Version tested: Xbox 360
Released to capitalise on the recent release of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, the Xbox Live Arcade version of this 1998 Nintendo 64 favourite serves as a timely reminder of how far gaming has come over the past decade. At the time, Rare's star had never been brighter, flush as it was from the phenomenal success of GoldenEye. Gamers were desperate for what was seen as the Britsoft studio's answer to Super Mario 64, and blanket acclaim followed, with spectacular worldwide sales. But like so many early 3D games of the late 1990s, time hasn't been particularly kind to this colourful platform romp.
Presented with characteristic flair, it's a chirpy rescue tale featuring Banjo the bear and an intolerant bird named Kazooie who rides on his back. Structured almost identically to Super Mario 64, you wander around a varied hub-like environment known as Spiral Mountain on the hunt for the evil witch Gruntilda, who has captured Banjo's sister Tooty for basically being pretty.
During your travels through Gruntilda's lair, you'll explore various worlds on the hunt for the requisite number of jiggies - little jigsaw pieces that reside within each level. As with virtually all platform romps, you spend most of your time hoovering up anything not nailed down, and solving mini-challenges to mine each level for booty. In Banjo-Kazooie's case, each of the eight worlds houses 100 musical notes, 10 jiggies, honeycomb pieces, Jinjos to rescue, and Mumbo Jumbos. These little blue skulls prove doubly useful, as they can be traded in with a shaman to transform Banjo into various creatures, including termite, bee and crocodile.
Much of the early part of the game is pleasant enough, as you get to grips with the wide variety of jumps, rolls and attack moves via the ever-helpful Bottles the mole. As you progress, you learn that special pads will enable Banjo to fly, or jump extra high, or provide special boots to wade through otherwise-hazardous environments. But as undoubtedly innovative all of this extra functionality was at the time, much of the game's innocent charm is undone by a finicky camera system which rarely gives you the freedom you need.
4J Studios has made a decent fist of retooling the controls for the 360 pad, with the standard two-stick movement/camera system we're all comfortable with, but it can only do so much. Rare was no doubt hamstrung by a combination of game engine limitations, a relative lack of 3D game experience and, of course, the hardware, and it's a game that ten years on you feel you're fighting against a lot of the time. You struggle to look in the direction you want, or get lumbered with an unhelpful angle that's flush against a wall.
Clunkiness is never far away. Swimming, for instance, Banjo feels as though he's plunged into Golden Syrup as you painfully wrestle him in a suitable direction and try to get the silly bear to haul his furry frame forwards. The more you pick through the often painfully garish environments, the more it becomes apparent just how irritating most of the mechanics are.
Learning to fly is almost as painful, with a ruinous inability to land on any surface without physically being about a centimetre away from it, causing you to constantly overshoot. Precise jumping is something of a dark art as well, thanks to a lack of, well, precision, a restless camera, and an ever-present inertia always threatening to send you too far.
None of it's completely broken as such, but nor is it a feel you'll be inclined to tolerate for any length of time in a modern context. As ever with these games, the key is persistence. As long as your reservoir of patience is well-stocked, there's a modicum of fun to be eked out by gradually collecting every damned item - but it's more likely the fun will be based on your association with the game's original release, and the blind nostalgia of reliving something you did through the eyes of innocent youth. Even hardened retro heroes might find it hard to defend some of the basic design flaws on show.
The other important thing to note is how the game stacks up technically in the harsh light of 2008. With 3D gaming still very much in its infancy a decade ago, angular awkwardness came with the territory, with everything from the level geometry to the characters themselves designed around the limitations of the hardware. And while there's a wistfulness about those liberating days when the possibilities of 3D were being explored, objectively this is a prime example of a retro style that hasn't aged well, with garish colour schemes and primitive attempts at texturing only adding to its dated look.
To give Rare its dues, artistically it did its best with the tools available, and evidently invested greatly into creating a vivid cartoon cast - something that was still an enormous novelty at the time. Some cute touches still allow elements of the game to shine - the in-engine cut scenes in particular provide occasional highlights, and provide much-needed personality with sharp dialogue and the trademark burbling voices. Sadly, its appeal is completely uneven, and viewing it out of context ten years on does it no favours.
Perhaps the most jarring part of Banjo-Kazooie is the perpetually unforgiving level design, which regularly irritates with '90s conventions most of us will be glad to see the back of. After a well-directed introductory portion, three levels into the game it quickly slips into the worst excesses of late-'90s platforming, with poor signposting contributing to growing frustration as the trial-and-error gameplay comes to the fore. Inevitably, the novelty value of new moves and abilities gives way to genre clichs, like the obligatory toxic area, and an ice world, and creativity the game takes a tumble.
That said, it's pleasing to see 4J Studios upscaling the visuals and tailoring the controls to the pad without any issues, but it comes at a hefty price. Jarring slowdown crops up in the unlikeliest scenarios, which is unforgivable for a game of this age. Adding the promised Stop 'N Swap feature (originally planned for Banjo Tooie) will be of particular interest if you happen to have bought Nuts & Bolts and want to unlock new vehicle parts, but it's one for the truly committed, rather than a selling point.
For a game costing a princely 1200 Microsoft Points (GBP 10.20 / EUR 14.40), we'd have hoped Banjo-Kazooie to have aged rather better than it has. As it is, it's still a solid platformer with some neat ideas, but it's undone by a host of camera and control issues. If you popped your gaming cherry playing Banjo as a youngster, prepare for nostalgia tinged by disappointment, as you discover it's not quite the classic you remember.
5 / 10