The Birds and the Bears: A Brief History of Banjo-Kazooie

In honor of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts being recently released, I thought I’d give some impressions on the game. But first, as I always like to do, here’s a brief history of the Banjo-Kazooie game series and my experiences with them.


Diddy Kong Racing
The first game that Banjo the backpacking bear appeared in was not his own. About a year prior, Rare made a N64 Mario Kart clone featuring some of its characters from the Donkey Kong Country series of games. Some of Rare’s other characters made it in as racers, and Banjo was one of them. Not sure if Kazooie the bird was in his backpack or not. Another character in DKR was Conker before he had his M rated makeover. You see, originally, Conker was going to be a kiddy game like Banjo-Kazooie. I even played a demo of it at E3. There was one kid friendly Conker game on the GBC called Conker’s Pocket Tales. But, for reasons unknown, Rare made Conker the squirrel all rude and inappropriate in Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Conker: Live and Reloaded. I liked the old Conker better.

Anyway, you won’t see Banjo or Conker in the DS version of Diddy Kong Racing, as Nintendo replaced them with other DK familiars like Dixie Kong and Tiny Kong. For a Mario Kart clone, Diddy Kong Racing was actually a pretty decent racer. And it came out at a time when Mario Kart clones weren’t as rampant as they are today. Only thing I really didn’t like about DKR is that it was Nintendo’s big holiday title that year on the N64, and that was pretty disappointing to me (and one of the reasons why I bought a PSOne). Kind of reminds me of today. The Wii’s big first party titles for the holiday are Wii Music and Animal Crossing, and while I love both of those games, that’s still a pretty disappointing holiday lineup for the Wii.

The first ‘real’ game came out in 1998 (wow, ten years) on the N64. It was basically a Mario 64 clone 3-D platformer, but with enough graphical improvements and its own personality and humor to separate it. Mario 3-D platformers are a little smoother and quicker, while Banjo-Kazooie was a bit slower and more methodical. I also liked the challenge level: not too easy yet not too hard either. It was a challenge where you knew you could tackle anything in the game with a little work and patience.

Anyway, the ‘gimmick’ in Banjo-Kazooie was that as Banjo had a bird in his backpack, the duo would use teamwork to pull off platforming moves to get past obstacles. For instance, if Banjo wanted to slow a descent after a jump, Kazooie would pop out of his backpack and flap her wings. Or if Banjo wanted to run faster, Kazooie would pop her legs out of the backpack and carry Banjo as she ran on her nimble bird legs!

The story in the game goes that Banjo’s little sister Tooty was bear-napped by Gruntilda (Grunty) the witch. Grunty wanted to steal Tooty’s youth to make her more beautiful. So Banjo and Kazooie tromp off to her lair to save Tooty. Grunty’s Lair serves as the hub for all the levels, like Peach’s castle in Mario 64. Banjo must collect jigsaw pieces and music notes to open doors in the lair. A lot of people complain that Rare’s N64 platformers were collect-a-thons, but I don’t think it was too bad in the first BK game. The levels were small enough that it didn’t seem like such a chore. If you want to know what a really rampant Rare collect-a-thon is, try Donkey Kong 64! In that one, each of the five characters had their own color bananas to collect, crystal coconuts for special moves, ammo, and golden bananas! Ugh!

My favorite levels on Banjo-Kazooie were the last two: Rusty Bucket Bay and Click Clock Wood. Rusty Bucket Bay was in a giant shipyard, and you could almost smell the oily water and rusty metal. And it was really challenging, too! And Click Clock Wood was a mind-blowing level for back then, as you used the changing seasons to solve puzzles in the forest level. And the TV game show boss fight with Grunty was pretty humorous!

Anyway, Banjo-Kazooie was a fantastic title and probably one of my top five favorite N64 games. And it’s great for kids, too! My little brothers STILL talk about that game, and recently they even bought a used N64 so they could play it again! Luckily, now you don’t have to do that because the original Banjo-Kazooie game will be out on Xbox Live soon! Actually, if you were smart and pre-ordered Nuts & Bolts, you got Banjo-Kazooie on Live early and for free!

