RetroGrade Review #6: Banjo-Kazooie (Nintendo 64 — 1998)

Banjo-Kazooie, released two years after the launch of the Nintendo 64, is a game so full of brilliant design, lovable characters, and clever story-telling that critics hailed it as being a superior game to the revolutionary Super Mario 64. Sadly, its critical score failed due to the fact that it did not break any new ground. It expanded on nearly every facet of that aforementioned other title – more characters (and in much greater variety), more collectables, more moves, and as much dialogue in the first five minutes as was in the entirety of previously-referenced aforementioned other title. It was plainly and simply impossible, however, for Banjo-Kazooie to match the “wow” factor of Super Mario 64. It was, after-all, a 3D platformer, and that had by then been done before. Even so, Banjo-Kazooie is a near-perfect game that only suffers in a couple areas.

When Banjo-Kazooie was originally reviewed back in 1998, critics claimed that the game had little replay value. Similar to most single-player games, the story is the same each time that you play it through. And, of course, a chief feature of single-player games is the fact that, well, only one person can play them. Without variation and without any extra ways to play, most games do suffer in the replay value area. This is not the case in Banjo-Kazooie. Banjo-Kazooie is the exception that proves the rule, as they say, but more on that in a moment. The features that cause the game to hiccup are the sometimes-problematic camera and the fact that some of Banjo and Kazooie’s techniques become obsolete early on in the game.

Neither of these issues are game-breakers by any stretch, but they do cause occasional moments of frustration or confusion. If you are trying to make a leap to get a collectable in a confined space – for example, the tiny inside of Mumbo Jumbo’s Hut – you are likely in for several minutes of frustration as the camera just won’t show you to where you are jumping. In the moveset category, one of the first moves Banjo learns will almost be never used again for the entire game, and neither will his legs, as Kazooie’s “Talon Trot,” designed to allow players to climb steep slopes, has a faster base speed than Banjo’s regular run. Prepare to spend 90% or more of the game holding down the “Z” button.

Thus ends the list of everything I could possibly nitpick about Banjo-Kazooie! The assortment of characters is staggering, the levels are brilliant and colorful, and the writing is absolutely fantastic.

I’ll delve first into the characters, since that is what the game starts with. Similar to Rare’s other classic game, Donkey Kong Country (on which I believe I have said some words), the game loads into a screen that showcases the characters interacting with each other. In Donkey Kong Country, you are greeted first by Cranky Kong listening to music on a record player only to be booted off the platform by Donkey Kong and then retaliating with a barrel of TNT. In Banjo-Kazooie, you are met with Banjo playing, well, a banjo and Kazooie playing a little horn-like device that sounds vaguely like, well, a kazoo. Banjo’s little sister Tooty runs around behind the bear-and-bird before joining in the music by tooting-away on a flute. The last character to join in the music is Mumbo Jumbo, who magically switches back and forth between instruments as Banjo attempts to knock them away. This opening sums up four of the game’s primary characters perfectly – Banjo is the loveable doofus who can’t outsmart anyone on his own, Kazooie goes out of her way to annoy the other characters, Mumbo Jumbo contributes to the venture while at the same time trolling the bear-and-bird, and Tooty has the entire purpose of just standing there and being the innocent little sister.

The game’s characters make up for its limited plot, which features Banjo’s sister being kidnapped by the rhyming witch Gruntilda and her speech-impaired henchman Klungo. Together, the bear-and-bird must venture forth, aided by the spectacled mole Bottles, the aforementioned shaman Mumbo Jumbo (who is purple, for some reason), and a host of other characters ranging from a polar bear family who just can’t seem to get their Christmas in order to a choir of turtles led by Tiptup, another character from Diddy Kong Racing(Banjo’s first appearance in a video game). The banter between the characters is always witty, and the insults (which are in no short supply, to say the least) always appear to be in good spirits. Even the items and collectables speak to you the first time you pick them up.

The game’s levels, in addition, are marvelous both visually and in design. Each world is unique, with scenery such as a Christmas wonderland, a murky swamp, a sand-swept desert, and a threatening shipyard covered in rust and oil. They are also cleverly named, with titles such as Mumbo’s Mountain; Treasure Trove Cove; Clanker’s Cavern; and Mad Monster Mansion. The difficulty with each level ramps up smoothly as the game progresses as well, as each major technique gained in each level is used frequently as the game moves forward, culminating in the game’s challenging final level, Click Clock Wood. Click Clock is a level in four parts – spring, summer, fall, and winter – and tasks you with utilizing every skill you have learned throughout every other world. Additionally, having a final level that spans the four seasons is a brilliant way to symbolize the entire journey. This is the sort of thing that makes me love playing older video games – there is so much I notice as an adult that I just didn’t have the knowledge to notice when I was a kid, and it adds a whole other level of depth to the experience, which in turn increases the game’s long-term replay value.

To call Banjo-Kazooie an exceptional game would be an understatement. The characters are loveable, the writing is spectacularly witty and funny, and it is just an all-around fun time. You need to go play it. Right now. I don’t care if you’ve played it as many times as I have, go play it again. Either original N64 or an emulator or on the Xbox 360. Go do it. You’ll have fun. I know I’m going to!

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