Everybody wants to be the plumber. That’s how it was back when platformers were the king of video games. Every side-scrolling romp was just a repetition of the same idea: how can Mario be topped? The answer was simple: he couldn’t. Not in the ways that many had tried, anyway. Mario had his own spirit, you see, and you can’t copy someone’s spirit, you’ve got to create your own; Yuji Naka and his team at Sega figured that out when they created Sonic the Hedgehog. Others succeeded and created their own brand of games as time went by.
But when 3D gaming arched its back and rose up from its deep slumber in the mid 1990s, there was a harbinger of fun who showed the world how to play. Once again, he wore a red hat. Super Mario 64 was the top of the line in 3D platforming and all the other pretenders fell flat in trying to emulate the plumber’s spirit once again. Until a certain bear and bird came along, that is.
Banjo-Kazooie probably needs no introduction. It was created by Rareware, the once bright bastion of creativity for Nintendo. I’m not here to weave a tragic tale of that company today, I’m merely here to discuss the game it released back in 1998, exactly 15 years ago to this day. The game is a 3D platformer, of course, and it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s vibrant, it’s creative, and it’s endlessly entertaining. I feel that Banjo-Kazooie is like an aged wine whose flavor only grows and deepens with time. That’s not to say it’s a revolutionary title. No, it’s quite conventional, but it proves that tried and true game mechanics can and will grow much richer when put into the hands of good game designers.
Banjo-Kazooie did what those other platformers did and copied Mario, but rather than trying to simply ape the success of Super Mario 64, Rareware looked at the game and said, “How can we make a game like this, but with more?” By more, I mean bigger worlds, more characters, better graphics, better sound, and more imagination. Banjo may not necessarily be a better game than Super Mario 64, but it’s certainly an evolution of it– the next evolution would be Donkey Kong 64, only in that game we’d reach the breaking point of collectables and meaninglessly large levels. Banjo hit the sweet spot.
It’s not a perfect game, though. Going back to Banjo-Kazooie now may be hard, but it’s worth it. Camera controls are always an issue and collecting things may not be as fun as you remember, but compared to other N64 titles, this game holds up like a pro. Okay, so that aged wine comment from earlier doesn’t apply to all of Banjo-Kazooie‘s mechanics, but it certainly applies to the game’s charm, character and inherent fun.
What Rare did with Banjo-Kazooie was create its own original Saturday morning cartoon. The developers didn’t rely on established licenses like Donkey Kong and 007 this time around, they were able to make a fanciful world completely out of their twisted British brains (Ed — Hey!). When I experienced Banjo-Kazooie as a kid, my mind was blown. Everything was fun, everything was hilarious. Going back to it as an adult still gives me this sense of wonder. It’s like when you watch a Disney movie, I suppose.
And this is all the more helped by Grant Kirkhope’s stellar soundtrack, the sound of which is unmistakable. The echoing horns of Freezeezy Peak just beckon to the explorer in all of us, and the dreamlike theme of Gruntilda’s Lair could have come straight from a Danny Elfman score. That Disney feel of the game is largely due to Kirkhope; in fact, he’s scoring the remake of Mickey Mouse’s Castle of Illusion, so things are coming full circle. Kirkhope’s fantasy tunes would go on to be in several more great games, and we first heard them in Banjo-Kazooie (He had scored Goldeneye 007 before, but was stuck to creating James Bond music rather than original fantasy music).
I could go on and on about the levels and the humor, but I’ll leave it at that. Even after 15 years, Banjo-Kazooie still has that undeniable magic. It’s hard for a world not to feel alive when every other inanimate object has eyes, I suppose. A decade and a half of modern gaming might have caused some mechanics of Banjo to seem weak by today’s standards, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. The game is still good, it’s still fun, and it’s still amazing. Looking back on the short-lived heyday of the 3D platformer yields some interesting games, and Banjo-Kazooie will forever be remembered as one of the greats. When was the last time you played?
Of course, the sequel was even better.