System: Nintendo 64 Publisher: Nintendo Developer: Rareware
Genre: Action Type: 3D Platformer Circa: 1998

I still remember the day I got that VHS tape in the mail. It was a video advertisement that had been sent to Nintendo Power magazine subscribers. I had received several of these before, but most of them weren't very good at convincing me to buy the products, often having very little footage of the actual games and terrible acting. The Pilotwings video mostly showed people leaping into a wall and the Diddy Kong Racing video had a guy talking really fast. But this particular video was different. Composed of nothing but tantalizing game footage and a sly narration by actor/comedian Jon Lovitz, this video was for Banjo-Kazooie. The graphics looked unlike anything I'd seen before, being much more detailed and vibrant than any other 3D game I'd played. And, heck, I had been waiting for another good 3D platformer like Super Mario 64 (there hadn't been too many since.) This was a game I knew I had to have.
If I didn't know that Banjo-Kazooie doesn't use the N64 High-Resolution Pak, I would think that it did. It's very well possible that BK has the most gorgeous graphics of any game I've yet seen on the system (maybe even of any 3D game), and even better than most games that do use the expansion pak! Rich and varied textures envelope virtually every surface, bringing BK's world and characters to life, practically disguising their polygonal composition. (For a good example, look at the shiny ivories of the giant organ, or the softly-textured cusion of its seat.) There is so much worth seeing and describing in Banjo-Kazooie that it's almost impossible for me to illustrate all of it.

Remember how in Super Mario 64 when you began outside the castle and the ground consisted of one flat green color across its entire surface? Step outside of Banjo's house and what do you see, but a garden of colorful flowers and a stone path that gives way to lush fields of varying greens, yellows, browns, and grass textures. Jump in the water and see how realistic the drops splash on the surface. There is very little blurriness and fog is nowhere to be found.

Although this first area gives a taste of what's to come, there is much more inside the ominous Witch's Lair, itself. The level of detail here is astounding. Notice how the paintings on the walls around Mumbo's Mountain and Treasure Trove Cove really look like paint, and not just smeared polygon textures. Intimidating wall carvings loom around every corner. (Check out the snowmen carvings near Freezeezy Peak's Jigsaw Puzzle or the crabs by Treasure Trove Cove's entrance.) The grass and leaves surrounding Click Clock Wood's entrance and jigsaw puzzle is some of the greenest I've ever seen, evoking a sense of haunting serenity.

Smooth texture mapping and fluid animation are never spared, from the largest of enemies down to the smallest termite. Stand in front of a Bawl (onion) and watch it bounce up and down. Observe the mighty Clanker, a rusty mechanical shark, as his massive body gently bobs at the surface of the water, while his tail, fins, eyes, mouth, and gills sway in rhythmic tandem. Poisonous swamp frogs and toothy pirahnas are almost as shiny as the bright star atop Freezeezy Peak's majestic Christmas tree. And speaking of Freezeezy Peak, which is home to the largest snowman known to video games, take a gander at the aurora borealis shining on the cliff-like walls. And if it weren't for the fact that I'm constantly being attacked by a well-animated Sir Slush snowman, I would like to just kick back and look up at the sky, to watch how the stars and moons forever hypnotically rotate.

Later levels continue to support this high-quality detail. Gobi's Valley is a desert featuring shifting sands and a giant Sphinx. There's a haunted, spooky graveyard that looks like something out of the creepiest parts of The Wizard of Oz, which eventually leads to Mad Monster Mansion, whose graveyards, eerie mists, stained-glass windows, and other supernatural surroundings put Castlevania 64 to shame. (Was anyone else as surprised as I was when one of those giant gravestones started chasing after me?) But my favorite area is Click-Clock Wood: a forest world that is revisited in all four seasons. It's decorated in light rain showers and lovely greens in spring (check out the neat parallax in the thorn thicket), to blooming flowers in summer and piles of fiery-red leaves in fall, and finally, a glazed icy surface in winter.

