Monday, November 28, 2011

Stuff I Grew Up With: Banjo-Kazooie (1998)

Here's another game that I first heard of in Nintendo Power. It was supposed to come out in November of 1997 but was delayed and wasn't released until June the following year. However, I got my fix for it with Diddy Kong Racing, which featured the character Banjo the bear as one of the playable characters. As the release date for it approached and Nintendo Power began to discuss it more and more, I began to get very excited about it. The screenshots looked very promising. It was so popular a game that when it was released, it took me forever to rent it from my local video store because it was grabbed as soon as it was available. (It ended up becoming one of the most popular games for the Nintendo 64 so that's not surprising.) When I finally did get to play it, while it wasn't exactly what I was expecting, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I still do to this day, even if it does have some very frustrating aspects to it.

In the game, you play as Banjo the bear, who has a companion named Kazooie, a loud-mouthed red bird who stays in Banjo's backpack. You mainly control Banjo but certain moves require you to take control of Kazooie as well. The story is that an evil witch named Gruntilda has kidnapped Banjo's little sister Tooty in an attempt to steal Tooty's beauty and transfer it into herself. Now, you must journey throughout Gruntilda's lair, explore the various levels that are available to enter throughout it, and collect items that will help you reach Gruntilda and, ultimately, defeat her. It's a simple plot but the gameplay itself is much more complex.

As I've said before, I love exploratory, non-linear games like Super Mario 64 and that's what made me gravitate towards Banjo-Kazooie. While I don't think it did it quite as well as Super Mario 64, seeing as how there seems to be more emphasis in opening up new areas of the overworld lair than exploring the various levels as well as there being not as many here, I still think this is a very enjoyable game. One thing that it does do better than Super Mario 64 is give the characters distinct personalities. While you still have to read dialogue boxes as in that game, the personalities of the characters come through very well. Banjo has a very laid back persona whereas Kazooie is much more feisty, loud, and obnoxious. I especially like the trading of insults between Kazooie and Bottles the mole, who teaches you new moves throughout the game. It really is quite funny (in fact, Kazooie insults just about every character you meet throughout the game). Gruntilda's constant speaking in rhyme really got on my nerves at the time but now that I look back on it, it does give her a distinct character. While we're on the subject, the way the characters actually speak in this game was really odd to me the first time I played it. As the dialogue is scrolled across the screen, the character speaking bizarre sounds in rhythm like they are talking. Each character has a distinct sound: Banjo goes "huh, huh", Kazooie makes an annoying squawking sound, Bottles the mole makes a honking sort of noise and so forth. (One that never failed to crack me up was a hippo character named Captain Blubber who would speak in loud belches!) I was taken aback by this when I first played the game for a couple of reasons. One, in Diddy Kong Racing, the characters had limited dialogue but they did actually speak, including Banjo. Another was I understood all of the animal characters making these noises but why Gruntilda and the other few characters who were somewhat humanoid? Why did they make these noises? I later found out that the reasons for this was because, supposedly, at the time, the Nintendo 64 game cartridges had memory limitations and couldn't store a lot of recorded dialogue. (That doesn't make sense to me because Star Fox 64 came out the previous year and had a lot of dialogue.) I still find it to be a little odd but it made the game distinct, I'll give it that.

As I said, you meet a lot of characters throughout the game. There are a few main ones that help you along the way but the majority are ones you only meet in one level or part of the lair and never see again. I've already mentioned Bottles the mole, who teaches you your moves and the basics of how to play the game. There's Mumbo Jumbo, a witch doctor who used to be Gruntilda's ally but now that she's betrayed him, he's helping you. You encounter him throughout a majority of the levels and pay him to turn you into various animals in order to acquire items that you can't get while in your normal form. There's also Brentilda, Gruntilda's benevolent sister who feels that she needs to be taught a lesson. (It's an obvious ode to The Wizard of Oz with Gruntilda looking like the Wicked Witch of the West and Brentilda like Glinda, the Good Witch.) You run into her throughout the lair and each time you meet her, she'll tell you a repulsive secret about Gruntilda that you must remember because it will come in handy later in the game. Those are the three main characters that aid you throughout the game. There are many, many other characters that you encounter in the various levels, friends and foes alike, but they're mainly one-offs and too numerous to count.