The 360 version of Banjo-Kazooie is pretty much just like the N64 one. Some of the textures are clearer, but I wish they would’ve improved the slowdown in some parts. But it’s not a really big deal. One of the neat things they kept in was the secret eggs and ice key you were supposed to get and use in the sequel: Banjo-Tooie. I don’t know if originally you’d use the 64DD or an add on cartridge like Sonic & Knuckles, but that feature was never implemented in the sequel. But now you can get the secret eggs and key and use them to unlock goodies in the new Nuts & Bolts game! And I hate to brag, but in only a few days, I got all 100 jiggys and all 900 notes, and all but one of the achievements in the Xbox version, so I think I can safely say I’m a pro at that game.

It’s pretty ‘Rare’ (sorry) when a video game sequel is better than the first. But luckily, that’s the case with Banjo-Tooie. See, it’s a play on words: Banjo 2-ie. Yeah, Rare’s humor is pretty corny sometimes. It takes place two years after the first. Grunty is buried under a rock after being defeated by Banjo and Kazooie. Her witch sisters come to save her in their drill machine, but by that time, Grunty wasted away and is now a living skeleton of herself. But they hatch a plan to steal all the life from the land to give Grunty back her body, so Banjo and Kazooie venture out to the Isle of Hags to stop her!

While the Isle of Hags first appears to be a hub world like Grunty’s Lair in the first game, later on you’ll realize the level structure is a bit more like Metroid as all the worlds are interconnected in some way. There’s even a train you’ll find later that’ll take you to the worlds in a jiffy. You still collect jigsaws and notes to open doors and paths, though. What’s funny is that this game looks even BETTER than DK64, and DK64 had to use the N64 Expansion Pack while Banjo-Tooie didn’t need it!

Banjo and Kazooie learn some new moves in the sequel. My favorite is when Banjo takes out Kazooie and holds her like a gun, and you can go into first person mode and fire eggs at things. But the biggest change is that in the sequel, Banjo and Kazooie can now separate from one another at certain points. Without a bear to lug around, Kazooie can run faster and fly better. And she can use her motherly bird instincts to hatch eggs. And without a bird in his backpack, Banjo can hop inside like a potato sack racer to protect his footsies from harmful ground, or use it like a sleeping bag to take a bear nap and refill his energy.

My favorite levels in Banjo-Tooie are Glitter Gulch Mine and Grunty Industries. Glitter Gulch Mine has a cowboy/western/prospector theme to it, and I don’t think video games use cowboy themes as much as they should. Grunty Industries reminds me of Rusty Bucket Bay, except this time you’re in a factory. The factory building is a very well designed level and very clever. I like it when you get turned into a washing machine and have to go around and wash all the rabbit workers’ uniforms and have to figure out how to use all the service elevators!

Supposedly, next year Rare will bring Banjo-Tooie to Xbox Live like how they did with the first game. I can’t wait for that. Even if I have to pay for it, that’ll be an instant download for me!

Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge
When the Game Boy Advance came out, Nintendo ‘sold’ Rare to Microsoft. While I think Rare pretty much carried Nintendo in the N64 days with their awesome games, I think Nintendo made the right decision. But Rare still made a few GBA games after that. One of them was a Banjo-Kazooie game.

I don’t know if this was supposed to be a side story, or an alternate universe type story, or if it happened in between the first and second N64 games. It was never really clear in the game. But the story goes that Grunty’s assistant Klungo built a Grunty robot for Grunty’s spirit to inhabit while she was still stuck under a rock. So then Robo-Grunty sends Banjo and Kazooie back in time before they ever met. Though the time travel thing wasn’t really necessary as it didn’t really appear in the gameplay at all and Banjo and Kazooie soon meet up after you start the game!

You still collect jiggies and notes and do standard Banjo-Kazooie platform moves. But the action is viewed from a top down perspective on the GBA. It actually reminds me a lot of Conker’s Pocket Tales. Grunty’s Revenge wasn’t on a grand a scale as the N64 games were, not by a long shot. But it was still a somewhat fun little game. And it’s also significant as it was one of the very first games I reviewed for!