Yes, I've gone on about graphics quite a bit, but graphics are one of BK's strongest aspects. There is still much more I have not spoken of (like the mystically painted ouija board, the DKC2-reminiscent beehive, or the polygon-pushing Rusty Bucket Bay *snickers*) . There's really no need to, since I'd not only be rambling, but everything is such high-quality that you can basically take all I just said and apply it to everything else in the enitre game.

SOUND: 8.5/10
As great as Banjo's graphics are, its sound is just about on par. No matter how bizarre, ominous, sad, or foreboding the music may become at times, it always keeps a touch of that light-hearted circus-carousel charm that is pervasive from the moment you turn the game on. The opening cinema begins with an all-out "hodown" amongst the game's main characters, with Banjo strumming his namesake instrument, and others, such as Mumbo Jumbo, Tooty, and Kazooie joining in. Compared with Donkey Kong 64's anemic "DK Rap", this opening is quite energetic and sets the mood perfectly.

The music for each world pertains well to the current theme, and smoothly changes tone and instrumentation as you move about. In Mumbo's Mountain, for example, the bouncy jungle rhythm becomes drum-heavy when you're in Conga's territory, and develops native chanting when strolling through Mumbo's village. The calypso beat of Treasure Trove Cove becomes a piping, sea-faring melody when you're near the pirate ship. Freezeezy Peak's music is like a long-lost Christmas carol, while Mad Monster Mansion features Halloween-caliber riffs complete with tolling bells and hooting owls. But my favorite music is that of my favorite area, Click-Clock Wood, which appropriately changes for each season. In the spring time, robins are heard chirping along with the delightful forest melody, while in summer it changes to a waltzing tune with buzzing bees. In fall, frogs croak a more percussion-based version of the song, while in winter it takes on a chilling, icy flavor.

And that's just the music. I haven't gotten to the sound effects yet. Most of them are excellent, especially the effects of breaking wood and glass, and the creaks and clanks of metal objects moving about. But the character voices, on the other hand, can be a little annoying. Characters don't actually talk in this game, but they each have a distinct "mumbling" sound that is their "voice". Cute and unique, this gives each character a little added personality. However, I think I find myself a little more distracted by Banjo's goofy vocals when he's performing moves than I may have when I first played this game. BK's sounds are sometimes used to give audio clues, too. For example, a Jinjo may whistle out to you if there's one nearby, and the grunt of an unseen enemy will let you know it's there.

CONTROL: 8.5/10
Banjo's control is very similar to that of Mario's in Super Mario 64, but in some ways feels even tighter and more fluid. For one thing, the camera control has been greatly improved. Pressing R once centers the camera behind Banjo, while holding down R makes it stay there, so it's always easy to see where you're going. (Some areas do have fixed cameras, but they usually give you the best view possible.) Flying in 3D is much easier than it was in Super Mario 64, with the ability to raise altitude or make a sharp turn in midair with the press of a button.

Banjo and Kazooie have a number of useful moves that are easy to memorize and perform. Some you have from the beginning of the game and others are taught by Bottles the Mole in specific worlds later on. The two characters' moves complement each other so well, that they basically function as one character. Having Kazooie on your back is like being Mario with an everlasting power-up. When Banjo jumps, Kazooie can use her wings to increase the distance, and slow his descent. Many moves are accomplished by holding the Z button and pressing any of the buttons on the face of the controller. If Banjo moves too slowly for your liking, you can activate Kazooie's Talon Trot, which is also useful for climbing steep surfaces. The wing-assisted flap-flip jump allows Banjo to reach new heights. Other moves are used for attacking, destroying things, and hitting switches. These include Banjo's standard punches and rolls, Kazooie's beak attacks, egg tossing, invinciblity feathers, and even a tandem body-slam! (And if it still sounds intimidating, don't worry: there's a tutorial at the beginning of the game.)

