Banjo-Tooie was released late into the Nintendo 64’s lifespan and would be one of the titles that preempted the console’s official discontinuation a couple of years later.
Once again developed by Rare, Banjo-Tooie is the sequel to Banjo-Kazooie; a seminal 3D platformer that pushed the N64’s capabilities with varied gameplay, dynamic audio and lush graphical fidelity.
At the time Banjo-Tooie was a critical success that delighted most platforming fans, but the comparisons to its extremely popular prequel were generally not so favorable.
I disliked Banjo-Tooie the first time I played it fifteen years ago, but in an effort to offer a final comprehensive judgment on the game – as I recently did with Turok 2 – I owed it to Rare to at least see Banjo-Tooie through to the end this time before picking it apart.
Undertaking the adventure via the Xbox 360 version this time turned out to be a very good idea too as this digital re-release, that appeared on Microsoft’s download service a whole nine years after the original cartridge version, is quite the port indeed.
Banjo-Tooie did well by its predecessor in terms of graphics and although the colour palette feels a little muted in comparison, the game still looks bright and expressive just like before.
Even without the expensive necessity of a Nintendo 64 RAM expansion, the original cartridge version treats players to some lovely animation, texturing and 3D effects – all taking in place inside game worlds that are huge and brimming with activity.
What’s surprising is that the Xbox 360 version only enhances these features further; outputting polygonal 3D graphics with a crisp HD feel and the game as a whole looks wonderfully sharp on modern televisions as a result.
The slowdown that plagued the Nintendo 64 version has been eliminated entirely, the audio comes through crystal clear and the near-mythical “Stop n’ Swop” feature – that allows secret items to be transferred between games in the series – finally sees the light of day in the newer version too.
If nothing else, Banjo-Tooie certainly feels like a more complete experience on Xbox 360, it’s just a shame that this new build can’t fix some of the game’s more inherent, enjoyment-smothering problems.
The story picks up from where Banjo-Kazooie left off; the evil witch Gruntilda is lying trapped underneath a boulder at the foot of her now dilapidated castle whilst Banjo and his friends enjoy a nice round of cards back at his place.
Pretty soon though, Gruntilda’s sinister sisters show up and bring the corpulent Grunty back to life so she can take her revenge by killing Banjo’s friend Bottles and then threatening the entire land with her brand new life-sapping death ray device.
Whilst it suits the theme established by the original game fairly well, it has to be said that the story in Banjo-Tooie is noticeably darker and less satisfying than the first game in the series.
Aside from the usual British humour and cheeky double entendres here and there, this sequel actually feels rather downbeat at times with Rare being more than happy to kill off key characters or crack snide gags in order to provide a quick laugh.
Any actual story the game does have though is uninspiring and outside of a rather long opening cutscene, the narrative doesn’t actually develop much at all. Once Grunty’s newest malevolent scheme is established in the beginning, it’s left to fester in the background until the player finally manages to gather enough collectibles in order to unlock the final level.
In the original game, Gruntilda’s voice would occasionally pop up to taunt you in the background of her keep; spewing venomous rhyming barbs at your feeble attempts to succeed. Early on in Banjo-Tooie’s opening movie though, Gruntilda abandons her rhyming talk altogether (it was getting on her sisters’ nerves apparently) with very little pomp or substance to accompany the decision.
This change was obviously the intent of the struggling dialogue writers who were clearly no longer relishing the challenge involved with writing Grunty’s speech entirely in rhymes, but this fact in itself should never have been that downright obvious to the player.
To this day I am absolutely certain that there was a better way of handling this – by having the writers themselves appear and break the fourth wall no less – to maintain the game’s wacky style and sense of humour. But simply watching Grunty silently stare at the floor and utter a “very well” in free verse was quite underwhelming.
The lack of effort put into the story is even lampooned by the game itself as Banjo and Kazooie frequently break character to comment on its various fallacies and predetermined aspects.
In one scene at the end, where the pair finally confront Gruntilda, Banjo suggests outright that the evil witch should escape to the top of her castle as “that’s what you did in the first game”. The tone is meant to be humourous, but the lack of originality is a pretty glaring criticism that the game is doing well at highlighting on its own!
Even Tooty; who was a key character from the prequel, is now only referenced in-game as a sight gag on the back of a milk carton.
It’s not that the game feels lazy, but you’re given the impression that Rare were just going through the motions a little bit here and were perhaps not 100% invested like they have been so many times in the past.
Adding to the slightly more cheerless action is the game’s soundtrack by returning composer Grant Kirkhope. The background tunes here are not bad and they’re certainly reminiscent of the original game’s excellent music at that, but much like the plot, they also tend to sound more downbeat and don’t feel as memorable. It’s a huge shame.
