Just about 14 years ago, Nintendo 64 owners were graced and privileged with Banjo-Kazooie. The game, which many critics at the time referred to as a Mario clone, went on to provide one of the most satisfying 3D platforming experiences at the time. Yes, it was inspired by the legendary Super Mario 64, but it took that inspiration and created a worthwhile adventure with its gloriously colorful worlds and introduced a bear and bird duo that proved doubters wrong: Nintendo wasn't the only company that could make amazing platformers.
Prior to writing this feature, I was excited to play Banjo-Kazooie. And I'm talking the original Banjo-Kazooie, not that Xbox Live Arcade version that wasn't even ported by Rare. I hooked up my Nintendo 64, plugged in my controller, and popped the game cartridge in. I hit the power switch and was greeted by the old school Nintendo 64 logo — no cart blowing necessary!
For those of you who have never played Banjo-Kazooie and are unaware of the basic plot, you play as Banjo, a bipedal bear, and Kazooie, his wise-cracking, cheeky bird sidekick who also happens to live in Banjo's backpack. It was an odd pairing back in 1998, and you better believe it's an odd pairing now. But this is a video game after all, so the absurdity is certainly welcome. The game starts out with Banjo fast asleep while his kid sister, Tooty, is kidnapped by an evil witch named Gruntilda who wants to steal the cub's youth. It's up to you to save Banjo's sibling.
I skipped the initial tutorials and decided to get the hang of things on my own. Banjo and Kazooie have basic punching, rolling, and pecking attacks at their disposal right from the get-go, so getting used to these actions wasn't difficult at all. The inviting nature of Banjo-Kazooie really stood out to me as something that would be praised by gamers today. Considering tutorials take over so many games these days, it was kind of cool being able to jump right in and actually start playing.
Progression revolves around the collection of several items. Jiggies are puzzle pieces that replace Mario 64's Power Stars, and there are 10 in each world. To collect these, you need to perform certain tasks, grant favors to friendly characters, or defeat bosses. Unlike Mario 64, you aren't returned to the hub world once you grab a Jiggy. This is great because it allows you to further explore the game's worlds, which are pretty big.
Across the nine worlds in Banjo-Kazooie you'll also find collectible musical notes — 100 per world to be exact — that are used to open doors within the hub area to gain access to later stages. One gripe I had with the note collection was that these items respawned if I left the world or met a premature demise. If you're a completionist, you'll need to return to the world and start collecting notes all over again. Sure, you could argue that being allowed to collect these items again adds to the replay value, but that argument would be easy to counter as Jiggies don't respawn, so it's easier to recommend starting a new game as opposed to playing levels repeatedly.
I was about 12 years old when I first played Banjo-Kazooie. At that time, 3D platformers were fresh, but they had already exploded in popularity. It's funny because the game seemed a lot more challenging back then. Don't get me wrong, Banjo-Kazooie has a lot to do, but the game never gets too punishing. That's probably a good thing because it keeps the game flowing smoothly, especially since I remember getting super annoyed when I would collect 96 musical notes only to die before reaching an area with the last four, thus forcing me to restart my note collect-a-thon.
Even after over a decade, it's hard to find a lot of flaws in the way Banjo-Kazooie plays. That said, the few flaws that are there are super apparent. Aside from the note collection issue, I also remembered why I got frustrated with Banjo-Kazooie as a kid: that damned camera. To be honest, the camera isn't always a mess, and it tends to control nicely a lot of the time. But when an obstruction pops up, it becomes a major undertaking just trying to figure out where you are or how the heck to shift the camera so you can see Banjo again. As you can expect, this causes some problems, such as falling off ledges or running into enemies.
Surprisingly, one aspect that isn't a problem is the graphical design. Despite being a 14-year old game, Banjo-Kazooie still looks good. Back in the 90s, it surpassed Mario 64's colorful aesthetic, and while it's not as amazing as it was back then, Banjo-Kazooie's world is still pleasing to look at and rife with nice visual details. The soundtrack is also great. Hell, it's outstanding. The music is catchy, and the subtle nuances that add to each world's music — ribbit sounds in the hub world right before you enter the swamp stage and a serene shift in levels' tracks as you swim underwater are just two examples — are excellent. It's just a shame that Kazooie is kind of annoying at times.
Personally, I'm a bit saddened by the fact that Banjo and Kazooie haven't been seen more prominently, especially since they delivered an excellent debut in their Nintendo 64 adventure. Sure, the game's camera problems are bad and a few aspects haven't aged especially well, but Banjo-Kazooie is an excellent 3D platformer that's still fun to play and even puts some modern platformers to shame.
The verdict: Despite a few minor quirks, Banjo-Kazooie holds up as one of the greatest 3D platformers of all time.