I’ve recently been lamenting the impending death of my Nintendo 64. It still turns on when I hit the power button, but after a certain amount of time passes it will reset itself. I had brief instances of this while playing Pokémon Stadium with friends, but its worst offense was this past year when I was playing Star Fox 64 for the first time ever. I had made it through almost the entirety of my playthrough when it shut off mid-level. I was devastated. I’m STILL devastated. Out of every console I’ve owned, I undoubtedly have the most nostalgia with this creation of the mid 90s. Back then, gaming didn’t ask very many questions: It was simply: “Is this game fun, or not?” And few N64 games hit a higher point for me than the illustrious Banjo-Kazooie games.
My first exposure to the infamous bear and bird was through a Keebler cookie commercial: an animated short that featured a giveaway of Banjo-Kazooie and a ton of related Nintendo 64 merchandise. I’m not sure what about it drew me in, but I knew right away that I needed to play this game. I had no way of knowing I would enjoy the game: pure instinct told me that I would love it. And it was right.
Banjo-Kazooie released in the late 90s, an era that was inundated with the latest fad of 3D platforming adventures. You couldn’t walk two feet without having to kick another new mascot out of the way. B-K might have come out on the tail end of the phenomenon, but it brought out what I believe to be the best of the genre. It included all the tropes, such as explorative sections intermingled with tricky jumping puzzles, countless collectibles to find in each world, and loads of secrets, but added a flavor to the adventure that could not be replicated by other series.
The main plot exemplified the game’s absurdity full-force: Gruntilda the Witch kidnaps Banjo’s little sister Tootie in order to steal her beauty and no longer be an ugly hag. Banjo and his breegull ally, the snarky Kazooie, must brave Grunty’s Lair, finding golden puzzle pieces (Jiggies) and notes across several different stages to progress to deeper areas. Throughout the adventure, the humor injected by numerous, ambivalent, often stupid characters still never ceases to entertain me, nor the sass that Kazooie unleashes upon every soul unfortunate enough to meet her. Each character’s speaking dialogue is relegated to a series of sounds while the text displays on-screen. These noises range from whining, clicks, and…yes…even burps. It was the 90s, after all. Some might be turned off to this style of delivery, but I believe it melds perfectly with the mood presented by the game.
Each level in Banjo-Kazooie was a fleshed-out, unique experience. While it may have included stereotypical stage types like “the Ice Level” or “The Desert World,” each of these were pulled off with a degree of character that outdid its competitors. Super Mario 64’s Cool, Cool Mountain is a giant snowy hill populated by penguins, with a slide-housing cabin located at its peak and little else to show. B-K’s Freezeezy Peak features a family of polar bears living in an igloo, a snowed-in village, a Christmas tree that needs lighting-up, a pile of presents, enemy snowmen throwing snowballs the moment you enter their territory and, at the center of it all, a giant immobile snowman that holds several of the level’s collectibles upon its being. And don’t get me started on that jerk Wozza the Walrus. Banjo-Kazooie goes the extra mile with its levels to provide an over-the-top immersion into each stage’s theme. All of the worlds are great, but some of my other favorites include Mad Monster Mansion (a Halloween-themed level full of mazes, graveyards, ghosts, and of course the titular mansion that can be entered from the front door, chimney, or several breakable windows) and Click Clock Wood (a single stage that houses four versions of itself in a hub, one for each season, and must be completed in a certain order to find all the collectibles: Spring-Summer-Fall-Winter, for those who might be stuck).
But the ingenuity doesn’t stop with the level-design: the game’s mechanics were also an exciting change from its contemporaries. Some power-ups were simple and served their purpose, such as the Wading Boots for piranha-infested swamp water or Shock Jump Pad for high, out of reach places, but the feather-based powers were ingenious! Red feathers could be stored and used at a Red Feather Pad, allowing you to fly around the level at your leisure and costing one feather for each flap to go higher (as well as to use the powerful Beak Bomb attack). There are also Yellow Feathers than can be used on command for momentary invincibility to help get through dangerous areas. The player’s freedom to use these powers was nigh unheard of in the day, as other games that implemented them generally placed very strict limits on their use.
Perhaps the most interesting mechanic is the transformation system. By taking the bear and bird to Mumbo Jumbo’s skull hut in certain levels and paying the appropriate amount of tokens, the shaman would chant his, well, mumbo-jumbo, and turn you into anything from a termite to a pumpkin to a bumblebee (my personal favorite). These changes allowed players to access certain parts of levels they wouldn’t otherwise have access to, whether due to stage hazards or being concealed behind tiny doorways that only a smaller creature could squeeze through.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the soundtrack that truly gives life to the game. Grant Kirkhope crafted music that perfectly encapsulates the themes of each level while constantly maintaining a level of zaniness appropriate to whatever is going on. I’d list my personal favorites, but each track is great in its own right and perfectly complements its environment and characters. I also enjoy how the music changes based on where you hear it. Gruntilda’s Lair changes instrumentation to suit whatever level entrance you draw near to, while going underwater muffles a stage’s music until you surface for air. There’s a maze puzzle in Gobi’s Valley that plays a short clip from the main level theme faster and faster as the timer for the puzzle ticks down. It is clear that Rare put just as much care into Banjo-Kazooie’s sound design as all of the other pieces of the puzzle (HAHA! Get it? You have to collect Jiggies in the game? Okay, sorry…)
Banjo-Kazooie was not a game that crafted something wholly new: it instead took a saturated genre and breathed new life into it with numerous mechanical innovations and a fresh, politely-irreverent twist (But oh what I wouldn’t give for an M-rated Banjo game!!!). It capitalized on adventuring through a well-designed world that was interesting and fun. It didn’t carry symbolism. It didn’t try to be something it wasn’t. It was just a game that set out to be fun. And if this wasn’t enough reason to love it…then came the sequel!