Banjo Pilot
One of the last E3’s I went to when I was writing for the Dallas newspaper was when Nintendo was first showing off their Game Boy Advance. One of the games I saw back then was Diddy Kong Pilot, which took the plane races from Diddy Kong Racing and made a full game out of it. Years later, Rare finally released the game but took out the DK characters and replaced them with Banjo ones. It was an OK racer. Nothing special. As a GBA game, it used the flat Mode 7 effects to simulate 3-D, but since everyone was flying, it didn’t have quite the same effect as a Mario Kart game did. Probably my least favorite of the Banjo games.

Banjo Cameos
Rare tends to put subtle cameos in their other games, and Banjo is no exception. In Viva Pinata, you can buy a statue of Banjo to put in your garden, and one of the items you can buy for the bear piñata is a blue backpack! There’s a small cameo in, er, Kameo where a radio in someone’s house plays a rock version of the Banjo-Kazooie theme song. If there were any Banjo cameos in Conker or Grabbed by the Ghoulies, I don’t know what they are as I’ve never played them. I have no desire to play Conker but I’d like to try the Ghoulies game sometime.

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts
Finally Rare releases another Banjo game this year! But this one’s a little different. It’s been years after Banjo and Kazooie’s last adventure, and now they’re all lazy and fat. But Grunty’s skull head comes hopping out and challenges fat Banjo and Kazooie to a duel. But just as they’re about to fight, the ‘game’ pauses and the Lord of Games comes out. He’s like the God of the video game world, and he has a cloak and a TV screen Pong face. Anyway, he demands that Banjo and Kazooie settle their differences in a different kind of challenge. He zaps Banjo and Kazooie back in shape and gives Grunty a new body (though her head is still in a jar), and sends them off to Showdown Town. And the game begins there.

You still collect jigsaw pieces to open doors to new worlds, but the way in which you do so now has changed a bit. In each world are characters who have a race or other timed request for you to perform. And most of the time you can build your own vehicle to tackle their request and earn a jiggy. You can make cars, trucks, planes, boats, or whatever you want to. Building your own vehicles reminded me a bit of the Gummi Ships from Kingdom Hearts, except here it’s way, way, way, WAY better! Jeff and his teenage friends even like it. All they do in the game is build stuff and test them out on the Test-O-Track. I just play the rest of the game and earn parts for them to play around with. And some of their crazy vehicles have really helped me out in the main game, too!

Nuts & Bolts is very physics-based, and I would almost consider it even educational as you can instantly see how a change in parts on a vehicle can drastically or minimally change a vehicle’s performance. And the game encourages creativity, too, as there’s usually no one ‘right’ way to solve a puzzle in the game. Kind of reminds me of Wallace & Gromit in a way.

I do have some very minor problems with Nuts & Bolts. The first has to do with the style of play. Even though I love the new creative gameplay, I was really hoping for a more traditional 3-D platformer. Why? Well, because the Xbox 360 doesn’t really have any standout, kid-friendly 3-D platformers. The Wii has Mario Galaxy, PS3 has Ratchet and Clank (well it’s almost kid friendly), but I really can’t think of any for the 360. But Nuts & Bolts is still REALLY fun and has that addictive ‘just one more level’ air about it, even though it feels like “Banjo Racing” sometimes.

Another very minor problem is the new art style. Banjo and Kazooie look more dumpy in their new angular style. I liked their Nintendo look better because all the googly eyes reminded me of the Muppets, and I like Muppets! But the game still looks and sounds great. Speaking of sound, all the music in Nuts & Bolts are remixed Banjo-Kazooie tunes, and they’re all orchestrated! I love it when a game has orchestrated music (like Mario Galaxy). I wish more games would do that. Oh yeah, one last problem I had with Nuts & Bolts is the text is way too small, even on my big HDTV!

