A sprawling masterpiece that time has not eroded and whose joy of exploration has barely been replicated ever since
Calling Banjo-Kazooie a surprise or viewing it as some sort of underdog would not be very accurate. The game was, after all, handled by Rare, a company that during the Super Nintendo days steered the ship of the Donkey Kong Country saga towards sidescrolling perfection with its second installment. However, in spite of its bright credentials, the bear and bird’s debut still comes off as something utterly unexpected; not due to its greatness, but because – a meager two years after the genre-defining Super Mario 64 – the title, starring unknown characters of a brand new universe, overwrites with astonishing class whatever set of rules the plumber had set in stone a few months earlier.
How does the game conjure up such an achievement? As it turns out, words on paper could never do justice to all elements the game nails spectacularly, but one vocable defines the point around which all of the title’s qualities gravitate: atmosphere. Banjo’s habitat could have jumped out of a fable. A talking bear with a backpack, he lives by a peaceful hill cut by a river with his beloved sister, Tooty; his chatty bird friend, Kazooie; and a shy mole, Bottles.
Beautiful lush tranquility takes a turn for the bad when a witch named Gruntilda, a villain that by all means reinforces the title’s whimsical fairy-tale surface both in her over-the-top wickedness and her hilarious habit to talk in rhymes, after listening to her cauldron praise Tooty’s beauty, kidnaps Banjo’s sister in order to make the girl’s prettiness her own. Banjo then, with Kazooie packed in his backpack and Bottles as a teacher of new moves and techniques, sets out into the witch’s lair to rescue his sibling.
Stepping into Gruntilda’s headquarters marks the point on which the scales begin to tip from lightheartedness to darkness. It is not that the game suddenly turns somber; Banjo-Kazooie is a game that primes in not taking itself too seriously, so it never ventures that far into gloomy territory. However, her home – which serves as the game’s fantastic overworld – is so cavernous, gigantic, occasionally sinister and ridden with tunnels, corridors, secrets, and passages that the overall colorfulness gains a bleak undercurrent.
It is in that blend of silent danger, adventure, and silly humor – whose highlights are Gruntilda’s constant rhymed threats against the titular duo and Kazooie’s overly honest remarks – that Banjo-Kazooie thrives. The overworld, which houses environments of unlikely size and variety given its cave-like entrance, serves as the hub to unbelievably well-designed nine worlds.
Their size, though considerable, never feels overwhelming. They are a joy to explore, and although some themes fall on platforming clichés (desert, frozen mountain, swamp, and beach), even those are positively original. Meanwhile, the ones that offer more unique settings – an impressively eerie haunted mansion, a polluted bay that houses a big rusty vessel, sewers with a shark-shaped trash disposal unit, and a forest that changes according to the seasons (the game’s masterpiece) – are incredible.
Each world houses valuable collectibles: 100 musical notes, and 10 jigsaw pieces, one of which is always found by locating five Jinjos (magic creatures kidnapped by the witch) across the land. While the former serve as the mean to unlock doors found on Gruntilda’s Lair, the latter can be used to complete paintings – some of which are very well-hidden – found on her headquarters that open the gates to the worlds. That structure makes for a steadily progressive – and somewhat linear – exploration into the depths of her foreboding home.
However, since the amount of notes required by all doors, and puzzle pieces demanded by the paintings are never 100% of the number found up to that point, there is a decent amount of freedom, allowing players to skip items they might have had trouble gathering, and giving those who have collected great amounts of each the possibility to – sometimes – choose which world will be tackled first.
Musical notes are simply scattered around the levels, waiting to be picked up by anyone that walks by. Jigsaws, on the other hand, are usually attached to elaborate goals: sometimes they show up through the exploration of a special landmark, but – in most occasions – they appear after the clearing of a mini-game, the defeat of a powerful enemy, the conclusion of some fetch quest, or the surpassing of a tricky platforming segment. Finding every single one of them is delightful challenge as it invites players to fully explore the game’s wonderful locations.
The constantly refreshing variety of the game’s tasks is achieved in three different ways. Firstly, there is the fact Banjo and Kazooie are a swiss army knife. Placing a bird on the backpack of a bear might sound ridiculous, but the techniques devised around that idea more than justify it. Aside from the traditional jumping, punching, and rolling, the heroes can fly, both shoot and fart eggs, attack while in the air, and much more. Their gigantic arsenal of moves, performed via easy commands slowly learned in quick tutorials found on the worlds, are fully explored and employed by developers.
Secondly, every world is populated by a wacky set of characters that are invariably remarkable. Delivering lines that are decidedly witty, and usually ready to give the pair of rescuers something to do, those numerous creatures also serve as the main display for one of the game’s finest achievements: its sound design. Every single one of the uncountable personages has a distinct unforgettable “voice” made up of a vast range of sound effects (including burps, farts, twinkles, and animal-like noises), giving every one of them a great extra deal of personality.
The third, and final, gameplay mastersroke is that – in certain levels – after collecting a number of tokens, Banjo and Kazooie can be transformed by the local shaman into a specific being with a new set of abilities that will help them uncover new locations both inside the world where the transformation is available and in the vicinity of the overworld that surrounds the entrance to that world. Not only are those mutations clever and unexpected, but the fact they can – and sometimes must – be taken for a stroll out in the overworld to unlock new areas creates a deep connection between Gruntilda’s Lair and the individual worlds it houses.
All those influences and quirks come together in glorious visuals and sound. Although some games that would come out on the Nintendo 64’s final years would eventually trump Banjo-Kazooie in graphical terms – including its successor, Banjo-Tooie – at the time of its release no game looked prettier.
Though its visuals are certainly a highlight, the real star of the show is the music. Grant Kirkhope, Rare’s gifted composer, holds a great deal of responsibility in the successful broadcasting of the game’s colorful-with-dark-undertones atmosphere. The songs are catchy and unfailingly brilliant, perfectly conveying both the whimsical and the dangerous. And, true to his unique style of arrangements, all tunes incorporate sound effects that are inherent to the world they belong to; that is why, for example, Rusty Bucket Bay’s theme is filled with instrumentation that resembles ship horns, and Click Clock Wood’s music is bursting with birds whistling the level’s unforgettable melody.
As a testament to the Rare’s ridiculous attention to detail and Kirkhope’s endless talent, the music even goes as far as changing its arrangement during the game’s underwater segments, where the standard instruments are replaced by a more echoed and quiet ambiance that follows the same melody.
Other than a camera system that sometimes has tiny hiccups, but that is still much better than most implemented on the era, Banjo-Kazooie’s sole flaw lies in the collection of the musical notes. If the characters lose all their energy during the exploration of a world, puzzles pieces that have been obtained are kept; musical notes, however, are lost.
Given there are 100 of them on each level, having to recollect those from scratch is undeniably annoying and frustrating, especially on later levels where – in some locations – minor slip-ups might be enough for the bear and the bird to fall from great heights, be killed by a powerful enemy, or run out of breath when swimming in dangerous waters. By itself, the game is already decently challenging, so it certainly did not need to resort to such an extreme measure to make things harder.
In the midst of such overwhelming greatness surfacing from every single corner, however, no issue could have possibly held Banjo-Kazooie back. After many years, its gameplay still stands tall and strong. It may not have opened the gates to a new era like Super Mario 64 did, but it showed – more than any other game – that classics can be topped, even within a few years of their original release. With over twenty hours of gameplay towards full completion, Banjo-Kazooie is a sprawling masterpiece that time has not eroded; and the joy attached to its exploration has barely been replicated ever since.