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…



Bored Games?


As I said before, I love good video games. N64 is wonderful. I could sit in my room for hours playing “Ocarina of Time” and be completely and utterly fine. But what about tabletop games?

My friend Andrew and I are in the process of starting a tabletop gamers club at the University of Arizona which will primarily focus on board, dice, and card games; Magic: The Gathering, D&D, Settlers of Catan, Fluxx, Dominion, Puerto Rico… for lack of a better term, geek games.

I have noticed that there seems to have been a resurgence of popularity in geek gaming over the past decade or two. While video gaming remains, as it has for over 30 years, big business, board gaming is booming once again. Why is this? Why choose Ticket to Ride over Call of Duty? Why pick Pandemic over BioShock? Allow me to try to break this down for you.

It used to be that D&D players would run campaigns in the back rooms of dimly-lit comic book stores (no offense if this is you), and games of Magic would be planned on the DL for an underground group of geeks. Why is it, then, that nowadays, it has suddenly become more socially acceptable to play Magic publicly in the light of day? Why has Settlers of Catan become such a worldwide phenomenon? Why is Monopoly seemingly on the way out?

I can think of a few answers to these questions.

First, what has changed since the beginnings of geek gaming? Well, Dungeons and Dragons, for example, is one of the oldest RPGs still played today. While it may still be a bit of a taboo subject to speak of, D&D players are “coming out” more now than ever. How can it be that such an unspoken game has maintained such international popularity for so long? Imagination. It’s as simple as that. It takes very little imagination to play Left 4 Dead, let’s be honest. While it may be fun to rage on a zombie hoard, it involves little thought (not to mention little blinking). In D&D, player are forced to make the game, rather than having it simply presented to them. If the only necessary supplies to play D&D are some books and a dice set, the rest of the adventure must lie within the imaginations of the players. Do you choose to face the Cyclops? Do you run away from the oncoming hoard of Half-Elves? Do you stand your ground against a high-stat fighter Dwarf? Whatever you do, it is rarely shown to you. Thus, players are forced to mentally create the scenario. This makes room for endless possibilities. As Barney always told us, if you use your imagination, anything can happen. Thanks, purple dinosaur.

When playing Super Smash Bros., while you may be “interacting” with your fellow players, it’s a completely different type of interaction, one that probably looks more like a button-mashing, Falcon-punching, smack-talking, PK-thundering, hammer fest.

Jerry Seinfeld said it best: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” While I stand by my argument that there is a plethora of artistic merit to be found in beating the snot out of one another with beam swords, tabletop gaming is equally, if not even more artful. Let’s take, for example, pretty much the most basic, foundational geek game there is: Mayfair Games’ The Settlers of Catan. If you are unfamiliar with this game, it is sort of like Civilization or Age of Empires in board game form. (If you don’t know what any of these games are, stop reading, go eat a gallon of ice cream, and play Scrabble.) I have seen some great games of Catan in my life. The game in and of itself is quite simple: settle and inhabit a resource-rich island. The simple gameplay mixed with limitless room for strategy is awesome. Even within the simple box art of the game, the 4th Edition of the game features superb art that is not unlike Millet’s famous genre painting “The Gleaners.” (My apologies, the Art Historian in me is coming out.) The strategy of Monopoly mixed with the concept of Risk, combined with the opponent-screwing joy of Sorry makes for one heck of a game.

But perhaps the best thing about tabletop games, something that video games may never match, is community. Sorry, XBox Live. When playing a board game, one usually plays with friends or loved ones. Good conversation, laughs, Bagel Bites and Red Bull, dramatic comebacks from almost certain loss, these are what makes board games wonderful. I mean, come on, that redneck breathing loudly into the microphone on Halo is just not as enjoyable to be with as your best friends. Maybe it’s the strategy, maybe it’s the fellowship, maybe it’s the face-to-face conversation, maybe it’s the pure joy of placing the Robber on your best friend’s 8, 3-city brick space just before he would get Longest Road, maybe it’s simply the fun of unleashing the imagination and letting it run wild, but whatever it is, tabletop games, both geeky and non-geeky, can truly be magical.

Just be sure you don’t have more than 7 cards in your hand.

P.S. I am thinking of doing a post about game box art. Any thoughts on that?

I <3 the D-Pad

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It seems preposterous to think that video games are not more widely accepted as an emerging art form. I myself identify with the subculture of retrogamers, those players so deeply in love with the classics that everything new-age just doesn’t compare. I love my N64 and my NES, in my opinion two of the best consoles of all time. Yet, there are so very few of us left who play platforms such as NES or Genesis, or, reaching even further back, systems like Atari, ColecoVision, and Vectrex (most of the younger readers probably don’t even know those last two).

We all know the Overworld music from Super Mario Bros. for NES, without a doubt, the most widely-recognized game music in history. Talk about classic. Not only classic, but so hugely influential that this one game literally saved the quickly dying industry of video games during the famous Video Game Crash of 1983. After Mario was released for home platforms, the entire culture of gaming, from economic and social standpoints, was revolutionized. Super Mario Bros. was, is, an will forever remain the standard by which all games are measured.

