The Case for Banjo-Tooie

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I may be a cult of one, but I love Banjo-Tooie. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, because the Nintendo 64 was by far my favorite system ever made, but even among N64 enthusiasts, Banjo-Tooie is one that often slips under people’s radars. I love asking people what their “Top 5” list of video games is. You hear many different answers depending on who you’re asking, and it can often lead to some great conversation.

My Top 5 favorite video games are:

1) The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64)
2) Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)
3) Mario Kart 64 (N64)
4) Super Smash Bros. (N64)
5) Banjo-Tooie (N64)

***Yes, 4 out of 5 of those are N64 titles. Sorry I’m not sorry about it.***

I think most any gamer would have at least one or two of those in his or her Top 5 (I’m looking at you, Ocarina). When I tell people my Top 5, they often say, “Banjo-Tooie? What about Metroid? Mega Man? Castlevania? Mass Effect? Street Fighter 2?”

Yes, I know.

banjotooiecoverAll those are great games in their own right. Taking with a grain of salt that this list is completely objective and opinionated (but if you disagree that Ocarina is the greatest game ever made, you’re just wrong), what is so great about Banjo-Tooie that would make me rank it above all those classics? Where do I begin?

Banjo-Tooie was released in November 2000, the sequel to Banjo-Kazooie. It was published by Rareware, who truly dominated the N64 with memorable titles like Goldeneye, Donkey Kong, Perfect Dark, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Jet Force Gemini, and Blast Corps.

The story follows the return of Banjo the bear and Kazooie, his backpack-ridden bird companion as they adventure through all kinds of colorful levels, ultimately leading up to the dramatic return of Gruntilda, the series’ main antagonist. Full of memorable music, silky-smooth controls, clever Easter eggs, and (sometimes not-so) subtle humor, the game is a great experience throughout.

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If only my grades looked like this…

Critical reception of its predecessor was very high, making Banjo-Tooie one of the more highly anticipated sequels on the N64. Rareware delivered. If you’ve played the first game, you know it’s top notch; excellent level designs and graphics that stretched the N64 to its limits. However, there was much left to be desired. What if you could play as Mumbo, Banjo/Kazooie’s skeletal shaman friend? What if you could play as only Kazooie or only Banjo? WHAT IF KAZOOIE BECAME A FIRE-BREATHING DRAGON?!

Enter Banjo-Tooie. This game did it all. It was everything players wanted in a sequel. Split-up abilities, playing as Mumbo (and electrocuting the hell out of baddies with his supercharged staff), plenty of unlockables and mini-games,  a whole slew of awesome moves for Banjo, Kazooie, and the two together… it was simply a fresh look at an already great game. And yes, Kazooie becomes (spoilers) a dragon.

One of my favorite aspects of the game is the interconnected nature of the worlds. Every world connects to another world. I can’t think of a game that did this before Banjo-Tooie, at least, not on the scale that Banjo-Tooie did it. It’s fun to revisit an earlier world with newly-acquired abilities and get a different experience. It certainly keeps the game interesting and adds to its replayability. And Witchyworld is one of my favorite levels in any game ever, so there’s that.

And then there’s the music. There are a few video game soundtracks that EVERYONE knows (again, looking at you Ocarina). This should be one of them. Composed by Grant Kirkhope (Goldeneye, Donkey Kong, Banjo-Kazooie), the music from Tooie is some of the catchiest, best orchestrated game music ever.

Here are two of my favorites:

Aren’t those great? The actual level Hailfire Peaks has two sides, lava and ice, and when you enter the other side, the music changes to reflect your new surroundings. Rareware did this in many of their games, and it’s little things like this that make them so memorable. When you’re underwater or in a cave, the instrumentation shifts to echo the mood and more fully immerse you in the game.

