Sequels of groundbreaking genre-defining classics often split opinion right down the middle and can get a bad rap, and the second offering in the Banjo series was no exception. N64 Jamesy sorts the good from the bad, and discusses why this particular big-name sequel deserves the benefit of the doubt.
I remember having some N64 magazines to read during a hospital stay around the year 2001, which featured the review and a strategy guide for the newly released Banjo-Tooie. Having fallen in love with Banjo-Kazooie when I played it originally, the sequel was all I wanted at the time.
Soon I was begging my mam and dad to buy me this amazing looking game for Christmas that year. Christmas morning came and I got… a Sega Dreamcast. It wasn’t too long before I was hooked on Chu Chu Rocket, Sonic Adventure and others while my Nintendo 64, along with my desire to play Banjo-Kazooie‘s sequel, took a back seat. That was that, for the time being.
It’d have to wait until 2015, during retro gaming’s resurgence in popularity, to rediscover my love for this console after finding it doing an attic clear-out. I finally grabbed a copy in time for Christmas 2015. Was it worth the wait, and how did it fare as a gaming experience now, for someone that missed out back then?
About that 15-year wait
When it was released, I never had the opportunity to play Banjo-Tooie. We weren’t exactly financially flush as a family; N64 game prices were through the roof back then, even compared to titles on other consoles. None of my friends owned the game to lend me, either – by that time, most of my friends had moved on to the PlayStation 2. Waiting outside the classroom to be let into lessons throughout my final year, I couldn’t help but be a tad envious listening to them all rave about Grand Theft Auto 3.
Gaming was in a good place, and I was looking forward to the next chapter in my video game journey with my little Dreamcast, while also hoping one day to get my hands on a PS2 of my own. I just wanted to experience Banjo-Tooie before moving on properly. It wasn’t to be…
With my first wages from my after-college job in 2002, I bought myself a GameCube to experience the Resident Evil remake. I was all grown up, or so I thought, but I was soon back on the platforming adventures, blazing through the likes of Super Mario Sunshine, Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex, and my personal favourite, Star Fox Adventures. Yet while I loved them, they weren’t giving me the same experience as I had from the classics I played in secondary school.
Falling out of love
After my brief flirtation with Nintendo, I finally caught up with my old friends and bought myself a PlayStation 2 in autumn 2003. I was coming up to 18 years old, buying my own games, moving onto the more mature titles my mam had absolutely forbidden me to have as a child. Freedom Fighters, XIII, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas were firmly establishing themselves as my all-time top three, and there was little in the way of platformers interesting me any more. I’d well and truly grown out of these “kiddie” games, as I was then seeing them.
Eventually it was time to move on again. 2009 had been one of the most difficult years of my life, and that Christmas my parents bought me an Xbox 360. There were some decent titles which were fun to play in my collection, but nothing was fun like all that had gone before. Not the platformers, not even the third-person shooting action adventure types I had come to love in recent years. I was reaching a point where everything now felt stale, and I was missing the games I “should have” left behind. Moving with the times wasn’t sitting well with me; looking back felt more right than looking forward. I was falling out of love with modern gaming.
The second coming
By chance one day I discovered a phone app that let me play Mega Drive games. It felt awesome to experience all these old favourites again and it got me wondering, was there something similar for the Nintendo 64? Short answer: yes. I soon completed Banjo-Kazooie all over again, and I was once again pining for Banjo-Tooie. Remembering how much I wanted to play the first time, I had to get it on my phone, and I did… As far as the title screen. Emulation wasn’t as good as the real thing, apparently. But hang on, didn’t I have the console sat up in my attic? Out of retirement it came…
All I needed was the actual game cartridge. Obviously, it wouldn’t be as simple as walking into my local Game and grabbing a copy off the shelf. The only options were Amazon and eBay, but the ridiculous prices demanded by sellers put me off. Using money I got from my 30th birthday in November 2015, I finally found a reasonably priced copy. I’d promised myself I’d keep it until Christmas morning so it’d feel special to play, but true to form, as soon as I got home I “just tried it to make sure it worked”.
The making of…
The sequel to Rare’s N64 platforming masterpiece was an impressive show of the size and scale of what the 64-bit machine was capable of producing. Released in PAL regions in April 2001, Banjo-Tooie was the last of Rareware’s 11 Nintendo 64 games to be released to the European market.
Work had started on the sequel even before the final release of the original, but an ambitious project to offer Lock-On technology – similar to what had been seen in Sonic & Knuckles – to link the two games together was hampered by hardware limitations. The bonuses you would have unlocked with the “Stop-N-Swap” feature were now hidden in the game world, and could unlock features that were cool. Still, it didn’t quite live up to the hype created in the final scenes of Banjo-Kazooie.
The story takes place after the events of the original game. It’s been two years since Banjo and Kazooie left the evil Witch Gruntilda stuck under a rock, and after her failure to change the past and prevent the pair from ever meeting – played out in the excellent Game Boy Advance game Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge – we find her ever-loyal minion Klungo still trying to free her.