Getting into the gameplay is where the real analysis begins though and once again it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but there’s no doubt that Banjo-Tooie does come with its fair share of improvements to the core 3D platforming experience.
As alluded to previously, this is a massive game and one with hours and hours of content waiting for those who do get into the spirit of things.
One of the chief criticisms of Banjo-Kazooie: the overabundance of collectibles, has been partially addressed as many of the common items that a player collects, whether they be feathers, eggs or musical notes, have all been combined into little baskets that now provide a lump sum of the item in question. It’s more convenient than picking them up one by one that’s for sure.
The coveted golden jigsaw pieces or “Jiggies”; that grant access to new worlds and are thus a focal point of the adventure, are also made much harder to find and it’s common to play fifteen minutes through a level before stumbling upon one. It’s a small change, but one that adds just a hint more in terms of challenge so it’s certainly for the better.
Special teleport pads that grant instant access to different parts of each level are also a useful addition considering the expanded size of the game’s environments and it makes navigating the hub world a fairly simple task too.
The level design on the whole is quite vast and intricate and it will take considerable time to draw up a mental map of each one, especially when you discover the network of tunnels and passages that physically connect some worlds together.
Unlike Banjo-Kazooie; where each level had its own dedicated entrance and exit, in Banjo-Tooie it can be possible to switch between levels without even returning to the hub world at all. It certainly gives you a good impression of the game’s size, but I’m not wholly convinced this is a change for the better.
Some levels are made overly confusing by the new design and adding numerous connections and even train stations does add to the confusion of finding your way around.
Nowhere in the game is this more clearly highlighted than in world 6: Grunty Industries.
This labyrinthine, multi-tiered factory is certainly the most challenging level in the game and will likely alienate any player who likes their platforming action to be straightforward and easily digestible.
One of the game’s leading new features: the split-up pad (a device that allows Banjo and Kazooie to separate in order to reach previously inaccessible areas) is explored fully in this level and you can expect many intricate and finely-tuned puzzles waiting for you in the metallic depths of the factory proper.
Here, sentient batteries must be rounded up and delivered to their respective power stations, elevator doors must be opened on individual floors and many timed conveyor belt puzzles need to be overcome before sufficient progress can be made.
Finishing this area is an arduous task and it’s one with so much potential frustration that it actually got me to quit the game when I originally played through it on the Nintendo 64.
On my subsequent play of the Xbox 360 version though, a funny thing happened: I really enjoyed myself in this level.
Granted, Grunty Industries is just as senselessly convoluted as I remember, but it was the first occurrence in the entire game where I felt any sort of real challenge weighing upon my actions.
Compared to the earlier levels where I almost sleepwalked my way through the various set pieces, I really had to think hard about pathfinding for once. With the split-up pad being heavily enforced, it was no longer a simple case of using every ladder (that Kazooie cannot climb) or jumping to every platform (that Banjo cannot reach) to make progress and every Jiggy secured here felt satisfying and well-earned as a result.
When checking my individual level completion time at the game’s end, it wasn’t exactly a shock to discover that Grunty Industries had taken at least twice, if not three times as long to finish over every other level in the game. Hard work maybe, but I genuinely felt it was worth it.
It seems almost strange to say as much though considering the wealth of negative points that I compiled from this game’s beginning to its end.
For some reason the designers placed a great deal of emphasis on shooting this time around and with a Nintendo 64 analogue stick (native or emulated) as your primary tool, it’s a miserable experience.
Several levels feature timed first-person sections that have you shooting eggs at various enemies or other targets and trying to correct your view during these encounters is nothing less than a living nightmare.
It gets even worse when attempting to aim during sections underwater or in the air and even though orientating the 3D camera is slightly improved by the Xbox 360’s dual-analog control, it can’t stop these sections from being among the game’s low points.
It wouldn’t be so bad if these encounters didn’t feel so repetitive and tedious, but the game makes the added mistake of inserting them into practically every level with nary a single adjustment to make them unique.
In one arena you might need to shoot red, green or blue balloons for points and in the next arena it will be exactly the same except it’s done underwater or whilst airborne or instead takes place inside a giant garbage can or in the belly of a dinosaur. The environment may have been altered, but the gameplay is always the same and it feels dull and repetitive as a result.
What’s worse is that these shooting sections are often incorporated into some aggravatingly poor boss battles.
For the most part, these misjudged encounters are pathetically easy to beat, but a few of the later battles (the final battle especially) are notoriously awkward because of added hazards or aiming requirements that are employed against you.
The shoot ’em up galleries aren’t the only uninspired addition to the core experience though. Banjo and Kazooie’s repertoire of moves from the previous game are still here, but they’ve been largely superseded by a whole new set of moves that don’t feel all that well integrated in the grand scheme of things.
