One Giant Leap, 2000: Banjo-Tooie

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: We close out the N64/PS1 era by looking at Banjo-Tooie, a sequel with some mighty big shoes to fill

Video games are pretty atypical amongst media when it comes to sequels. In most other forms, a sequel is a total crapshoot, verging on an outright bad idea for any work that already stood on its own. It can be very difficult to come up with something that fits both logistically and thematically, and that doesn’t just feel like a half-hearted cash grab. For every The Godfather: Part II there are a million Speed 2: Cruise Controls. But with video games, hammering out gameplay mechanics often takes a lot of time, iteration, and feedback, to the point where it’s fairly common for the 2nd entry in a long-running series to not only be better thought-of than the 1st but to be the definitional outing outright. Mega Man 2, Street Fighter II, Kingdom Hearts II, Assassin’s Creed II1 are all far more typical in this medium. Unfortunately, in this regard Banjo-Tooie is not typically atypical but rather atypically typical.

…That’s bad.

Now, like I did last time I talked about this series, I need to give a caveat. Unlike Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie is a game I have no particular connection to. I first picked it up in a used game store at age 11, and didn’t even get that far at the time. I didn’t make a serious effort to beat this game until I was 19, and if it weren’t for this article I probably never would have played it again after that. So to a certain extent, my polarized reactions to these two games are based in personal history.

But I don’t think you can sum it up quite that neatly. Through the past few months, we’ve talked in this series2 about a common trend in 3D platformer series of this era. They’ll start with an entry focused primarily if not exclusively on platforming, before branching out through sequels into minigames, alternate play modes, weapons, etc. We saw this sort of kitchen sink approach from the get go in last month/year’s Sonic Adventure. Sometimes it worked out great, and sometimes it was a massive disaster. But regardless, there was an undeniable trend of platformers moving away from a strict focus on their own core mechanics throughout the late 90s.

Banjo-Tooie fits right into this trend. It’s not as if Kazooie was completely devoid of minigames or anything, but Tooie turns it up to 11. Seemingly every world features a Mario Party-esque minigame where you have to score points under a time limit, made to fill out the game’s largely vestigial multiplayer mode3. Even jiggies not directly tied to this mode feature what I unaffectionately call “Mario Party bullshit”, such as the infamous Canary Mary race, requiring the player to repeatedly mash the A button, and requiring a pace so ridiculous that beating it straight-up requires the player to spasm their arm muscles and transfer that energy to A presses4. Every single level features a transformation rather than Kazooie, where only about half the levels did. There’s the interminable first-person-shooter segments, something you could tell they were really proud of (“We’re Rare! The studio behind Goldeneye 007! We’re FPS gods, of course we must include it here!”) but which with the benefit of hindsight are barely playable5 especially when under a time limit. And while not strictly FPS segments, the expanded focus on egg shooting and boss combat plays in the same waters, bringing the game away from its strengths6. Safe to say, there’s a lot of cruft here.

But the problem is more fundamental than that. Banjo-Tooie embraces another common sequel trend: it’s much bigger than its predecessor. Individual levels are far larger. The game as a whole is nearly twice as long7. It makes the curious decision to give the player every single move learned in Kazooie from the start, and have an entirely new suite of moves on top of that to be learned throughout Tooie. Levels are far more interwoven than Kazooie, with many jiggies requiring the player to either learn a move from a later level and then come back, or to make an action in one that affects the state of the other, or to find a secret passage between them, which results in a game with significantly more backtracking.

Now, you might remember me saying in the Kazooie article how that game doesn’t feature this level of interconnectedness because leaving a level resets all its musical notes, so they had to be designed around the idea that the player will clear a level out completely before moving on in a linear fashion. This is what we call foreshadowing; Tooie changes how it handles musical notes (they now come in pickups worth 5 notes each, plus a treble clef worth 20, for a total of 17 individual objects per level) and as a result, every single key item/task in the game is saved off. On the surface this would be a positive change, since having to backtrack for notes you already picked up is easily the most frustrating experience in Banjo-Kazooie. But remember how confident I was that the bad music note system from Kazooie made the game better on the whole? Well, I wasn’t just making a guess there.

Gaze upon the face of evil

A big part of why Banjo-Kazooie works is because the levels are small and compact enough that the player can keep a working map of them in their head. The flow of an individual Kazooie level is a process of slowly gaining mastery of your space. You start off with no notes, no jiggies, and you end with all of them. Tooie naturally undercuts this; levels are so big that it’s easy to get lost, and even if you manage to get them into your head you can’t actually master them your first time in, you need to come back later to finish them off. And because it can often be unclear when a jiggy can’t be collected because you need a new move/interaction from another world and when it’s just a little difficult or obtuse (does this jiggy need me to tiptoe by barely nudging the control stick, or do I learn a “walk quietly” move later?) the game encourages you to not really care your first time in a level. You want to learn all the new moves, and collect a few jiggies to unlock the next level, but there’s no reason to really buckle down and try until you’ve unlocked every world and know every move and therefore know for sure that you have access to every too you’ll need.