The best part is not the sheer number of moves, but how necessary they are in many situations and the ease and responsiveness at which they are pulled off. Many puzzles are designed to be solved with a specific move or combination of moves. Switches are pounded with the body-slam-like Beak Buster, some enemies and statues are divebombed from the air with the Beak Bomb, and only eggs will reach some out-of-the-way targets. The game is very well-balanced in this respect, and since most moves are specialized with obvious purposes, it's never a matter of "trying everything" to solve some riddle.

As far as 3D games go, BK has quite fluid play control, with only a few minor quirks. I think the camera control in Banjo-Kazooie is generally better than most 3D games I've played, but it may still take some getting used to. There is also one thing that can sometimes annoy me, particularly in the final battle. In order to fire an egg, you have to hold Z, then press Up-C. It's kind of easy to get ahead of myself and press Up-C too soon and end up in first-person view when that isn't what I wanted to do.

The description on the back of the Banjo-Kazooie promotional VHS tape is as such, "An innocent waif is evil witch consumed by envy plots her bitter revenge...and two heroes answer the call to justice." Technically, that's what BK's story is about, but from reading that, you would think they're describing something serious. The actual tone of the game is much more comical, as you might expect from the cartoon-like characters. (Just pointing this out because I thought it was really funny!)

Gruntilda the witch has kidnapped Banjo's little sister, Tooty. Gruntilda plans to use a machine to "steal" Tooty's beauty and transfer it to herself. Banjo, a laid-back honey bear, teams up with his unlikely partner Kazooie, a loud-mouthed anti-social breegull that lives in his backpack, to rescue Tooty and defeat the evil witch.

Banjo's cast of colorful characters all have distinct, outward personalities, and the dialogue is often quite hilarious! Kazooie insults and argues with just about everyone she crosses paths with. Gruntilda, forever speaking in rhymes, taunts and threatens you as you trek through her lair. Bottles is a timid mole who helps Banjo while doing his best to ignore Kazooie's tongue-lashings. During your travels, you'll meet up with many other charming and sinister faces who will help, or hinder, your progress. The humor is often raunchy, sometimes embarrassingly so, but kept at a tolerable level. Though it seems somewhat of a contrast against BK's lush, atmospheric environments.

The main goal of Banjo-Kazooie is to defeat the witch Gruntilda, but it's not as easy as stepping into her lair and requesting a showdown. You'll have to work your way through the catacomb-like maze of the lair and explore its myriad worlds in order to progress. The entrances to the worlds can only be opened by completing their respective jigsaw puzzles. Doors to higher levels are locked and can only be opened by collecting the number of musical notes designated on them. Each world contains 10 jigsaw pieces and 100 notes, and collecting them is your major goal.

Much of the challenge in BK comes from learning to navigate each world and dealing with their many obstacles and inhabitants. Some jiggies are out in plain sight, but it's not usually a matter of just walking up and grabbing them. You may need to learn a special move from Bottles the Mole, first, or perhaps use a special animal form granted by Mumbo Jumbo the Shaman. Some puzzles test your skills, such as a series of rings that you have to jump and swim through within 50 seconds. There are mazes that must be navigated within a time limit, or else the jigsaw disappears, or you lose a life and, either way, you'll have to start over again. There are bosses such as leaping frogs, a giant hermit crab, and exploding dynamite crates to be defeated. The variety of tasks is immense and constantly keeps you searching and thinking.

Although it does have its tough spots, Banjo-Kazooie is relatively easy. Maybe it was made purposefully easier because its cartoonish look is probably attractive to younger gamers. But it also might be due to the fact that Banjo's core gameplay is not all that much different from Super Mario 64, and many of the jiggies aren't as taxing to retrieve as the hardest stars in SM64. Most of the challenge of SM64 emanated from falling off the edges of things into "oblivion". Well, that doesn't happen as much in BK, in fact, I can only think of four areas in the whole game where it can happen. You can also increase your life meter by finding extra honeycomb pieces, which is something you couldn't do in SM64.

