Platform: Nintendo 64
Name me the greatest platformer on the Nintendo 64. I know exactly what your answer is going to be, “It’s Super Mario 64 obviously” Which is interesting, but I’m afraid incorrect. The case of Mario 64 is a curious one and whilst I want to dedicate more time to it, I’ll discuss it in a future review. The best N64 platformer in my eyes as a kid was always Banjo-Kazooie. I got it with my Nintendo 64 and have completed it about 5 times, but never achieved 100% (I always came up a few notes short on Click Clock Wood) Of course, now that over 10 years have passed since its original release, a port and threequel (The sequel Banjo Tooie was released in 2001) have appeared on the Xbox 360. Let’s re-look at this fondly remembered game and ask, does it stand the test of time, or is it just a pixelated mess only saved by nostalgia?
Well, I can happily say that the game at least still manages to look fantastic 12 years later, the graphics are still bright and colourful like an upbeat Disney cartoon and whilst the main characters are a little blocky, it’s not distracting and hardly noticeable.
For those not aware of the Banjo series, Banjo-Kazooie is the tale of friendship between a bear and a bird. Banjo is a yellow shorts wearing brown bear and lives with his best friend Kazooie (who spends the game inside Banjo’s backpack for some reason) who is a bird (in both the sense that she’s an avian creature and a girl, although some people don’t pick up on the latter) They are called into action when Banjo’s sister, Tooty is kidnapped by the narcissistic compulsive rhyming Wicked Witch Of The West rip-off, Gruntilda Winkybunion. Why is Grunty kidnapping little bear cubs? Closet Paedophile? No, Grunty wants to steal her beauty to make herself attractive using some machine she’s copied from Dr Frankenstein’s book of “How to laugh in the face of god using science,” she’s even got her own Igor in the form of Klungo. Anyway, to rescue Tooty, Banjo and Kazooie must climb to the top of Grunty’s lair (which is carved into the side of the mountain in the shape of her face) and defeat her.
You may be thinking that sounds simple, right? WRONG. Grunty’s Lair is covered in doors that only allow you to go higher by collecting musical notes, you have to go into the 9 worlds scattered around the lair to collect them. To open these, you need 10 Golden jigsaw pieces within said levels to fit puzzles, also scattered around the lair. Confused? Don’t ever play Donkey Kong 64.
There are 100 Jigsaw pieces and 900 notes scattered throughout the game, which may seem like a horrible ordeal, it’s mostly reasonably manageable, the levels aren’t particularly huge (most revolve around a central area, so it’s easy to get round) and once you get the hang of it, you can ace levels 100% in about 30 minutes, however it’s because of this that the game suffers a horrendous difficulty spike after Level 7. Rusty Bucket Bay and Click Clock Wood prove to be a challenge to even the most adept gamer, Rusty Bucket Bay has you lose your “air-o-meter” (a health bar that says how long you can stay underwater) twice as fast and even when you’re on the surface. And Click Clock Wood is as ambitious as it is frustrating with its seasonal theme.
Whilst we’re on the subject of levels, here are 9 well designed, endlessly fun stages that offer unique challenges and a great soundtrack and although the levels are stock settings, for example, you have your Green Hill Zone opening level Mumbo’s Mountain, The Beach stage Treasure Trove Cove, Halloween level Mad Monster Mansion, snow level Freezeezy Peak and Egyptian Desert Gobi’s Valley, it offers some more interesting ideas. The Rusty Bucket Bay is a large ship dockyard, something, which whilst a staple of action and FPS, was never really seen in platformers (Mario has since done it in Bianco Harbour in Super Mario Sunshine and that’s the only other example I can think of) and Clankers Cavern is revolved around mostly a mechanical shark in a giant sewer. Click Clock Wood, as stated previously is the largest and most ambitious stage, revolving around the same tree at different seasons. It’s a fantastically designed stage, but the realisation that you’re repeating it 4 times is a pain and the final one does feel a rehash of Freezeezy Peak, which considering it’s the last area outside of Grunty’s Lair that you’ll see, it’s a tad disappointing.
But that aside, Banjo Kazooie is a fantastic game, don’t let the box-art fall you, whilst it has an all age rating on it, it’s just as fun for a grown gamer to play as a child. It has some great quirky British humour and characters, solid, perfected level design and it will leave you smiling for a long time afterwards. Also, for a game with almost no bosses, the fight against Grunty stands out as one of the most epic, challenging and under-rated boss fights ever. I think Banjo Kazooie stands out more than a lot of modern games. I’m not blinded by nostalgia here, Banjo Kazooie is a masterpiece and it deserves more than to play second fiddle to Super Mario 64. SM64 created the 3D platformer, Banjo Kazooie took it and perfected the genre. However, it is let down by a sudden, although much needed difficulty spike ¾ through the game and the camera is occasionally a bit iffy, which is mainly due to the controls assigned to the camera allowing only left, right and zoom, but this was in SM64, Zelda and most games of the generation and wouldn’t be fixed till the joyous invention of dual analogue. But really, how can anyone say no to a game with Witches, Bears, Birds and a mission involving being flushed down a toilet?
Final rating: 9.5/10
Banjo Kazooie and its sequel are available for download on the Xbox Live Arcade.
Now I’ve looked at the finest 3D platformer of the N64 era, Next time on Nostalgia 64, let’s look at the one that nearly destroyed it, Banjo Kazooie’s spiritual sequel (before the real sequel came along), Donkey Kong 64.