Banjo Tooie XBLA

Banjo Tooie for Xbox Live Arcade is a perfect example of how good intent ends up making something worse. I think that Banjo Kazooie for XBLA was, with the exception of a few nitpicks and the intro cutscene, superior to the N64 original. This however doesn’t apply to Banjo Tooie, and here is why.

The story picks up two years after Banjo Kazooie. Gruntilda is still buried underneath a giant rock after the final battle and her minion Klungo is still trying to get her out of there. During one stormy night, Banjo, Kazooie, Mumbo and Bottles play Poker, but unknown to them a giant machine drills into the outer area of Spiral Mountain. Inside the machine are Gruntilda’s two sisters, who break the rock of Gruntilda. After lying down there for so long, Gruntilda is now literally nothing more than walking bones, eyes and clothes. Mumbo, who temporarily left Banjo’s house to check on the noise, witnesses the return of Gruntilda and hurries to his friends to warn them. Gruntilda notices him and chases him down to Banjo’s house. After arriving there, she prepares to destroy the entire house and kill all the people inside with a powerful spell. Banjo, Kazooie and Mumbo manage to escape, but Bottles dies, refusing to believe Mumbo’s warning because of an earlier prank. Bottles dies. Banjo, Kazooie and Mumbo set out to take revenge on Grunty and end her tyranny once and for all.

The game has a significantly darker tone than Banjo Kazooie and a bigger story to go with it, there are two characters in the first thirty minutes that literally die, only that one becomes a ghost and the other one is turned into a zombie and no, I’m not kidding. That being said: The group is playing poker, betting money. What does Banjo need money for without any stores around? Where is Tooty? How did Mumbo and Banjo get out of Spiral Mountain without an entrance, prior to Banjo Tooie starting? Okay, let’s forget all that, I’m obviously over thinking this. It’s nice that we still have all the moves from the previous game without them being taken away at the start of the game.

I like the story as much as Banjo Kazooie. Banjo Kazooie gives you one objective and it stays that way, Banjo Tooie works with cut scenes and gives me a feel of an overarching plot. However, I don’t think that children under the age of eight, that come right from Banjo Kazooie should play this game, just a slight warning as I think the story is a bit too dark for children that young. Either way, the conversations are beautifully written and all characters ooze personality, it’s hard not to love the dialogues. The ending is as good as the one in Banjo Kazooie but ends on a cliffhanger once again.

Let’s take a look at the Xbox version here. I already mentioned in the Banjo Kazooie review that I’m afraid that cut scenes are not synchronized with the music in Banjo Tooie and you have no idea how correct I was. The instant loading is present here as well, which is good for the gameplay but it’s horrible for scripted events. The music in the cut scenes was made with loading times in mind and thanks to more and longer cut scenes, the problem occurs several times. The worst is probably the intro cut scene, which turned from a long but engaging cut scene into a shorter but musically extremely unfitting cut scene, it’s really bad.

Gameplay wise there is a lot to cover this time around. Instead of “Gruntilda’s Lair” there is the “Isle o’ Hags” which is easily twice the size of the lair. The levels themselves are also twice or even three times the sizes of let’s say “Click Clock Wood”. This wouldn’t be a big problem in my opinion if not for another additional design choice: Interacting levels.

What I mean with that is that in order to unlock a jigsaw piece in level two, you have to make the requirements for it in level one. Or in order to get a piece in level seven, you have to activate an event in level nine which is close to an event that unlocks a piece in level five in which you can activate an event for another level. What that means is that you can never finish a level when you first enter it. Banjo Kazooie had two levels that used the same system, “Gobi’s Valley” and “Freezeezy Peak” in which you need the move from the other level to get one jigsaw piece. However, those were only two stages and only two pieces, or rather, only one level as you can complete one level on your first entering anyway after the other one.

In Banjo Tooie, there isn’t a single level you can complete on your first entering and each level often has several jigsaw pieces that are depending on events from other levels, resulting in tons of backtracking. The levels themselves are, at first, pretty simple but become rather complex thanks to the interactive level events. You will spend a lot of time in these levels, leaving them unfinished feels unsatisfying. It’s frustrating because the Banjo Kazooie formula would have definitely worked better.

