Forget ‘Mario 64’, ‘Banjo-Kazooie' Is the 3D Platformer That Mattered Most
I'll see your plumbers and princesses, and raise you a bear and a bird.
Where were you when you first played Super Mario 64?
In the Virgin Megastore at the end of a blustery March day in your local town centre, wearing your poppers, a carrier bag laden, watch-examining mum huffing and puffing beside you at the display unit? At the dodgy, smoky import shop frequented mainly by hardcore The King of Fighters fans? Or were you in your sad little bedroom on Christmas Day, having been finally, finally been allowed to leave the table?
Everyone remembers where they were the first time they nudged the N64's analogue stick and made a three dimensional Mario move – it's modern gaming's very own JFK moment. The tappity-tap of his little feet on the dusty floor. The butterflies flapping around the directional signs, and the rush of Lakitu's majestic camera sweeps. The sheer, orgasmic, indescribable joy of interacting with a proper 3D environment for the first time. It was absolutely breath taking.
Perhaps even more astonishing, and as terrifying as it may be to believe, Princess Peach invited us to the castle to eat cake almost 20 years ago. We've had nearly two decades to digest the importance of Miyamoto's 3D masterpiece, and to observe whether Super Mario 64 could truly stand the test of time, and retain its crown as the most essential 3D platformer ever made. Nobody could deny the game is teeming with genre-defining moments. Those initial seconds frolicking in the castle grounds. Pissing around in the powdery, accordion-soundtracked glacier of Cool, Cool Mountain. Bowser's never-ending staircase. The rendezvous with Yoshi.
But despite all this greatness, Super Mario 64 had a reasonably short-lived reign as king of the early 3D platformer. Why? Because in the baking hot summer of '98, a banjo-twanging bear and a kazoo-playing red-breasted breegull burst onto our crackly little analogue screens. This was Banjo-Kazooie.
Even at the age of 13, I was already beginning to develop and nurture my life-defining aura of misanthropy, social awkwardness and general antipathy for modern industrial civilisation. But no matter how black and stony my hormonal teenage heart, the sight of the N64 logo waddling into frame and a dorky looking bear ratatat-tatting the TV screen eased a grin across my face, and was a reassuring sign of the very colourful, very exciting and very different things to come. This was going to be pocket money well spent.
Rare's setup for their flagship platformer is simple, just like Nintendo's – rescue the girl, end of. Tooty is to Banjo what Peach is to Mario, and she's been kidnapped by a green-faced witch named Gruntilda to steal her good looks, and who, brilliantly, speaks only in rhyming couplets. Kazooie gives Banjo a feathery wake-up call, and the two set off across the tutorial level Spiral Mountain and over into Grunty's Lair. And the greatest video game soundtrack of a generation kicks in.
The tens of tracks composed by Grant Kirkhope for Banjo-Kazooie are among my favourite ever collected, and give each of the cartoonish locales a weighty and unforgettable sense of place. The sand-flecked steel drum calypso of Treasure Trove Cove. Sleigh bells sparkling beneath the frosty music box pomp of Freezeezy Peak. The loopy funeral march of Mad Monster Mansion, a staple on my laptop, with its howling wolves, wailing synths and harmonising church organ. Perhaps best of all, Grunty's Lair's spin on the teddy bear's picnic theme alters accordingly depending on your location – bringing in pirate's accordion when you're near Treasure Trove Cove for example, and snake-charmer pungi when you approach the sand-blasted dunes of Gobi's Valley. Characters in the game don't have voices, but speak in a series of sampled noises – burps, squeaks, gurgles – which change in pitch to give the illusion of real conversation. Kirkhope's soundtrack is a fireworks display of aural colour, personality and place, characterised by the way each tune and noise plays out with subtle changes in tempo, rhythm and melody throughout each of the impeccably designed levels.
