This review originally appeared in E61 in August 1998.
From its auspicious beginnings with Super Mario 64, the evolution of the thirdperson 3D platform game can be plotted as a downward curve. Such was the standard of Nintendo’s launch title (which doubtless benefited from its protracted development period), those that have followed have seemed little more than pale imitations. Even Nintendo’s design guru Shigeru Miyamoto is struggling to match the quality of his masterpiece. Rare, however, has scored the nearest miss yet with Banjo-Kazooie.
The game follows the joint adventure of a bear (Banjo) and the bird that inhabits his backpack (Kazooie). The plot takes shape as Banjo’s little sister Tootie is abducted by the evil witch Gruntilda, who is intent on stealing Tootie’s good looks for herself – Banjo and Kazooie are destined to rescue her. Unfortunately, such a childlike ensemble of characters and story will do little for the N64’s image as a toy, particularly among ‘blood and guts’ gamers. It’s not to the game’s detriment, however, although the characterisation is perhaps a little predictable. As ever, Rare’s ‘baddies’ are far better realised than its ‘goodies’.
Key members of the team responsible for Donkey Kong Country formed the core of Banjo-Kazooie’s crew. Aside from a similar animal-based collection of characters, clear parallels can be drawn between DKC and Banjo. From the sprawling hub level (Gruntilda’s Lair) to the animals that can be utilised (or in this case, morphed into to open up more area for exploration), echoes of the older title run throughout the team’s new game. Many of the ideas have been better integrated this time around, although the concept of two controllable characters could have been far better explored. Jon Ritman’s 8bit classic Head Over Heels featured separate characters, with distinct abilities, that could be joined to access new areas. But such innovative touches are sadly lacking in the permanently connected Rare characters.
However, by tying the dual heroes so closely together, Rare has allowed a wide variety of moves to be included in the game. They’re not all available from the outset, though – the player has to learn new actions from the friendly mole Bottles, who emerges from his hills at selected points. As expected, this then facilitates access to new areas of the game. Even with over a dozen obtainable standard moves, the control system remains commendably intuitive. Every move is beautifully animated, though the Mario-style high jump (hold down the Z trigger and press A) is of particular note.
In addition to guiding Banjo and Kazooie, the player must also make full use of the game’s camera in order to progress. Rare has tried to accommodate all tastes, with both a zoom and rotate control, and a ‘chase cam’ which tracks behind the character. While the system works well on surface sections, the many underwater sequences are marred by the sudden switch to a fixed camera position. On occasions this proves intensely frustrating, with Banjo and Kazooie regularly drowning while trying to retrieve one of the many collectables, because the player can’t see the action.
The core of Banjo-Kazooie’s gameplay is, in traditional platform game style, built around gathering a number of items. Chief among these are the notes and jigsaw pieces that unlock the game’s later levels. Scattered throughout the central hub world are points where jigsaw blocks garnered from each of the worlds are used to unlock the entrances to further stages. Additionally, there are various ‘note doors’ placed strategically throughout, each marked with the number of notes that must be collected to pass into fresh areas. This approach forces the player to scour each world for the maximum possible number of both items, rather than the more leisurely, open adventuring of Super Mario 64. Other collectables include Gumbo skulls, which the player can trade with Mumbo the shaman (one of the game’s strongest characters). Mumbo will transform Banjo into an animal, and it is these creatures that are Banjo-Kazooie’s strongest facet, with good design and fairly novel implementation. Sadly, not every stage has a Mumbo hut, while the time spent morphed seems over all too soon.
Puzzles in the game rely too heavily on the player’s physical dexterity rather than their mental agility. Players are asked to guide Banjo from A to B, with the only obstacle to progress being the narrow ledge between. None of the stages match the intricate layout of Mario 64’s Wet/Dry World, although some (such as the snow-bound Freezeezy Peak), stand out among the nine areas. The visual theme of each world, be it sand, swamp, ice or haunted and industrial, has limited the game’s conundrums, not enhanced them. A reluctance to experiment with environments, allowing gravity to defeat imagination, runs like a stream through this game. Banjo may outpace Mario’s visuals with a loping ease, but – sadly – the former game’s mechanics are a pale imitation of Miyamoto’s old master.
While unable to match Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie leaves the numerous PlayStation 3D platformers floundering in its wake. There’s no doubt that Rare has constructed a towering technical achievement with this title. Just as Donkey Kong Country redefined the limits of 16bit console visuals, so Banjo-Kazooie does for the current generation of machines. Fresh faces on the videogame scene are likely to find Banjo a rewarding investment. But beneath the good looks this is platforming-by-numbers, with the player channelled through a tight script that is brought into sharp relief by a lack of innovation in the control system and gameplay. Rare’s title relies on the proven formulas of yesterday – not daring to be different – an unavoidable factor which will leave videogame cognoscenti wondering what all the fuss is about.