I said in the beginning when I started writing reviews for Re-play that the blog would be focused on games which were a year or two old, not brand spanking new ones and not retro games either. Well this is the first review where I’m afraid that edict must be broken (although technically I’m reviewing the Xbox Live Arcade version so I don’t have to feel too guilt ridden).Both the original two games in the series, Banjo Kazooie and Banjo Tooie, have now received sort-of-HD-remakes that were released on Xbox Live Arcade not long ago. The orignal games came out on the good old N64 in 1998 and 2000 respectively. I’ll always remember this as the golden age of 3D platformers with such gems as the two games above, Donkey Kong 64, Conker’s Bad Fur Day (both also made by Rare, the makers of the Banjo Kazooie games), Super Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon on the Playstation, etc… this period was also part of developer Rare’s golden age (although admitedly towards the end of it). From the NES up until the launch of the Nintendo Gamecube they had produced a string of consecutive hits that I think is probably still unmatched to this day (comment section arguement commence) in the industry. The end of the SNES to the end of the N64 era was when the studio was at its pinnacle. In this period they churned out the seminal Donkey Kong Country games (1,2, and 3) on the SNES, the cult classic Killer Instinct. Moving on to the N64, they hit the ground rolling with Blast Corps and Diddy Kong Racing. Then going on to define first person shooters for almost a decade with the superb Goldeneye 007 which was followed up with the even better (in my opinion anyway) Perfect Dark. In between these they released their series of excellent 3D platformers mentioned above. They concluded their winning streak with StarFox Adventures on the just-released Gamecube which, although not their best game, I think is still a worthy addition to their catalogue. On balance, I think Banjo Tooie is the best of the bunch and it’s why I was so excited when the re-release on XBLA was announced, complete with upressed textures and improved resolution, and the infamous ‘Stop ‘N Swap’ feature actually present in its intended form (another story for another day, look here if you’re interested).
The first thing you’ll notice about the game when you boot up you’re newly downloaded copy from XBLA (which at only 50MB will take no time at all) are the visuals. They look fantastic! Many’s a time where I fancy playing a game that I used to play on the N64 or Playstation and I pop it in my dusty old machine and I simply can’t stand the visuals, they just look so bad in comparison to what we’re used to today (I think this problem affects the Playstation slightly more than the N64). I’m not a graphics junkie by any means but there comes a point where you can’t ignore what’s infront of you and it detracts from the experience. This was always a problem with early 3D games, however, I never found Rare’s 3D platformers to suffer from this, infact I think they hold up well enough to play them today without ruining the experience. That said, the improvements in visual fidelity certainly go a long way to removing those barriers for those gamers who are less forgiving to the graphics of yesteryear.
The second thing you’ll notice is that it feels different to play…That is of course because of that newfangled Xbox 360 controller you’ve got in your sweaty hands you young whippersnappers! Yes the addition of a second analogue stick does alter the way the game is played somewhat as the original N64 controller had the good old C buttons to move the camera. Now the second stick actually improves camera movement as you’d expect but the Banjo games also mapped certain special moves to the C buttons when used in conjunction with the Z button. Seeing as how an analogue stick can move in an infinitely variable manner, sometimes you’ll end up doing the wrong move by accident. This isn’t a major problem at all, it just takes a little getting used to playing the game on a different controller.
The game itself is largely unchanged, content wise. It’s the same fantastic mix of exploring vast levels hunting for golden notes, feathers, eggs, and those all important Jiggies! These were the equivalent of the stars in Mario games except that where Mario games usually have you jump into a world that tailors itself to one particular star that you’ve decided you’re going after, the Banjo games had all the jiggies accessible right away and you could get them without exiting the world (although sometimes you would stumble across one that you couldn’t get due to lacking a particular special move for example).
Collecting Jiggies in Banjo Tooie was almost a precursor to questing in modern action RPGs like the Fable games or the Elder Scrolls (from Morrowind onwards anyway). Someone or something or even some circumstance would require you to do something, from beating someone in a race, to climbing a tall peak, to collecting a bunch of weird worm like creatures in a time limit in order to win a jiggie. This sounds kind of arbitrary or even boring when I say it like that but it’s the charm it’s done with that makes it worth your while. Rare had this unique ability to inject their games with a healthy dose of self deprication, they knew where their faults were and they used them to their advantage, packing the game full of amusing jokes with a quintisentially British sense of humour. These ‘quests’ for lack of a better term also happened when you stumbled across them rather than present themselves from the get go. There was nothing telling you that there was a jiggie to be had from talking to someone unless they were standing next to one or they were doing something vaguely suspicious. Games like Fable make it much easier to get through the questing by having helpful glowing exclamation marks above anyone or anything with a quest for you to do. However, Banjo Tooie’s approach meant you ended up seeing a lot more of the environments that you might have done had the quests been handed to you on a plate. I for one had an almost obsessive compulsion to collect every Jiggie, every note and every jinjo (appologies for the unexplained nomenclature) in each level before moving on to the next one. There are some that aren’t possible to get first time round. When I first played the game on the N64 this used to drive me mad but this time I knew which ones I’d have to come back for…what’s that they say about heinsight again?
Both the audio and visual design are stellar, they were back when the game was first released, and they still are now. The characters and worlds have a wonderful cartoonish feels to them which was typical of and unique to Rare games. I can’t exactly put my finger on what it is but there’s something about the models, the level design, even the feel of the world you inhabit that you immediately know, this is a game made by Rare. The soundtrack is fantastic too, I can’t notice an improvement over the original in the way that the visuals obviously have. However, altering the tunes would be detrimental to the overall feel of Banjo Tooie so I’m glad Microsoft showed restraint here (though it could also just be cold, hard cost cutting!). The jaunty ditties that play throughout the game’s 9 levels will be stuck in your head from here on out, with particular stand outs on Glittergulch mine, Jolly Roger Lagoon, Hailfire Peak and Cloud Cuckoo Land. The characters themselves are voiced with a wonderfully stupid dialect in which they all speak with about 3 or 4 different words, all gibberish but it’s part of the game’s charm…Anyone who’s played them before will know what I’m talking about.
Anyway, I’m rambling. The point is that this game in one of a long lost archetype. They simply don’t make platformers like this anymore. Even the 3D platformers of the current generation that I love; Rachet and Clank, the Super Mario Galaxy games, Psychonauts…they’re all great but they don’t have what Banjo Tooie had. It’s that special mix of exploration, upgrading Banjo with new toys and new moves to better thwart enemies with, seeing the huge and varied worlds, platforming with precision whilst also perfecting movement in the air and underwater. All this coupled with that touch of old Rare magic that seemed to disappear when the Stamper brothers left the studio, make Banjo Tooie an absolute must have for any gamer with a fondness for platformers/3D adventurers.
I’ll leave on this note: There’s a handful of games that I keep coming back to play time and time again to remind myself that I have experienced some truly exceptional pieces of entertainment. Banjo Tooie isn’t necessarily the first one I’d pop in the console, but it’s the first one that would spring to mind if you asked me about them.