1996 was an exciting time for the video game industry. Sony’s Playstation console was going from strength to strength. Competing with it was the Sega Saturn, and the ultra-impressive N64 from Nintendo. Releasing in 1996 the N64 was the most powerful console on the market at the time, and some of its launch titles were real eye-openers.
Super Mario 64, in particular, had offered us a spellbinding glimpse into the future of video games. Seeing Mario running around in fully realized 3D, hopping and jumping around colorful worlds, left some gamers absolutely blown away. For many, this was as good as platforming would get.
Even today, 25 years later, some people still believe that to be true. Indeed, in terms of the impact it had on the genre and on video games as a whole, Super Mario 64 is rightfully considered one of the greatest games of all time. Just 2 years later, we saw the release of another N64 exclusive 3D platformer. This time though, Mario wasn’t the star. Banjo Kazooie would change how we played platformers in the future in a big way.
First Impressions Really Do Count
Developers Rare had already carved out a stellar reputation for themselves with huge hits such as Donkey Kong Country and Goldeneye by the time they released Banjo-Kazooie in the summer of 1998. The titular stars of this platforming adventure are a loveable if a little dense, bear called Banjo and his foul-mouthed ‘Breegull’ friend Kazooie.
The plot is a simple one. Banjo’s sister Tootie is kidnapped by the evil witch Gruntilda who wants to steal her beauty. It’s up to Banjo and Kazooie, with a little help from their friends, to rescue her from a huge castle, and defeat the witch.
On paper, this reads more like a bad children’s nursery rhyme than the foundation for one of the greatest 3D platformers ever. But in many ways, Banjo-Kazooie’s beauty lies in its simplicity. In its absolute refusal to overcomplicate anything.
This colorful world, and the memorable, charming characters residing in it, immediately draw you in and create a lasting impression. For a game with an art style that looks like it’s aimed at children, most of its humor is extremely tongue-in-cheek and aimed at adults. This was a masterstroke by Rare in terms of casting their target audience net nice and wide.
Banjo Kazooie Taking Things To The Next Level
The hub world, Gruntilda’s castle, is a sprawling labyrinth of winding paths that connect to larger areas. There are many gates and doors throughout the castle that will often halt your progress. You will usually need to either unlock a new move or collect enough musical notes to progress past these gates and unlock the next part of the castle.
Years before Dark Souls garnered universal praise for its interlocking worlds and levels, Banjo Kazooie was busy laying the foundations for this with innovative and often unexpected world design. As you journey deeper into this hub world and begin to connect the dots, you’ll unlock shortcuts that loop back to much earlier parts of the castle, leading to genuine WOW moments. It becomes more and more impressive the further you get.
Often, solving a puzzle within a level will open a door or reveal a secret in Gruntilda’s castle. It’s this sort of connectivity that really encourages you to explore every inch of the world and uncover all of its secrets.
Each of the 9 levels in Banjo Kazooie has its own unique theme. These themes are cleverly signposted as you move through the castle, giving you ample warning of the dangers ahead. For instance, if you start to venture towards the Ancient Egyptian-themed world, Gobi’s Valley, you’ll encounter several Sarcophagus, as well as a distinct ‘Egyptian’ change to the music.
These subtle little innovations help to set this apart from others in the genre.
The levels are all extremely well built, packed to the brim full of secrets and surprises. Their themes are varied and will take you from snowy mountains to beaches with old pirate ships.
Each level pushes you to use what you’ve learned and constantly asks questions of you through puzzles, platforming sections, or mini-boss- battles.
A Figure of Speech
The impressive nuances in the soundtrack aren’t the only thing Banjo Kazooie’s audio team got right. The characters don’t actually have voices, they just speak in ‘mumbles’, meaning you have to read the accompanying text to understand them.
While this sounds like a very odd choice, it brings them to life in ways you wouldn’t think are possible. The fact that each character is able to convey a fully-fledged personality just by mumbling, says a great deal about the strength of the characters Rare managed to craft.
Each of the main cast has their own distinctive type of ‘mumbling’, and with this, they are able to display a range of emotions without so much as uttering a single word. In fact, if this game was to ever undergo the remake treatment, most fans would probably argue they would want the ‘mumbling speech’ to return, even with the option of a full voice cast on the table. Such is its charm.
Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, recently tried something similar here too, giving gamers the option of voiceover dialogue, or ‘mumble’ type speech from the original Lego Star Wars games. Clearly, this unusual audio style is nothing to mumble about!
All The Right Moves
Banjo’s move set starts out extremely basic. There is no leveling up or upgrade system like modern gamers are used to. Instead, most of the worlds contain a couple of new moves to discover. These moves are designed to get you to previously inaccessible areas or add a new dimension to combat. Not one of them feels like an afterthought, with each move having a unique purpose.
Too often in platformers, you see a plethora of pointless upgrades and moves thrown at you, most of which you will likely never use. Banjo-Kazooie goes for quality over quantity. Each new move is introduced at just the right time. The upgrades are sprinkled throughout the world almost like a breadcrumb trail for you to follow. At its core, Banjo-Kazooie is a collectathon. Finding these new moves forms a part of the collecting, and this is another example of the beauty in simplicity.
Banjo Kazooie Had A Finale Like No Other
The game’s climax throws a huge curveball that nobody sees coming. It’s as surprising as it is genius. Before the player is able to fight Gruntilda at the top of the castle, they must traverse across a huge game board, answering quiz questions about everything they’ve seen, heard, and read throughout the game. It switches up the dynamic instantly, with no warning whatsoever. Suddenly, your platforming skills are irrelevant. Instead, the game decides to test how good your memory is.
What other game could’ve pulled off such a stunt at the time? It’s hard to picture Mario having to sit through a math exam prior to his final battle against Bowser. And yet here, throwing a quiz into the mix feels so natural, that many people cite this as their favorite part of the game.
The quiz is not even the ‘proper’ finale. Sure completing it gets you Tootie, Banjo’s sister, back.
But as for Gruntilda, she runs up yet another set of stairs, daring you to follow her. Doing so requires you to return to previous levels and collect any missing Jigsaw pieces or musical notes you missed.
This ensures that completionists have an extra incentive to grab all the missing goodies. Could you REALLY say you’d completed the game if you didn’t get to the very top and fight Gruntilda in a huge showdown?
Personally I found the quiz, followed by the rooftop battle with Grunty, to be the strongest ending to a platformer that I have ever experienced.
An Important But Almost Forgotten Franchise
The success of Banjo-Kazooie cemented the characters as a part of gaming folklore. A couple of sequels and spinoffs followed, but none of them were quite able to recapture the magic of the original game.
In many ways, Banjo-Kazooie was the result of a perfect storm. A developer on top of their game. A blueprint of a 3D platformer, Super Mario 64, to use- and build on. Inspired level design and soundtrack. A set of moves that complement the levels and characters perfectly. And a couple of innovations that the genre had never seen before. Oh, and of course, a quiz for a finale- can’t forget the quiz!
In subsequent years we have been introduced to other platforming partnerships. Jak and Daxter. Ratchet and Clank. The ‘buddy’ platformer almost became a genre of its own at one point. But without a doubt, Banjo-Kazooie was the one that laid the foundations and paved the way for the ones that came after it. If you never had the chance to play it, it’s available on the Xbox Store, so there’s still time. Will we ever see a true sequel for a modern-day audience? We can only hope so.
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