Retro Scope: Banjo-Kazooie

Anthony revisits the gameplay and potty humor of Rare’s seminal N64 game.

By Anthony Pelone. Posted 08/20/2015 08:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

When revisiting Banjo-Kazooie after all the hubbub surrounding spiritual successor Yooka-Laylee, I came to realize I’d arrived in an era now alien to my own. Maybe it’s just because I’ve grown up, but the way Banjo-Kazooie so openly embraces juvenile potty humor, for one, reminded me of all the kiddy movie trailers I’d watched in theaters as a tyke; you know, the ones that repeatedly flaunted flatulence and pee-pee and the like. Obviously, it’s not nearly as grotesque as Rare’s later effort in Conker’s Bad Fur Day, but I can’t help but crack a grin at how lead bear Banjo has to rescue a sister named “Tooty”, and how his bird companion Kazooie can poop out eggs as an attack (complete with a little farting noise), and there’s a point where they have to enter the tomb of one King SandyButt. Just goes to show how much I’ve grown up.

It’s bizarre then, that as an adult, Banjo-Kazooie shatters any suspension of disbelief faster than you can say “Princess Peach’s empty castle in Mario 64“, as I can’t help but question why Banjo and Co. chose to settle down on the doorstep of a nefarious witch’s lair, and why the witch in question chose to decorate her interior with numerous depictions of the titular duo. But the moment you start asking questions, you recognize they never end; after all, if the above two examples pose a problem, then so are the collectibles’ possession of googly eyes and human speech, as well as why friendly shaman Mumbo Jumbo frequently changes residences.

This is all for the sake of player convenience and context, you understand, but I’ve come to recognize Banjo-Kazooie as an the gaming personification of “why not?”. If honeycombs and music notes can talk, then why shouldn’t a barrage of three eggs take down a giant angry gorilla? If the hapless Jinjos can’t be arsed to rescue themselves from not-so-perilous situations, then it makes perfect sense for the slow-witted Banjo to offer feathers and eggs to a starving tree trunk. If Banjo has a picture of Bottles the Mole in his house despite never meeting him before the game’s events, then why shouldn’t pooping eggs into a leaky toy bucket cause water to recede from a giant submerged sand castle? Indeed, asking questions prove not only endless, but go against Banjo-Kazooie‘s ability to speak to children.

This isn’t to say Banjo-Kazooie is perfect at what it does. Like many 3D platformers of its time, age has taken its toll in how the once-daunting worlds and progress-gated doors can be blazed through relatively quickly; this can be seen immediately with Mumbo’s Mountain, as the first world’s tasks are so base and rudimentary that it can be completely cleared in less than fifteen minutes. Whereas later Rare platformers might’ve been too big, Banjo-Kazooie is perhaps a tad too simple despite its wild imagination.

I’ll tell you what hasn’t aged, though: the score. Grant Kirkhope’s magical utilization of xylophones and tubas is birthed here, cementing his status as the N64’s rockstar. Nearly every song in the game is an instant classic, and it’s amazing how flexible the level themes are in adjusting to various contexts and still sound natural, be it underwater, enemy brawls or spooky caves. Gruntilda’s Lair in particular is perhaps one of the greatest hub themes in gaming history, providing a perfect air of light-hearted mystery and sneakiness (all while being subject to the “fluctuation” rule, my personal favorite being the upbeat showtime one for Grunty’s Furnace Fun).

Some publications once advertised Banjo-Kazooie as Rare’s “Mario 64 killer”. Did it succeed? Whether it did or not is irrelevant; while both share the basic formula, Banjo-Kazooie apes Mario 64‘s collection tropes rather than Mario’s acrobatic feats and precise control. Both games set different goals for themselves, so it’s all a simple matter of preference.

Me? I love the controls in Mario 64 too much not to choose it, but I can’t help but feel Banjo Kazooie trumps it in one area: it’s originality in the “whatever goes” theme. That, and some extra sprinkling of fart humor. As flawed as it and its sequel (Banjo-Tooie) may be in a modern context, revisiting them has reminded how much I’ve missed my toots in 3D action games. How delightful Yooka-Laylee is set to bring that back via a fart bubble attack.

For more Banjo-Kazooie, check out our 15th anniversary retrospective from 2013.

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