Banjo-Tooie released in 2000, just two years after its predecessor. It completely doubled-down on the first game’s formula in every way…no, literally! The newer levels are truly massive when held up to its forbear (HAHA! Get it? Bear?…Sorry again…). Our story begins as Gruntilda’s sisters arrive to dig her out from under a rock following her defeat two years prior in the original game. She bursts forth in a skeletal fury during a considerably-dark opening cutscene, at the end of which she kills one of the prominent characters of the first game. This was actually quite frightening as a child, especially given the levity of the first adventure even in its more serious moments. Needless to say, the bear and bird aren’t going to let this slide and they set out to stop the witch for a second time.
As I said before, this game is enormous in its design: from the giant hub area of the Isle o’ Hags to its various, sprawling levels, Banjo has a workout ahead of him when he starts out. Jiggies and notes are again the collectibles of the day for level unlocking and power-ups, respectively, and there are numerous new abilities added on to the already-massive list of moves from the first game. Every single level now also has a transformation unique to its setting, this time including attack capabilities as well as having the ability to solve certain puzzles that the bear and bird would find impossible. However, the Native American-inspired Humba Wumba performs your metamorphoses this time as Mumbo Jumbo takes on a controllable role, leaving his hut to zap enemies with his shaman stick and alter each level using magic from the Glowbo creatures (also the currency for Humba Wumba). Transformations range from a TNT detonator, invincible murder-van, and even a T-Rex, while Mumbo can levitate large boulders out of your way, give oxygen to an entire cave system full of water, and even bring the dead back to life. Some of my favorite memories of this game were just me wandering around and terrorizing enemies in the various transformed states. There’s nothing more satisfying than gleefully chasing foes and running them down as a honking van or ginormous T-Rex!
While the levels are just as intriguing as before in their themes and designs (a Mayan temple, theme park, and prehistoric mountain are just some of the new additions), it is their intertwining functionality that truly shines. Did you stumble upon some starving cavemen? Find the shortcut to Witchyworld and bring them back a burger and some fries. Need to cool off a pool of steaming-hot water to reach a collectible? Knock George the Ice Cube down from Cloud Cuckooland and murder-melt him to gain access to this previously-unreachable area (Dark humor at its finest!).
Banjo-Tooie also goes full-force with mini-game additions to each level. These can vary from timed race challenges, kickball matches, button-mashing, and even a few first-person shooter segments using a variety of eggs (ammo), which includes fire, ice, and even grenade types. While these eggs are usable in the main game for things like thawing frozen characters and blowing up cracked walls, they are much more entertaining in the context of an FPS through ancient temples and abandoned mining tunnels. Each of these mini-games also comes included as a multiplayer mode separate from the main story. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent flying around and shooting stingers at my friend in Zubba’s Shootout, but it was probably an un-bee-lievable number (HAHA! Get it? You play as a b- okay, sorry… I’ll really stop now…).
Rare struck gold when they crafted Kazooie and Tooie. I believe them to be the pinnacle of 90s adventure-platformers, but each game does have its drawbacks. Banjo-Kazooie forced players to restart their note and Jinjo collections upon dying in a level, or exiting and re-entering one. While this wasn’t always an issue, failing to find all 100 notes or each of the 5 Jinjoes before either of the aforementioned scenarios meant you had to start from square one (the notes were more of a pain than the Jinjoes). This was especially frustrating in places like Rusty Bucket Bay, where several notes are interspersed among a spinning fan-blade timed puzzle, making death quite easy and multiple level restarts common. And Bubblegloop Swamp’s Mr. Vile might win the title for most infuriating character/mini-game for the first game (Tooie’s goes to Canary Mary and her button-mashing race through Cloud Cuckooland: that last of her races). The flaws weren’t enough to damage my experience, but there were certain parts that I dreaded approaching during each subsequent playthrough.
While Tooie fixed some of Kazooie’s problems by making note and Jinjo collection permanent upon obtaining, its grander scale gave way to other issues. Traveling from Jiggy to Jiggy in a level can be a bit boring at times, and sometimes confusing given the number of hidden passageways, character access panels, intertwining level doors, etc. There were many play sessions as a kid when I had absolutely no idea where to look next for the solution to a puzzle, and even when completing the game as an adult I had to rely heavily on the internet. Some of the mini-games can also be infuriating: the aforementioned final Canary Mary race is BRUTAL, and it honestly might require breaking your controller’s A button to win and get the final prize. My other least favorite challenge is the Clinker’s Cavern shootout where you are tasked with unblocking the area’s vents that are covered in…uh…brown stuff that makes its presence known to the player with fart noises. It’s a timed challenge, at the end of which the area fills with poison gas, you die, and are forced to restart from the beginning. Learning the locations of these stinky foes is crucial, but not easy, amid the twisting hallways and hidden corners. I never looked forward to it.
While the Banjo games are not perfect, no game truly is, and the blunders they make are completely buried by the things they do right. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what all these games include and it would take far too long to do so with my love for attention to detail (characters, completion bonuses, every power-up and collectible type, bosses, music tracks, etc.). But when I think of my nostalgia for the Nintendo 64, Banjo-Kazooie and Tooie are the first games that come to mind. They were game-changers in a genre that had many competitors and shone out from the rest with their unique and goofy atmospheres. I won’t go into the lesser-known GameBoy Advance title (Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge), and there are no other games in the series to speak of…nope…DEFINITELY nothing on the Xbox 360…
Banjo-Kazooie is a series that will likely never make a return. But given its powerful legacy from the Nintendo 64 era, I don’t think it ever needs to. Do you have memories of playing the Banjo-Kazooie games? Let me know about it with a comment below! Thanks for reading, friends, and game on!