One Giant Leap, 1998: Banjo-Kazooie

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: Banjo-Kazooie builds on the template for the 3D platformer

Two months ago, we looked at Super Mario 64, one of the most influential games of all time. Then last month we immediately looked elsewhere, to a game with 0% SM64 DNA. But that won’t be the norm. Conservatively speaking, the next 5 games in this series will all be SM64 disciples in one way or another. And we start this tour with the game most often cited as SM64’s immediate successor, true heir, and full superior:1 Banjo-Kazooie.

Listen, we’re all adults here. We can admit that objectivity is a myth invented to sell newspapers, right? All you can do is be honest about where you’re coming from. So, with that in mind, I should say now that I first played Banjo-Kazooie when I was 5. I was obsessed immediately, constantly doodling objects and locations from the game, and locations that theoretically could be in the game. It, more than probably any other game,2 is the reason I became a game designer. It’s been my favorite game ever since, and probably always will be. Meanwhile Super Mario 64 is a game I played 6 months later, and never fully vibed with in part because it has always felt like a pale imitation of Banjo-Kazooie. I promise to make this not just some forum-tier manifesto for why my fave rules and its nearest competitor drools, but also it’s not not that. So, with the motivation behind my reasoning laid bare, let us proceed.

Banjo-Kazooie pretty clearly builds upon the framework laid out by Super Mario 64. It too is a platformer in a fully open 3D world, broken up into a central hub level set in a castle (with a courtyard tutorial to boot!) and several “spoke” levels accessed via painting. Your goal is to collect golden doodads that open up access to more levels, where you can collect more doodads. But having SM64 as a baseline lets Banjo make some more focused design choices. It got to see what worked and what didn’t in that pioneering title, and make different choices where necessary.

For instance, SM64 kicks you out of each level after every power star, which absolutely kills your sense of flow in exploration. Banjo-Kazooie doesn’t. Instead, your time in each level is a continuous whole, which reinforces the explorative gameplay, and also allows them to tie some Jiggies3 to state changes in the world (such as freeing Clanker from his undersea prison, so that you can then explore inside him). It also just doesn’t waste your time with the menuing and the “would you like to save” and whatnot.

You do get a cute little dance, though

Banjo-Kazooie also takes a different approach to its moveset than Super Mario 64. SM64 gives the player everything4 from the word go. There are various signs throughout early areas describing what’s available, and a few key features are even required text boxes (like Lakitu explaining the camera), plus this was the era where players were still expected to read the manual.5 And while this hands-off approach gave players the freedom to mess about in the courtyard and learn by doing, it also meant that most players weren’t going to learn the entire suite of actions available to them6 which could be a problem if, for instance, one of those actions were the wall-kick, a finicky move that you need for a handful of stars but that is otherwise useless.

Banjo-Kazooie is instead the exact opposite. At the start of the game almost all of your abilities are locked, including even really basic stuff like camera control or the ability to hold the jump button to jump higher. You instead gain access to these moves one-at-a-time by talking to Bottles, a friendly mole who serves as a living tutorial. This is a more structured approach that gives players the game a little bit at a time, and lets them master that chunk before serving them the next. It’s sort of similar to the approach of a Metroid-like, minus the back-tracking/world access elements. It’s an approach that guarantees that players learn everything they need to know in order to progress, and it helps keep the player from feeling overwhelmed.7

Bottles, about to drop some knowledge

But I think by far the most meaningful difference is the game’s near-total lack of bottomless pits.8 First, because it, alongside the aforementioned “Jiggies don’t kick you out of the level” thing, completely recontextualizes the 9 worlds of Banjo-Kazooie compared to the 15 levels of Super Mario 64. Missing a jump9 no longer sends you to certain doom and a restart. You have to make many mistakes before that happens. Levels become more endurance-based, more of a marathon than a sprint. They aren’t based around a series of discrete challenges; rather, the world as a whole is the challenge. Every individual Jiggy or Musical Note is just part of a collective.

And second, this more forgiving nature also papers over some of the game’s flaws. Like, the controls can definitely be stiff at times. In order to move quickly you have to use the Talon Trot, which requires you to crouch and then press the left C button, and can be a cumbersome transition if you need to cheese it right this second (say, because you broke a beehive and need to flee the angry bees). Or how there’s not a super clean way to long jump; there’s one jump that you have to go Talon Trot jump -> Rat-a-Tat Rap and that’s gonna take players some attempts to figure out. But because the penalty for missing a jump is, at most, a couple of honeycombs of fall damage rather than instant death it’s way less stressful. The acceptability of game systems and mechanics does not exist in a vacuum; they always exist in the context of specific games, and things that would be unacceptable in one context can be made acceptable in another.10

Hey speaking of unacceptable let’s talk Musical Notes. These are the game’s secondary collectable. There are 100 in each world, and collecting them unlocks doors in Gruntilda’s Lair.11 But they aren’t normal collectibles; they fully reset if you die or leave the world, and the game only records your “high note score”. Which means, if you die after getting ~85 notes, you either need to cut your losses or recollect them all, a process that might take 30 minutes or more. This wasn’t really a deliberate design choice by Rare, but rather a technical hurdle12 and is therefore not present in the game’s Xbox 360 remake. So, on the one hand we can just write this off as a relic of the era and not worry too much about it now. Anyone playing today is going to be doing so either on Xbox or via emulation after all.

