I like platformers—a lot. Looking back over my collection of games, the platform genre is well represented on every system I've ever owned. From Mega Man to Castlevania, Contra to Klonoa, and of course the ever-present Mario, I've jumped every type of platform (floating or otherwise) known to mankind. I can usually find something to like in most platformers, and with UK-based developer Rare's reputation for quality software it seems like I'd be in heaven, right? With Rare's first 3D attempt at the genre on the Nintendo 64, that was exactly the case. Banjo-Kazooie was released to huge fanfare as Rare successfully produced a game that not only did everything the groundbreaking Super Mario 64 did, but did it better. Heaven achieved.
After having spent many joyful hours negotiating the levels in Banjo-Kazooie, it was with great anticipation that I awaited Rare's next effort, Donkey Kong 64. However, having reached what I thought to be the pinnacle of 3D platform design, something must have gone horribly awry at the Rare offices. Perhaps it was a false sense of invulnerability, perhaps someone had lost a bet? Perhaps it was some diabolical power guiding the programmers' hands in a direction no hands were meant to go. Whatever the case, in my opinion, playing Donkey Kong 64 was like a rapid descent into madness. Uncountable items to tediously collect, a motley cast of unappealing buffoons, and a method for making a player traverse the same levels five times over left a taste in my mouth more vile than even the furriest piece of leftover anchovy pizza.
After being subjected to the horror I refer to as Donkey Kong 64, I had pretty much written Rare off as having taken a flying leap off the cliffs of good game design, and any hopes I had of Banjo-Tooie living up to the standard of its predecessor had gone plummeting over the edge with them. Needless to say, after playing Banjo-Tooie, all the fears and misgivings I had with regards to the franchise's possible future have been laid to rest, and my Donkey Kong-induced trauma has finally healed. Rare has more than made up for the error of their ways by going far, far above and beyond what I had expected by producing a sequel that is exactly what a sequel should be—an improved game which retains everything good from the first title with enough new ideas and situations to make playing it more than just a repeat performance with a different ending.
If I haven't already come right out and said it, Banjo-Tooie is a 3D adventure/platform game featuring Banjo the Honeybear and Kazooie the Breegull. Kazooie rides along in Banjo's backpack providing air support and speed while Banjo provides brute strength and climbing mobility throughout the game. The duo share action and adventure while saving their home and rescuing friends from a trio of evil witches. The game takes place on an island split up into 10 absolutely huge worlds which are all interconnected in a more holistic and unified fashion than most games. Progress is made by exploring every nook and cranny of the levels for various items along the way.
One of the things I like best about the game is the characters. Banjo and Kazooie make a great team, and complement each other perfectly. The design of the pair is appealing and the dialogue is generally snappy as well, while not straying too far into the dry, English-style patter that distastefully colors some of the other Rare titles. They frequently reference themselves as being characters in a game, and also to their sequel status. The sass and irreverence are well-used here and set a cheery, light-hearted tone without having that dumbed-down "written for kids" feeling.
Besides the appeal of the bear and bird, the real meat and potatoes of Banjo-Kazooie is how the various moves are implemented. There's a lot of opportunity to add in special moves and abilities which make sense in the context of having two characters in one, and this is utilized to the fullest. Not only do Banjo and Kazooie have a huge arsenal of moves available to them as a unit, new to the sequel are Split Pads, which enable you to take control of either of them separately. After separating, each has an additional set of character-specific moves. By the end of the game you will have an unbelievable list of nearly 40 moves and techniques available. The thing that really makes this worthwhile is that believe it or not, every single one of the moves will be necessary to fully complete the game. The play mechanics here and the amount of level exploration are truly staggering, putting every other 3D platformer to shame. Combine all the moves from both Super Mario 64 and Tomb Raider, multiply by three and add a control setup that is mastered in seconds, and you start to get an idea of what Banjo-Tooie feels like to play. There simply has never been a game that let you do so much with your character.
Not only did Rare create the most able-bodied stars of any platformer to date, they went 10 steps further by adding a wealth of minigames scattered throughout the worlds in addition to a fully-realized first-person shooter engine as well. At certain points you will be doing Banjo's impression of GoldenEye 007 by tackling various objectives and shooting enemies by using Kazooie as your rifle and bayonet. By doing this, Rare has added short bits of surprising freshness to ensure that you don't grow too complacent in your expectations. It certainly eliminates any feeling of predictability or "been there, done that."
As I mentioned earlier, the worlds available to you in which to use these moves are monstrous, with incredibly well-designed and varied architecture. From an Aztec-themed world to a fully free-swimming underwater area, variety is the key here. There are a lot of different things to accomplish in each world while there remains a solid, constant logic to the objectives. The player is kept busy, but it doesn't feel like you always have something to do. It feels like you always have 10 things to do—but in a good way. Walking into a stage for the first time, you'll see several different paths to take and a multitude of things to explore. Although it can feel a bit overwhelming to have so much available to you at once, Rare walks the fine line and provides multiple objectives coupled with a steady progression and stable, regular integration of learned abilities. What this means is that you'll always have a new idea to try or a new area to explore without hitting a wall of frustration caused by unpredictable leaps of game logic or unexpected puzzle design that players don't follow. By the time you reach the difficult areas, you will have already built up the skill and the knowledge to tackle the majority of them with ease.
