Developer: Rare (N64) / 4J Studios (360)
Publisher: Nintendo (N64) / Microsoft Game Studios (360)
Release Date: June 29, 1998 (N64) / December 3, 2008 (360)
Rare is a video game developer with a catalog full of top-shelf entertainment experiences that tip the creative scale. From 2D platformers such as the Donkey Kong Country series, brutal fighters like Killer Instinct, and the oft-praised first-person shooting games Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark, they are undoubtedly a jack-of-all-trades, and master of all.
Enter 1996, year of the Nintendo 64′s debut. Super Mario 64 was the crown jewel of Nintendo’s launch line-up for the machine, and it set a new benchmark for what is to be expected of the platform genre. Elsewhere, in Twycross, England to be precise, Rare was hard at work on what they believed to be their most ambitious title to date; Project Dream. Originally intended to be the adventure of a boy named Edison and his battles with the fearsome pirate Blackeye, Project Dream underwent several dramatic changes throughout the course of its development. Edison became Banjo the bear, Blackeye became Gruntilda the witch, and the game as a whole was completely re-designed from the ground up, eventually becoming a 3D platformer. Project Dream was now Banjo Kazooie, a game in Rare’s collection of titles that is arguably the best of their platforming sector.
Banjo made his debut on the Nintendo 64 in June of 1998, and he brought along Kazooie the “breegull”, his best friend and an invaluable ally. Growing old, Gruntilda the witch looked to her faithful servant Dingpot, a rusty old brew pot, for encouragement that she was still the most beautiful woman in Spiral Mountain. Reality slapped her in the face when she was told that the crown had been passed on to Tooty, Banjo’s younger sister. Furious, the old hag flew down to Spiral Mountain, the countryside that Banjo calls home, and swiped Tooty away, while Banjo snoozed and ignored the warnings of Kazooie. By the time he made it outside, Tooty was already in the lair of the witch, soon to be transformed into a hideous creature if Gruntilda managed to steal away her looks.
The player is given control immediately after leaving Banjo’s home, only to be discouraged by the fact that the only move Banjo can perform is a basic jump. Running out of his yard and into the fields of Spiral Mountain, the bear and bird meet a short-sighted mole named Bottles. He tells Banjo that in his current shape the witch would wipe the floor with him. Bottles, being a friend of Tooty’s, decides to aid in her rescue by teaching Banjo and Kazooie a vast arsenal of attacks, power-ups, and jumps that will bring them closer and closer to the final confrontation. This mechanic alone helps put Banjo Kazooie a level above Super Mario 64, which had almost of all of its’ moves available right from the start. The continually-expanding moveset ensured that the game’s pace was smooth as butter, taking care not to get the player involved in levels they had no business playing in.
Once Banjo has built-up his basic moveset, he advances into the game’s hub-world, Grunty’s Lair. The interior of this area is absolutely massive; caverns, jigsaw puzzles, unlockable doors, a wide variety of enemy types, and many more goodies fill the place. The Lair is home to the game’s 9 levels, which include a mountain, a snowy valley, a harsh desert, a haunted mansion and a sunny beach.
The core mechanic of the game is collecting jigsaw pieces, called “jiggies”, which grant access to more worlds. When you have a healthy number of jiggies in your posession, you can unlock the worlds by approaching blank templates, scattered throughout the lair, and filling them in with the jigsaws. The worlds also hold many other helpful collectables that aid Banjo in his quest. These include “Jinjos”, small creatures who grant jiggies when all 5 are rescued in a world, musical notes that unlock new moves for Kazooie, and honeycomb pieces to upgrade Banjo’s life meter. There are also Mumbo Tokens, used as currency for the game’s resident shaman, Mumbo Jumbo. He has the ability to transform the duo into various animals that can better traverse the environment than the duo normally could. You could be a small crocodile, an ant, a walrus, a pumpkin and a bee.
One of the game’s most popular aspects is the excellent soundtrack, composed by Grant Kirkhope, Rare’s resident sound director. There was a dynamic sound system for Gruntilda’s theme as you traveled through her lair. If you approached a snowy area, the theme would begin to sound more like a holiday jingle, whereas if you entered the cemetery, werewolf howls could be heard and an organ would become the main instrument. It was truly innovative for the time and still holds a great deal of charm to this day.
Banjo Kazooie was truly a landmark title that set a new bar for the platform genre, a bar that is rarely passed to this day. From the vast moveset, the wide variety of worlds, the excellent soundtrack, the larger-than-life personalities, the game is truly timeless. You simply must try this game. If you do not own a Nintendo 64, the game is also available for download on the Xbox Live Marketplace.