There are numerous items that you find throughout the game that are helpful in your quest. (Speaking of which, every single item you find actually speaks when you first grab it. It's bizarre.) Your life bar is in the form of honeycomb pieces that you can find whenever you defeat an enemy or find a beehive. (Later on, the beehives come with bees that will try to damage you if you take their honey.) There are also empty honeycomb pieces that will increase your life-bar by one if you collect six of them. There are blue eggs that you can use as weapons, able to fire them either out of Kazooie's mouth or butt (that latter of which makes a fart sound); red feathers that enable you to fly off from a launching pad; gold feathers that render you temporarily invincible; little golden Banjos that serve as extra lives; wading boots that allow you to walk through dangerous bits of levels without being harmed; and turbo shoes that briefly increase your running speed, which you usually need to complete timed challenges. There are also much more important items. Mumbo Tokens are little carvings of Mumbo Jumbo's head that you use to pay the shaman for his spells. Musical Notes can be found throughout the various levels, a hundred in each one, and you use them to open up doors that lead to new parts of the lair. (The only thing that sucks is that if you die in a level, you have to gather all the musical notes again if you didn't get all of them.) The most important items in the game are Jiggies, big jigsaw pieces strewn throughout the levels and the lair itself, ten in each, that you need to open the portals to new levels as well as the door to the final part of the game. They're similar to the power stars in Super Mario 64 in that way, although this game made the improvement of you being able to collect all the Jiggies in a level in one sitting rather than having to exit every time you grabbed one. While they don't necessarily count as items, each level has five little creatures called Jinjos that have been imprisoned by Gruntilda and will give you one of the Jiggies for each level if you find all of them. They also come to your aid in the final battle of the game.

Banjo-Kazooie is a great game but it's not without its frustrating aspects. I know games have to be challenging otherwise they wouldn't be enjoyable but I think this one goes a little too far with some of the insane stuff you have to do. I don't mean doing anything important but in the later levels of the game, sometimes doing simple stuff like getting up to a ledge where you need to go without falling off or avoiding hazards is really needlessly frustrating. I'll go into greater detail about the various levels of the game shortly but a lot of this is downright diabolical. Sometimes the hit-detection is a bit off. There are times where I know I hit an enemy with an attack but it doesn't register and I end up getting damaged instead. Also, as with many games that aren't side-scrollers, the camera can sometimes be your worst enemy. It's difficult at points to get the camera situated where you need it to be in order to see what you're doing. That's what often makes those simple tasks that I mentioned earlier harder to accomplish than they should be. Finally, I don't like that when you save and quit the game, it acts like you lost and shows you the Game Over cinematic, where Gruntilda manages to suck all the beauty out of Tooty, turning herself into a sexy woman and Tooty into a hideous monster. I understand showing it when you run out of lives but just for saving and quitting? It makes you feel like you did something wrong. I know it's nothing to complain about since you don't HAVE to watch it but I never liked that. But these are just minor quibbles. As frustrating as the game can be, it's still fun to play.

The music is another awesome aspect of the game. It has a really fun vibe to it, with each level and area having their own distinct themes. The various music themes also change determining where you are in relation to the lair or in the levels. For instance, when you go underwater, the theme will become slower and more nautical in sound to match it. Also, the theme for Gruntilda's Lair changes in the areas near the entrance to the various levels to match their various moods. My favorite bit of music is the stuff that plays during the opening animation before the game's title screen, with Banjo and Kazooie trying to play along with Tooty but Mumbo keeps interrupting, no matter what Banjo does to get rid of his instruments. I just find it so funny, both the music and the scene.

