Banjo-Kazooie | Mumbo Mountain

Banjo-Kazooie (N64/360): Rareware’s Masterpiece (Detailed Review)

I posted my review of Yooka-Laylee almost two years ago. I had some very strong praises for it despite the fact that I had not even grown up with Banjo-Kazooie and was only familiar with the game through a lets play. That lets play was very appealing though, and I loved the style of the game and everything. The only reason I didn’t play the game until now was because I didn’t own a Nintendo 64 or any Xbox systems, and didn’t understand emulation until now. What got me to finally check this game out was seeing a certain leftist Youtuber stream another Nintendo 64 Collectathon by Rare for close to three days straight to raise money for a UK charity for trans kids, and if that doesn’t inspire you to play some vidya then I don’t know what will.

Predictably as fuck, I immensely enjoyed Banjo-Kazooie but it wouldn’t be an AnnieGal review without at least one hot take; Yooka-Laylee is a better game. This really SHOULDN’T be a hot take because Yooka-Laylee was made close to two decades later with much more advanced technology, but we live in a world where Donald Trump is president and Yooka-Laylee is a “failure in every way.” As an aside, I will eventually make a full response to Derek Alexander’s review but I’d like to play Banjo-Tooie and Donkey Kong 64 for myself before that.

Anyway I believe I will start the same way I did my review of Yooka-Laylee; with the story and presentation. Given the nostalgia that most people posses for games of this era, it is easy for people to not think of the story aspects. This is especially the case given that story is never really what Banjo-Kazooie was about unless you put its humor in that category. But there is something I noticed about this game that is kind of neat.

Banjo-Kazooie is basically a parody of children’s fairy tales when you think about it. The main villain Gruntilda is clearly based off of a mix between the wicked witch of the west from The Wizard of Oz, and the Evil Queen from Snow White. Her appearance is identical to the former with her green skin and black robe while her motivation is identical to the later with her wanting to steal the beauty of Banjo’s sister Tootie. To add to this, the name Gruntilda sounds similar and is spelled similarly to Grimhilde, the name given to the Disney version of the Evil Queen.

Banjo-Kazooie | Dingpot by the bench
Banjo-Kazooie’s opening parodies Snow White in the most hilarious way possible.

If there was no humor or parody involved in Banjo-Kazooie, the story would basically just be Snow White. Gruntilda is a hilariously exaggerated version of every fairy tale witch stereotype in existence right down to her speaking in rhyme and her attempts to steal Tootie’s beauty in an attempt to get all the boys to come running to her.

The interesting thing about Grunty’s character is just how ludicrous she thinks her plan of “looking prettier” will be when it’s clear that there is so much more than her appearance that would logically deter anyone who could be attracted to her. You can actually find Grunty’s sister Brentilda at more than one location throughout her lair, and she will tell you various secrets about Grunty that paint a very disgusting and unhygienic picture.

I was… surprised at how disgusting some of these were. Some were fairly tame but there are other that legitimately made me nauseous just from hearing them described. I’m not kidding! If this stuff was actually animated, it wouldn’t be out of place in Starless for fucks sake! I’m not going to list any of them for the sake of your safety, but you can read the list here. I just would not recommend doing so if you don’t like the taste of your own vomit.

Banjo-Kazooie | Hello there
Hello there. Please do not tell me about your sister’s poor hygiene.

The point of mentioning these…. disgusting… disgusting trivia facts is that it shows that even if Gruntilda succeed in becoming prettier, she would not find much success outside of being a niche fetish model. I think this is a nice twist on the typical fairy tale ideal that being pretty is all that matters… a belief that most of us are raised to believe as fact and is ingrained into our minds at a young age…

But Banjo-Kazooie isn’t just about feminism, it’s also about shamelessly stealing hbomberguy’s jokes! And it’s also about collecting a lot of stuff and exploring a bunch of unique and creative worlds but you’d all rather hear me rant about the patriarchy right? What do you mean get a blog? This IS a blog!

Anyway I do believe that most people are well accustomed to Banjo-Kazooie’s signature humor, but I find it worth mentioning because it is noteworthy how much it lends to this game. I mean sure, a lot of people would still like it with just the gameplay and music but it is interesting to think that a game that represents pure nostalgia for a lot of Nintendo 64 era gamers was basically edgy and subversive at the time. Games with a sense of humor are much more common nowadays, but there weren’t a great deal of indie games back then to take the piss out of other games.

Banjo-Kazooie | Mumbo & Human Grunty
Mumbo’s relationship with Grunty won’t last long once he figures out what she likes to eat for dinner.

Even by today’s standards, the humor of Banjo-Kazooie is a step above a fair number of mainstream “funny” games that will often rely either on Friedberg and Seltzer esque pop culture references or on overly crass and vulgar drivel that doesn’t make anyone except for the most obnoxious and swearsalotoncallofdutyest 12 year olds laugh. It’s just a shame that Rare eventually did go on to create another game on the Nintendo 64 that has no claim to fame other than being both of those things on a Nintendo console… the point is that Conker’s Bad Fur Day isn’t funny…. are you getting this? I don’t know how it is gameplay wise but holy hell is it unfunny!