And let’s talk about moves. Banjo-Tooie decides to tackle the age-old question of “why did the hero forget all the cool stuff they knew in the last game” by not doing that; every single move you learn in the first game is available to you from the start. It’s a bold choice, honestly, and I’m glad Rare made it, because now Banjo-Tooie can stand as a playable example of why no one else should do that. First off, this choice makes Tooie kind of impenetrable for a first-time player. There’s an intro area8 where you can check what the inputs are, but it’s nothing more than a refresher. The game is just dumping 15+ moves on you all at once; unlike Super Mario 64 several of these are contextual enough that it’s actually deeply important that the player demonstrate specific knowledge of them before being allowed to continue, and since Tooie has its own moves to teach on top of things you don’t even get space to try to learn the old moveset through play.

And hey, about those new moves. The fact that every move from BK comes over leaves the developers very little space to insert new moves, forcing some massive reaches to pad out the numbers. 4 new types of eggs are added to complement the classic blue, which also ties into the focus on shooting over platforming. The ability for Banjo and Kazooie to split up on specific pads is introduced early, and seemingly every move after is a standalone move for one of the two while split, many of which are just “this thing you could already do together is now something you can do apart”. Even the Bill Drill, which is probably my pick for the best-implemented new move, suffers. Yes, the boulders that it breaks are prominent, and in a bit of Metroid-like design are an obvious obstacle that you can’t beat introduced just a little bit before you gain the ability to deal with them. But also, if a boulder like that existed in Kazooie you’d expect to be able to handle it with a Beak Barge. The game has to remove utility from existing moves to carve out a space for new ones9 which to me is a pretty clear sign that maybe the game just needed fewer moves in the first place.

The game’s increased size isn’t even just an aesthetic10 concern, here. Banjo-Tooie very obviously struggles under its own weight. The game’s framerate is absurdly slow, as the N64’s limited capabilities simply can’t handle the increased strain11. And based on Banjo-Kazooie‘s musical note system, and how Tooie cut the number of note objects, I can’t help but wonder if there was some sort of limit on the number collectibles the game could track that Rare was working with. If so, I think that’s another limitation ill-served by Tooie‘s “bigger and badder” approach. After all, this game is definitely larger than its predecessor in terms of virtual square footage and time to complete, but let’s look at some other stats. BK features 9 main worlds and 100 jiggies. BT has just 8 and 90 respectively. Despite being significantly longer, BT has slightly fewer rewards/changes of scenery to go around, resulting in a significant reduction in the density of such stimuli. It’s a game that can be downright stingy at times.

And, ultimately, I think this is the takeaway here. Banjo-Tooie went bigger because that’s what a sequel is “supposed” to do. It’s certainly not alone in that choice. But it’s also not alone in absolutely faceplanting because of it. Sometimes games work best at a specific scale or scope, and attempting to expand beyond that simply because it’s the done thing will backfire12. And sometimes, a game works in one genre, with one set of mechanics, and doesn’t necessarily handle additions gracefully, no matter how bored the developers may be.

Anyway, I wonder what it means for the future of the genre that so many developers within it are trying as hard as possible to get away from its base mechanics. Only good things, I’ll bet!13

Stray Observations:

  • The “growing sense of mastery” playstyle is also undercut by how Banjo-Tooie handles enemies. In BK if you kill an enemy it’s gone for as long as you stay in that world, meaning that, over time, you wind up clearing the level out of enemies altogether. But in Tooie enemies will respawn startlingly quickly; I think it’s just 10 seconds? Consequently you can’t use a lack of enemies to mark where you’ve already been, and also there’s very little point in actively engaging in combat. Whole system’s out of whack.
  • This game’s so fucking dark, too. Not thematically, literally: there’s often not enough light to see. It seems like they had a new lighting system they were very proud of, and let that hurt the game. Another evergreen lesson for the industry to learn at any point it wants to.
  • I do enjoy the hidden secrets in Isle O’ Hags; they’re minor enough that it doesn’t feel like a waste if you miss them, and they’re out of the way enough that finding them feels like a real accomplishment. It’s generally a neat idea for games about exploring and collecting to have a few minor “off the book” collectibles like this.

Other 2000 platformers of note:

The original Spyro trilogy closes out with Spyro: Year of the Dragon, a game I honestly could have written the exact same article about if I wanted to flip a few proper nouns around. This game spends as little time as possible with the purple dragon, filling itself out with levels featuring new side characters. Like with Sonic Adventure these side characters suffer from a lack of design polish, and the end result is easily the worst game of the 3.

Also: skateboarding minigames. It is 2000, after all

Elsewhere, Jet Grind Radio features rollerblading action and a super funky soundtrack to really capture the spirit of turn-of-the-millennium youth rebellion. Despite what Wikipedia says, though, I’m not sure this one really qualifies as a platformer; sound off in the comments!

Next Time: The platformer enters the 21st century (and the 2-stick era) with Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy