Recently I came across my old Nintendo 64 and, as nostalgia engulfed me in its euphoric shockwave, I popped in one of those antique cartridges that immediately stood out: Banjo-Kazooie.
Banjo-Kazooie! I loved this game! It was one of the best games for the Nintendo 64 without question. If you could name one major flaw, it was only that Banjo-Kazooie came out a few months before the best N64 game (and, many people say, the best ever), The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Banjo-Kazooie was one of a very strong line of games for a very strong system, but why? Let’s go back to 1998 and examine the mechanisms that made the game a success, and see whether or not there’s anything to learn in the creation of our own stories.
Yes, Banjo-Kazooie had excellent graphics by the standards of the day (more so even than Ocarina of Time), and visuals are very, very important to persuasion, but many N64 games had great visuals. If visuals determined a game’s greatness, Jet Force Gemini would be better than Banjo-Kazooie. Clearly, there was something deeper at work.
First, the soundtrack was really good, among the best of the Nintendo 64 games. Arguably it was even better than Ocarina of Time’s. One of the strengths of Banjo-Kazooie (which we’ll soon discuss) was its incredible panoply of different atmospheres, and the soundtrack of the game perfectly fit each one.
You’re about to journey into the snow? This is the jingle that makes the game sound appropriately “cold.”
You’re about to step into a haunted house? How about something that feels appropriately “spooky?”
You’re going to a place that changes seasons? How about something that feels appropriate for each one?
Hell, these themes even changed somewhat in certain locales, like when you were underwater for instance. The variation was perfect for each.
The Banjo-Kazooie soundtrack was among the best of the N64 and it really amplified the power of the game. Combined with the great visuals, the soundtrack added more sensual power to the worlds in Banjo-Kazooie, making it feel like more of an adventure to the player. Not every game pulls this off, but this one did.
Different Worlds, Different Feelings
Famously, Banjo-Kazooie sports nine different worlds that the player has to navigate – a mountain with a village, a beach with a pirate ship and shark, a sewer with a living garbage disposal (really), a swamp, a snowy mountain with a village, a desert with pyramids and a sphinx, a haunted house and chapel, a ship in oily water, and a huge tree that changes with the seasons.
Each of the worlds in Banjo-Kazooie brings a far different feel, which adds variety to the game and anticipation as you progress through it. It is never monotonic. Adding to the feeling was something of a staple for the N64 that went back to its foundation in Super Mario 64, the central area that connected with all the other worlds in the game. In the case of Banjo-Kazooie, this was Gruntilda’s Lair, a huge labyrinth (by the standards of the Nintendo 64) that invited you deeper and deeper into its recesses. As you climbed to the upper levels, you were met with the new worlds, and the connection between Gruntilda’s Lair and its constituent worlds was solidified by appropriate scenery and again, proper music. It added to that sense of adventure in ways that Super Mario 64 didn’t with Princess Peach’s castle, bringing out the true potential of the N64 that its first game arguably just came too early for.
The panoply of different worlds added to the sense of grandness and adventure, engulfing you with different feelings for each one. Gruntilda’s Lair added a labyrinthine element that added mystery and enhanced anticipation, and with each note door you opened to progress higher into the lair, your dopamine reward centers spiked. All of this adds to the illusion that Banjo-Kazooie is a very long, very complex game, when in fact, it isn’t, even by the standards of the Nintendo 64. A skilled player who wants to see it all, rather than do a speedrun, can complete it in about six hours. Many more Nintendo 64 games are in fact far longer and more complex, and not just the obvious ones like Banjo-Tooie (the sequel for this game), Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Super Mario 64, and, at the tail end of the N64, Paper Mario. It’s arguable that even WWF No Mercy, with its dozens of storylines, takes longer and forces you to make more complicated decisions.
But facts don’t matter (or at least don’t matter terribly much) to persuasion, right? Banjo-Kazooie persuaded well. and when I first played it at the age of 10 in 1998, I spent months on it, that red power light of my N64 blaring. It was a great adventure, probably coloring my view of the game to this day. Banjo-Kazooie wasn’t long or even particularly complex as compared to other Nintendo 64 games, but it made the absolute best of all its content. There are few more pleasant distractions.
The Nintendo 64 was released at a more innocent, uplifting time, when things were soaring. Naturally, the games would reflect this. Looking back on Banjo-Kazooie, it’s almost too comical for today, though it didn’t seem that way at the time. A fat, blubbering witch trying to steal the beauty of a bear that happens to have blonde hair? A bird that shoots or farts eggs into a bucket? Playing as a pumpkin that gets flushed down a talking toilet? Another great aspect of Banjo-Kazooie, which added to its sprawling adventure, was the transformation of the player into many different forms throughout the game, but that one never fails to stand out above them all.
One would be forgiven for thinking that Banjo-Kazooie was the work of potheads trying to develop a game for the N64, but that only adds to the charm as an adult looking back on it, giving you something new as the years go by (it was less funny as a kid). Not many games do that.
Humor, highly variable worlds with all sorts of feelings and a labyrinthine connection, and great sensual bombardment of visuals and sounds. These are what made this game one of the best for the N64, a system that sported a strong lineup of acclaimed titles. These tools are available for your use as well, particularly if you want to create something short.
Playing it on my old Nintendo 64 is a privilege, but it’s also available for download on Xbox. If you want a blast from the past and to see what I mean, I strongly suggest you give it a try.