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CONSOLE: Nintendo 64 DEVELOPER: Rare PUBLISHER: Nintendo
RELEASE DATE (NA): May 31, 1998 GENRE: Action/Adventure
// review by SoyBomb

Another rare gem... oh, sorry, Rare gem.

Rare may have made a name for itself with its modernization and reinvigoration of the at-the-time deprecating Donkey Kong franchise, but it was with the story of a bear and bird combination that they proved to have inspiration of their own. Oh, there had been games starring anthropomorphized mammals before -- Sonic the Hedgehog, Bubsy the Bobcat... uh, Awesome Possum... -- with obviously varying degrees of success. But Banjo-Kazooie was something else, demonstrating that the seemingly generic characters do not necessarily equate to a terrible game. Animals at the helm can be a good thing, if done right.

Banjo-Kazooie starts out with a storyline pulled straight out of cheesy 1980s Halloween cartoon culture. The ugly witch, Gruntilda, is tired of looking like she fell out of the ugly tree, hit every branch on the way, then fell to the ground, only to be attacked by a gang of imps using those same tree branches as makeshift baseball bats. She wants to be pretty like the happy-go-lucky bear girl in the forest, Tooty. Apparently, female bears are attractive. I... had never thought of that before. With a fancy machine in her grisly laboratory, she can steal Tooty's good looks for herself. To the broomstick she ran, and with a swoosh in the sky, Gruntilda was off to kidnap Tooty. Meanwhile, her big brother, Banjo, and his red-crested breegull buddy, Kazooie, are doing what they do best: napping. Suddenly, they are awakened by a commotion outside, and they soon learn that Tooty has been kidnapped! Looks like a new quest has begun.

The opening level, Spiral Mountain, gives the player a basic sense of how to move around. By visiting the mounds of underground dweller mole Bottles, he will teach you all the moves you need to know, both in Spiral Mountain and abroad in the other worlds. Moves range from simple jumps and punches to Kazooie firing off eggs, both from the front AND from behind... yeesh. That might hurt a little bit. All of these moves will be necessary for your survival. Sadly, that includes both flying and swimming, two things that I truly hate to do with the Nintendo 64 controller. It was irritating in Super Mario 64. It was irritating in Donkey Kong 64. And it's irritating in Banjo-Kazooie. Flying and swimming (flying moreso) controls just plain stink in these games. But I digress.

There have been many parodies about "collect-a-thon" games, where there are seemingly millions of little items to collect. Banjo-Kazooie is an apt blueprint for that meme, as there are many things to be amassed throughout the various worlds within Gruntilda's Mountain. So what do we have? Let's start with Jiggies. Not to be confused with Will Smith's gyration-inducing hit released that same year, Jiggies are golden jigsaw puzzle pieces. There are ten hidden within each little world you visit, and they are used to help open up additional worlds within the game. Another fine collectable are golden Notes, one hundred in each world. They open up Note Doors throughout Gruntilda's tower; it's really hard to progress in the game with closed doors all over the place, so seek out those notes and start opening! There are 100 Jiggies in all, and 900 Notes. That's a thousand things to pick up. And I didn't even mention all the little items: eggs for firing, honeycomb pieces to restore health, Jinjos (little creatures captured by Gruntilda), Mumbo's tokens...

You're a small bear in a big, big world.

Wait, Mumbo's tokens? Who's Mumbo, you ask? ...You didn't ask? Hmmm. I'll tell you anyway. Mumbo is a shaman who seems to have houses all over the place. Every time you wander into his hut and give him the requested number of tokens, he'll use his expert abilities to transform the fur/fowl duo into something... er... supposedly useful. Some transformations are decent enough, such as changing into a termite to enter a termite hive while NOT getting attacked, or as a crocodile to parade through murky water without fear of injury from the creatures of the green lagoon. But others are pretty silly. I thought the bee transformation, which allows you to fly (Kazooie can already fly), was uninspired, but I believe that the metamorphosis into a pumpkin was the worst. Both the bee and the pumpkin have no attack skills, which is bad enough, but the pumpkin's only skill is... well, being small. That's...not all that creative. Given that it's supposed to be a spooky mansion, was there nothing better they could come up with than a small pumpkin? Needless to say, I didn't enjoy being a pumpkin. Crocodile? Maybe.

Ultimately, though, Banjo-Kazooie is just fun... for a while. I enjoyed hunting down each and every Jiggy. I liked searching for secrets in the nooks and crannies of the very colourful and interactive worlds. I adored having little chats with the various zany characters that inhabit Gruntilda's many unexplained portals (and the strange way they talked using quick vocal bytes, rather than full-fledged speech). But by the latter half of the game, I was starting to grow tired of it. I can't explain why, but perhaps there wasn't enough variety in the game to keep my enthusiasm high. Maybe it was the fact that most Jiggies were darn easy to find. Or maybe it was that some enemies were just irritating the heck out of me and I was enjoying the experience less because of them. Donkey Kong 64 never quite suffered from this, and it was longer. Then again, there was more variety to that collect-a-thon. Had Banjo-Kazooie ended one or two worlds earlier, it would have been far more pleasant overall.

Banjo-Kazooie is considered a classic Nintendo 64 title, and it's one of the games for which Rare is most famous. It's a representation of their most creative and fruitious period, so sayeth many. They would go on to make several sequels, including the critically acclaimed Banjo-Tooie (which I didn't care for quite as much), and the Comic Sans font-infused Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. For purity's sake, however, Banjo-Kazooie should still be experienced to see where the universal love for the bear and the bird began. You can either play it on the Nintendo 64, or as a port on Xbox Live Arcade. Wa-hey!

(And no, I didn't mention anything about that Ice Key hidden away in a cave. It was supposed to connect with Banjo-Tooie via a hot-swap method involving quickly switching cartridges. But it was not implemented, and so you have a floating Ice Key, forever shrouded in mystery.)

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