Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Banjo-Tooie - Thoughts

Banjo-Kazooie is one of the best collection-focused platformers of the fifth console generation, so naturally an amped-up sequel that's nearly twice as large as the original would be better, right?

Unfortunately, no. While it may not match Donkey Kong 64's insane penchant for collectables, the detrimental symptoms are noticeably present here. It's not an awful game—its bombastic size and scope made it a worthwhile purchase back in '00—but it feels more taxing than its predecessor, requiring a greater effort from the player to solve it. In some respect I suppose it's the ideal sequel to Banjo-Kazooie, but what is lost in the process is the lackadaisical ease of simply "havin' a fun time"; Banjo-Tooie is geared more towards hunting than exploration.

The opening cutscene alone is a good indicator of the length of this game, clocking in at over ten minutes before you can start playing. The story maintains the same bubbly Rare quality, returning its colorful cast to the spotlight with some great new debuts, accompanied by some hilariously dark moments that the narrative brushes over (dead jinjos and children, good lord). I take no qualms here with the plot or writing however—all my concern is rooted in the gameplay and design.

To wit, there's too much laborious backtracking. No longer can you set aside an evening to check off one of the game's eight worlds from your list; each setting is tightly tied to another, requiring you to come back later when you've amassed additional abilities or unlocked new shortcuts. While it provides some mystery to each location, it can be confusing trying to figure out whether or not you've met the requirements to obtain a certain jiggy or frankly haven't found the solution yet. I didn't walk away from each play session feeling like I had accomplished something, but was instead constantly asking "there's still more to do here?!"

The backtracking issue is one that's rooted at the core of the Metroidvania genre—so I really can't fault it all that much—but what compounds this problem are the numerous methods of travel. This is an aspect that augured the coming of Donkey Kong 64; in Banjo-Kazooie you only had the titular heroes and a Mumbo transformation as vehicles of exploration, but here you have Banjo, Kazooie, Banjo & Kazooie, a Wumba transformation, and Mumbo to contend with. This means that you'll be exploring the same tract of land multiple times over to collect a single jiggy. Perhaps the most flagrant example of this is the Styracosaurus quest: you run into them as Banjo & Kazooie, return as Banjo, head to the train station, turn back into Banjo & Kazooie, then go to Mumbo at the Isle o' Hags, return as Mumbo to the train, turn back into Banjo & Kazooie, return the train back to Terrydactyland, and you still have to return to the family as Mumbo later. And that's not even the entire quest to obtain a single collectible out of a potential 90. I killed myself in this game countless times just so I could skip having to reunite the bird and bear.

Where I found myself pleased with Banjo-Tooie was when it closely resembled Banjo-Kazooie's design. Exploring the ill-lit rafters in Glitter Gulch Mine, burning the behinds of the Rocknuts in Terrydactyland, and outsmarting Mr. Fit in Cloud Cuckooland were all stand-out moments between the frequent back-and-forth-ing that was required (getting to Mr. Fit in particular was a hassle). I think the first-person segments and various egg types are excellent improvements to the game, and though it may not seem like it, I do appreciate what Banjo and Kazooie individually bring to the gameplay this time around. I'm miffed that the music note hunts have been neutered (they used to provide you with something to do while traversing the landscape), but for the most parts these changes at least make the moment-to-moment gameplay a little more interesting.

To reiterate, I don't think the game is terrible as much as it's just not fun when you're forced to do a ton of leg work. Grunty Industries is the greatest offender of this, having some really clever ideas in it (using batteries to power doors, the service lift can only be used by the dishwasher) inside a gargantuan layout that's chock-full of dead ends and questionable design choices (why give me the Snooze Pack ability next to a place where I need the Sack Pack? Is it really necessary to place Weldar's jiggy two rooms over? Why can't the Split-up pad on the first floor be closer to the Waste Disposal entrance?) I thought Click Clock Wood was arduous to finish at 1.5 hours long, but this level took twice as long as that, not to mention how the N64's single digit frame rate was doing my playtime no favors either.

Banjo-Tooie is a good example of why bigger isn't always better. True, it's packed with neat secrets and tricky sections that require some tinkering, its worlds and solutions cleverly interwoven together... yet this expansion stands at odds to the indelible charm of the original game, Banjo-Kazooie's smaller worlds acting more like a playground than a set of puzzles. Whereas the first game invited you on a delightful excursion, Banjo-Tooie asks quite a bit more from the player—whether or not that's your cup of tea is up to you I suppose.

Images obtained from:  smashcustommusic.com, giantbomb.com

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