Now on to the levels. I won't go into that much detail about the levels except in my personal thoughts on each one, what I like and don't like, and the most frustrating parts of each. I will also say now that each level has a Gruntilda Switch, a switch with Gruntilda's ugly face on it that you pound to open a way to a Jiggy somewhere in the lair. Also, as you've probably gathered, as with most games, as you progress throughout, the items that you need to acquire in the levels become more difficult to get.

Mumbo's Mountain: As the first level, this place serves as an introduction to the ends and outs of the gameplay, putting your newly learned skills to their first test, having you face basic enemies, and so forth. The Jiggies and Musical Notes are all straightforward in the ways to get them, involving simple tasks like searching along the hillsides, smashing open a bunch of small huts, shooting eggs into the mouths of a rotating totem pole, and so forth. The only part that might give you trouble is when you need to use Mumbo's magic to become a termite and find the Jiggy at the top of the termite mound. Whenever you're transformed, you can't defend yourself and the termites in the nest won't make it easy to complete your task. Other than that, this level is as simple as you can get. One notable enemy here is a big bull who'll charge at you if he sees you. You can't really defeat him and you don't get anything for fighting him so it's best not to worry about him but it is fun to tease him.

Treasure Trove Cove: This is a bit more challenging than Mumbo's Mountain but it's still not that difficult. Most of the Jiggies aren't that hard to get, although you have to be on your toes more or you'll end inconveniently falling off and having to do everything again. Some of the enemies are annoying like the crabs and these evil treasure chests that you have to jump into in order to get certain items but it's not that bad. The hardest part is that there's a shark in the waters around the land and as soon as you fall in, he'll come for you. This wouldn't be so bad except that it's easy to fall into the water at some points and there are a couple of times where you need to get into the water to get an item. You can try to get rid of the shark by shooting him with an egg but I've hardly ever succeeded in doing that. Your best bet is to swim for it. Other than that, this level is a piece of cake. I really like the theme music to it and I also like how there's no music when you get up to the lighthouse and the only sounds are the wind blowing and seagulls cawing. It's nicely atmospheric and soothing.

Clanker's Cavern: Here's where the game stops having mercy on you. This level is particularly challenging for many reasons. One, there are some Jiggies that require you to spend a lot of time underwater with your air supply running out. One challenging one is where you have to swim down this long tunnel. That's the easy part but going back is difficult because the camera is an awkward position and the controls get mixed up. The worst though is where you have to dive deep down and swim through a huge key three times. Turning around is difficult and your air runs out very quick. There's a fish swimming around that provides you with air bubbles to replenish your oxygen supply but he's hard to keep up with, it's distracting because you want to focus on turning the key, and the fish never blows a bubble when you absolutely need him to. On top of all that, there's a Jinjo down there that you'll want to grab so you don't have to go down there again. There's also a lot of those awkward balancing challenges in high places that I told you about earlier, with ducts that contain big ugly eels that come out and knock you off when you least suspect it. The worst part of the level, however, is when you have to go inside Clanker, the giant mechanical shark that floats in the center of the level. You have to knock out his rotten teeth, which is simple, but the inside of this monster is a nightmare, full of sharp gears, swiping tentacles, and difficult challenges. The hardest for me is a flying challenge in the main part of his insides where you have to fly through a bunch of rings. You only have forty-eight seconds to do so and if you haven't mastered flying yet, you'll get creamed. As you can tell, this is one of my least favorite levels in the game.

