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Retrospective Review: Banjo-Kazooie

Welcome to The Retrospective Review. The premise is simple, I'll be taking a look back at a retro title, and then offering my opinion on whether I believe it's still worth your time and money.

Because, let's face it, while some games were critically acclaimed in their day, they haven't aged too well. Worse, there are those games still remembered as classics, but when you go back to them...well, they just don't hold up.

Technological limitations of the time, out of date design styles... both these things and more can effect the extent to which we enjoy older games. I'll be taking such aspects into consideration, but at the same time, judging whether they can be accepted as "products of their time" or whether they are simply too great an obstacle to your enjoyment.

This week, I'm taking a look at...

Banjo Kazooie

As a child, I wasn't a very good gamer. That's something I've come realise. I may have played many great titles, but being the fickle little thing that I was, I hardly ever saw those games through. I'd simply lose interest as new games were released.

Banjo-Kazooie is one of those games I played but never finished. So I went back to it recently, armed with experience and maturity, and what I found was a game to fall in love with.

For those who might not know, Banjo-Kazooie is an N64 title where the player takes on the role of the titular Banjo (a bear) and Kazooie (a foul-mouthed bird) as they set out to rescue Banjo's sister, Tootie, from the evil witch Gruntilda, who intends to steal the girl's youth.

It's a game brimming with bright visuals, fantastic humour, original design and... to be honest, no description could possibly do a better job of summing up this game than the following video, taken from the game's opening:

This delightful, entertaining style persists throughout the entirety of the game, and never gets old. Whether it's Kazooie mouthing-off at characters that are trying to help you, Banjo being a tad dim-witted, or Grunty attempting to insult you through diabolical rhymes, everything about BK is brimming with hilarity. Even the supporting characters (too numerous to name here) are deftly crafted to this comic style. Nothing about Banjo-Kazooie is forgettable. This is a game that will stay with you, long after it's completion.

Of course, the first thing you'll notice upon slamming the cartridge into the console is that Banjo-Kazooie's graphics have aged, badly. It's a real shame that so many titles from the N64/PS1/Dreamcast era have visually depreciated in this manner, but there's no escaping it. Time waits for no video game. Fortunately, Banjo-Kazooie holds up better than most. This is partially because it's graphics were never about realism - they were about goofy characters and bright colours. Had this game been graphically realistic, it would likely look horrific now, but since BK focuses on cartoon-style visuals, the ravages of time are less profound.

But the ravages are there - you probably felt as much from watching the video. Plus, on your lovely widescreen TV, the game is going to look even worse, even if you alter the aspect ratio. Yet once again, BK's saving grace is it's design. Playing Banjo-Kazooie is a very immersive experience. With only a few flaws (which I'll get to) BK's gameplay is a real pleasure, and combined with its rainbow-hues and comedic value, it'll only take a few minutes before those dated visuals seem like a distant memory.

How telling is it, when a game fifteen years old still holds up, despite outdated graphics? It makes me wonder just how many current titles, with their cutting edge graphics, will endure as well.

At its heart, Banjo-Kazooie is a game about collectables. Though the adventure takes places across numerous worlds - with themes as diverse as forest, shipyard, ancient Egypt and a giant snowman - your aim as the player is always stays the same: collect X many items in order to progress. There are several types of collectables, but the most important are Jiggies (jigsaw pieces) which fill in the pictures that open the worlds, and musical notes, which open the doors required to progress through the overworld of Grunty's Lair.

Cards on the table, I don't much like collectables. I have a theory that gamers are either "collectors" - insatiable seekers of every item in a game, or "droppers" - progression driven maniacs who's sole purpose is reach the end of the level. Banjo-Kazooie forces players to be both, and honestly, there were times when it really grated. If you're a "collector", then BK will be a blast for you. However, if you're more like me, then you are going to feel frustration as the game demands you up your total of notes by eleven before you can access the next section.

And that brings me to the game's two greatest (and arguably only) faults. The first is that it doesn't let you collect notes from each world over more than one session. Once you enter a world, you have to collect as many notes as possible, because if you return to Grunty's Lair or die, you have to start all over again. The game does remember your personal best, but if you want to increase it, you have to start again from zero.

This absolutely infuriating system is, admittedly, the product of the N64's limited memory capabilities. Remembering your note total, then letting you build upon it, was one step too far for "the fastest most powerful games console on earth" (the N64's UK promotional slogan). It's tempting to let this failing slide, because it really isn't the game's fault. However, the sheer level of fury I experienced each time I died on the later levels, or the groan-aloud irritation of firing up the game, knowing I'd have to revisit an old world and collect at least 70+ notes, just to push my grand total up another ten, forces me to penalise BK. It's a serious drawback, and it detracted heavily from an otherwise pleasant experience.

I'd liken this fault to reading an old, but highly praised, book - such as Lord of the Rings. Arguably, it's a masterpiece. But with the passing of time and the evolution of literary conventions, its style has become somewhat alienating to read. If you can put up with it, then there's plenty of great content to be experienced, but there's no denying that the antiquated prose detracts from your overall enjoyment.

Banjo-Kazooie's second shortcoming is its controls. For the most part, they're fine. Indeed, I can't think of a better way the N64's unique controller could have been implemented. Yet, there were two issues that continued to plague me. The first was the insensitivity of the the joystick. This is, of course, the fault of the controller itself, but bear with me. Several of the later levels require precise timing and accurate manoeuvring - but time and again, my controller let me down. My suspicion is that the N64's joystick does not age well, and with constant use, it's sensitivity has reduced. Obviously, this wouldn't have been a problem when game and controller were new. But now, after so many years of use, the combination of BK's required precision, and the controller's weariness, make for a lethal cocktail. It isn't really the game's fault - you can't blame the developers for an unforeseen hardware shortcoming - but considering how often I slipped to my death, or miss-aimed a jump because of it, I'm hard pressed not to consider this a mark against playing BK. Blame can't reasonably be laid at BK's feet, but the fact is that it detracted from my enjoyment of the game.

(I'm more than willing to admit that, with a newer controller, this might be a non-issue. However, if you're using an older controller - and it's likely you will - it's a problem you could well encounter)

The second control issue is the camera angle. Countless times I found myself mashing the C buttons to try and bring the camera into a position where scenery or objects weren't blocking it. Holding the R button does bring it directly behind Banjo, but often you need the camera to point in a different direction, and that requires turning Banjo, then realigning the camera behind him. It was time consuming and frustrating, and this time, the fault is most certainly the game's.

If you feel I've been rather negative, over a series of relatively minor issues, some of which aren't really the game's fault...well I understand your position. 80-90% of the time, BK will be a blast, and you won't give two hoots about those shortcomings. However, when you do occasionally encounter them, you'll be shouting at the screen, I promise.

But to say these faults ruined the game for me would be a lie. Frankly, this game defines the N64 era. When people study the history and development of video games, they will hold Banjo-Kazooie as a prime example of how developers successfully adapted to the brave new 3D world that was unfolding around them.

I'm hard pressed to think of titles currently being released with this level of originality and charm. Banjo-Kazooie is a classic - and more than that, it is a cornerstone in the progression of gaming. It deserves a place in your collection, and more importantly, it deserves a place in your heart.

Want more Retrospective Review? My review of Super Metroid is right here: http://www.destructoid.com/blogs/Joe+Odran+Doran/retrospective-review-super-metroid-244438.phtml

(PS: I'm aware that Banjo-Kazooie is available on XBLA, and that this updated version resolves a number of the issues that I raised with the original. I've not played the newer version, however, and so can't comment on it at any length.)
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About Hawkmoon269one of us since 2:13 AM on 09.07.2012