Version tested: Xbox 360
Gamers have a peculiar relationship with the past. I'm always fascinated by the personal attachments people form with whatever games amused them as children, even when the games in question are clearly creaky and horrible museum pieces. And I'm equally fascinated by the way other people assume that anything produced before the PlayStation 2 should be sealed in a dark vault and left to rot like so much unwanted meat.
It makes reviewing retro releases a very strange balancing act. Be too critical and you enrage the first lot of people. Be too effusive with praise and the second bunch think you're an addled old fart. It's a dichotomy I've fallen foul of several times, most memorably for pointing out that the Ninja Turtles arcade game was absolute arse water, and it also found Kristan stewing in a cauldron of piping hot hatred when he declared that the years had not been kind to Rare's N64 hit, Banjo-Kazooie.
Now the sequel, the cunningly titled Banjo-Tooie, has joined its forebear on XBLA and the issue of how best to critically reappraise old games is once again smashing around inside my skull like a particularly truculent moth.
You see, I agreed with a lot of Kristan's complaints regarding the original Banjo, but I disagreed with his score. These games really haven't aged all that well, but then that doesn't make them bad games either. They're just undeniable products of that late nineties boom in 3D platformers, when a veritable menagerie of anthropomorphic critters scrambled, leapt and mine-carted their way through colourful locations, snatching up hundreds of fruits, coins and whatever else had been dotted around the landscape in pleasingly collectable lines.
Banjo-Tooie picks up two years after the first game, with Banjo the bear and his avian partner Kazooie enjoying the peace and quiet following the apparent demise of Gruntilda the witch. Things don't stay quiet for long, and her sisters have soon resurrected her (or her skeleton at least) and set off to dominate Spiral Mountain and its surrounding area using a fiendish death ray.
From there it's familiar territory, and this brings us screeching to a halt in front of the first of Tooie's main criticisms. N64 owners had to wait two years for this eagerly anticipated sequel, so the fact that it's essentially the same game was more selling point than flaw. Live Arcade gamers have only had to wait a few months, and the less than inspired whiff of sequelitis is harder to ignore.
That's not to say that it's not a lot of fun though. It's nowhere near as streamlined or ingenious in its design as its obvious inspiration, Super Mario 64, but it comes far closer to that hallowed status than its contemporary peers like Gex, Croc and Bubsy. Levels are large and varied, with plenty of different things to find and do while you hunt down those bloody Jiggys. If anything, the game feels overstuffed, packed as it is with eggs, feathers, Jinjos, musical notes, treble clefs, Glowbos, Cheato pages, honeycombs and shoes, all of which must be located and hoarded for a variety of reasons, hurriedly explained in the many unskippable dialogue scenes.
Such is the inheritance of the early 3D platformer though. The HD makeover isn't particularly kind to the angular visuals, but while our sophisticated modern gaming palates may no longer favour blatant inventory padding, being too harsh on the game for its slightly creaky formula and seems a waste of energy, a bit like criticising a movie from the 1950s for its stagey acting and locked-down cameras. This is how we used to play, and it's still innately enjoyable in a warts-and-all kind of way.
The camera doesn't deserve such leniency, however, and is the one element that really should have been ripped out and built from scratch to modern specifications. The right stick rotates your view left and right, but up and down movements only zoom the viewpoint in and out. If you want to look at anything slightly higher than Banjo's eye level, you need to dip into the first-person view - that old workaround used in so many early 3D games - to get your bearings. Today it feels inhibiting and claustrophobic, and that's a shame since many of the levels are still lovely to look at, even if their polygon edges are sharp and their themes generic.
The game also offers fourteen multiplayer mini-games, ranging from dodgems and football to a series of deathmatch FPS arenas. These are all fairly crude today, and only fun in very small doses, but when you consider that the core game is a sizable beast in itself, it all goes together to create something that feels more palatable for the premium 1200 MS Point (GBP 10.20 / EUR 14.40) price bracket.
And that's ultimately Banjo-Tooie's trump card. The asking price may be steep when compared to the usual Live Arcade fare, but it's a lot easier to swallow when you're getting a full-price sized experience for your money. A lot of the rough edges from the decade-old design are smoothed out by the fact that this is still more charming than a lot of modern 3D platformers which cost three times as much.
I still don't think the Banjo games are the stone-cold classics that many fans seem to think. For all their polish and wit, there's an inescapable feeling that N64 fans were perhaps a little too eager to christen The Next Mario, and Rare a little too quick to give them exactly what they expected. For every moment where the game deviates from predictable platform tropes, there are dozens more when it's really nothing more than a very nicely assembled and presented riff on what other games were pioneering. Banjo-Tooie, then. Not one of the all-time greats, but when you take off the rose-tinted glasses the result is still enough to make it a standout on Live Arcade. For a game almost a decade old, that ain't bad.
7 / 10