Bubble Gloop Swamp: This is another level I'm not that much of a fan of. There are all sorts of hazards and frustrating challenges here. First off, you can't get into the water of the swamp without wading boots because there are piranhas that will chomp on your feet. That makes going from one section to another when you don't have the boots really frustrating. There are several timed puzzles where you have a limited amount of time to run up a narrow, slick ledge in order to get a Jiggy. Falling off almost always means instant failure. Speaking of falling off, you have to go up into high places to get items and if you fall off, it takes a long time to get back up there. In fact, this level has some of my most hated challenges in the game. There's one where you have to shoot eggs into five golden crocodile statues. Sounds simple but you have to find them one at a time and each time you feed one, the next one will open and close its mouth faster. There's a memory challenge inside this giant turtle where you have to hear this turtle choir croak out a song and then duplicate it by pounding on their backs to make them croak again. It's best to write the pattern down on paper. Another challenge has you battle a bunch of bad-ass frogs called Flibbits. They attack you two at a time, they're really fast, and each one takes two hits to put down. I remember getting my ass handed to me the first time I tried that. It's best to use the Golden Feathers on them. Worst of all is the one you have to partake in after Mumbo turns you into an alligator. You have to play an eating game with this other gator, eating more vegetables than him. If you lose, the gator will take a bite out of you and I've never been able to get away from him when I've lost. It's difficult because he'll often push you out of the way and it's hard to munch on the vegetables even when they're in front of you. There are three rounds: the first being the simplest where you have to eat more than him, the second being one where you have to eat all the red vegetables and avoid the white creatures that pop up, and the third is the worst where you have to eat one or the other, with it constantly changing. This is where I often mess up because the ones you're allowed to eat will change when you least expect it and if you eat the wrong one, you stop for a few seconds. Extremely frustrating level overall.

Freezeezy Peak: Even though they're normally very difficult, I usually like snow levels in games because of their design and this one, despite its frustrating aspects, is no exception. The hazards here include freezing water that slowly ebbs away your health as you stay in it, annoying snowmen that throw snowballs at you, and a gigantic snowman that you have to climb in order to get several Jiggies and falling off means a lot of damage. There's some interesting stuff to do here such as riding a sled down the giant snowman's scarf and bouncing on a sick polar bear, causing to cough up a Jiggy, having Mumbo turn you into a walrus so you can get a Jiggy from a particularly paranoid walrus, protecting some Christmas lights so they can light up a giant Christmas tree, and racing the polar bear you landed on twice (the second of which you won't be able to complete until after you visit the next level). Like I said, this level isn't without its frustrations (the ones that get on my nerves being those annoying snowmen because you can only kill them by bombing their hats) but overall, I do enjoy it.

Gobi's Valley: I enjoy this level as well, although it's one of the hardest in the game. Just getting into it is a pain because you have to use wading boots to cross over stinging hot sand and you'll also have to do so multiple times throughout the level itself. Most of the challenges here involve the pyramids strewn throughout the level, such as activating a Jiggy that can only be reached by using a snake charmer's long snake, clear an enormous sphinx's allergy, a timed matching puzzle game, flying through a bunch of rings, and a maze that you have to navigate before a timer runs out. You also run into the namesake camel of the level who gives you two Jiggies (one reluctantly), annoying mummies, mummified hands that come out of the ground and try to smash you, as well as a lot of use for the turbo shoes that you acquire here. Again, very challenging level but I do enjoy it.

Mad Monster Mansion: Being a horror movie fan, I should like this level but it's one of my least favorites because, despite its small size, it's very frustrating with challenging jumping, running, and backtracking puzzles. There are some easy Jiggies to get such as one where you have to go down the chimney and not step on the floor to take it from a sleeping ghost (which is quite simple to do), searching the mansion's cellar, and farting some eggs into flower pots but the rest of the Jiggies are a major pain to get. The hardest ones are the ones that require Mumbo turning you into a pumpkin. They're hard because to have to bounce along some walls and you can't jump high so if you fall off, it'll take a while to get to a spot where you can get back on the wall. One really disgusting but funny task involves being flushed down a living toilet as a pumpkin and having to find a Jiggy in the septic tank! The music changes accordingly to the grossness of the task and when you come back up, even Gruntilda will be disgusted and admonish you for doing so (the Nintendo Power player's guide's comments on it are also funny). Speaking of music, this level has a lot of creepy music, especially the bit that plays around the church. Really eerie but being a horror movie fan, I love it. This level also has no shortage of annoying enemies such as bats, tombstones that come to life and attack you, skeletons that repair themselves when you attack them, and green ghosts that can only be defeated with the gold feathers. Some of it is enjoyable but all in all, it's a difficult level.

Rusty Bucket Bay: Worst level in the entire game! I absolutely despise this one. It was nearly the death of me the first time I played it and it still gives me fits. Everything in this level is designed to piss you off. Even getting to it is a pain because you have to pound a bunch of hard to find switches to raise the water level so you can swim into the entrance. Goblin sailors, living lifesavers, fume hoods that you can't kill and bite you if you get too close, dynamite boxes that chase you and explode, and that annoying shark from Treasure Trove Cove is back in one spot. If that's not bad enough, the water is so polluted with oil that being in, whether you're below the surface or not, damages you. There are also a bunch of switches in the engine room that you have to press in order to activate a Jiggy but you only have a limited amount of time to get to it (the worst is one that appears outside the ship in the propellers). Not only are you in a hurry but the engine room is filled with many pitfalls that lead to instant death. It's like my own personal hell for gaming come to life. Getting all the stuff here takes a while but once you do, it's worth it because this is one level you don't want to revisit if you can help it.

Click Clock Wood: In stark contrast to Rusty Bucket Bay, this is my favorite level in the game. Even though it's the last one before the final confrontation and is difficult, I've loved it ever since I first played the game because I thought the idea of it was unique: you can enter this world, which is a gigantic tree in the center of a forest clearing, through one of the four seasons and certain things that you do in one season will affect the world in the next. For instance, you have to hatch a baby eagle in the spring and care for him throughout the seasons by feeding him caterpillars. By the winter, he'll be a full-grown eagle who will give you a Jiggy. You also have to a grow a large plant throughout the seasons to earn another Jiggy. There are also certain things you can only do in certain seasons. You can't get very far up the tree in the spring because the leaves you need to climb up haven't grown yet, the floor of a big tree-house will be under constant construction throughout the seasons, you'll only be able to invoke Mumbo's final transformation (a bee) in spring, and you can only help a beaver get into his home in summer but you can only follow him to claim your reward in autumn. It's a complicated but fun level to play and that's why it's my favorite. It teases you because you come across the puzzle to open it early on but you won't be able to complete it until near the end when you've collected a lot of Jiggies. The wait is worth it though. I especially love how the Gruntilda's Lair theme sounds in the area near the entrance to the level. So awesome.

There are actually two parts of the final confrontation with Gruntilda. The first is unique to say the least. Gruntilda actually challenges you in a game-show quiz about the game itself. You have to walk across an enormous game board floating on a pool of lava, taking part in physical and mental tests that vary on what type of square you land on. There are seven categories of test: spaces with Banjo and Kazooie's faces on them will be multiple choice questions about different aspects of the game itself; spaces with an eye will have you look at a snapshot of one of the levels and you have to identify which one you're looking at; musical note spaces have you listen to audio clips and you have to identify them, be they level themes, character voices, and other sounds; skull spaces are of any random category but if you guess wrong, you fall into the lava and have to start from the beginning of the game board; stopwatch spaces will make you revisit some of the challenges you faced in past levels but the time constraints will be tighter and there will be some twists to the challenges, like spelling a word backwards and such; Banjo Joker spaces will reward you with the opportunity to skip two spaces if you guess correctly; and finally, Gruntilda spaces will be where you use the dirt Brentilda gave you about her sister (you have to write them down because the answers will be different for each new game file you start). Eventually, you reach the end of the board and Gruntilda, admitting defeat, allows you to take Tooty back home. You may you're done since the game has a scene of everybody partying at Banjo's house but then Tooty reminds you that Gruntilda is still loose. Now you have to go back and actually battle her.

Fortunately, before the battle begins, you have the opportunity to maximize your items by opening note doors that will give you 200 eggs, at least a hundred red feather, and ten or twenty gold feathers (the numbers will depend on whether or not if you've had three encounters with Cheato, Gruntilda's spell book who will double your number of items before you get to this point). You can also open a door to finish a puzzle that will increase your health meter. Believe me, you'll want to take the time to get all the Musical Notes and Jiggies necessary to do all this stuff because this final battle is quite a challenge.

