Banjo-Kazooie is a first-rate 3D platformer put out by Rare on the N64. The name comes from the titular duo, Banjo, a banjo-playing bear, and Kazooie, a rude and sarcastic bird who rides in Banjo's backpack. At first it feels like a Super Mario 64 clone, but the game has wonderful depth and creativity.
Although I'd never played the game before, I got hooked quickly and wanted to find all 100 jiggies. These are jigsaw puzzle pieces that function like stars in Super Mario 64. Unlocking each new stage requires placing a certain number of jiggies into a painting-like puzzle. Jiggies are found by solving each stage's centerpiece puzzles and tasks, such as rescuing a dolphin caught under an anchor, climbing to the the top of an area, or smashing a hut, door, or window. Some involve timed activities, such as solving a maze or puzzle in 60 seconds. There is a wide and fun variety of activities, and most are intuitive.
One nice improvement compared to Mario 64 is that you aren't forced to exit the level whenever you get a jiggy. This may be in part because there are ten per level instead of just six. The game only contains ten levels, including the hub world, Gruntilda's Lair. She is a witch who has kidnapped Banjo's sister Tooty in order to steal her beauty (this is shown when you get a Game Over or select "save and quit"!). The levels are varied and expertly crafted, on a par with Super Mario 64. Each is a different environment, e.g., swamp, ice and snow, beach, desert, underwater, etc.
Every level has at least one colorful character in need of help. There's Boggy, the polar bear who ate a jiggy and then wants to have a sled race against Kazooie. There's the recurring camel, Gobi, whom you have to ground-pound to get him to squirt water. Most levels also hold a hut belonging to a skull-masked shaman named Mumbo Jumbo. He will transform Banjo-Kazooie into a certain animal (depending upon the level) as long as you've collected enough skulls. For example, being turned into a walrus lets you withstand the freezing cold water and also gain the trust of Wozza, a walrus who has a jiggy. The alligator can travel safely through swamp water, the bee can fly, and so on. While in animal form Banjo-Kazooie can't attack.
The game is full of collectibles. In addition to the ten jiggies, every level (except Grunty's Lair) contains 100 musical notes. These notes are needed to unlock doors. You need at least 765 to finally save Tooty. Annoyingly, if you exit a stage or die without getting all 100 notes, you have to start over the next time, though the game records the highest amount you've collected at once for the purpose of opening doors. In the final stage, I became so tired of re-collecting musical notes that I began using save states. It's such an outdated design element.
Each level also contains five colored birds called Jinjos. If you get all five in a single go, you get a jiggy. They whistle when you're near one, which is a nice touch. The hardest items to find are empty honeycomb cells. Whenever you get five (across multiple levels), Banjo-Kazooie's honeycomb health meter increases by one. There are also non-collectible items: life-restoring honey dropped by defeated enemies, extra-life statues, golden feathers, red feathers, and eggs. The red feathers are used for gaining altitude while flying, the gold feathers make Banjo-Kazooie invincible for a moment, and the eggs can be shot or "pooped" out. Some jiggies require shooting eggs into openings.
Banjo and Kazooie have a robust move-set. I like how you learn them one at a time. Whenever you find a mole hill, a mole named Goggles pops out and teaches a new move (to which Kazooie always responds with a sarcastic insult). Each of the first several stages has at least one move to learn, and you can't use a move until you've learned it. This is a great way to slowly introduce a robust game. At the beginning, all Banjo and Kazooie can do is run, attack, and jump, but soon they are double-jumping and fluttering, shooting eggs, flying, dive-bombing, and more!
Most of the enemies are generic and easily beaten, but a few can be tricky, especially the snowmen that throw snowballs at Banjo-Kazooie. The game starts off easy, but grows progressively harder. I found the final stage, Click Clock Wood, frustrating because of how easy it is to fall back down the tree, and you have to play the level four times (once for each season).
The game is full of irreverent, juvenile humor, though it's still family-friendly (unlike Conker's Bad Fur Day). One character, Gruntilda's fairy-sister, just tells insults about Grunty and sometimes heals you if you talk to her three times in a row. Gruntilda herself often pops up at the bottom of the screen to tell a taunting rhyme! The information they give is used as part of a quiz board game after the final level. The prize for reaching the end is saving Tooty. That the game ends with a quiz shows how quirky and offbeat it is.
After the credits, you can fight Grunty herself. It's very hard (especially for a game without boss fights), which must be why the developers placed it after the credits! It took me about a dozen attempts to beat all five of her forms in a row. It is the most difficult and elaborate final boss I've ever played (even beyond Metroid Prime). If you collect all 100 jiggies, Banjo-Kazooie take half-damage, so that can make it easier. As in all classic games, beating the final boss is all about perfecting the patterns.
Visually, Banjo-Kazooie suffers from the same polygonal issue that all N64 games do. The music doesn't personally move me, though it's good. Controlling the camera is as difficult as in Super Mario 64. It's often helpful to switch to first-person view to look around (press ↑C). Many of my deaths were connected to camera issues; it's my least favorite aspect of playing N64 games.
I went in expecting a cheap knock-off of Super Mario 64, but I was wrong. Banjo-Kazooie has an identity all its own. The game is well crafted and stands on its own. The off-beat humor, colorful characters, interesting move-set that uses the powers of both bird and bear, and cornucopia of puzzles and collectibles make for a great, engaging, and challenging game.
"Banjo-Kazooie brought together impeccable gameplay, fantastic level design, brilliant music, and a lovely little fairytale story."
— Thomas Bowskill, Nintendo Life, 10/10