Eventually aided by Grunty’s sisters, a ginormous digging machine and magic, we see the rock destroyed and find our main antagonist is a not-so-dead rotten husk, whose first action upon being freed is to destroy Banjo’s house, where our heroes are inside playing cards. Sadly one character is killed in the attack, which sets the tone as a grittier affair than the original. For both sides, this is about revenge.
A treat for the eyes and ears
The gameplay starts in a devastated Spiral Mountain area, where Bottles’ molehills can be found as a tutorial/refresher of the first game’s moves, which are all immediately available. From the word go, you appreciate the work that has gone into improving the visuals and audio of what is an already near-flawless game in its predecessor.
The graphics are among the best on the Nintendo 64, and could easily be mistaken for something from the PlayStation 2 generation. Frame rate could sometimes be a slight issue when the game was pushing the system to its limit, drawing up areas this size and using atmospheric lighting effects, which in some areas played a more integral part of the action than just looking good. A project this ambitious could have benefited from Expansion Pak compatibility, but ultimately any slowdown was negligible.
This was a much bigger game, meaning the game’s composers had twice as much space on the 32MB cartridge to work with sound, and the two-tone midi channelling fades really came into their own when approaching an area that required a different atmospheric feel. Each world’s soundtrack had a really catchy feel to it. Some of the tracks even had that nostalgic familiarity about them, evoking memories enjoyed playing the first game. It all captured the essence of actually being in that world perfectly, short of having a live orchestra recording the music; it couldn’t have been much better.
My personal favourite was Hailfire Peaks, the fire and ice world. The fire-side track struck a chord with me due mainly to the intensity in the opening notes – it set the tone for a really challenging, epic game world, and so it proved. The ice-side music I found somewhat less intense, yet still captured the magic of this area perfectly. Listening carefully, the undertones took me back to 1999, sat up in front of my “blue telly” – an electric blue 14-inch CRT TV/VCR combi that was my pride and joy for playing console games on back then – exploring Freezeezy Peak and all the magic that came with it.
Because there were more short cuts between the hub world and its (relatively) smaller areas, the tone of the background music changed up much more frequently, breaking up the monotony suffered by the previous title’s “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” theme consistently looping throughout. Banjo-Tooie was also surround-sound compatible – a big deal at the time. Put this all together and you had something really impressive.
When thrust back into Spiral Mountain, I did what most B-K veterans probably did. Stopping by Gruntilda’s Lair was my first instinct, where we found what was left of poor old Cheato – Grunty’s sympathetic spellbook, who had his pages ripped out after the first game. Surprise surprise, we needed to find his pages scattered throughout the game’s eight worlds, and while optional, this would be the first of several “extra” collectibles for anyone hoping to 100% complete the game. It set the general theme of trading your collectibles for rewards to help you progress.
Start with the corners
Our first introduction to Banjo-Tooie‘s new hub world was the quaint yet deserted Jinjo Village. Speaking with its leader, King Jingaling, told us we have to find them all, and reunite the families (colours). At this point you were introduced to BOB, a machine capable of sucking life force from the world and transferring it into Grunty, giving this bag of bones her body back. But as she’s so big, it would take a long time to achieve this. Just as well, considering the size of the game you had to work your way through.
There were no incomplete puzzles like before, rather you take your Jiggies to a temple to attempt “challenges” of an image of each world, which you completed with the pieces you’d earned. These could be tricky, considering you are against the clock, but if you started with the corners, you were fine, mostly.
Alongside the hub world, there were eight huge new worlds to be explored, which for the most part proved somewhat original for the platform genre, and not necessarily your stereotypical levels. Even the fire and ice world, my favourite in the game, has seen these two almost obligatory ideas for gaming levels brought together fantastically to offer the unique challenges of both in one, intertwined world.
One thing was obvious from the get-go; Rare clearly had the intention of this being a greater challenge to those of us who had comfortably completed Banjo-Kazooie, as there were very few clues as to what needed doing. I was surprised that even the “view totals” screen wasn’t displaying individual collectible totals until I’d found at least one in the stage at the time. In hindsight, I can appreciate all the little clues in the original as they’re lacking here; you really have to do everything yourself.
As someone who enjoyed completing Banjo-Kazooie more than once during my high school years, I thought I knew what to expect, but the massive step up in everything really caught me by surprise. Inexperienced collect-a-thon players may find this overwhelming, given the sheer size of each world. While not as massive as some modern-day offerings, the world sizes pushed the 64-bit machine to its processing power limits, and Rare thankfully included several warp pads at key areas in each level to help massively cut down travelling time. Nonetheless, it still takes a while, and often felt more like trying to navigate Ocarina of Time dungeons without a map and compass, rather than the enjoyable platforming experience you’d expect from the great Banjo-Kazooie‘s successor.
The tasks required to obtain Jiggies also presented a noticeable step up in difficulty, with several timed shooting and button-mashing minigames among the mix that needed to be completed to collect the relevant rewards. Some of these were incredibly challenging and later on might well have tested anyone’s patience, but in balance it gave me a real sense of achievement when completed.
