Banjo-Kazooie Review - Screenshot 1 of 5

This review originally went live in 2009, and we're updating and republishing it to mark the long-awaited return of Banjo-Kazooie to a Nintendo console, available as part of the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack N64 library.


Back in the days of the N64’s prime, there was one firm that managed to stand out from the rest: Rare. The UK-based outfit was responsible for some of the greatest games the world has ever seen – GoldenEye 007, Diddy Kong Racing, Perfect Dark, Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini, Donkey Kong 64... it's no exaggeration to say that Rare rivalled Nintendo itself when it came to mastering the 64-bit system. However, of all of the amazing titles the studio produced for the console, it is perhaps Banjo-Kazooie that attracts the most adoration and acclaim, even after all this time.

Starring Banjo, the placid bear with a ferocious sense for adventure, and Kazooie, a sarcastic, loudmouthed 'breegull', Banjo-Kazooie has become a benchmark for 3D platforming excellence that has rarely been replicated since. To say it's Rare's N64 masterpiece isn't mere hyperbole; it arguably represents a top-tier studio at the very pinnacle of its game.

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The game begins in Spiral Mountain, the home of the Bear and Bird, when Gruntilda – a witch with a penchant for a rhyming couplet – kidnaps Banjo’s sister Tooty in order to steal her ‘beauty’. Shocked and outraged, the furry and feathered duo set out to retrieve Tooty and teach Grunty a good lesson in the process. To do this they must battle through Grunty’s lair, fighting her countless minions, exploring many strange and enchanting levels, and destroying each of her various musically-sealed doors – the favoured defence mechanism of old hags, apparently.

Those doors gate progress through the lair overworld, and breaking those seals involves collecting musical notes scattered throughout the game’s nine levels — 100 on each. Of course, they can’t simply wander around collecting quavers; the devious Gruntilda has made sure that their adventure is packed with many obstacles and perils. The duo must first unlock those levels, each one sealed by that other renowned resource witches commonly use, jigsaw pieces (we’re not making this up, honest). Along with the notes, you also have to gather the 10 jigsaw pieces – affectionately known as ‘Jiggys’ – which are used to fill in picture and unlock news worlds, and so on.

The levels are incredibly charming, and they are all exceptionally diverse and well-designed; you’ll go from a mountain range, to a beach, swamp, desert, winter wonderland, cemetery, ship, forest, before partaking (famously) in a life-or-death quiz. On paper, it's all standard stuff, but it's shot through with a wondrous fairytale atmosphere, aided by an incredible soundtrack from Grant Kirkhope. The music beautifully mixes jaunty comedy with wonder and some Brothers Grimm-style darkness, although the cheeky humour of the script and the overwhelming colour of the world keeps this resolutely family-friendly.

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Within each of the levels you’ll find many of Grunty’s cronies and come across numerous quirky, memorable, and entertaining characters asking you to solve their problems for a jiggy. Mumbo Jumbo, the skeletal shaman and self-professed best shaman in the game, has the power to turn Banjo and Kazooie in to all manner of creatures — animal or vegetable. The transformations are just fantastic and highlight the brilliant animation work that characterises this game. The short-sighted Bottles is another ally and essential to progression through the game; stumble across his molehills and he will teach you a new move. His thorough training regime will result in a wide repertoire of both the standard moves you'd expect from a 3D platformer (flying, swimming, jumping, rat-a-tat-tatting) and several more, er, 'innovative' moves, including shooting eggs out of Kazooie’s mouth (and behind) and wearing wellington boots (Arthur Wellesley would be proud).

Because of the diversity of levels and the wide range of moves and transformations available, acquiring Jiggys 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; then there's 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, rescuing hyperactive little dudes called Jinjos, and plenty more. This delightful variety is what makes the process so interesting. Combine this with the various hostiles, impeccable level design and thoroughly enjoyable dialogue, and you have an unbelievably rich and engaging adventure — quite possibly the epitome of the 'collectathon' 3D platforming experience.

Yes, it does involve a lot of collecting, but Banjo strikes a perfect balance. It never gets tedious or overwhelming or obtuse in the way of later 3D platformers such as Donkey Kong 64. Notes, Jiggys, Jinjos, eggs, feathers, honeycomb pieces, Mumbo tokens, extra lives, caterpillars... the list goes on but it feels manageable and — critically — pleasurable to seek out all these bouncing goodies. All of these items will assist you in some fashion or another. Through Kazooie, you fire eggs at enemies, knock out a mechanical shark's bad teeth, and fertilise plants, while red feathers (and a corresponding launch pad) will enable flight and gold feathers offer 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 or so it actually lasts. Nothing ever feels like a chore – all the elements fit together like a jigsaw (see what we did there?) and there always seems to be something extra to find or collect, which adds immeasurably to the game's long-term appeal.

Despite all its gameplay and level design greatness, the tongue-in-cheek dialogue infuses everything with an irreverent spirit: from start to end, Banjo-Kazooie has one of the funniest scripts around. Each level has a massive variety of characters that are a joy to speak to (or, on occasion, torment), and the relentless rhyming snipes from Gruntilda provide constant chuckles. Steep the whole thing in Kirkhope's captivating, eminently whistle-able soundtrack which grabs you and pulls you into the beautifully-crafted would, and we have gaming perfection.

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Sure, video games have gotten a lot more visually impressive since the late '90s and BK's boxy 3D isn't exactly cutting-edge anymore, but Banjo-Kazooie has an aesthetic and bouncing fairytale charm which is utterly timeless — and if you were lucky enough to have grown up with this remarkable 3D adventure, then you'll have the added benefit of nostalgia to throw into the mix. It is from a more innocent time when cute mascots and colourful worlds were the norm rather than the exception, a time that Playtonic Games, a studio formed from ex-Rare staffers, is having success replicating in the modern era. Banjo serves as the perfect reminder of why 3D platformers were so insanely popular in the '90s; the kind of treasured game you can show your kids and rest easy that your nostalgia isn't misplaced or rose-tinted — they're sure to love it. It's Banjo.

Conclusion

Banjo-Kazooie brought together impeccable gameplay, fantastic level design, brilliant music, and a lovely little fairytale story – from start to finish, the game was a joy to play, and that remains utterly true. There really are no gripes we can think of. The controls feel great. It looks and sounds beautiful. It’s the perfect length and has scope enough to elicit wonder without the overwhelming bloat of other collectathons. Even after all this time, it's incredibly difficult to find fault in this delightful and engaging 3D adventure. Banjo-Kazooie is one of the N64's very best releases, and one of Rare's undisputed crown jewels. Essential.