Throughout the history of the video game, many titles have been released that have become instant hits. Zelda, Mario, Donkey Kong, Tetris, Metal Gear, Sonic, Mega Man, Mortal Kombat, etc. These are all recognized as some of the most classic, timeless masterworks of gaming ever. So why are they brushed aside in 2010, not to be considered art?

A large majority of my friends from college have at least one member of the reigning trifecta of game consoles: the Wii, PS3, or XBox 360, and play them substantially more frequently than any other systems, especially older ones. (As I am not terribly well-versed in these newer systems, I can’t speak with much authority on the subject of Call of Duty, Halo, or other hot new games. I can say without a doubt that the graphics and gameplay are truly superb, but for now I’m going to stick to retrogaming, because it’s what I know and love.)

Let’s think for a moment of what a movie is. Basically, if broken down to the bare bones, a movie is a cinematic representation of a story, right? Roger Ebert obviously considers movies an art form (at least I hope so, because if not, he’s out of a job), and yet, in his eyes, video games cannot be art. What is a video game exactly? Is it not a similar concept? The visual, moving picture representation of an epic story, the only difference being a dose of interaction on part of the audience. Be it the adventure of an Italian plumber traversing colorful worlds to rescue that damn Princess who is always getting kidnapped or the mindless slaying of a massive zombie hoard, is it not essentially the same thing?

I love my NES. There is a certain beauty in it’s simplicity. Simple graphics, catchy 8-bit synth music, and the need to beat the gray box with a baseball bat while it cycles through a whole rainbow of screens just to make it play? Beautiful. It is art at it’s finest. Some of the most incredible art is interactive. Look at any piece of public art! Viewers are not only welcome but encouraged to touch and interact with it, so how are video games any different? Interactive movies? Anyone who has ever played Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty knows that it is a movie with a side of game. With literally hours of cinematic interlude between stages of play, there is certainly a movie aspect to this and other games! So why, Ebert? Why, closed-minded critics? Why is gaming not an art? Tell me, please.

Perhaps we are looking at gaming the wrong way. If an 18 year-old in 2010 has only been exposed to PS3, then the idea of a Magnavox Odyssey is so radically different, it is almost incomparable. In the eyes of someone who just bought Halo: Reach (which, by the way, is sweet), this and other so-called “blinking dot” games are about as interesting as the label on a tube of toothpaste. This young person would be much more likely to play Resident Evil 4 than Duck Hunt. Why? Because they are looking at the classics through PS3-colored glasses. At present, technology is at its finest (that seems to be the case most of the time). Wireless, motion sensitive, portable, touch screen, 3D–these seem to be the direction gaming is headed. What if that 18 year-old could time travel to 1985? Duck Hunt would be the most incredible thing they had ever seen. I have heard stories from adults about endless hours of the fascinated enchantment of Pong. I’m sure that to the average gaming-age viewer back then, Pong was truly amazing, and yet, to play Pong today for more than about 15 minutes may lead gamers to the brink of insanity.

The NES alone was WAY ahead of its time. Some of the accessories that were available for the system were extremely advanced (though most of them had their certain quirks about them). Just to name a few, a robot (actually, it was more than likely just an electronic companion to make up for the friends that gamers of the time didn’t have), a light gun, a piano (yes, a piano, look it up), a voice-activated headset that was advertised to respond to the vocal command “FIRE!” (although it really responded to just about any profanity you could throw at it), even a DDR-style floor mat compatible for Konami workout games! These are just a select few of the plethora of accessories that were extremely innovative. Keep in mind, also, that I have only included one single system here. There are plenty more, believe me.

Some of the most widely recognized artistic movements began because someone was not okay with the norm. Claude Monet decided that he wanted to evoke an emotional response from viewers through use of soft, blended brushstrokes, calming colors, and the idea of capturing a singular moment in time. Enter, Impressionism. Parmigianino decided that the Renaissance art of his time was becoming a thing of the past, so he innovated. Hence Mannerism. Pablo Picasso thought the world looked too normal and he wanted to depict the world in a new way. So began Cubism. People began to notice that the movie industry was well developed, and becoming (I say with caution) stale. Someone saw a market for interactive, living room, controlled movies. Thus was born the video game.

Even within the subgenre of gaming as an art, there have been numerous breakthroughs, countless innovations, and in a mere 30-40 years, debatably, we have witnessed a number of “movements.” Gaming has progressed from a blinking blob of pixels on a tube TV to high-definition action so real it can take a while before a spectator realizes it’s just a game. Continuing the argument comparing games to movies, movies never change. I can watch Transformers all day, but the plot line will never change. What about Marvel Ultimate Alliance? Do you save Jean Grey or Nightcrawler? Okay, bad example, that’s way too obvious. But let’s take the sequel, for instance. Do you side with Iron Man or Captain America? The plot changes depending upon your choice. This makes the replay value very high, seemingly higher than the rewatch value of a movie. While it’s always fun to watch Troll 2 again, I already know what happens. At least, I think I do. I’m still trying to figure out the corn scene…

Anyway, this is starting to become more of an essay than a blog, so I’m going to cut it off now. But, as Arnold would say “I’ll be back.”

Let’s hear what you think!