I’ve got a question for you, internet. When was the last time a video game with original characters and an original concept was at the top of your most anticipated list? Can you even remember? Among the slew of Halos, Guitar Heroes, and countless other spin-offs and sequels, there are very rarely original games with all-new characters that catch your eye and propel to the top of your most-wanted list. By all means, it certainly isn’t a terrible thing. I can dig; Rock Band 3 and Fallout: New Vegas are my two most anticipated games of the year, and I truly cannot imagine any as-of-yet unheard of game knocking either of these two from their concrete perches. But this idea of never truly anticipating a new character with his or her new story anymore is something that I have just recently realized. This shift of anticipating a sequel, rather than looking for the newest big thing, is a new and radically different shift in gaming for this current generation.
Coming to this revelation has really got me thinking about new and original concepts and characters in most recent times. I’m nineteen, so truth be told, I’ve pretty much only seen digital downloads as the norm for new, creative ideas, while larger, more robust cookie-cutter FPSs lead the way for physical media. I carry my entire music library in my pocket, Walkman devices are for silly old men that look ready to experience a midlife crisis, and vinyl is as dead to me as that dial-up connection noise AOL always used to make. Is that a bad thing? Of course it isn’t - all media changes over time, and soon enough it will be my generation telling the next about how back in my day, video games used to be played on discs, and newspapers were made of actual paper -- before being laughed at for not having a chip in my brain that shuffles 6,000 songs through my brain stem. New and original ideas used to be gambled on with physical media, instead of this new business model of safely distributing content via the internet in order to reduce the risk of selling a game physically with the profit column in the red. This is a story about such a game, in a time where consoles weren’t connected to the internet, and everybody wanted to be the next Italian plumber.
Back before a time when I jumped ship from my Wii console to properly play Rock Band on the 360, I was an avid gamer loyal to the Nintendo brand and its family of consoles. The Wii gave me a good run and the GameCube had a number of really neat games, but the Nintendo 64 was the console that really spiked my interest in gaming. I could name you dozens of games for the console that I loved with all my heart, but one game in particular stood out head and shoulders above the rest to me. This game, of course, was Banjo-Kazooie.
For those of you painfully unaware of the piece of childhood you so sorely missed out on, Banjo-Kazooie was essentially an adventure game released in 1998 by a developer company known then by the name of Rareware (later changed to simply Rare). The game’s premise was to collect as many golden Jiggies (read: stars) in order to unlock more puzzle levels (read: castle rooms) to ultimately face off against the evil witch, Grunty (read: Bowser), in order to save your little sister (read: princess) in distress. It’s certainly true that the main goal of the game was a concept used just two years previously in Super Mario 64, but the plot was far from what made this game so revolutionary in my mind. What made the game so great was that its cast of characters all had their own personalities – almost certainly ahead of its time in terms of character development, in a gaming generation where consoles revolutionized graphics by giving oranges six polygonal sides rather than four.
There were two main characters in the game, both featured prominently in the title. The leader was Banjo, a cautious brown bear that had yellow hot pants tighter than a mid-nineties Lara Croft as well as a rockin’ blue backpack. The sidekick, situated inside Banjo’s backpack was Kazooie, a female breegull whose temper was oftentimes as red as her feathers. These two very unlikely heroes would combine forces to complete various tasks all while learning new moves to perform along the way, such as flying through the air and smashing baddies/key switches with a rather painful-looking ground pound. The duo was polar opposites in terms of personality, and the game shined in the dialogue between the two leads and their large supporting cast. In an alternate universe, it’s easy to imagine the duo as an interspecies “good cop/bad cop” combination that would break down whichever furry critter stole a poor defenseless stash of nuts and force said critter of his or her guilty crime. Kazooie was the queen of smart-alecky comebacks to NPCs that played with her temper, and Banjo would oftentimes shush Kazooie before she said anything that would change the game’s E rating. It was truly a comedic back-and-forth of jokes that is incredibly original during a video game era that contains little to no character development.
On top of the funny dialogue between characters, the game had great fun letting the player know that they were indeed still playing a video game. Banjo-Kazooie didn’t break the fourth wall; it didn’t even bother building one up. The characters knew better than to take themselves seriously, and it really played well with the dry humor of the game. At one point, Kazooie blatantly says that she’s ready to finally win the game, and while it may be true that my seven year old brain found that hilarious, replaying the games on Xbox LIVE have proven to me that the games still maintain a level of humor that even a grown teenager such as myself can crack a smile upon reading. In simpler terms, it’s a game that rivals the Toy Story franchise in terms of the range of audience; children and adults alike can appreciate the humor displayed in Banjo-Kazooie.
Not all of the humor contains a witty dryness to it, though – as with almost every Rare game, the developers do their best to weasel in as many dirty jokes as possible. It’s not easy to catch anything the first time around as a child, but playing the game as an adult helped me come to realize a large amount of subliminal raunchy jokes that nowadays can make me giggle at something inappropriate. Case in point, if you can follow this story: a coconut tree in the middle of a desert valley is surrounded by water but doesn’t have anything to drink. The objective to this situation is to direct Gobi the camel to the tree and ground pound him with enough force to vomit up the reserve of water in his hump in order to water the tree – yes, this is seriously a thing. The (presumably male) tree, when approached, cries out for help and requests water so that he won’t die of thirst. Kazooie (a female, mind you) promptly asks “How’re your nuts?” to which Banjo immediately scolds. Watching this exchange as a teen almost resulted in a double take, as it was extremely surprising that an E-rated game would harbor a dirty joke such as that! Going on a scavenger hunt through the internet revealed many, many vulgar jokes littered throughout the game as well as its sequel, Banjo-Tooie (For the record, my favorite gag is a rock formation in Banjo-Tooie’s Terrydactyland that suspiciously looks like some rather inappropriate parts of a man’s anatomy involving his urinary tract and reproductive system).
This sense of originality in storytelling has been a shining example of how a video game can make a lasting impression in my life, from the day I first played it, all the way into my adult years. Because of this game, I have found that storytelling, rather than graphics, gameplay, or genre, is the key to a great video game. Character development is so, so key in keeping the player absorbed in a game, and to me, as a player and a lover of video games, it’s sometimes a little disheartening to play games that don’t take time to set the tone or develop the characters before tossing you into a gunfight. It’s this very reason why I take a large fancy to these smaller games released through the Xbox LIVE network, because I’m always looking for the next original game that will really pull me in with its characters and its story – something that many, many sequels released today no longer attempt to do.
I encourage you, if you own a 360 console, buy Banjo-Kazooie! If you enjoy a healthy laugh and a lot of imagination, I (and my silly seven year old self) highly recommend it, even if it does still live in a 64-bit era. Give the bird and bear a good spin, and watch and read the joy they have to offer.
Thanks for reading!
FIVE ECSTATIC KITTENS (out of a possible five)