What about the mini-games? Long story short, they rock. Whether you’re driving bumper cars, flying around as Kazooie popping balloons, playing kickball, minecart-racing a giant canary (who, by the way, is impossible to beat the second time), or flying a carnival spaceship, there is an abundance of mini-games, and they are all awesome. Which brings me to my next point…

You wouldn’t expect the Banjo-Kazooie series to have much to offer in the way of multiplayer options, but Tooie has some of the best multiplayer on the N64. All the minigames are playable on their own, but the ones that really stand out are the Shootout games. As I mentioned before, Rareware developed Goldeneye on N64, arguably the best FPS game ever made. To this day, people still talk about the multiplayer and how many hours (and friendships) they lost because of it. Goldeneye came out in 1997, so Rareware made the ingenious decision to include a re-themed, family-friendly, Goldeneye-style shooter in Banjo-Tooie. Instead of spraying polygon-headed Russian stereotypes with the KF7 Soviet, you’re firing eggs from Kazooie’s mouth. Using the same gameplay engine as Goldeneye, the weapons are comparable (grenade eggs, proximity mine eggs, etc.), and it feels just like Goldeneye.

The voice acting is memorable, although no real words are ever spoken. Banjo and his crew speak a sort of stylized gibberish, which is translated onscreen. It sounds weird, but it works. Check out the opening cutscene:

I feel that Banjo-Tooie really captures the essence of the Nintendo 64. It represents a simpler time in gaming history, one where having a futuristic gun and mowing down zombie Nazis wasn’t necessary for a good game, one where there were more games rated “E” than “M.” Banjo-Tooie really is a gem among the N64 library. Neither it nor its predecessor get enough credit. They are too often overshadowed by their contemporaries like Ocarina, Mario 64, and Goldeneye. I truly believe that Banjo-Tooie stands on its own two paws, and, if you haven’t played it in a while (or ever), it’s well past time to dust off that N64 that’s sitting in your garage and give it a run. You won’t be disappointed. And if you are, well, you’re just wrong.

Afterword: Rareware employees, if you’re reading this, Gruntilda did mention “Banjo-Threeie” in one of her lines of dialogue… Just saying…

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At Long Last… Why I Love Spider-Man.

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I have the comics. I have the toys. I have the movies. I have the shirts. I have the bed sheets. I have the trading cards. I have the lunch boxes. I have the Slurpee cups. I have the Mary Jane limited edition fashion Barbie. Mint in box. Suffice it to say, I like Spider-Man. And when I say I like Spider-Man, what I mean is, I love Spider-Man. And when I say I love Spider-Man, I mean I humbly consider myself to be the biggest Spider-Man fanatic in the history of ever. Anyone who has ever met me knows this. But for over a decade, I have been asked this question:

Why do you love Spider-Man?

After years of wanting to write this, I felt it was appropriate, given the time. If you weren’t aware, 2012 is a big year for the Wall-Crawler. There are some major events happening in his life these days, including, as I’m sure you all know, the new summer blockbuster “The Amazing Spider-Man.” 2012 also marks the 50th anniversary of the iconic “Amazing Fantasy #15,” the first-ever Spider-Man comic book. On top of that, “Amazing Spider-Man” (the comic series, not the movie) #700 is just around the corner. What a year.

To begin, it’s important to know a bit of (very) basic Spidey history. I’ll try not to bore you.

By the early 1960s, comic books had established themselves as big business. Hundreds of colorful publications were released each month, so it was no surprise that companies were trying to cash in on the extreme popularity of the genre. Enter Stan Lee. He and a partner had created the idea for a superhero that would break the traditional mold. What if, instead of being a handsome, successful adult, if he was just a geeky high school kid? This idea appealed to the younger audience, and Spider-Man became an overnight sensation.

For almost half a century, Spider-Man has been the flagship character of Marvel Comics. He is arguably the most popular superhero of all time, and has been seen in everything from comics to vinyl records.

So why do I love him? Why is it that, some 50 years later, he is still recognized and adored all across the world?

It’s hard for me to be unbiased, but I’ll do my best. I think Spider-Man is so popular because he is so relatable. In high school, he was picked on relentlessly. He has relationship problems. He is no stranger to death, betrayal, and psychological torment. He has been shot. He has had friends struggle with drug addiction. He has been fired from jobs. He has difficulty balancing his personal and vigilante lives. He catches colds. He misses rent payments. In other words, he is human.

Can’t you relate? Don’t we all feel like we have this “Parker luck” sometimes? Spider-Man is a wonderful character because we all have a bit of him in us. When Peter Parker dons his costume, he is no longer Peter Parker. He is you and he is me. The person under that mask could be male, female, black, white, gay, straight… he is all of us. Despite his best efforts to use his great power responsibly, he is constantly criticized. Tell me you can’t relate to that.

