If you told me when I started writing for this site that I would have an article about Banjo-Kazooie, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you said that I would be writing something positive about Banjo-Kazooie, I would outright call you a liar. I have a somewhat complicated history with Rare’s popular Nintendo 64 game, released in the summer of 1998.
My sister received Banjo-Kazooie as a gift shortly after its release date. I am 10 years her senior, so while I was in the middle of high school, she was just getting into video games. I don’t really remember who gave it to her, or even for what occasion, but she was quickly discouraged by the game’s difficulty for someone as young as her. She wasn’t wrong. I recently replayed it, and there were some tough spots for me now! Anyway, I decided to give Banjo a spin, and I ended up spending nearly all of my free time with it. My parent’s even joked that they were glad at least someone was playing my sister’s new video game.
However, I lost my patience with Mad Monster Mansion, a spooky themed level which, to me, had the first real spike in the game’s difficulty curve. Combine general annoyance with being a teenager, and you get someone who just didn’t have time for a game that was thematically aimed at a younger audience. I always had an open mind when it came to video games, but around that age I wanted to get back into more “mature” titles.
I also got tired of all the collecting Banjo-Kazooie tasked on the player. There are 10 jiggies (golden jigsaw pieces) to find per level, which would allow you to unlock more worlds to further you progress in the game. There are also 100 notes to find per world. Collecting them is actually more important because you need set note totals that count across ALL worlds to unlock doors that lead deeper into Gruntilda’s Lair; Gruntilda being the game’s villain and the lair being the hub world.
It really didn’t help that I put the self imposed challenge on myself to collect every single jiggy and note. You don’t need all of them to beat the game, but for whatever reason I decided to have a completionist attitude. As a result of my sudden lost of interest, the game collected dust for many years. I would go on to remember Banjo-Kazooie as, “That annoying collecting game.”
Fast forward to a couple of months ago. My friends and I discover JonTron, a popular reviewer on YouTube. Turns out JonTron is around eight years younger than me. How is that relevant? Well, most internet reviewers I ended up following over the years are very close to my age. If said reviewers got nostalgic, I would be right there with them as they walked down memory lane. JonTron is the first reviewer I have decided to follow that talks about the Nintendo 64 era with as much reverence as people around my age would show for the original Nintendo (JonTron and I do meet half way when it comes to the Super Nintendo, however)! He is also a huge fan of Rare games, so hearing him talk so passionately in some reviews about the developer sent me on a Rare game kick. Before I knew it, JonTron ended up convincing me to give Banjo-Kazooie another go.
And that leads me to today. I have finally gone back and completed Banjo-Kazooie. I even stuck to my original goal of getting every jiggy, note, and all other possible things to do in the game. My opinion of the the Nintendo 64 classic has done a complete 180. At various points throughout my playthrough, I even felt more positive than I did when I originally tried the game! The collection angle wasn’t nearly annoying as I remembered it.
I do remember why I was discouraged back in the day, however. I got reminded of exactly why I was annoyed with the initial difficulty spike when I had my first death in Bubblegloop Swamp. If you lose a life in a level, you have to start note collecting all over again. The jiggies you collect will save. But if you got 99 out of 100 notes, guess what? You have to collect 1 through 100 all over again. You also have to face this fate if you willingly walk out of a level, or save and quit while in a level. So if you want your note total per level to be 100, you have to do it without losing a life or giving up!
I won’t lie: I was very annoyed when I rediscovered that rule, but I was able to deal with it and move on. I have never played the Xbox Live Arcade version of Banjo-Kazooie, but I do know that in that version, notes save if you lose a life. However, I have to admit that taking out that punishment removes a lot of the challenge and tension I felt while exploring all the wide variety of worlds the game had to offer. Finally finding the last couple of notes at the edge of death in any level was a thrilling feeling, and makes up for all the annoyance felt beforehand.
There are two aspects of Banjo-Kazooie I didn’t really notice the first time that I ended up falling in love with: The soundtrack and the writing. Grant Kirkhope, who composed TONS of music for Rare (including the ever popular Goldeneye 007), did an amazing job with the soundtrack. He hit that sweet spot in gaming music that is memorable and catchy, yet seamlessly integrates itself into the game’s visuals. Part of the illusion was how the soundtrack in all areas would change pitch, speed, instruments, etc. depending on what section of a map you were on.
The writing was simple enough for a child to get through, but fun enough for an adult to read. I always liked how Gruntilda would taunt the player the whole game and speak all of her dialogue in rhyme. I also loved how each character, even if it had only a couple of lines, would carry its own unique sound. The more I played it, the more I realized how much effort was poured into Banjo-Kazooie.
The best example of this effort is the game’s brilliant level design. Not only does the craziness of Gruntilda’s Lair feel like a real place with a logical design flow, but the worlds within the lair itself all stand out. Banjo-Kazooie is able to have the grass level, desert level, ice level or whatever without me going, “Oh, this is going to be a typical [trope] level,” for the most part. It helps that a couple of the worlds carried a theme not often seen in platformers. Rare even meant to make a sewer themed level interesting! I think what helps the level design overall is that unlike Super Mario 64, if you collect a jiggy, Banjo-Kazooie’s star if you will, you aren’t booted out of the level. You can stay as long as you like until you die, collect everything or leave at your own leisure.
The only real flaws I found after all these years is that the camera really reminds you that the game was made when even the best developers were still getting used to making a three dimensional video game. Sometimes the camera was just as big of threat to you falling down a loooooong way as an enemy that gets a lucky shot in. I also think the game could have used better pacing. I adored Gobi’s Valley, a desert themed level. But the ease of difficulty when compared to the previous two levels had me thinking it should have been placed earlier in the game.
Then you’ve got the other side of the coin on the difficulty/pacing issue. Rusty Bucket Bay are three words I would never expect to scream out loud in rage, but boy did Banjo-Kazooie bring out my inner demons on that day! The average time for me to get everything in all other levels was an hour. My time for Rusty Bucket Bay? Two hours and forty five minutes! As far as pacing goes, this clearly should have been the last world to traverse since not only was it harder than Click Clock Wood, but a hell of a lot more interesting too.
However, my overall experience is a very positive one. Mark me down as yet another fan of Banjo-Kazooie. My only regret is that I didn’t give the game its proper chance when I could have hopped aboard when the franchise was brand new! I never even played Banjo-Tooie or even took a look at it! If only there was some way to track down old games in this day and age…
Some games I like just a bit more as time goes on, while others age poorly. My latest go around with Banjo-Kazooie ended up turning my opinion around in a positive way. I suppose it takes a special game to do that. Well, that and a little maturity on my part!
Front page image from vizzed.com. Image 2 from cheapassgamer.net. Image 3 from ntlworld.com. Image 4 grotesequegirl.blogspot.com. Image 5 from therwp.com.