Genre: Platformer, Action-Adventure, Collectathon
Original Release: June 29, 1998 (North America), July 17, 1998 (Europe)
Publishers: Nintendo, Microsoft Game Studios
Platforms: Nintendo 64, Xbox 360
Played on: Nintendo 64
Part of the problem with reviewing games that I grew up with is that, like with Ocarina of Time, it’s difficult for me to separate my opinions from my nostalgia. I find myself asking “Is this game actually good, or is it just a game that I loved as a kid that hasn’t aged well and I’m overlooking it because of childhood memories?” a lot in the process, and while I feel like you and I both know the answer already given the excerpt and tags, it’s still worth talking about why I feel the way that I do. I’ve played Banjo-Kazooie through at least three or four times over the years, and each time I loved it just as much as the first time, though I died a lot less each time. That’s beside the point though, let’s talk about the game itself.
Due in part to the time it came out and partly to the nature of games at the time, Banjo-Kazooie leans more into gameplay than it does story. There is a story: Gruntilda the witch is jealous of Banjo’s sister Tooty. Where Tooty is small and kind and an all-around lovable honey bear, Grunty is neither small, kind, lovable, nor a bear. The bear thing isn’t exactly a qualifier in the looks department, but it shows that Tooty is definitely related to our hero Banjo. So one day, Grunty decides to kidnap Tooty and steal her looks not through magic, but through science. Because, you know, witches do science.
Thus, it’s up to Banjo and his Breegull sidekick Kazooie to launch a rescue effort. Once Banjo learns how to jump and defend himself anyway. For a bear he’s not exactly bear-like. Anyway, Banjo and Kazooie learn a number of moves from their neighborhood mole Bottles. Once they’ve learned everything he can teach them around their home of Spiral Mountain, they’re all set to make their foray into Gruntilda’s lair, conveniently carved into the cliff near Spiral Mountain and incredibly blatant.
Once you’re inside, you’re into the game proper. I don’t know if Banjo-Kazooie was the progenitor of the collectathon genre, but you can see and feel a lot of it in other games even today. There are 10 jigsaw pieces (or jiggies) in each world and in Grunty’s lair, totaling to 100, 100 notes, and two empty honeycomb pieces in each world. Jiggies are used to open new worlds by filling in their puzzles, notes unlock doors locked by musical spells, and six empty honeycombs will add one unit of health to your meter. Said meter increases to a maximum of eight honeycombs from a starting point of five, but there are 24 empty honeycomb pieces throughout the game, which should add up to nine. I’m not sure if this is just an oversight, but it’s not the end of the world. Plus you get a really sweet jingle out of collecting six over them.
A majority of the worlds also contain at least one new move for Banjo and Kazooie to learn from Bottles as well as five little Fraggle-looking friends called Jinjoes. Collecting all five in one attempt will reward the duo with one of the ten jiggies they’re looking for. And that’s the core gameplay in a nutshell: run around, explore all of the worlds as thoroughly as you can while collecting jiggies, notes, jinjoes, and honeycomb pieces and learning new moves along the way. It’s simple, but it’s so polished that it’s just darn fun to play.
Now because Banjo-Kazooie was made by Rare, it was eventually re-released on the Xbox 360 via the Xbox Live Arcade. There are some big quality of life differences between the two versions and it’s worth discussing them because the Xbox 360 version is a lot more player-friendly by modern standards. In the original N64 version, the only things that would come with you when you exited a world would be mumbo tokens, jiggies, and empty honeycomb pieces. Jinjoes and notes would be reset and if you hadn’t already collected all of them you would need to start over. The number of notes on hand in Gruntilda’s lair would be based on your best note score in each world, which was how many notes you collected before either dying or leaving the world. Similarly, you would need to collect all five Jinjoes without dying or leaving in order to get the jiggy from them. Collect all 100 notes in a world and your score would be 100. Collect 64 and it would only be 64, you get the idea.
The Xbox 360 re-release changed this up for the better. Once you’ve collected a note or Jinjo, it’s removed from the world and counts toward your total. That way you don’t have to collect them all without dying. The game isn’t particularly hard so you won’t die if you’re careful, but it’s a lot more forgiving for younger kids and people playing for the first time because of this change. It’s not without its downsides though: Because it runs on a much more powerful console, the framerate is much higher and as a result the music isn’t synced up with the opening cutscene. For most people this won’t be much of a problem if at all, but I’m a bit of a snob and prefer the N64 specifically because it’s synced up.
Most of the worlds can be completed in one sitting. In fact, except for one of the better-known worlds, Freezeezy Peak, you don’t need to backtrack at all. And even in Freezeezy Peak, you just need one move from the next world in order to get one jiggy. You can grab everything else in one go if you’re so inclined and just come back later if you want. That’s how I did it anyway. If you know what you’re doing you can work around this by going to the subsequent world, grabbing the required move, and then going back to Freezeezy Peak to keep things in sequence. But how you play is up to you in the end.
I feel I should also mention that certain moves require one of three resources: blue eggs, red feathers, or gold feathers. These come in limited quantities: 100, 50, and 10 respectively. However, there’s one more character hidden around Gruntilda’s lair that can help increase that capacity: Cheato the spellbook! Every time you find him, he’ll give you a new cheat code to double the capacity of one of these items. I miss when games had built-in cheats to serve as quality of life improvements or just change things up like in Turok or Goldeneye. It adds more fun to the game and rewards you for exploring!
Most of the rest of my notes are just reactions and keeping track of various other secrets, but I think it’s safe to say that overall I love Banjo-Kazooie as much as you can love a game. It has some points that haven’t aged well (there are a couple of things on timers that start counting down before you have control of Banjo, leaving little to no room for error), but honestly this game is the kind of ridiculous fun that just sticks with you no matter how old you are, and it still looks great even today!
Honestly, I think part of why Banjo-Kazooie holds up as well as it does is thanks to both its pedigree (Rare made a lot of games before Banjo-Kazooie, and they’re still active today) and the fact that it went for a cartoony approach instead of an attempt at realism. But my absolute favorite thing is that every character has one or two short sounds for their voices. Kazooie squawks, Grunty has a “ree” or “raa” sound, and Mumbo is mostly sounds made by Grant Kirkhope involving his knackers. I’m not making that up. I swear there’s an article out there discussing the origin of the now-famous “eekum bokum” but I can’t find it at the moment. However I did find the relevant animation that first introduced me to Inugami Korone, who helped make it more popular in recent years.
This is one of those games where I feel it’s reasonable to say that you owe it to yourself to play it. Finding an original N64 cartridge might be a bit pricey right now, but you can get it for reasonably cheap via the Xbox Live Arcade or through Rare Replay if you’re so inclined! I have no experience with the latter, so I can’t honestly speak to its quality or to changes they’ve made, but the game itself is a blast and it’s definitely one of my all-time favorites. Heck, they were so confident that they announced Banjo-Tooie at the end of the game. You know that when Mumbo says his jaw dropped in awe, you’re in for a ride. Thus, I feel more than comfortable recommending the adventures of the Bear and Bird.
I already know that I also love Banjo-Tooie, but I don’t really know how to feel about Nuts & Bolts. I’ll cover them both in time, but for now I think I’m gonna take it easy for a bit. Have fun friends!