Back in the days of the N64’s prime, there was one firm that still managed to stand out from the rest, Rare. The UK based outfit were responsible for some of the greatest games the world has ever seen – Goldeneye, Diddy Kong Racing, Perfect Dark, and not to forget, the classic Banjo Kazooie...
Staring Banjo, the placid bear with a ferocious sense for adventure, and Kazooie, a sarcastic, loudmouthed, breegull who always puts her foot in it, Banjo Kazooie has become a benchmark for platforming excellence that has rarely been replicated since.
Set in the home of the Bear and Bird, Spiral Mountain, the game starts when Gruntilda – a hideous rhyming witch – kidnaps Banjo’s sister Tooty in order to steal her ‘beauty’. Shocked and outraged at this, our fury and feathered duo set out to retrieve Tooty and teach Grunty a lesson in the process. To do this they must battle through Grunty’s castle; fighting her countless minions, exploring many strange and bizarre levels, and destroying each of her music-sealed doors – the favoured defence mechanism of old hags, apparently.
The music-sealed doors are what prevents Banjo and Kazooie from getting to Grunty, and to break these seals our hero and heroin must collect the musical notes scattered throughout the game’s 9 levels – 100 on each. Of course, they can’t simply wonder around collecting the notes – Gruntilda has made sure that their adventure is packed with many obstacles and perils. To get musical notes, the duo must first unlock the various levels, which are all sealed by that other renowned resource witches commonly use… jigsaw pieces (we’re not making this up, honest!). So not only are you required to collect musical notes, you also have to gather the 10 jigsaw pieces – affectionately known as ‘Jiggies’ – that are located within each of the 9 levels, so that you can unlock new worlds.
Each of the aforementioned 9 levels has their own charm, and they are all exceptionally diverse and incredibly well designed; you’ll go from a mountain range, to a beach, swamp, desert, winter wonderland, cemetery, ship, forest, before partaking in a life or death quiz. Within each of these levels you’ll find many of Grunty’s cronies, and come across numerous quirky, memorable, and entertaining characters that are perfectly written into the game’s humorous script. None of these are more important than Mumbo Jumbo – the skeletal shaman who has the power to turn Banjo in to all manner of creatures - and Bottles – the short-sighted mole who teaches the bear and bird all their moves in the game.
The transformations that Mumbo will perform are just fantastic; the duo will turn into a bee, walrus, termite, crocodile, and even a pumpkin – truly the stuff of fairytales. Bottles, our thick-glassed friend, is also essential to the progression of the game: when Banjo and Kazooie stumble across his molehills, he will teach them a new move: his thorough training regime includes; shooting eggs out of Kazooie’s mouth (and behind), flying, swimming, jumping, rat-a-tat-tatting, and even wearing wellington boots (Arthur Wellesley would be proud!)
Because of the diversity of levels and the wide range of moves and transformations available, acquiring Jiggies is a richly varied process; sometimes you just need to land a sledge on a gluttonous polar bear, other times you’ll have to steal from a sharp-toothed treasure chest, oh, and then there is turning into a pumpkin and getting flushed down a toilet, eating turnips as a crocodile, playing the piano with a ghostly hand, feeding a totem pole, saving a dolphin, and rescuing hyperactive little birds called Jinjos. This variety to collecting Jiggies is what makes the process forever interesting. Combine this with the various hostiles, impeccable level design and thoroughly enjoyable dialogue and you have an unbelievably rich and engaging experience.
Essentially, Banjo Kazooie is like all the ‘old school’ platformers; collecting is the name of the game. Not only do you have the musical notes, Jiggies and Jinjos to find in each level, but you also have eggs, feathers, honeycomb pieces, Mumbo tokens, extra lives, caterpillars, and etcetera to collect. All of these items will assist you in some fashion or another: through Kazooie you can use eggs to fire at enemies, knock out bad teeth of a mechanical shark, and fertilise plants; while feathers, depending on what type, will give the feathery loud-mouth short-term flight or invulnerability; and caterpillars, well, they can be used to feed giant baby eagles, obviously. There is so much to do that it really makes the game feel much deeper than the 10-hours it actually lasts. What’s really great about it all is that nothing ever feels like a chore – all the elements fit together like a jigsaw!
Despite all its gameplay and level design greatness, the game would be nothing without the dialogue: from start to end, Banjo Kazooie is one of the funniest tongue-and-cheek scripts around. Each level has a massive variety of characters that are a joy to speak to (and torment), and the relentless rhyming snipes from Gruntilda will give you constant chuckles. Mix this in with a captivating soundtrack that pulls you into this beautifully crafted would, and we have gaming perfection.
In its day, Banjo Kazooie revolutionised platforming: it brought together impeccable gameplay, fantastic level design, great music, and a perfect story - from start to finish, the game was a joy to play. There really are no gripes about it: the controls work, it’s the right length, and there is immense replayability present. Over a decade has passed by since its release, yet still to find fault in this game would be splitting hairs – everyone should own a copy!