If it ain’t broke…
In each world we find the shaman Mumbo Jumbo, as well as his rival, the native American Humba Wumba, now responsible for transforming Banjo and Kazooie into various animals and objects. Mumbo’s new role involves travelling through the stage (controlled by the player) performing various magic to move objects, power up inactive electronics etc. While useful and essential to complete the game, it felt like while these Mumbo elements were a nice touch, they were unnecessary and just made a long game even longer – especially as you were already trekking through each world numerous times to pick everything up. Could he not just do the magic from his skull? Video game logic. Anyway…
Then there were the moves. As Bottles’ moves are allegedly “amateur”, his brother, Drill Sergeant Jamjars, taught you the advanced moves needed to progress through the game in exchange for musical notes. These now came in bunches and thankfully didn’t all need to be picked up in a single sitting (take that, Rusty Bucket engine room).
Moves included, among others, numerous new egg types and ways of firing, individual moves, and the real opinion divider: the ability to split up the two main characters. Promoted as one of the main selling points of the game, this factor ultimately had some fans feeling that the game soon became a chore, having to separate then come together at specific points in order to find the different items. It was a good idea in theory, but it can feel like you’re doing too much exploring and not making any real progress very quickly. A good addition would have been a two-player co-op option, making the split up a more immersive experience than just one character standing around idly while the other does the work. Banjo-Tooie had a multiplayer mode, so why not?
More minor irritations
Another thing with all the moves was the sheer amount of backtracking; you’d be required to learn a move in a later level in order to go back and finish off an earlier level, and some of the characters along the way required objectives that could only be completed at later locations. The worlds were connected at various points as well as their main entry/exit point, making cross-world objectives easier. One of these was by train, which gave a feel of how vast in size this title is to play. It made for a more inclusive overall experience while adding replay value. It brought the game world together nicely, though ultimately it did little to disguise the scale of the challenge at hand.
Banjo-Tooie also had consistently respawning minor enemies. Most of the time this wasn’t an issue, as a simple forward roll or two is enough to deal with them. Later on, particularly with particularly nasty CCTV-type enemies in the factory world that spawned unlimited tintop sentries to pursue you in one of the game’s later levels, this became frustrating, but overall it wasn’t a deal breaker.
Possibly as a reflection of the increase in difficulty was the fact you had unlimited lives as standard, which was appreciated, especially at some of the more challenging platforming sections with bottomless drops.
The best bit
Unlike in Banjo-Kazooie, each world had its own boss fight, and they felt like proper 3D platform game boss fights. Not all these necessarily needed to be fought to finish the game (unless, of course, you were attempting total completion), but they’re worth hunting down for the enjoyment and sense of accomplishment.
I missed good fights in the first game; aside from the final battle, there was little else worth writing home about. The second game more than made up for this – what bosses there were in the first game felt somewhat easy, and it wasn’t hard to appreciate the step-up in difficulty of Banjo-Tooie, where the main boss fight on each stage really tested your skills with the advanced moves you learned. From the totally wacky to the truly epic, these fights were easily one of the highlights of the entire game to me. Even better was discovering that once I’d finally finished the game, I was able to pick just these boss fights to play. Now there’s replay value! If only they’d included a time trial to go with it – that would have been perfect.
Was it worth it?
Booting up my “new” game the first time and playing through the early levels was almost as nostalgic a feeling as being a 16-year-old kid flicking through that magazine again. It was a hard slog in places, missing target scores by a couple of points in the shooting mini-games, then having to start from scratch again and again was no fun.
There were times when I hated the game with a passion; button-mashing races so intense they resulted in rage quits and even one instance of me hurting my right shoulder from hammering the controller buttons so quickly. In the end, finally earning those Jiggies offered a sense of achievement on par with what it did playing Banjo-Kazooie back in 1999, and Tooie proved to be a title worthy of the Banjo name.
It was always going to be difficult to talk to you about Banjo-Tooie without drawing comparisons with the original. Banjo-Kazooie redefined platforming games of the era and any follow up was always going to have big boots to fill, and anybody expecting it to be a massive improvement will inevitably end up feeling short-changed, but it helped kick-start the second coming of my love affair with my little green Nintendo 64.
To answer the obvious question, it didn’t deliver the same feelings as when I first played Banjo-Kazooie back in the day. That said, it was the kind of top-drawer massive platforming adventure which I had been sorely missing all that time. Despite the things I felt it did wrong, all said and done it was worth waiting for. If you’re able to forgive Banjo-Tooie‘s drawbacks, and fancy having a serious go at a title that at its heart stays faithful to the original while offering a fresh challenge, then go for it. All said and done it was worth giving the time of day to a game that aged fantastically for its generation.
- Excellent visuals and one of the best catchiest soundtracks of its generation
- Offers a real challenge to seasoned experts of the 3D platforming genre
- Incredible boss fights
- The sharp increase in size, scale and difficulty may overwhelm and even alienate some players
- Frustrating and excessive backtracking can add up to dampen down the overall experience
- It just doesn’t have that magical WOW factor that made Banjo-Kazooie so special
N64 Jamesy’s take
It doesn’t quite hit the heights of the original, but if you’re looking for a good solid platformer from this era, you really should give this a go, if only once.