There are few games that truly appeal to everyone. Words like “perfect,” “superb,” and “pants-tightengly amazing,” get thrown around like candy more often than not by video game fans all over the net to mask the sad truth of reality. The reality being, of course, that few games ever truly get to be remembered without a few tarnishes to their reputation and there will always be someone out there willing to piss on everyone else’s parade. Today, I am that pisstaker and, boy, do I have a prime target to present to you today. All I ask if that you read calmly, breathe steadily, and refrain from throwing a pitchfork too far up my nether regions.
Banjo-Kazooie is a game I desperately want to love. As an unabashed lover of 3D platformers, there have been few games I regretted missing out on playing as a kid than the two Banjo-Kazooie games for the Nintendo 64 from Rare Studios. After missing the chance to play these games as a child, I was finally able to sit down and play the first game as an adult, expecting to have my socks thoroughly rocked by what the internet had hyped up for me for years.
What I found was underwhelming to say the least and absolutely infuriating to say the worst. I am hard pressed to think of any other time in my life where I have been this disappointed (*Seriously, it’s a tie between Banjo-Kazooie and my high school prom, that’s how disappointed I am, but I am leaning on Banjo-Kazooie.) To explain why, we have to start from the beginning.
The game starts off promising enough with a nice tutorial section. Sure, the game holds your hand just a little too tightly at some points but you are at least given the option to skip the tutorial entirely. What you’ll wish you could turn off is the all too creepy and off-putting eyes you’ll see on every single object in the game.
Nearly everything in the game is implied to be alive as demonstrated by their cartoonish and bulging eyeballs. Beehives, pots, a local garden’s crops, and even a god dang toilet. In Conker’s Bad Fur Day, a later production by Rare, this aspect of the company’s other games helps to enhance that game’s absurdist humor, but in a more straightforward narrative, it is more than a little unnerving.
The creep factor soon gives way to unbridled frustration as one explores the first actual world of the game. The game starts you off easy with an unintimidating green pasture to explore, sort of like Banjo-Kazooie’s answer to the Green Hill Zone in Sonic the Hedgehog. Right out of the gate, the game expects you to collect as many golden musical notes in the world as possible as they will be necessary to gain access to the rest of the game. There are 100 notes per world and if you die, you will have to start collecting all 100 of them all over again from scratch. This is not a big deal in the earlier stages, but as the game grows more and more difficult, this feels less like a challenge and more of a chore.
There is nothing wrong with so-called “collect-a-thons.” I enjoy the simple act of exploring an open world and collecting tiny little doo-dads strewn about the landscape for no clearly defined reason. It’s a cathartic experience when done correctly, but Banjo-Kazooie ruins that catharsis by making you feel like your hard work is pointless whenever you lose a life due to the game’s frustrating AI and wonkey water based levels.
You may be well on your way to collecting 100 notes but unless you get a near perfect run on you first try you are going to have to double the amount of time you spend on a stage just to get your progress back to its proper place. Pitfalls can include falling too far from a ledge, not being able to grab an air bubble in time under a massive water section, and cheap hits from enemies hidden in the levels’ landscapes. Granted, you do not have to collect every single note in all the stages to complete the game, but it does little to make the player feel accomplished while playing. For a game ostensibly made for kids, this is unacceptable.
Underneath the game’s cartoony exterior, lies a cold hard ball of steel meant for younger players to grind their teeth until they grow up to be the sharks you see on certain forums of NeoGAF. The game is hard is the point I am getting at. Aside from the usually despicable water based sections found in other 3D adventure games of this era, the enemy AI can sometimes be unfairly brutal.
For example, in the game’s ice level, Banjo has to fly through the air and dive bomb giant homicidal snowmen in order to complete one of the area’s challenges. The only problem is these snowmen must have just graduated from the Marine Corps’ new snow fighting course as they are able to lock onto you with pinpoint precision. This makes just getting around the level a major pain unless you take out the snowmen first. And if you die (guess what?) all of them come back to repeat the process all over again.
I do not want to come off as overly negative, as I did initially enjoy my time with the game. The musical score is nice and bouncy, the graphics are among the best on the N64, and the light-hearted atmosphere is something the industry desperately needs more of these days. Not to mention, the game just feels good to play.
Controlling Banjo is nice and tight which makes the actual movement around the world a true joy. I can see why some people love this game and I desperately wanted to join them in their little party in the sun, but my black little heart could only suffer through the game’s little annoyances for so long before continuing felt more like a duty to be fulfilled than a pleasure.
Banjo-Kazooie is a bonafide classic, but its shortcomings prevent me from fully enjoying the experience it offers. I may be forever doomed to be immune to its charms, but I would love for people to try to convince me otherwise. I still have not completed the entire game but am open to jumping back into it if anyone can convince me. So by all means, leave a comment below and let me know what you think of the game. Much love everyone. Keep it retro.