Banjo Kazooie is the game equivalent of comfort food for me. The iconic duo are among the first characters in gaming I was introduced to as a kid, while I waited for my parents in a hospital day care, the bear and bird were there to distract me for several hours. I never got far in those runs but a few years later my parents randomly surprised me with an N64 and Banjo and Kazooie to my shock (I’m sure the fact I wouldn’t shut up about the “running bird game,” helped too). I became attached to the game with its cartoony cast of characters and gibberish voice overs and I may have played Super Smash Brothers and Mario Kart more since all my friends could play, too but the first game I reached for when I was alone was Banjo.
So as I have been struggling to escape the rut of this wintery pandemic, I thought the best thing to do would be to dust off my old N64 and defeat Gruntilda one last time. I thought I could 100 percent it in one night. What a fool I was, but I will get into that a little later.
A 3D Platforming Treasure
The early game is nothing short of pure 3D 90’s platforming with its ability unlocks, dancing collectibles, and themed worlds. For those who may not have had a chance to play the original Banjo game on N64 or the updated version on Xbox, you play as Banjo (the bear) and Kazooie (the bird in the backpack) as you try to rescue Banjo’s sister Tooty from the evil witch Gruntilda. To do this, Banjo and Kazooie must travel through 9 main worlds in search of music notes and puzzle pieces called Jiggies. The music notes are used to unlock new areas in the hub world and the Jiggies are used to unlock new worlds to collect more Jiggies and music notes. The entire game is a collectathon but the draw to the game is the search for these items because many of them are hidden in a way that when you find a new Jiggy a smile spreads over your face like you just found your first egg on Easter.
Each world embraces its own personality in full and even their names are some of the best that I have ever seen in a game, like “Freezeezy Peak, “BubbleGloop Swamp,” and “Mad Monster Mansion” being just some of the standout level titles. How do you not smile, when after unlocking the level entrance one of these titles pops up hinting at your next adventure? Rare injected charm and personality into every facet of this game and it wouldn’t have been the same taking a more retracted approach like Mario 64 where the worlds treat themselves more like levels in a video game. Banjo and Kazooie instead treats its levels like living worlds where NPCs are just doing their thing.
For instance, look at “Gobi’s Valley” where you help Gobi the Camel escape his island prison but you end up bullying him from the oasis he found. You later find him trying to live his life in another world only to terrorize him again and he leaves for another unmarked world. Or in “Freezeezy Peak,” where you help an absent father find gifts for his kids and then race the same father twice because he would rather go sledding with strangers than spend time with his children.
There are a variety of gameplay mechanics like the talon trot, beak buster, egg shooting, and wonder wing to name just a few but the best are the Mumbo transformations that help to completely change Banjo’s mobility by allowing Banjo to access to new areas, engage with NPCs that are otherwise anti-Bear, and access new abilities. Banjo can become a little pumpkin to hop in sewers, a walrus to make a lonely walrus his friend, a termite to crawl vertically, and many more. The player must always be on the lookout for how these transformations might be best employed in their respective worlds. To find all the collectables in a level, a player must always look for things that seem out of place because they usually lead to something special.
It’s not all Jinjos and Daisies
The game has great difficulty progression where the first level “Mumbo’s Mountain” is incredibly easy to explore and find all the collectables but each level after will require the player to have a firm understanding of how Banjo and Kazooie can interact with the environment and a more careful platforming approach. From the difficulty to platforming to the timed sections becoming less and less forgiving, Rare manages to test players as they progress through the game, fairly well. Almost every world is enjoyable to run around and explore the facets they have to offer.
I say almost because “Rusty Bucket Bay” exists. This level (as well as “Click Clock Wood” to some degree), though not necessarily hard, put my 100 percent playthrough to a complete standstill and that is because the N64 edition of Banjo and Kazooie resets music note progress after death. “Rust Bucket Bay” has arguably the most difficult platforming in the game due to its instant death engine room. “Click Clock Wood” just has a lot of platforming in high spaces 4 different times. The repetition in “Click Clock Wood” causes boredom and thus carelessness but I am largely to blame for that one. There is nothing more frustrating than having 80 or 90 notes only to fall in the engine room and have to do it all over again or getting hit by a bird that you killed in the 3 other seasons but forgot to kill in Fall.
It got to the point where my play sessions were one death sessions because I just had such a hard time justifying spending so much time collecting the same notes over and over again without any forward progress. Eventually, the game beat me. I gave up. I wanted nothing more than to perfect it in a reasonable amount of time but it became impossible as work increased and school started back up. I do not hold the platforming sections at fault because the real problem is how the game eliminated progression of notes after death. The gameplay loop became too tedious for me to spend on this 20 year old game. Why save the Jiggy progress but delete music notes? It’s so frustrating. The updated Xbox version does not have this problem but unfortunately I was playing on the original N64 version.
Taking Down the Mean Old Witch
The final boss fight against Gruntilda is not what you might expect, since the fight is a board game designed by Gruntilda and each space is a difference challenge. Many of the spaces are just trivia questions about the worlds the player has explored so far in the game and there are challenge spaces that make Banjo replay some of the world exclusive challenges again with a tighter time limit. It is a nice trip down memory lane but not all the spaces are fun. There are two spaces in particular that make this section of the finale an absolute chore to get through and those spaces are the Gruntilda spaces and the skull spaces. The Gruntilda spaces require that the player know some random fact about Gruntilda and by random I mean the fact changes per playthrough. The skull spaces are Gruntilda spots but are automatic losses if you get the question wrong.
Thankfully, the board game is only phase one of the final battle but the real Gruntilda battle is locked away behind 810 music notes. I am glad that I had enough because I was not ready to go back to Rusty Bucket Bay to get the rest of those notes. The real final battle with Gruntilda is the biggest challenge in the entire game and if you are going into it like I was without 900 music notes you are in for a much harder battle than you need to take on. If you have more music notes, the game rewards with you additional ammo and feathers which help to lessen the strain of accuracy and restraint during the fight
Grunty has multiple phases and I think they all work really well but the amount of time you have to make some of you shots is incredibly limited and Grunty is ruthless with her attacks. You need to be on your A game at all times but when you finally beat her there is nothing more satisfying as seeing her fall and become trapped under a giant boulder until the next game.
Banjo and Kazooie is a fantastic game overall even after all these years with its imaginative worlds, quirky characters, and varriety of gameplay abilities; the game offers players with plenty of reasons to give it a try at least once even in the year 2021. If you have never played Banjo and Kazooie before you should definitely try to play it but try to get a copy for Xbox. it isn’t worth dealing with the antiquated N64 issues. Plus, you’ll get some achievements and that in and of itself beats the N64 for me. Hopefully one day Microsoft and Rare will bless us with one more platforming Banjo and Kazooie game, afterll if Crash bandicoot can make a comeback 20 years later why can’t the big bear himself?