Review: Banjo Tooie (N64)

Can you bear second helpings?

Banjo Kazooie was a game that revolutionised platforming on the N64: Rare's off-the-wall-humour, creative level design and sublime controls made it the pinnacle of platforming on Nintendo's console. Fans of the original will most likely remember Rare's lavish promises about the second game, Banjo Tooie, including the ability to swap items with the original Banjo game (hence a lot of hidden Stop 'N' Swap items hidden from view in the first game). And while these dreams never materialised, we were still left with a pretty impressive sequel.

Starting out at Banjo's home in Spiral Mountain, Tooie begins a couple of years after the events of the first outing. Banjo & co are all snug and safe playing cards in his house, Grunty is still wedged firmly under a boulder, Klungo’s despairing over her mistress’ most pressing fate, and things couldn’t be better. Which, of course, just means things are bound to get worse, and promptly on the scene arrives Grunty's gruesome sisters Daz and Damo Mingella and Blobbelda; two ugly sisters whose noisy arrival through a rock-face in Spiral Mountain via means of a monstrous digging contraption heralds a great tragedy in the bear and bird’s lives.

Upon arriving in Spiral Mountain, Mingella and Blobbelda whip out the spell book and liberate Grunty from her worm-ridden enclosure – discovering that our rhyming hag has been reduced to skeletal form. Then, once reunited, the threesome assault Banjo’s home, killing Bottles in a spell of malevolent magnitude before escaping in the digger. With this shock start to the game, Banjo and Kazooie set out to seek revenge on skeletal Grunty and her siblings, following them to previously uncharted locations in an attempt to rid the world of these hags. While they are tracking down the sisters, however, the gruesome threesome is plotting the most heinous acts: they're using a contraption called the Big-O-Blaster to suck the lifeforce from the whole world and thus restore Grunty to her gruesome glory. Starting with King Jinjo, the wicked witches set the clock ticking on the world’s energy, and only Banjo and Kazooie stand between them and victory... unbearlievable!

From the outset, just like the story, everything in Tooie seems grandiose, large and slightly overwhelming when compared to its humble predecessor. Arriving in the Jinjo village for the first time will register the sheer magnitude of this game: there's a lot to do and explore here, and this is just the first area outside of the levels – and there are countless other parts of Hag Island that could swallow Spiral Mountain in one gulp! Entering a level in Tooie is a little like it was in Kazooie; each world's size is quite a surprise (sorry, Grunty's rhymes are contagious - I know our readers find this outrageous!). Instead of having levels that can be completed in one sitting, all Tooie's stages have been specifically designed to tie in with each other, meaning you can't actually finish a level until you're most of the way through the game, when you can then access the linked areas. This is puzzling at first, as it's not clear that hopping between levels is required – you'll be wondering how to get some Jiggies, only to find that you gain access to them via another level a few hours later. But this design to connect all the levels together is befitting of the expansive approach of the game and good fuel for your typical completionist – there's easily over 10 hours of content here, and while it can get overwhelming, it's still thoroughly enjoyable.

The levels themselves are indeed richly designed, and it's obvious a lot of effort has gone into bolstering the series’ content: from the prehistoric to the circus; from the ocean depths to a run-down mine, the settings are diverse and atmospheric, and really show off the '64 at its peak. You'll marvel at the level designs and feel enchanted by this quirky fairytale. The core of the game is still there too, with Jiggies remaining the blissfully unchanged lifeblood of this fairytale: you get a few Jiggies, a new world opens up; repeat until witch is defeated. Of course, keeping to the score of its predecessor, Banjo Tooie is all about collecting the musical notes and all manner of other weird and wonderful objects – but now there is a lot more of it to do. Gone are the days of completing a level in 30 minutes; Banjo Tooie opens and expands the floor totally, and a few cracks start to appear...

Some of these cracks are caused by the game possessing a trait not often exhibited by sequels: our heroes actually retain all their moves from the first outing, which is pretty handy as they have a lot to take on. Or is it? We find it somewhat ironic really that, because Rare opted to keep the moves from the past game – something which many people get irked about not happening in sequels – they put themselves in a bit of a pickle: if there are no new moves, then there's little variety to be had and not much to expand with, so they had to introduce additional ones. With Bottles' lack of a corporeal form putting a downer on the moves situation, the intrepid adventurers look towards Jamjars – Bottles' tough-stuff brother – to teach them a series of new moves.

Foremost amongst the new moves from Jamjars is being able to split the duo up: Banjo and Kazooie can venture through levels on their own, with a whole host of new moves (Kazooie even learns to hatch eggs!) The gameplay is drastically changed when the duo are split up, and you have to think outside the box (well, backpack in our feathery friend's case); however, getting split up and lost from your partner is not fun, and with the scope of the levels it is something unclear what it is you actually have to do. Jamjars' other additions, such as using Kazooie as a gun (FPS-style), the bill drill, spring shoes, and the new egg types (trying to circumnavigate though the five types of egg for our beloved breegull learns to fire isn't eggciting!) range from fun to just a little too much to manage, especially when the moves from the first game are all still there!

And then we have the introduction of Mumbo Jumbo as a character. Essentially, all he is used for is to find the special Mumbo pads and activate them, after which you will return to his hut and be better off for it (the poor shaman adds relatively little value). Still, Tooie manages that almost perfect level of difficulty and precision with the controls that many platform games fail to emulate: it's only fractionally less fluid than the original when it comes to the new moves, which still puts it way above most other games. Transformations are ever-present as always (you actually get to be a washing machine this time, and a dinosaur!) but it's the sumptuous Humba Wumba who works the magic and changes our bear and bird – poor Mumbo really gets a raw deal. Level bosses also come into the fray for the first time too, ranging from a giant patchwork-balloon dinosaur to an old, grumpy lump of coal, and even a pterodactyl. These additions lift the level of humour in the game and really add to the level of depth we didn't experience in the first outing – maybe even more depth than we needed, but only just.

But is it really a major flaw in a game for it being too big? Not in our opinion. Banjo Tooie is a fantastic game filled with all the variety and imagination you'd expect from Rare's glory days; we're simply disappointed that the vastness of the game makes it hard to squeeze every single drop of fun from this title – it's that good you want to get all you can from it. With the option for four player Goldeneye-style deathmatches, things can get hilarious with a few friends around, even if it's relatively short-lived. The only other thing to slightly dim this fairytale adventure is the backseat position of our villain Gruntilda – no longer does she tease and provoke the duo with her rhymes; she just seems to be there at the end to dish out a good beating to – maybe the hag felt a bit too haggard? Still, compared to the overall beauty of this game, those are only slight nuances.

Conclusion

Banjo Tooie is a wonderful game: the levels are fantastically crafted, the humour is ever-present and a lot of care has gone into creating an adventure of epic proportions. It stands above many of the good platformers out there, but it does fall short of the 'perfect' 10 simply because it overreaches: the worlds are slightly too big, there are a few more moves than necessary, and playing as Mumbo Jumbo is a feature that adds no value to the series – the experience feels a bit superfluous. Still, don't let this detract from the fact that Banjo Tooie is one of the gems in Nintendo's platforming history: with rich level design, brilliant gameplay and a charming story, this one is well worth getting hold of.

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