There is more to it, though. Spider-Man is clearly a tortured soul, but he is also just a great character. If you’ve never read his comics, I strongly encourage it. The writing is top notch, if not a little on the campy side. Spider-Man’s adventures take us deep into his complex psyche. He is constantly struggling to do what is right, but when justice is not black and white, we get a window into his inner self. He often finds himself questioning spirituality, and questioning his own purpose. How real.

Furthermore, Spider-Man doesn’t always win. He fails, and how powerful it is to see him fail. No matter how hard he tries, sometimes he just doesn’t win. We all love to root for the underdog, but what an interesting juxtaposition it is to have the superhero often be the underdog. It definitely makes for some great stories.

As with any superhero, Spider-Man serves as a sort of escape from the harsh realities of life. We like to imagine selfless heroes who exist to keep us safe. Spider-Man should not be dismissed as childish for his family friendliness, or the nature of his comic literature. He is a developed character to whom we can all relate. If you’re unfamiliar with the character, I suggest picking up a comic or ten. You might be surprised.

The Geek Test (What Kind of Geek Are You?)

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I’ve always heard about it, but I had never taken it, probably out of fear of the results. But today, I caved. I took The Geek Test, and I must say, it was a lot of fun. Give it a try. Here’s my score:

(I have never been much of a computer/tech geek or a literature fanatic, so those categories were a large part of the reason my score wasn't higher.)

While this is a good starting place to determine your LEVEL of geek, sometimes, it can be hard to tell your TYPE of geek. As such, I have included the following image to help you. By no means is it a comprehensive list, but it a good starting point.

Keep in mind that it is very possible that you fall into more than one of these categories! I know I do. I fall into more categories here than I have fingers and toes! The whole point of this blog is to encourage people to embrace their inner geek, so own up to yours! Which of these categories do YOU fall into? Post it in the comment box if you’re brave enough, and wear it with pride!

Cartridges vs. CDs

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I realized something today. I was sitting in my room playing “Double Dragon” on my NES, and I had an epiphany.

In recent years, I have developed a knack for repairing old, cartridge-based video game systems when they start to deteriorate, usually due to years in the garage (It’s amazing what rubbing alcohol and brass polish will do for you!).

One of my friends had recently informedme that his X-Box 360 had just gotten the dreaded “Red Ring of Death,” a symptom of a dying console. He asked me if I knew any solutions to this problem, but I told him that I have no experience fixing CD-based systems, and I wouldn’t want to worsen the system’s malfunction by trying to fix it.

And here I was, playing my NES, the primitive, grey box from 1985. I realized that I had never once had any serious trouble with my NES, despite playing it extensively and maybe not even taking the best care of it! Why, I wondered, was the old grey box lasting more than a quarter of a century, but the height of current game technology was already dying, only several years after its release?

I really don’t have an answer. I guess the question was rhetorical. Regardless, it seems to be quite the paradox. Maybe it’s because cartridges tend to keep well and are relatively difficult to damage, whereas CDs can be rendered useless by a scratch from a sibling who accidentally stepped on your copy of “Halo” that you left lying around. Maybe it’s due to the nature of the systems themselves: analog vs. digital. Maybe it’s because X-Box can’t handle the awesomeness of certain games, so its processor fries. Who knows?

I guess this is why I love my NES. One of my favorite parts about the system itself is how it never works the first time. Usually, it’s along these lines:

  1. Insert cartridge. Turn on console. Screen blinks red.
  2. Turn off console. Remove game. Blow on cartridge.
  3. Reinsert cartridge. Power system on. Screen blinks red.
  4. Power off. Remove game, blow in system itself.
  5. Insert a different game. Game works fine.
  6. Remove game. Reinsert first game. Screen blinks blue.
  7. Get baseball bat. Beat hell out of system.
  8. Game plays fine.

Wonderful, isn’t it? It’s funny, every time I think my NES has finally died, it boots up for another round of “Rad Racer II.” I swear, that grey box makes the “Little Engine That Could” look bad.

In the same way that vinyl records produce the best sound quality available, I think cartridge-based game systems produce the best games. They are reliable, trusty, and lovable in that weird, idiosyncratic way. They usually require some patience, but the end result is well worth the trouble.