However, Banjo-Kazooie is not devoid of all action challenges. One of the most difficult parts of the game I can think of is a series of jumps through moving fan blades. In another claustrophobia-inducing scene, you have to swim to the bottom of a very deep well and turn a giant key to raise an object out of the water. It's very tough to do this and get back to the surface without running out of air. Many ground surfaces are full of hazards, such as shark-infested waters or hot desert sands, and some of it is uncrossable without use of a special animal form or boots.

I will say one thing - Rare didn't hold back when it came to the final boss! As crazy as this may sound, I'd be willing to stake my reputation as a gamer on saying that Gruntilda is one of the hardest and best final boss fights around. After playing through the entire game, having collected every note, jiggy, and extra honeycomb piece, and finding it rather easy, I have to admit that Gruntilda's difficulty surprised me. I'd rather not spoil the final boss fight, but let me just say it's a multi-part, fist-clenching struggle that culminates in a freakish way that I did not see coming! (The camera tends to be a little more "touchy" in this fight than it is anywhere else in the whole game, but by the time you get this far, you should be pretty good at controlling it.)

FUN: 9/10
Part of what makes BK such a good 3D platformer is that although the worlds are large, they aren't overwhelming and there is very little wasted space. Bubblegloop Swamp, for example, has a small center section that branches off into five alcoves, but in each area there are multiple tasks to accomplish and items to find. (Even the center has a couple of things to keep you busy.) Many worlds are set up in a similar fashion. There are practically no dead-ends and very few rooms that yield nothing important. The Witch's Lair acts as a "hub" between all the different worlds, but it's very easy to navigate, especially with the aid of cauldrons that act as warps between two points. The lair is also far from being empty, as some jiggies and other things are hidden here, too.

Another important factor in BK's fun is the great variety of tasks to perform and puzzles to solve in search of those elusive jigsaw pieces. I know I didn't want to stop until I found every single one! Sometimes, defeating a boss nets you a jigsaw, but other times you'll have to help, not harm, a friendly character to get that which you desire. This may be as simple as giving a fruit to a monkey or as complex as helping a young bird grow to adulthood, or even matching notes with a ghostly hand on a larger-than-life organ. Some areas have fun puzzle-like games to play, such as a giant oujia board that you glide around on, and a matching card game played on rotating floor tiles.

As much as I like BK, I would have liked for it to have been a little more challenging. I don't mind that there wasn't as much "falling into oblivion" as there was in Super Mario 64. But perhaps, I would've liked to have seen more boss fights, or tough puzzles that really put your skills to the test.

On a final note, I'll always remember how BK's most well-kept secrets drove me crazy for months! You may have noticed that ice key behind the window in Wozza's Cave, or that map of Treasure Trove Cove inside the Rusty Bucket with an "X" over Sharkfood Island, or the sealed door in Gobi's Valley. I know I did long before I was told about them in the game. I also wondered about the wine barrel in the mansion cellar with the "X" on it. Even though special codes demystified these conundrums, there turned out to be many more "easter eggs" hidden in there than originally thought. Too bad their intended purpose was never realized, but they kept me thinking and playing BK for months.

Incidentally, this game still has some "unsolved mysteries" that kind of bug me. For example, what is up with that giant treasure chest in Mad Monster Mansion's bedroom? Or the picture of the pirate in some of the mansion paintings? He's the only character shown that doesn't exist in the actual game. The one map on the inside of the Rusty Bucket is of Treasure Trove Cove, but what the heck is that other map showing? And why is there an "X" on the floor of the Sand Castle, when it's the only letter never used? Finally, what's up with the Nintendo Power strategy guide showing a picture of Gruntilda's beauty-machine room (where she was holding Tooty hostage) with all the machinery gone and the door in the back standing wide open??


Today's world is littered with bad 3D video games, but BK is one that stands out from the crowd. It doesn't just take platform gameplay and awkwardly shove it into three dimensions. It embraces the 3D platform concept and, in some ways, reinvents it. Although most of my favorite games have been 2D platformers, shooters, and RPGs, I shamelessly admit that Banjo-Kazooie is a game I love.
OVERALL SCORE (not an average): 8/10



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