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Banjo-Kazooie Nintendo 64 Retrospective

March 27, 2010

Banjo-Kazooie – Nintendo 64 Retrospective
By Louis Bedigian

Does Rare’s most unlikely masterpiece stand the test of time?

Rare is the master of great game follow-ups. First Nintendo gave us Super Mario World; then Rare gave us Donkey Kong Country. A few years later, Nintendo gave us Mario 64; two years after that, Rare gave us Banjo-Kazooie.

It is through this watch-and-learn approach to development that Rare has been able to create remarkable games with the features we love the most: solid controls, excellent gameplay, likable characters, and level environments that you will never forget.

That’s not to say that all is well in the land of Banjo-Kazooie; in no way could this ever be considered a perfect game. But after going back to it for 12 years, Rare has proven that a game doesn’t need to be free of rough edges to become an unforgettable masterpiece.

Banjo-Kazooie Xbox 360 screenshots

What Were its Cultural Impacts and/or Importance?

In 1996, there was Mario 64. In 1997, there was…nothing! Not a single developer could produce a game that was comparable to Mario’s 3D gameplay.

One year later, that finally changed. In the summer of 1998, Rare released its long-awaited – and twice delayed – bear and bird-starring adventure. Banjo-Kazooie proved that Nintendo wasn’t the only one who could make a great 3D platformer.

Despite a few distinct flaws (Banjo moved more slowly than Mario, the first few dozen jigsaw pieces were easy to obtain, and the story was very childish), consumers and critics alike were in awe of the game. Anyone with an N64 could see why: though Banjo-Kazooie had fewer worlds than Mario 64 (nine versus Mario’s 16), Banjo’s worlds were meticulously designed. All of them were at least as big as Mario’s, and none of them could be considered “throwaway levels” (the term some developers use to describe the first few levels of a game when those levels aren’t well received).

The biggest impact of all, however, didn’t come until Rare and Nintendo parted ways. Without Banjo-Kazooie, Rare would have only had two major franchises to offer a potential buyer: Killer Instinct and Perfect Dark (Nintendo owns DKC and everything else related to Donkey Kong). By having Banjo to show off what Rare can do with the platformer and adventure genres, Microsoft eagerly purchased the acclaimed studio.

Banjo-Kazooie Xbox 360 screenshots

What Areas of Gaming did it Advance?

Banjo and Kazooie weren’t merely two characters that players controlled individually. Instead, the developers brought them together to take flight, to attack more powerfully, to hover for a short distance, to run across steep environments, and so on. While many of the gameplay mechanics were previously seen in Mario 64, Rare did its best to make them as unique as possible in Banjo’s world, adding unique twists whenever possible (like using rubber boots to walk across lava and other hazardous materials).

Most significantly, Banjo-Kazooie introduced us to things that were entirely new to gaming. Without question, the season-changing level is one of the most innovative creations ever produced. It’s more than a clever gimmick; when you switch from spring to summer, from summer to fall, and finally from fall to winter, the game adjusts with unparalleled brilliance. This, mind you, was a level Rare developed long before the PS2 and PS3 arrived – long before on-the-fly level adjustments were even considered a possibility. N64 wasn’t powerful enough to let Rare conduct the season changes in real-time, but the level was – and still is – an incredible achievement in game design.

Banjo-Kazooie also raised the bar for high-end console graphics, finally pushing N64 above its launch title status. The worlds and character designs were painstakingly detailed; Rare’s expert team of artists covered everything you see in rich, colorful textures. The character animations were top-notch, and the levels were creatively sculpted with an impressive degree of polish.

Banjo-Kazooie Xbox 360 screenshots

Does it Stand the Test of Time?

Undoubtedly. Twelve years ago, my first play-through was accompanied by constant grumbling (by me!) for all the things this game wasn’t: it wasn’t long enough, wasn’t challenging enough, wasn’t released soon enough, etc. And yet, later that year, I had to play through it again. In 1999, I went back once more. Here we are in 2010 and I have lost track of how many times I have played through this game. That is pretty darn remarkable considering all of the complaints I had upon its release – and the fact that I rarely play through games more than once.

Banjo-Kazooie, perhaps more than any other game, has a special, quirky charm that you can’t help but eventually love. Ever since my third play-through in ’99, whenever I hear the score, my heart is filled with nostalgic joy.

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