(Just be sure you don’t touch the NES system while you’re playing, or else you’ll have to repeat steps 1-8!)

What is Art?

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Possibly the most loaded question of all time: What is art? Does anyone really have the answer to this age-old question? In the various Art History classes I have taken in college, my professors often begin the semester by asking this question. I have yet to find an answer, or anything even remotely close.

Perhaps the best way to begin is to attempt narrow this question down a bit. I believe that when the average person hears the term “art,” they think of the Mona Lisa or some other stuffy, gaudy painting hanging on a museum wall, something that rich, snobby wine-tasters like to discuss while eating gouda and smoking a corn pipe. Others say it’s “something that I can’t do.” Still others classify art as overpriced, high-brow filling for an empty wall.

Visual art–Does this define what art is? A painting on a wall? Classical music buffs would likely be inclined to say no, that art is more than that. “Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, these are artists,” they would say. Further still, what about philosophers? Actors? Is it even fair to classify art as being something outwardly experienced? I’m hesitant to say so. Could thinking be an art? Arguably, yes. Could athletics be considered art? Probably. Thus, it even becomes difficult to identify an overarching, general definition of what art is. Marcel Duchamp, the great Dada artist of the early 1900’s stirred up quite a ruckus with his piece “The Fountain,” a readymade piece employing an inverted men’s urinal placed on a pedestal in a museum.

How dare he defame art? How could Duchamp justify this crime of aesthetics? Simple. He was arguing then what I am arguing now: art cannot be defined. Does it have to be pretty? Duchamp’s “Fountain” seems to suggest that it doesn’t. Many people look at a piece by Jackson Pollock, the famous splatter painter (or, for that matter, seemingly any Abstract Expressionist piece), and scoff. “My 3 year-old could do that.” Well then, mom, your 3 year-old is an artist! Encourage him to express himself!

What is art? You tell me. I don’t know, nor do I believe anyone does. Art is a supernatural experience. Perhaps that is the best way to define it: an experience. Is it outward? Maybe. Is it visual? Perhaps. Is it pretty? Could be. Is it tangible? Possibly. If you think you know what art is, please, tell me, because even after the many classes, tests, textbooks, and papers, I’m still unsure.

Okay, I know that this blog is about the relationship of Art and Nerd Culture, but I had to get that out of the way. Obviously, the above is by no means an in-depth analysis, nor do I claim it to be infallible fact; remember, this is an opinion blog. If you want to argue about what art is and what art is not, visit any number of other websites. I’m sure there will be plenty of people there who would love to debate for hours.

Anyway, upon asking the question of the relationship to art and all things nerdy, as mentioned in the last post, there are many differing views on the subject. Can comic books be considered art? I myself am an avid Spider-Man fan, probably one of the nerdiest people around when it comes to the topic of the Web-Slinging Wonder, but in various conversations with friends and classmates, I have heard yay’s and nay’s in reference to comic books’ as an art form. When someone says comic books are merely child’s play, or the kind of thing that creepy, single, 40 year-old men read, I’m hesitant to agree. Maybe it’s because I read them and I don’t wish to be classified as childlike or old and creepy? I don’t know, but whatever the reason, I would argue that there is truly artistic merit to be found in comic books.

Visual artists of the Pop Art movement produced countless works that seem to support my hypothesis. Mel Ramos and Roy Lichtenstein had huge influence on the popularizing of comic book art, just to name a few. Ramos painted portrait-like images of recognizable comic book characters like the famous Batman.  Lichtenstein can be considered the father of modern comic book art, with his extensive use of dot-matrix coloring, and cartoonesque quality of his figures, often employing words or sound effects not dissimilar from those found in comic books then and now. If these Pop masters can produce museum-quality images of “child’s play,” can it not still be considered art if it similar imagery is mass-produced and put into the hands of comic enthusiasts? Think of 18th Century French Rococo art. The many breathtaking works of Antoine Watteau and a plethora of others were mass produced and sold in print shops for very little, making art collecting a common practice, something available to even the bourgeoisie class.

What is art? I don’t know. The best definition that I can muster is that it is an experience. This is just a bit of what this blog will explore. I hope to delve deeply into the culture of the nerdy, exploring how comic books, gaming of all sorts, and other such of geeky, under-the-table pastimes are truly art.

Whatever that is.