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Diamonds In The Rough: Banjo-Tooie (N64)

Welcome to “Diamonds in the Rough,” a feature in which I take a look at a few lesser-known and under-appreciated titles of the past. These are games that were fun and original, many of which I fettered away hours of my young life with, but for whatever reason just didn’t get the credit they deserved.

Banjo-Kazooie was an amazing game for its time. Original and engaging, it took what Mario 64 did and fine-tuned it while adding its own comedic charm. It was both a commercial and critical success and went down as one of the all-time greats of its console.

Then Banjo-Tooie came along and…well, most of the people I talk to don’t really remember it. If Wikipedia is to be believed, this is chiefly due to the game being released at the end of the N64’s lifetime. Whatever the case, it’s a real shame that it didn’t have the same popularity as its predecessor, because I really think it is a better game in almost every way. One reason for this is simply the increased polish – the game looked better and control felt a bit tighter. There was a wider variety of mini-games, and you were no longer relegated to a single character as you could take control of friendly shaman Mumbo Jumbo or split bird and bear up to be controlled separately. The trademark humor and great tunes from the first game also return in spades, leading to an even more irreverent and enjoyable storyline.

You were also given access to a vastly expanded repertoire – rather than stripping you of the abilities you learned in the first game a la Metroid, Banjo-Tooie let you keep everything and built on top of your already considerable skill set. Although this led to a higher barrier for entry (a player who hadn’t gone through Banjo-Kazooie might feel a bit lost), it led to a huge variety in gameplay and puzzles. And speaking of variety, the Banjo games share an almost obsessive fixation with collectables of all shapes and sizes, and this is only expanded in the second outing, lending a fair bit of Pokemon “gotta catch em all”-style replayability.

Then there’s the world. While the first game was content to copy the Mario 64 formula, providing a mostly abandoned hub castle with pictures acting as portals to levels, Banjo-Tooie created a more open-ended and complete world. Levels were actual places, and they connected to each other in myriad and often secretive ways. Not only was this more immersive, but again it led to some crazy open-world puzzles, some puzzle pieces only being accessible if you entered from a hidden passage in another level, or if you found a way to send a certain item or character from one stage to another. This game embraced and ran manically away with a part of Mario 64 that has sadly faded away from modern games: the freeform puzzler element. You aren’t given a straightforward left-to-right path or objective. The game simply drops you into a world, says “there are some stars / puzzle pieces you need to find in here,” and sets you loose.

In fact, Banjo-Tooie seems like one possible interpretation of Mario 64 taken to its extreme*, with Mario Galaxy being the opposite approach. Where Galaxy advanced the 3D platformer in the name of concise, minimalist experiences (insular levels with well-defined objectives and a small, simple moveset), Banjo-Tooie went the route of complexity and exploration (big interconnected levels presented with no context, and a huge moveset that provided lots of problem-solving options). Each method has its merits, and I can’t wait for Galaxy Round 2, but I do really miss the heaping spoonfuls of exploration my platformers used to be served up with.

What games do you think were tragically underrated? What hidden gems do you fondly recall from your own childhood? Let me know in the comments!

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*Okay, DK64 might have it beat in terms of sheer quantity of collectibles and characters, but IMHO it was also really repetitive and didn’t have as open or immersive a world.

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