Several new moves, like the backpack ones that Banjo learns on his own, really don’t really change up or otherwise add much to the gameplay and each one only becomes a factor in a couple of good puzzles over the course of the entire game.
The new types of egg that Kazooie can learn to use are a nice idea, but once again they are woefully underused. The powerful grenade eggs, that deal heavy damage and come in a plentiful supply, simply outclass the other variants you can collect so you’ll choose to just spam these explosive ones whenever you can.
The clockwork egg that deploys a miniature remote-controlled Kazooie robot (that also explodes) is a more inspired addition here, but the ammunition supply for it is extremely low, which unnecessarily damages the experimentation factor of an otherwise cool power-up.
It doesn’t help either that these eggs spawn together in one kind of rotating basket, which means that you have to ‘time’ walking over them in order to pick up the specific type of egg you want to add to your pack.
This can get really annoying when you mistime it and pick up the wrong egg and is even worse when you’re looking to stock up on the clockwork variants as they’re only handed out one at a time for some mysteriously dumb reason. Why be stingy?…
Rather than blasting the regular enemies to death though, you’ll soon learn to just avoid them altogether as they tend to respawn with alarming frequency.
Considering what a major pet peeve that respawning enemies tend to be in video game culture, I can’t for the life of me work out why this feature was implemented. It leads to so many frustrating moments where your space is being constantly threatened by enemies you’ve killed multiple times already and just isn’t fun in the slightest.
But nothing is more frustratingly tedious than the inclusion of Mumbo Jumbo as a playable character. Returning from his supporting role in Banjo-Kazooie, everyone’s (previously) favourite witch doctor Mumbo Jumbo now offers his assistance personally.
During each level, the player will need to locate yet another pointless collectible and trade it to Mumbo so that they can control him in that particular level. Mumbo’s moves are highly limited meaning that his only useful effect on gameplay is to activate special switches that make use of his voodoo magic.
In one area Mumbo may have to help disable a trap, heal a sick NPC or open a new path. While these scenes are nicely presented, all they really amount to is another long-winded trek and enjoyment free process that could just have easily not been there in the first place.
More puzzling is the addition of Wumba; a female magician who helps Banjo and Kazooie with the classic transformation magic as seen in Banjo-Kazooie; so having two magical helpers in this flavour just seems totally unnecessary.
Even then there are no overly creative uses for the transformations in Banjo-Tooie. Unlike the first game there are no special footraces, notable minigames or any particularly interesting secret areas to discover so it once again amounts to very little.
For example, the magic in level 2 that transforms Banjo into a ‘detonator’ stick looks quite original at first until you realize the only meaningful effect it has on gameplay is to open 4 locked doors and that’s just not exciting whatever way you choose to slice it.
Further watering down the gameplay are the Cheato pages. At first these rare collectibles offer little more than a few token bonuses that were already seen in the original game (double feathers, double eggs), but pretty soon they’ll grant a much more game-breaking bonus in the form of regenerating health.
And this isn’t the sort of lacklustre health regeneration either; it’s pretty darn rapid and quickly renders the need to avoid hazards and enemies as a joke should you activate it.
Eventually I chose to disable the code lest the final boss battle against Gruntilda be a mere trivial concern as opposed to the climatic finish that was intended.
Due to the awkward prospect of mapping every world and finding every last jiggy, you get the impression that the developers actually downplayed this idea altogether.
There’s no secret ending this time around and aside from an extra cheat or sound/movie test here and there, you won’t receive much fanfare for achieving 100% completion, which is pretty strange for a 3D platformer featuring such a keen emphasis on collectibles.
In terms of replay value though, Rare put in a solid effort to include a mutliplayer mode for up to four players. Whilst nice enough in its own right, I can’t personally recall having many great experiences with it outside of a few laughs in the Tower of Tragedy quiz, which is admittedly pretty fun when none of its players know any of the answers!
Ultimately the macabre tone of the game’s ending sums up the rather downbeat experience throughout Banjo-Tooie rather well. I must stress that this is not a bad sequel and the game itself can actually be quite fun at times, but then it’s hard to find a moment that suggests the developers were looking to innovate.
It’s clear that Rare were desperate to do something different around this time – the release of Conker’s Bad Fur Day a year later proves this better than I ever could – but unfortunately that impulse was not realized here in Banjo-Tooie.
If you can look past the flaws, Banjo-Tooie may be worth revisiting on Xbox 360 or as part of the Rare Replay disc for Xbox One, but the lack of any notable improvement over its predecessor really prevents this game from being the superior sequel that everyone expected.