Graphics wise, the game seems satisfactory by Nintendo 64 standards, and by that I mean I don’t know jack shit about what is or isn’t good graphics by 5th generation console standards cause they all look like crap now. This is why I don’t usually talk about pure technical quality or jargon in my reviews; it’s not going to mean anything a few years down the line… and also because it’s it’s stupid of course. I don’t know whether Banjo-Kazooie was good graphically for the time but I can at least say that it’s good aesthetically.

Each world is varied and colorful in its design and it makes exploring these worlds all the more fun and enjoyable. I also believe that the use of those repeated voice clips for dialogue do lend a bit of humor to the characters that could not have been done as well with full VA. Specifically of note is how Grunty’s voice comes across as so exaggerated that it communicates the idea that she is a caricature of the stereotypical cartoon “witch,” that Banjo’s comes across with a bit of stupidity but also innocence, and that Kazooie’s gives off a sense of snark and bitchiness provides a nice contrast to Banjo’s dimness.

Banjo-Kazooie | Nazi
Sadly not an actual piece of in game dialogue.

On top of this, every sound effect has its own sense of personality and immensely adds to the game’s charm. The short jingle that plays when you collect a Jiggy makes each one you find feel like an accomplishment, the music note sound effect makes it feel like you are making a little bit a progress with each one and prompts the player to pick up nearby notes even after they got all 100 in a level. The fact that each item has its own sound effect when you pick them up really shows that they went all out, and Banjo-Kazooie likely would not have as much personality without them.

The music also needs no introduction. Every world in the game has its own central motif, yet it does not simply stick to one track per world. You instead hear multiple different variations on the music that enhance the level of personality this game has to offer. The most noteworthy tracks in the game include the themes to Spiral Mountain, Gruntilda’s Lair, Treasure Trove Cove, Freezeezy Peak, Mad Monster Mansion, Rusty Bucket Bay, Click Clock Wood, and the Final Battle theme against Gruntilda.

Banjo-Kazooie is known seen as one of the definitive examples of the “collectathon” genre of 3D platformers. While there were other games before Banjo-Kazooie that involved collecting stuff, I think Banjo-Kazooie really helped popularize the framework for future 3D platformers. It is easy to see that Banjo-Kazooie lends a lot from Super Mario 64 in its premise.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is freezeezy-peak-entrance-2.png

Both involve traveling to various open ended stages that are secluded from each other to collect enough of a certain item that opens up paths to more levels. Both games control fairly similarly as well and use similar mechanics, both involve the “damsel in distress” plot point, both have a picture/painting motif when it comes to entering these worlds, and both have these levels accessed via a central hub world that also has its own hidden secrets.

Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie may have similar structure and framing, but the two begin to diverge in the execution. The first major difference between Banjo-Kazooie and Super Mario 64 is the level structure. While both games have open ended 3D worlds to explore, Banjo-Kazooie’s worlds are more fleshed out in both content and personality. In Super Mario 64 you could often get the first star in a world in only a few minutes and has a mere 7 stars per world. Two of those stars are always going to be obtained by finding 8 red coins and from collecting 100 regular coins, so there is naturally a much more formulaic approach to them.

Given that Super Mario 64 has 15 different worlds excluding the castle, this would mean that 30 of the 105 stars found in the standard world come from these formulaic tasks, which is close to 1/3rd of them. You also have 6 more red coin stages in the castle levels so that means 36 out of 120 stars are found by scrounging for coins. That is over 1/4th of the game!

Banjo-Kazooie | music notes on trees

For comparison, Banjo-Kazooie has 9 worlds excluding Spiral Mountain and Grunty’s Lair. Each of these worlds has 10 jiggies and only one is collected by finding the five jinjos (Banjo-Kazooie’s equivalent of red coins) in each world. There are 90 Jiggies found outside of Grunty’s Lair so that means only 1/10th of the main game follows one of these formulaic patterns. Also there are no jinjos in Grunty’s Lair so it’s even less than 10% overall.

The key point of this comparison is that Banjo-Kazooie has more meat to its levels while also cutting a lot of the fat that Super Mario 64 left in. There may not be as much of the main collectable to collect in Banjo-Kazooie, but the saying is “quality over quantity.” You don’t get sent back to the hub world every time you collect a jiggy like you do when collecting a star in Super Mario 64, and this allows you to more freely explore the levels without interruption. When you add the more subtle things like the worlds not re-using music and having its own unique characters and aesthetics, it really makes Banjo-Kazooie a much more immersive experience.

There were a few mechanics leftover from Mario 64 that really did not lend themselves to Banjo-Kazooie though. The most jarring of these are the 100 music notes in each world. Since health restoration and currency are no longer the same thing in Banjo-Kazooie, Rare decided that they needed to find something else to make the player collect 100 of in each level. The music notes are smaller collectables that are scattered throughout each world to serve as bread crumbs to encourage exploration.

This in theory is a good idea since there is a satisfying feeling to find all 100, but the problem is that you still lose all of them if you die; just like coins in Super Mario 64. While it is true that there needs to be SOME punishment for dying, the option to give the player limited lives before they get booted back to the hub world makes this completely redundant! It would have made sense if you merely lost every music note upon a game over, but losing every music note and jinjo you find upon every death is expecting an unreasonable amount of skill out of the player.