Difficulty aside, I can't express enough my supreme satisfaction at playing a game which feels as cohesive and organic as Banjo-Tooie. Besides the unified design, let me assure you that the game is no slouch in the visual department, either. The graphics are the best the Nintendo 64 has ever seen, bar none. Huge amounts of detail and small touches give the game a fully-fleshed and polished feel, and each new area you discover is a veritable feast for the eyes. The animation is top-notch with Rare giving the full treatment not only to the main characters, but to every other character in the game. Things look fluid and move naturally, with a good sense of weight and proportion. The color palette spans the rainbow with some levels being composed of primary colors and sunshine, with the later levels being dark, dank and dreary. Dynamic lighting effects abound—I was thrilled to see that the shadows cast by the characters weren't black circles. It's definitely a small touch, but one that really shows the lengths to which the programmers went by dotting every "i" and crossing every "t."
The sounds are a treat as well, with the music keeping the same kind of perky, quirky flavor which suits the upbeat mood well. Also included are a wide range of ear-pleasing sound effects for the characters and stages. It's worth noting that Rare kept the voices from the original game which tended to split the audience into "love it" or "hate it" camps. The voices sound somewhat similar to the adults in a Charlie Brown TV special, with that "mwah-mm-bwah" slurred effect being comprised of different sound bits for each character. Kazooie's voice is made up of chirps and squawks while Cap'n Blubber sounds more like a room full of people with serious intestinal dysfunction. As far as my two cents goes, I'd like to say that I really think the voices are amusing and a nice touch, but be warned if you didn't care for them in the original game.
Despite all the gushing I've done so far, I would be remiss if I claimed that Banjo-Tooie is perfect, which it's not. However, it does come amazingly close.
The first thing I noticed was the framerate. Although it's become something of an overused buzzword in gaming circles lately, it is definitely a valid issue here. Evidently the expansive worlds and improved graphics come at the price of a smooth framerate, and it shows up even in the intro which I find to be a bit ridiculous. It's not game-wrecking by any means, and it's not bad enough to detract seriously from the gameplay, but it's quite noticeable at different points in every level.
While on the topic of visuals, there is also a significant amount of shimmer at times. Shimmer is a heat-mirage kind of visual effect caused by jagged lines being redrawn as objects and the environment move and rotate. Perhaps I've been spoiled by my Dreamcast lately, but I found the combination of shimmer and framerate to be fairly hard on the eyes until I became re-accustomed to it. It must be the result of long periods of time between game sessions on the Nintendo 64, I suppose.
As something of a warning, i also found the difficulty worth mentioning. Towards the end of the game, it ramps significantly, and the time required to finish areas goes way up past anything found in Banjo-Kazooie. Some of Rare's other titles have been infamous for the difficulty of completing them, and Banjo-Tooie is no exception. Oddly, the problem here lies in the overly masterful design of the stages. Rather than throwing in an excess amount of enemies or anything requiring lightning-fast reflexes, the biggest challenge is simply negotiating the terrain and finding your way around the semi-convoluted stages. The levels can be so large and devilishly laid out that you'll need to devote several large neuron clusters to keeping a mental map in your head of areas that can take two hours or more to complete. It never feels outright cheap or unfair, but the pace of the game can slow down significantly when dealing with an objective that takes several deliberate steps to complete. There is definitely some cognitive challenge to be had here, but it might turn gamers off who are looking for something involving manual dexterity more than mental dexterity. Patience and memory are both a must.
Basically, those three issues were all I could see that ever-so-slightly tarnish the shine the game presents. However, the biggest underlying flaw to be found here is simply that it isn't on more powerful hardware, and I can't in good conscience count that against it. Rare has done a truly amazing job considering what they had to work with. I can find no fault with their creativity, and that's a huge compliment coming from me.
I would without a doubt rank the original Banjo-Kazooie as the best 3D platformer on the Nintendo 64—a system designed for playing games of this type, and it's not an easy thing to beat the Italian plumber at his own racket. I would have never have believed it possible to top Banjo-Kazooie, especially after what Rare's been producing lately, but Banjo-Tooie completely outdoes the original game and catapults itself to the top of the entire genre regardless of platform in one deft, masterful stroke. Banjo-Tooie is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word, hitting the mark on nearly every account, and above all containing an amazing amount of variety and sheer fun. With a delicate balance of tasks and challenges, a charming cast of characters, and one of the most solidly constructed game designs ever, Banjo-Tooie is possibly the brightest star that will ever grace the Nintendo 64's rapidly darkening skies. Do not miss it.