As with all challenging final boss battles, the final battle with Gruntilda at the top of her lair has a lot of different phases. The first phase involves her swooping down at you with her sharp-toothed broom trying to bite you. After dodging her attacks, you have to peck her while her broom is stalled out. Each time, she'll fire at you and the number of times you have to dodge her will increase by one. After you've pecked her four times, the second phase begins. She hovers outside the perimeter of the roof and shoot fireballs at you. After she's fired four, she'll stop and that's when you have to jump on the stone block and shoot eggs at her. You have to hit her three or four times and if you miss, you'll have to start the phase over. (This is where the camera starts to become your enemy because it's hard to position it to where you can aim directly at Gruntilda.) The third phase is where it really starts to get hard because now you have to take off into the air and dive-bomb yourself at Gruntilda. You have to wait until she stops moving and if you miss and hit something else, you'll more than likely fall to your death and have to start the battle over from the beginning. The fourth phase has Gruntilda put a shield around her but four Jinjo statues will come up to help you. You have to fire three eggs into the hole on each statue's pedestal, all the while avoiding Gruntilda's fireballs. (Again, this is where the camera tends to trip me up.) The final phase involves a gigantic Jinjo statue called the Jinjonator coming up in the middle of the roof. You have to fire eggs into the hole on each side of its pedestal, all the while avoiding Gruntilda's fireballs. At certain points during the battle, including this one, she'll also fire a homing spell that you can only endure by using the golden feathers. I can't tell you how many times I've been so close to activating the Jinjonator when suddenly I die and I have to start the battle from the beginning. It's really frustrating. If you just keep at it, though, you'll eventually defeat Gruntilda but you'll die a LOT, trust me.

Another thing I can compliment Banjo-Kazooie on is that it has a great replay factor. Unlike Super Mario 64, the levels in the game do not remain the same and you can't reacquire all the items the way you did originally once you've unlocked them unless you start a new game file. Due to this, it makes you want to play the game again and again so you can re-experience the various challenges and character moments throughout the levels. Donkey Kong 64, released the following year, is also similar in that aspect. In fact, that game may be a bit too similar to Banjo-Kazooie. Don't get me wrong, I really like Donkey Kong 64 but when I first played it, I couldn't help but feel that it borrowed heavily from Banjo-Kazooie, from the gameplay to the characters and enemies, the mini-games and challenges, even the music is a bit similar. This could be because both games were made by Rare and since Donkey Kong 64 is very different from the Donkey Kong Country games that I was used to and was expecting it to be like but still, I do get a sense of deja vu. However, that's just another minor quibble.

There was a sequel, Banjo-Tooie, released two years after Banjo-Kazooie. For some reason, though, I never owned or played it and to this day, I still haven't. I do remember seeing clips and a Nintendo Power player's guide for it. They were already planning it by the time Banjo-Kazooie came out because when you've gathered all the Musical Notes and Jiggies, Mumbo shows you some clips from it. (From what I can tell, there was some aspect of this game that was supposed to carry over to the sequel but I never quite understood what it was even after my research. It was something called the Stop 'N' Swap system or something. Like I said, I don't understand what it was supposed to be but it was apparently fully restored for the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game. Whatever.) I think it was about Gruntilda and her two evil sisters plotting revenge on Banjo and Kazooie as well as planning to restore her body since her flesh had rotted away after being trapped underneath the boulder she got stuck under at the end of the first game for so long. (Also, apparently Bottles gets killed at the beginning of it!) I don't know why I never played it. I guess it was just one of those things that got by me. I may play it some day though.

Banjo-Kazooie remains one of the highlights of the latter part of my childhood to this day. It's a great, imaginative game with memorable characters, well-designed and executed levels, nice challenges, good music, and a fun climax. It can be very frustrating at times, is sometimes needlessly difficult, and the camera positions and such can cause problems but on the whole, it's a very enjoyable game in the vein of Super Mario 64. If you've never played it, I highly recommend it. It's definitely one of the N64's finest titles.