Banjo clearing a Note door. This game sure loves its dances, huh?

But on the other hand, the presence of the original, janked Musical Notes is a classic example of what I like to call a “load-bearing flaw”. That is, an element of a game that might be bad in isolation, but is difficult or impossible to productively remove because everything that’s good about the game relies upon it.13 Because I ultimately think that nearly everything that makes Banjo-Kazooie unique, and an improvement on the design of Super Mario 64, comes from concessions Rare had to make in the face of how punishing the note score system is. The levels without pits? Don’t want instant death lurking everywhere when each death costs an episode of F*R*I*E*N*D*S.14 Can’t have Jiggies kicking you out of the level and resetting your Notes. Even the basic flow of the game, the way it encourages and enables you to fully clear out each level the moment you get to it15 is tied to the expectation that you probably don’t want to backtrack. Now, unlike some load-bearing flaws, in this case I think once the game is fully made you can remove the harsh penalty of losing your Notes without issue; the Xbox version is perfectly fine without it. But if the flaw weren’t there in the first place it almost certainly resulted in the game being designed in a completely different manner, and potentially and paradoxically become a more frustrating experience despite dropping the extraordinarily frustrating Note system. Game development can be precarious sometimes.

Which, I think that’s pretty interesting. We’ll get into it more in future articles, but while Banjo-Kazooie enjoys an excellent reputation none of its direct successors (Donkey Kong 64, Banjo-Tooie, Yooka-Laylee) are held in anywhere near as high regard. And it can’t be that all of us played it at a formative age and had our lives changed as a result. There’s something about the exact setup of Banjo that works that if even a little bit out of balance just kind of doesn’t. Sometimes, your perception of a game can be based on something as slight as the exact moment in time you first played it, or when you played it relative to other games. But sometimes the game’s inherent quality16 can depend on factors just as circumstantial.

Stray Observations:

  • Maybe this isn’t a Stray Observation so much as a postscript but Banjo-Kazooie is generally considered to be the best of the “collect-a-thon” subgenre of platformer. These are games with a lot of different collectables, where the point is to gather as many as possible. BK certainly has its fair share, with Jiggies, Musical Notes, Jinjos, Mumbo Tokens, Empty Honeycombs, Blue Eggs, Red Feathers, and Golden Feathers all qualifying. But they all serve important, distinct roles, and the game stays in the “there’s always something good in every corner, so exploring feels rewarding” zone and doesn’t cross into the “oh great another fucking googaw I need to grab 37 of” zone.
  • Super Mario 64 has 120 Power Stars, but you only need to collect 70 of them to fight the final boss and see the credits. By contrast, you’ll need a minimum of 94 out of 100 Jiggies and 810 out of 900 Musical Notes to challenge the final boss here, and unless you’re extremely good you’ll probably want the double-health and item refills on offer, meaning you’ll actually need 98 Jiggies and 882 Notes. There really isn’t much slack here, nor much difference between casual Any% and 100% playthroughs. Maybe something someone else would care about, but I always play for 100% in these sorts of games anyway, quite possibly because Banjo-Kazooie conditioned me to do so.
  • The OST of this game is fantastic. It famously shifts instrumentation on-the-fly based on the player’s location, a trick that was easy to pull off in the MIDI era but that got a lot harder with pre-recorded music. Check out all the variations on the “Gruntilda’s Lair” theme:

Other 1998 platformers of note:

The original Crash Bandicoot trilogy ends with Crash Bandicoot: Warped. Like beloved commenter Mr Ixolite pointed out last month, Sony’s platformer trilogies have a habit of growing bored with the genre and branching out as they go on, and Warped is no exception. The game is full of vehicle levels, plus an unlockable bazooka, and really gives off a “we’d really rather not be making a Crash Bandicoot platformer right now” vibe.

Naughty Dog circa 1998

Elsewhere, another Sony platformer trilogy was on its first game, with Insomniac’s Spyro the Dragon. Since it’s the first game, this one’s all about the platforming; you play as a young dragon who can’t fully fly yet and who must instead glide to get to where he needs to go. It’s a game about finding routes to high places and then figuring out how to glide from there to less-high but more remote places, and nothing else quite feels like it.

Spyro is also important as one of the very first games to utilize Level of Detail (or LOD) filtering. The PlayStation had a fairly limited capacity for drawing polygons, so it was common for games of the era to feature fog to limit how far in front of the camera the game needed to render. This sort of trick worked, but looked bad, and also wasn’t fit for every game (say, like a game where you glide long distances). So instead, Spyro utilized a then-pioneering, now-common technique where they rendered objects in the distance at a much lower fidelity than nearby objects (fewer polygons, lower resolution textures, etc) in order to save processor resources, and then dynamically shifted to the higher resolution versions when the player got closer.

Next Time: I can’t hold on much longer…but I will never let go, so instead I’ll be covering Sonic Adventure