As far as the gaming universe is concerned, there are two kinds of progress. Firstly, there are the advances that have taken place in the field of technology. Those were the changes that have allowed us to – in the blink of an eye – watch this industry go from pixels to polygons, from chiptunes to full-fledged orchestras, and from button presses to motion-capture. In a way, they are the backbone that supports the endlessly creative minds of our most beloved developers; they are the wings that lift dreams off of the ground.
As undeniably impressive as that kind of leap might be, it is far less exciting than the second group of transformations: the ones that happen in the field of ideas. The crafting of new technology is responsible for the birth of a wild assortment of tools, but those tools would have an empty purpose if nobody put them to good use. And that’s when the magic of ideas steps in: it polishes a mountain of scattered bytes, processors, and code into a gorgeous diamond.
Compared to pure technology, ideas are much more unpredictable. It is widely known that the power of machines will keep on growing at a steady rate with a lot of research and intellectual effort, but whether or not those new elements will be put to good use is a never-ending mystery because inspiration is harder to come by than sheer effort.
As the pieces fueling the industry evolve, so do its countless genres, and every once in a while those niches will take major steps forward either powered by the pure force of hardware, or by the influence of brilliant ideas. As a statement on how the latter tends to be much more significant and moving than the former, one of the biggest and most unexpected in-genre leaps took place within the same hardware and in a short window of less than two years.
That story begins back in 1996, when Super Mario 64 hit the market alongside the Nintendo 64. The game, aided by the unlocking of 3-D environments due to the hardware, was an enormous departure from Super Mario World and its sequel, Yoshi’s Island, the latter of which arrived some meager eleven months before the plumber wrote the book on how platforming was meant to be done within the confines of this newfound technology.
The concept of traveling from left to right, a nearly unshakable rule on the NES and SNES days, was deposed. Mario was put in the middle of wide environments and it was up to him to navigate through them and locate the elusive stars. What was once about performing jumps that progressively demanded more precision was now centered around exploration that had some ledges and platforms mixed in.
Super Mario 64 was, by all means, a revolution. Playing it back in 1996 was utterly overwhelming and borderline unbelievable. Yet, by looking back on it with different eyes, it is possible to see that much of it was still grounded on the quirks of sidecrolling, which is completely understandable given how it was the first step down an unknown path.
Some of its moments, usually its finest hours, could have never existed back in the 16-bit days: the iconic Bowser battles, the unforgettable slides, the magical flying challenges, and the fantastic immersion found in the hallways of Peach’s Castles. However, despite the infusion of exploration, most of the game could have been easily replicated if Nintendo only had access to more archaic technology.
Moreover, the game’s structure was still closely tied to its 2-D past. Whenever entering a painting, players would be greeted by a selection screen on which – one by one – new stars were unlocked as Mario progressed through the world. Although some could be picked up out of order, a large portion of the time – given the fact most stars demanded some changes to occur on the scenario – players were restricted to finding the one that had been chosen.
It is a tiny detail, but one that – often – worked against the sense of freedom the game tried to achieve. More significantly, it preserved the hierarchy of one world encompassing an ordered series of levels (stars), which dated all the way back to Super Mario Bros. It is not a flaw; rather, it is a characteristic that Nintendo decided to carry over from the franchise’s huge legacy and that has, in recent years, given us great fruits in the shape of the delightfully linear Super Mario Galaxy games and Super Mario 3-D World: games that have launched that old-school structure into the stratosphere.
Still, its links to the past and the fact that many of its mechanics had yet to fully mature meant that Super Mario 64 left a lot of room for tweaking with the foundation it had built. Two years later, they would be rocked to the core and improved in some aspects by Banjo-Kazooie. Rare’s brainchild, and a game that still stands tall among the greatest platformers of all time.
Where Super Mario 64 could have existed in a world devoid of 3-D, Banjo-Kazooie would have never come to be. The bear and the bird inherited a lot from Mario: the encompassing overworld that was slowly unlocked, the wide open worlds, and the sense of adventure. But, truth is, with the advantage of having arrived after the stage was built, Banjo-Kazooie did much more than Super Mario 64 ever hoped to achieve.