Banjo-Kazooie | Engine jiggy

The point of these music notes is to encourage exploration. Most players will just pick up what they find while going after the jiggies (which you thankfully keep even if you die) and will try to collect every music note after hoarding off all the other collectables. This renders the existence of the music notes pointless because it benefits the player to put off collecting any of the harder to reach music notes in favor of literally everything else in the level, meaning that the player will most likely have already been to a location by the time they go to pick up the music notes. I mean sure, you COULD try and collect both the music notes and the jiggies in the same sitting, but this will result in a LOT of repetition in some of the later levels. And may the mighty Jinjonator have mercy on your soul when you get to THAT jiggy in Rusty Buckey Bay…. you know the one…

Nonetheless I still had fun finding all the music notes, but that is most likely because I used an emulator and had save states. This is one of the key reasons why I consider Yooka-Laylee the better game. Banjo-Kazooie is a fantastic game, but there are bound to be some mistakes made in Rare’s first attempt at this genre; mistakes that Rare has had 20 years to improve upon with Yooka-Laylee.

Some of these are due to increased technical prowess such as the vastly improved draw distance that allows you to see collectables from much further away than in Banjo-Kazooie, which in turn makes it much easier to keep track of where you have and have not been (which makes it all the more infuriating that a certain reviewer claimed you can’t use the quills to keep track of where you have and have not been). On the other hand, I will chalk most of these improvements up to getting a better sense of what does and does not work due to more experience.

Banjo-Kazooie | Click Clock Wood
Click Clock Wood has you play the same world in changing seasons with the layouts altered each time, and with different music.

While Yooka-Laylee was not completely absent of questionable design decisions,  I found that even the ones that received a ton of complaints were not quite as frustrating as Banjo-Kazooie’s even before it got patched. The only especially jarring sequences in Yooka-Laylee were that golf mini-game and the boss of Capital Cashino. I found the mini-games in Yooka-Laylee to be far more enjoyable than in Banjo-Kazooie, and I dreaded every time a mini-game was required in Banjo-Kazooie with exception to Grunty’s Furnace Fun… except for when that made you replay one of the other mini games.

Trying to describe why I enjoyed Yooka-Laylee’s mini-games but not Banjo-Kazooie’s can be a bit abstract, but I’m going to chalk it up to the fact that Yooka-Laylee’s involve actual skill. Banjo-Kazooie’s are either trial and error or pure memorization that you will complete on your second try but forget immediately afterwards. The tiptup choir is perhaps the best example because it’s literally a game of Simon but you take damage if you lose. Oh yeah, more than one of these mini-games will damage you if you lose, and if you were low on health then you lose all your music notes and jinjos.

There were also more points in Banjo-Kazooie where you got screwed over due to poor design than in Yooka-Laylee. I maybe needed to look up a guide only twice for Yooka-Laylee to find some of the more cleverly hidden collectables, but Banjo-Kazooie made me do so constantly. How was I supposed to know that you used eggs to plug up the leaky bucket when he specifically mentioned finding a rock? How the well was I supposed to know that you could find music notes by ground pounding the huts on Mumbo Mountain?

Banjo-Kazooie | huts
Aside from watching the previews!

This is not even going into the few that are just flat out difficult. The swimming controls in Banjo-Kazooie are infamously terrible so they lead to a few deaths even in Clanker’s Cavern for me. There was one that puts a jiggy at the end of a long underwater corridor that will give you enough time to collect it but not enough to get back to the surface unless you have practiced this a lot. So yes, you will get a jiggy but you will also lose your music notes and jinjos. Note that this is in the easier water level.

The infamous Rusty Bucket Bay has dirty water that drains air twice as fast and drains it at the normal rate when you are just treading water along the surface. This would not be a problem if there wasn’t a jiggy that put you on a time limit to swim into the engine motors of a boat and grab it before they turn back on. The worst instance though, has to be that extra honeycomb piece in Click-Clock Wood where you need to swim in freezing water that also deals double damage. This would not be a problem if it were not for the fact that you cant get a breath until you are out of the water, and the controls are setup in a way where the player is likely to dive back down while trying to jump out when they have one health point left.

The upside to Banjo-Kazooie is that these frustrating moments are still in the minority and I had a fun time completing this game 100%. Everything else is so brimming with personality and fun that it would be absurd to not play it. It is no surprise that this game is as beloved as it is, and I dare say it is one of the best games Rare has ever made. Granted the only titles by Rare I have played were the original Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie, and Star Fox Adventures, but I definitely hope to play more of their games in the future.

Banjo-Kazooie | Jiggy Collection

I definitely plan to cover Banjo-Tooie and Donkey Kong 64, as well as Grunty’s Revenge on the GBA. I am interested in playing Nuts & Bolts for myself but I don’t currently have any XBox consoles so if I do that it may be a while. Granted I still have some other stuff I need to get out of the way first but I definitely would like to check these games out. Anyway that wraps up this review, see you all next time!

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