Rare’s popular-ish platformer Banjo-Kazooie turns 20 this year. Uther Dean reflects on what the series meant for him back then – and what it means now.
Banjo-Kazooie is 20 years old. Time is cruel. These things are connected.
Time is cruel because it can’t be 20 years since I first played the wild frolic through a cartoon wonderland that is Banja-Kazooie. It feels like only a couple of weeks ago that I first sat cross-legged in my family home’s living room, plugged in our N64, and met Banjo the bear and Kazooie the bird and helped them defeat Gruntilda the witch. I can still feel the carpet on my legs, that bizarrely shaped controller in my hand, the joy spreading spreading through me as I visited Spiral Mountain.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that there are whole years of my life that remember less of than what I remember about Rare’s 3D platform game for the Nintendo 64 Banjo-Kazooie. And with good reason, if I’m honest. It was a great game. Yes, was. Time is cruel, let’s remember, and I’m not here to pretend that I’m doing anything other than being nostalgic.
The limp flop last year that was Yooka-Laylee, a crowd-funded “spiritual sequel” to Banjo-Kazooie from some of the same dev team, showed pretty plainly that cartoon-styled 3D collect-‘em’up platformers have been outmoded and outgrown in the modern video games landscape. We want video games to be more than that now and video games are the stronger for it. Also, if you were to sit down and play Banjo-Kazooie for the first time today the way it treats its female and minority characters (a witch-doctor named Mumbo Jumbo, oof) would jar. But, accepting that we can see the problematic elements in the things we love, nostalgia is not a bad thing on its own.
The nostalgia of Banjo-Kazooie is strong. It was not doing anything new but it was doing everything perfectly. A cruel logline for the game would be ‘Super Mario 64 but finished’. Part of the happiness of playing it for the first time was the knowing without knowing that I’d remember these moments for the rest of my life. The nostalgia of Banjo-Kazooie is very potent and was also very immediate.
The whole of the game just chimed perfectly together. The way all the characters spoke in a Pokémon-adjacent repetition of a syllable or two seemed to give their broad charactisations depth. Banjo’s ‘hi-yuk’s elevated him from a pile of jagged polygons shaped like something that, if you squinted, looked like a bear into a well meaning but not well educated doofus with a heart of gold. Kazooie’s screeching turns her into a grumpy, acid-tongued sidekick who can’t quite hide her love for adventure.
You immediately felt like you knew these people. That they were your friends. Which was less pathetic 20 years ago when liking video games wasn’t a thing that literally everyone alive did. The dialogue rolling in short bursts as text down the screen makes the game feel epic, oddly timeless. That Gruntilda only spoke in rhyming couplets made her seem like a Shakespearean villain to 10-year-old me.
This was a game that felt Important in every way.
The deft touches put on the even by then well-worn platformer move-set, like taking the physically impossible double long jump and giving it a logic with Kazooie giving Banjo a boost with her wings (she lives in his backpack, of course), makes the game feel textured and, in a bizarre way, logical.
The core gameplay loop, consisting of visiting themed worlds – desert level, water level, swamp level, snow level, haunted house level (the lack of a lava level feels like an oversight) – and either collecting things or performing slightly tenuous tasks with whatever new move you’d just learnt is pat now but was reassuring then.
That was what, to me, a game was then. And Banjo-Kazooie was doing a better job at it than any other game of the time. The worlds are cramped if you compare them to modern video game maps, but the multitude of ways to travel them (you’d collect feathers so Kazooie could fly; Mumbo Jumbo could transform you into a wide variety of other animals) and discover new nooks, crannies and secrets made them feel vast and full of life.
Banjo and Kazooie loom so large in my gaming imagination that it still feels absolutely bizarre that they didn’t roll on to become Sonic-level mascots rolling from game to game on nothing but the goodwill generated by some early games. Banjo-Kazooie was not their only outing, sure. There was Banjo-Tooie, in the ‘more is more, basically an expansion pack’ mode.
There was Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, in the ‘why not lets make this about unfun vehicle construction’ mode. There were Gameboy games, because if you can name literally any concept there was a disappointing Gameboy game for it. But all those, along with Yooka-Laylee which I’ve already mentioned, sank to a greater or a lesser degree.
Was I wrong? Or was the world? It doesn’t matter.
Because of nostalgia, that cheapest and sweetest of drugs, my love for Banjo-Kazooie is such that I’m still playing it in my memory. It may have been 20 years ago but in my mind I’m still on Spiral Mountain with my friends Banjo and Kazooie.
Banjo-Kazooie is 20 years old. Time is wonderful. These things are connected.
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