There were the technological achievements: the enhanced and considerably less blockier graphics, the steady camera, the tighter physics, and the more predictable controls. There were the artistic triumphs: the vivid details and colors of the environments, the smoothness of the scenarios, the humorous sound effects, and the flooring soundtrack – which included musical transitions between in-land gameplay and underwater moments.
The game also took a very distinct path in relation to the setup of its gameplay. Super Mario 64 slightly guided the players in where to go next by the order and title of its stars; it was linearity in disguise. Meanwhile, Banjo-Kazooie simply threw the heroes in the middle of a location – be it a haunted mansion or a forest with changing seasons, gave them a pat on the back, and asked them to fetch 10 jigsaw pieces and 100 musical notes.
After that, it was up to players to explore, talk to the wacky characters, and figure out where to go next. There were no chains dictating the order on which events had to be followed. There was no automatically exiting the world after a major goal was achieved. Players could remain in there for as long as they wished to do whatever they wanted, and that looseness played into the hands of the astonishing settings, which invited players to dig deeper and deeper into what the environment held.
Banjo-Kazooie’s worlds were, in the end, massive playgrounds that embraced a grand variety of challenges to be cleared so that the bear and bird could obtain their golden prizes. Sometimes the game demanded great platforming skills, such as the engine room of Rusty Bucket Bay. In other occasions, the searches ended in fun mini-games, like the wild sled race against Boggy the polar bear on Freezeezy Peak.
At other times, pure exploration was all that it took for one to reach their goal, like getting to the lighthouse on Treasure Trove Cove. And that all goes without mentioning the RPG-like item-gathering quests, which reach their peak as Banjo and Kazooie, on the platforming masterpiece that is Click Clock Wood, must hatch and raise a little bird through the four seasons until he turns into a majestic eagle.
How could so much variety be packed inside a single game? It all begins and goes through the ridiculously big assortment of moves the titular duo can perform. While in Super Mario 64 the plumber was restricted to some acrobatics and a couple of power-ups, the bear and bird could join forces to unleash more than a dozen different abilities which, within the simplicity of the game’s setup, delivered a great deal of complexity.
Consequently, the weight of keeping things new and fresh did not fall solely on the shoulders of level design. Banjo-Kazooie was absolutely masterful when it came to landing big worlds loaded with details and inspiration, but none of them would ever materialize if the characters could not do everything from farting eggs to flying, and be turned into a variety of beings that included a pumpkin and a termite through shaman sorcery.
Many years later, the question that is replicated by everyone who had the honor of playing Banjo-Kazooie when it came out is whether its magic can be recreated. It is arguable that the Galaxy games did platforming better, but as titles mostly concerned with doing tricks while toying with their linearity, they belong to a niche on which there is no room for Banjo-Kazooie’s free-roaming antics.
The 1998 game was a product of its era: a time when 3-D platformers where still crawling and there was still a lot to be done and enhanced. Rare took advantage of that scenario to kick things off with Banjo-Kazooie and then went on to produce a string of brilliant titles of that kind with Donkey Kong 64, Banjo-Tooie – the peak of the chain, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Linked by subversive and somewhat dark humor, they were the sequential output of a company that was on an unparalleled creative roll.
The sad reality about the legacy of that set (by definition the legacy of Banjo-Kazooie itself, since it was the game that lit that wick), is that – as time moved on – the more explorative line of platforming has been forgotten. Mario has recently moved even closer to his level-based origins and abandoned the Super Mario 64 style of gameplay, whereas other major platforming series have completely reconnected themselves with sidescrolling action.
Going from Super Mario 64 to Banjo-Kazooie was not just a leap forward, it was a lateral jump into brand new grounds, but that territory has been mostly abandoned. Replaying Banjo-Kazooie is remembering how platformers were able to change so much so quickly, but it is also coming to realize games of its kind are close to being extinct.
All that it might take for the industry to go back to exploring that path is inspiration. After all, it was a great idea – joined by a good deal of effort – that allowed us to, in two fast years, go from plumber to bear.