controller. One of the best abilities is the feathery flap, in essence a second jump. Press and hold A in mid-air and Kazooie will flap her wings to extend the length of your jump. You can use it to change direction in mid-air and to slow your descent. Rather like Yoshi’s flutter jump it’s a very empowering move that allows you to approach platforming with complete confidence.
The story involves the ugly witch Gruntilda (who looks like a reject from The Wizard of Oz). When she kidnaps Banjo’s little sister Tooty with the aim of stealing her cuteness, Banjo and Kazooie set off into the witch’s lair to rescue her. With the help of Bottles the mole (who teaches you new moves) and Mumbo Jumbo the shaman (who turns you into different animals) you must make your way through the nine diverse worlds and progress to the top of the witch’s lair.
Banjo-Kazooie is a collect-em-up. Instead of giving you linear platforming challenges you must explore the open-ended worlds in search of various collectibles. Each world contains ten golden jigsaw pieces called Jiggies which are needed to open new worlds, a hundred musical notes which open doors to let you delve further into Gruntilda’s lair, and two honeycomb pieces to extend your life bar. You must also track down mumbo tokens to pay for your animal transformations as well as ammo for your egg-shooting and flight abilities. Jiggies are typical rewards for more difficult challenges. Some are out in the open and take some skill to reach, others are rewards for winning mini-games or helping the various characterful NPCs. You might have to track down some missing presents for three polar bear kids, compete against a crocodile in an eating contest, copy a piano melody played by a ghostly hand or rescue a dolphin trapped under a ship’s anchor. Then there are the boss fights which include scraps with an angry, orange-lobbing gorilla, a giant hermit crab and a massive box of explosives that hops after you. There’s so much to see and do it’s almost overwhelming and it’s fun just to explore and see as much of the world as you can.
Some don’t like the collectathon structure of these types of games but it works really well in Banjo-Kazooie. The worlds are all designed in ways that challenge your exploration, combat and puzzle-solving abilities and building up your collection is very satisfying. You don’t need to find everything to beat the game but going for 100% is a very stimulating challenge and you’ll need little incentive to want to explore the colourful worlds.
Many of the nine worlds follow the usual location themes for platformers. There’s a snow world, a desert world, a swamp and a haunted house but a couple do stand out. Clanker’s Cavern takes place in a sewer which is home to a huge mechanical garbage-eating shark in need of a few favours. Rusty Bucket Bay is a polluted shipyard containing a huge steam tanker. But even the more clichéd levels are a lot of fun to spend time in. The best of the bunch is Click Clock Wood, a forest level you must explore separately in all four seasons. Actions you take in one season will affect things later, for example in the spring you can hatch a baby eagle which you must nurture throughout the year until it’s big enough to fly in the winter.
This is one of the best-looking N64 games with plenty of detail in the textures and vibrant use of colour throughout. The soundtrack is just as good, packed with bouncy, upbeat tunes stuffed with personality. The same goes for the sound effects and especially the voices. Each character speaks with a series of comical grunts, growls and chirps, each one different and often hilarious. Look out for pirate hippo Captain Blubber who communicates in belches.
Banjo-Kazooie is a beautifully-presented, confidently-arranged package that is challenging and lengthy with loads to see and do. Exploring Gruntilda’s lair and the worlds contained is a real joy that nails that feeling of discovery that made Super Mario 64 so special. It may not be as important as that game but it’s one of the best games on the Nintendo 64, still enormous fun to play and a proper platforming classic.
Design – 9
Gameplay – 10
Graphics – 10
Sound – 9
Content – 9
Everything about Banjo-Kazooie feels just right from the gameplay to the graphics and the quirky storybook comedy. One of the most genuinely fun experiences you can have with your N64.