Banjo-Kazooie (Nintendo 64) review
"There's the usual range of areas, from the beach and snow areas I already mentioned to a swampland, a desert, a forest and even a haunted house (as well as an underwater stage). That may sound like a bad thing if you're one of those who craves originality on all levels, yet each locale's presentation is so flawless that you won't mind wandering through the same 'old hat' one final time."
Once upon a time, there was a beast of a woman named Grunthilda. She lived comfortably in a mountain modeled after her head, alone with her assistant and a magical cauldron. Life as a witch was mostly satisfying, until one morning she peered into the cauldron and it made the mistake of answering her daily question honestly. Shocked, Grunthilda stumbled backward from the bubbling pot, forced to face the horrific truth: her missing teeth, wart-covered nose and otherwise hideous features somehow didn't qualify her as the most gorgeous creature in existence. Instead, that honor belonged to a cute little bear named Tootsie. Choked with rage (and perhaps a healthy dose of phlegm that had trickled down her throat), Grunty kidnapped the flute-playing mammal, locked her up in the lab, and began the process of draining her beauty away by means of a magical machine.
Fast forward a few hours, and turn the camera down the hill to a cottage where a lazy bear named Banjo starts looking for his sister. He soon realizes she's been abducted, which doesn't exactly strike him as a good deal. With no real choice in the matter, he sets out to save his sibling. His only weapons are his paws, his feet, and a bird named Kazooie that he hauls around in his backpack. Together, the two animals embark on an incredible journey known only as Banjo-Kazooie.
The story and premise may strike you as silly. And of course they are. But none of that matters, not when the artists throw themselves so whole-heartedly at the game's every detail. The story I just told isn't pilfered from the instruction manual. Rather, it's a summary of the scenes you'll witness when you first start a new file. There's no FMV, yet the character models do a fantastic job of acting out the scenes. They have expressions, they grunt and screech appropriately, and the camera pans around each scene as if gripped in the hands of Hollywood's finest cinematographer. It's great fun to watch it all, even if you've seen it before. And when the camera has provided you with a view of the valley outside the witch's lair, the action begins at last and you begin to fall in love.
For me, it was the camera angles and play control that clinched it for me. With only brief exceptions, you're controlling Banjo for the game's duration. He's much more limber than you might expect from a bear with a backpack. The analog stick allows you to direct him all over the place just as easily as you would a certain rotund plumber. His jumps also feel just right, neither too loose nor too precise, but a happy mixture of the two. Even if you're not quite comfortable with the control scheme, the game gives you time to adjust. You guide Banjo as he leaves the shelter of his cottage and roams through the immediate areas surrounding it. Here, you will find bits of honeycomb scattered about (the golden ones can increase your life meter, while others just restore vitality you may lose) and also a smattering of simple enemies. It's like a training ground, really, and you'll have all sorts of time to adjust to the controls before hopping up the path that leads to the witch's home.
As you explore the valley and the mountain trail, you'll also find yourself learning to love the camera. No doubt noticing how a flighty camera sometimes crippled Super Mario 64, Rare went back to the drawing board and crafted a perspective that's much freer. The result is a game where you seldom find yourself trapped against a wall and wondering where to go next. It's easy to slide the camera left or right with the 'C' buttons, or to center it behind Banjo for situations where that's preferred. This is not to say there are no moments where you'll hate the camera, but those seem to occur much less frequently here than for any other game on the system.
When you reach the witch's cave, you'll find that it serves the same purpose as the castle did in Mario's game. Levels are scattered throughout, and you'll have to find your way to their entrances. However, they are formed from puzzle pieces. If you don't have enough of a jigsaw assembled, you can't enter the next stage. Likewise, a shortage of music notes collected will prevent you from passing through some of the gates that litter the witchís domain. In this manner, the developers keep you from entering more advanced stages before there's a reason to do so. Of course, you also have to find those stages, and doing so isn't as simple as wishing. Grunty's cave is frustratingly designed, with corridors that loop back on one another and similar textures that make it easy to get lost. It's one of the game's few flaws, something the developers try to correct with the addition of warp cauldrons that allow you to hop around the massive level hub. Unfortunately, that's not enough to correct the problem. Between stages, you'll be spending a lot of time wandering the same areas, and you might even decide you're not having much fun.
Then, of course, you'll finally find that next area to explore, and suddenly everything is okay again. That's because the levels themselves are pure bliss. They're wide open, filled with 'wow' moments. Trek to the top of the giant broom held by the snowman in the fourth stage. It's a long climb, and when you reach the top you're suddenly treated to a view of the entire level beneath you. In another area, climb rocky paths leading up a series of cliffs that rise from a vast ocean. Reach the lighthouse and look down at the area you've explored. These are two examples out of many. It seems like each stage is designed in a manner that makes it a joy to explore. Not only that, but they often look quite different one from the next. There's the usual range of areas, from the beach and snow areas I already mentioned to a swampland, a desert, a forest and even a haunted house (as well as an underwater stage). That may sound like a bad thing if you're one of those who craves originality on all levels, yet each locale's presentation is so flawless that you won't mind wandering through the same 'old hat' one final time.
Of course, it's not just the presentation values that make a given location so much fun to explore. There are two other factors. One is the nature of your objectives. You get to do a lot of cool things, like filling holes in a bucket (it's neater than it sounds), cleaning an eel's teeth (again, not so bad as you may think), entering a haunted house, returning gifts to disillusioned children, and so forth. They really force you go get to know each of the game's numerous nooks and crannies.
Reaching some of those out-of-the-way areas would be impossible, though, if not for the many abilities the bird and bear duo will acquire. It seems that no matter where you want to go, there's a way to do it. Kazooie has remarkable wing strength and can allow you to fly when magic feathers are available. Steep slopes standing in the way? They're not a problem if you put Banjo on Kazooie's back and trot up the hill. And so it goes. There's actually a decent variety of moves, and yet each is mapped to different controller combinations that feel intuitive almost the instant you learn what they are. That's a good thing, too, as the game's most secret areas can't be reached without complete mastery of every skill in your possession.
Unfortunately, despite all these strengths the game still has two other flaws. For one thing, the number of items you can collect is simply enormous. In addition to the puzzle pieces, there are magical music notes, life meter extenders, energy upgrades, and a few other assorted goodies. Given time, you'll probably grow sick of collecting everything. This is particularly true of the music notes. Whenever you exit a level, all one hundred of them must again be gathered. So if you collect 97 on one trip through, but want to have all 100 so you can more easily enter a gate elsewhere in the cave, you'll have to get each of them all over again the next time through. This can be frustrating.
Another irritant is the game's boss battle, a multi-round spar with Grunthilda that forces you to use your moves strategically while avoiding a plethora of attacks. It's one of the few areas where camera troubles mar the experience, as half the time you won't even be entirely sure where your nemesis lurks. Completing the game becomes extremely difficult, even if you've gathered together every item and upgrade.
Still, the game is great any way you slice it. The flaws I mentioned throughout the above review (particular the numerous items you must collect) have crippled numerous other titles within the genre, but here they hardly seem to matter. Banjo-Kazooie is that rare platformer that proves developers don't always need new ideas to produce something great; they just need a bear and a bird.
Staff review by Jason Venter (Date unavailable)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
If you enjoyed this Banjo-Kazooie review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!