Let’s take one step at a time though. Each level has one hundred notes, a few honeycomb pieces, ten jigsaw pieces, various secrets, new moves, Cheato pages and Jinjos to find. No extra lifes anymore, as these have been entirely removed. In total, that’s still a lot to collect, but the use of some items changed. You need notes for new moves from Jamjars, Bottles’ brother, “Jiggies” or jigsaw pieces to open new levels, Cheato pages for cheats (still basically upgrades, which is good), Jinjos to get even more Jiggies and there are even upgrades to find in the overworld.

Jinjos were changed too, now collecting all of them won’t get you a jigsaw piece, instead you have to collect all the Jinjos from a certain color to complete their family, then go back to their house in the Jinjo Village and then get the piece. But the Jinjos are all a different color and your chances are basically non-existent to find all Jinjos of one family in one level. In the levels are also identical looking “Minjos” that try to kill you, so be careful. In order to get the cheats from Cheato, you have to backtrack to the old crumbled “Gruntilda’s Lair” to find Cheato who gives you a code, forcing you to backtrack to the first level and entering the code in the cheat hall. Luckily, each level has portals which make navigation easier, these are needed thanks to the sheer size of the levels. That however still doesn’t fix the biggest problem of this game: Backtracking.

In the levels, you also have to gather “Glowbos” which allow you to play as Mumbo, who can cast context-sensitive spells (and basically nothing else). You can also use the transformation pool of Humba Wumba, which transforms you into washing machines and dinosaurs, sounds awesome? It’s awesome. There is so much to explore in the levels and your curiosity is always rewarded, even the overworld is basically a level in of itself.

Let’s get into version differences now and let me just say: The N64 controls are superior. Why do I say that? The Xbox version SHOULD be better in theory, right? Invertible Y-axis, two joysticks that could make the first person aiming (a fundamental part of the game) a piece of cake and previous experience with the Banjo Kazooie XBLA version.

One thing out of the way: As long as there is no first person aiming or flying, the controls are, just like Banjo Kazooie, nearly next to perfect and are improved compared to the N64, even the camera is better thanks to bigger levels, though it’s still not without flaws. But here’s the thing: First person aiming is everywhere in this game and a necessary mechanic. The N64 controls weren’t perfect in that regard but they somewhat worked. Let me just show you the problem with the inverted Y-axis first. It works as you suspect, until you fly. You remember the “Beak Bomb” attack of the first game? Well, the inverted Y-axis doesn’t apply here, meaning that for certain moves, your Y-axis goes back to being inverted depending on what you do, making everything seem unnecessarily uncomfortable, but you get used to it rather quickly.

Next thing: First person aiming: It appears everywhere in the game no matter what you do: Staying on the ground, swimming, flying, everywhere, there’s not a single level without first person aiming. The aiming is too sensitive. Though no surprise there as most N64 ports have huge issues with sensitive first person aiming, just look at Nintendo’s Virtual Console. This doesn’t excuse the other bad problems. When aiming on the ground, you aim your cross-hairs with the left joystick as you’re unable to move on the ground. If you’re flying and swimming, you move along with your cross-hairs but still move around with the left joystick. This worked on the N64 but with two joysticks we could move and aim independently but that wasn’t implemented. The question I have is why is the aiming sensitivity identical to the N64 version while flying, staying on the ground or swimming but in FPS mode it’s almost unbearable?

Also missing are intuitive first person areas. There are a few pure FPS sections in the game that play like Goldeneye (N64 version) or Jet Force Gemini in first person mode. It worked okay in the N64 version, even though the lack of a map is making the few confusing levels even more confusing. That is forgivable (except the Grunty Industries area) but what is not forgivable is that the aiming rules change. In the N64 version, you have to stay still and hold R to aim up or down, while being able to side step with C-left or C-right. This worked and it was enough for the areas. Now you would think: The Xbox 360 controller has TWO joysticks, so obviously the right stick would be for aiming and the left stick for moving… right?

No, like in the N64 version you move with the left joystick and as your recital is moving with your movement without the extra-aiming, you would think that you look around with the left joystick, naturally as the right stick was used to replace many c-button functions. Let me tell you how the controls work now: Once you hold the left or right bumper, you can look up, down and all around, just like the N64 version. But you look around with the right stick, not the left. The left stick is used to side step only left and right. So why can’t I freely move around with the left stick? It would have been fine if the only thing they would have done is adapting the N64 method of aiming to the left stick and side stepping to the rick stick. Why is this an issue, when it was basically the same with the N64 version? It’s simple: Consistency. The entire rest of the game, you aim with the left joystick but now you aim with the right joystick, just to go back to the left joystick after you leave that one little area again. It’s the same with the Y-axis problem, you can’t get a lot of control consistency here, making the controls inferior to the original. I honestly have no idea what happened here but up until the end, it’s something I couldn’t get used to. Consistency in controls is very important, which isn’t the case in the XBLA version.