But the rest of the game is great. I especially love the humor in it. Before you enter each world for the first time, they introduce you to the characters who will be in that world. It’s always characters from past Banjo games, but in the worlds here they kind of play as ‘actors’ in different roles. But the intros are like spoofs of the intros you might find in a 1970’s TV show. The first level is set on a farm, so for the intro, they made the visuals and music look like the old Dallas TV show! Which is funny because this game was made for kids and it has jokes in it like that which will go over their heads unless they’re over 30! I remember when the Dallas TV show was popular and every time we’d have out of town relatives or friends visit, we’d ALWAYS have to take them out to see South Fork Ranch where they filmed Dallas, or parts of it anyway.

Another funny bit that’s a favorite of mine is one of the mini-games. Grunty’s former assistant Klungo has set up his own arcade in Showdown Town, and he made his own game for you to play. It’s a crappy 8-bit 2-D platformer called “Hero Klungo Sssssaves Teh World” (yes, Klungo speaks in Internet talk and spells ‘the’ like’ teh.’ But the really funny part is the background graphic ‘side art’ on the borders. It has an anime styled Klungo with spaceships and skulls and an anime chick all tied up. And it has NOTHING to do with the actual game! I wish I could find that background graphic on my computer, I’d have that be my desktop wallpaper!

But I think my favorite character in Nuts & Bolts is the only human being in town, Humba Wumba. In the first Banjo-Kazooie game, you could get turned into different animals by a shaman named Mumbo Jumbo. In the sequel, you could play as Mumbo for a short while to perform magic outside his hut. So when Banjo needed to change forms in the sequel, he would turn to Mumbo’s rival, a Native American lady named Humba Wumba. Yeah I guess she’s not very politically correct, but I don’t really worry about stuff like that as long as it’s not being mean spirited or harmful. And Rare makes fun of lots of stuff in their games, even themselves! For instance, in one of the Nuts & Bolts levels is a giant trash can, and inside of it are piles of Grabbed by the Ghoulies games! Anyway, in Nuts & Bolts, Mumbo runs the garage where you build your cars while Humba Wumba sells parts and blueprints for you to use. And the reason why she’s my favorite character in the game is because everything that comes out of her mouth is hilarious!

My favorite level in Nuts & Bolts is called Banjo Land. It’s like a museum and all the exhibits are a mash up of stuff found in past Banjo games. Another level I really like is set inside a giant video game console, and you have to maneuver around giant computer parts. Reminds me of TRON. This level makes fun of video game programmers, marketing, and the whole game industry in general. Humba Wumba’s ‘actor role’ in this world is of “Spunky Gamer Chick.” (yeah they make fun of Gamer Girls as well). She’s part of a gamer clan called “Hag Dolls!” Ha!

So anyway, while Nuts & Bolts isn’t quite the sequel I had in mind, it’s turned out to be a very surprisingly fun and addictive game. One of the best I’ve played all year. If you have a 360, you should give this one a try!

And that’s all I have to say about Banjo-Kazooie. So what does everyone think of the New Xbox Live Experience? I don’t really mind the change, but I don’t think it was really necessary. The old menus were just fine, and the avatars are just the Xbox equivalent of Miis. Though it is kind of fun to see what kinds of avatars my friends came up with. And at least you can still use your old themes and gamerpics, and if you press the big middle button you can open up a menu that’s a lot like the old one.

So in the comments section, share with me your favorite Banjo-Kazooie games and characters! Or why you DON’T like Banjo games. –Cary

6 Responses to “The Birds and the Bears: A Brief History of Banjo-Kazooie”

  1. Never played it.
    Reminded me too much of Donkey Kong 64.

  2. Well they were made by the same people. –Cary

  3. I LOVED both BK games on the N64. I have been playing the XBLA version for a few days now, and I’m surprised how well this game holds up. The platforming has never been so solid. I agree with you that the slowdown can be a pain at times, but otherwise, I enjoy this game a lot.

  4. If i find a copy at Gamestop I might buy just to check it out unless I find a copy of kirby and the crystal shards.

  5. A title update for the XBLA version totally addresses the slowdown issues we saw before … now when I mis a precision jump … it’s all MY fault 😉

  6. i have 2 say my favorite banjo-kazooie character is captain blubber because when he talks it sounds like hes burping

Discussion Area - Leave a Comment

Tired of typing this out each time? Register as a subscriber!