And what a world this is. Every frame is bursting with imagination. Not just in the theme-park aesthetic of the main levels themselves – which drag the player across reptile-infested marshlands, smoggy industrial docks and a misty, Hammer-inspired haunted house – but it's also in the goofy animations, the snarky fonts, the way the water drips off Banjo's fur and the way Kazooie bursts from his impossibly small blue backpack. It's a world tied together wonderfully by Grunty's Lair, a hub which puts Mario 64's castle to embarrassing shame with its sketchy shortcuts, head-scratching puzzles and dripping, labyrinthine passageways. Navigating it and solving the cartoonish conundrums and Metroidvanian mazes within is a genuine delight. It'll make you feel clever, make you laugh, make you want to peer around every corner and into every cranny. It's a world that feels so alive, and one with such an agreeably loveable sensibility that the madcap reckless abandon of it all constantly threatens to escape the confines of the TV screen and overflow into your bedroom.
At the centre of all this colour and charm, there's the experiences. The moments. Banjo's quest for jiggies, Jinjos, Mumbo tokens and musical notes is comprised of some of the most irreverent and satisfying tasks ever seen on a home console. Pick up an early jiggy and learn how to fire eggs by shooting them at a gorilla. Give a water-dwelling automaton some room to breathe at the surface of a rusty cavern. Scale a hundred-foot high snowman's scarf and grab the prize in his pipe. Make a sphinx sneeze. Play the notes on a giant church organ with a ghostly limb named Mozand. Eat more yumblies than Mr Vile. Jiggy by jiggy, the game hurtles along at its own insane Looney Tunes pace, always accessible and always surprising.
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And just when you think the craziness is winding down for the as-standard boss battle and credits roll finale, Rare tear the texture-mapped rug from under your feet and plonk bear and bird into Grunty's Furnace Fun. Arguably the greatest gaming finale in N64 history, this deranged gameshow sequence has the player traversing a series of blocks, each posing their own questions and challenges, the cackling hag Grunty in the role of Bruce Forsyth. Which close-up screenshot was this level from? Whose voice was this? What does Grunty wash her hair with? It's full of itself, audacious, hilarious, and shatters the forth wall into smithereens. Step on over to the square, press A to try it if you dare.
So after being baffled beyond belief when Banjo-Kazooie goes all Generation Game on your hapless little backside, you finally get to beak-bash Grunty's face in, grab Tooty and probably flick off the N64 for another round of Control, No Oddjob, remote mines. (Oh, come on. GoldenEye 007, remember?) But theories surrounding the game's more obscure secrets hover in the air like a neon comedy fart. That ice key in Wozza's cave. The Stop N' Swop debacle, and the supposed compatibility with the sequel. The guys at Rare offering zero clarity and whipping message boards up into a knowledge feeding frenzy, even to this day. The fact that friendships can be forged through a mutual misunderstanding of the ice key enigma proves that Banjo is a veritable honeypot of self-awareness, conjecture and mystery, and it's all the better for it.
Once Rare got bought to shit by Microsoft years later, I got all Banjo crazy again, fired up the original Kirkhope soundtrack and waited for news of a proper return to form. Banjo X? Banjo Threeie? Nope, what we actually got was 2008's underplayed and possibly under-appreciated Nuts n' Bolts, a hybrid platformer and sandbox style vehicle crash-'em-up the likes of which we still haven't seen repeated. It had the Banjo colour, a novel central mechanic and enough nods and nudges to the Banjos of old – especially in the sprawling theme park of BanjoLand – to keep the fans' willies wet until a real sequel arrived.
Which just got announced, by the way – albeit in a different guise. The guys who made the original Banjo-Kazooie have joined forces once again, this time under the name Playtonic, for a project that has become the fastest-ever video game Kickstarter to raise $1,000,000 in pledges. There's some very early gameplay footage floating around. And while we're all a little more sophisticated now, there's every chance it will be just as special as the games that inspired it. It's called Yooka-Laylee and your wallet probably just got 40 quid lighter.
When Banjo-Kazooie finally wraps up and all's said and done, you're left with the memories of those conversations with Bottles, the time you turned into a pumpkin, and the relief of finding that final cluster of musical notes. But Banjo's much more than that. It's a game that wasn't afraid to be juvenile and be clever at the same time. It's a game that understood the template perfected by Super Mario 64 and took it one step further, adding thick, rich layers of detail and personality where before there was little. It made one of video gaming's undisputed masterpieces seem lifeless and functional by comparison. It's still the essential early 3D platformer. And no other game has ever made me happier.
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