How about having the aiming cross-hairs always activated (without holding any buttons) in FPS mode while moving with the left and aiming with the right joystick? It’s a shame for me as they clearly wanted to improve the game and a lot of work must have gone into this, but this particular change doesn’t work. I appreciate the thought, but sometimes less is more, which is the perfect metaphor for describing the issues of Banjo Tooie in general. It’s much bigger and tries to make you enjoy the big levels with the level-specific events but doesn’t account for the annoying backtracking and other minor issues. To be clear: Banjo Tooie is still a good game, but the XBLA version suffers from poor execution.

The music is awesome once again, but not quite up to Banjo Kazooie which was exploding with catchy tunes. Nonetheless, it’s still a fantastic soundtrack. This would be the end of the section if it weren’t for the Xbox 360 version again. I don’t know why these issues aren’t in the XBLA version of Banjo Kazooie, but there are some sound problems. Like when a jigsaw piece appears, you know, that familiar tune you can instantly recall in your head? Do you remember the background tune that had this high-pitched variety of notes to emulate something like a chorus in the background? Well, now it’s just two pitches of the same note, creating a rather unpleasant tune. This is not the only case when the music had this problem and no, I’ve tested this on headphones and two different TVs, it’s been the same every time. This is a big problem for me as it occurs often with different tracks and it’s heavily reducing the quality of the overall soundtrack.

Technically, the Xbox 360 version is vastly superior to the N64 version. The frequent frame rate issues of the N64 are completely gone, the art design is even more pleasant to look at than Banjo Kazooie and it looks very charming. Just like the Banjo Kazooie XBLA version, you have instant loading, which really benefits the flow of gameplay. The big issue here is in form of the cut scenes but I’ve already explained that. You can debate whether the N64 version is better or not but I think if only the cut scene and control problems would be patched, the Xbox version would be superior.

What is this game doing very good for it’s genre?
It’s, up to this day, one of the best 3D Jump&Runs. It has an awesome soundtrack, very good art design, nicely written dialogue and the characters are bursting with personality, it has very big level design and no upgrade is really useless. It has many smart changes that help the game to have a quicker pace.

What could have been improved?
Seriously, turn it down with the interactive level stuff as the backtracking gets really old really fast. If only half of them would work that way then it would be fine but having it to this extent results in annoying backtracking and the player getting tired of the game as a whole, despite the gameplay itself being a lot of fun.
The Xbox 360 version has serious control issues in terms of consistency and sensitivity while aiming, the cut scene problem is even more significant here than it was in the XBLA Banjo Kazooie version. I don’t think anybody could have watched that intro cut scene and thought “Yup, nobody will notice how unfitting this sounds in context to what’s happening.”.
Bigger doesn’t mean better, which is why this game will never reach the sheer fun factor of the first game as the developers went a bit overboard. Make it smaller, but more detailed. Don’t make it too small, but don’t forget to leave a “soul” in the game, something that makes you say “no matter what I’m looking at, I know it’s THAT game and it can only BE that one game”.
Having no individual tune for collecting everything of one particular item in a level is damaging the game, as ridiculous as that may sound. Having a specific tune for collecting all the items or even one series of items in a level is sometimes all a player needs as a reward, it gives the game a layer of personality.

Final Result:
Banjo Tooie is an okay sequel and a good game. Levels that you can’t complete on your first entrance, backtracking and other minor issues hold this game back though. Control and music problems are very apparent in the Xbox version. Sadly, Banjo Tooie is also the proof of “Bigger doesn’t equal better”, a lesson that many modern developers should really take to heart. The N64 version didn’t age well thanks to muddy textures and some significant frame rate issues, but the Xbox version is even worse thanks to control, cut scene and music problems. Both versions are still perfectly playable up to this day, though the best experience is found on the N64.

-M

5

(7 for the N64 version)

Take a look

Voice File: M S

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