Why Banjo-Tooie is a True Adventure

I am twenty-four years old. I have owned a Nintendo 64 for, I’m sure, just shy of my entire life, given that the console came out in 1996. I’ve played and completed Super Mario 64 half a dozen times, super smashed every brother, and know every track in Mario Kart 64 better than the roads of my hometown. I’ve even beaten Donkey Kong 64 to 101% completion at least twice, a fool’s errand and endeavor that is, suffice to say, bananas. 

Yet there’s one game that has haunted me since kindergarten, surviving eighteen years in my childhood bedroom and then five apartments in six years, but has never, ever been beaten: Banjo-Tooie, Rare’s sequel to their groundbreaking platformer Banjo-Kazooie which, curiously, I never owned myself. No, I only had Banjo-Tooie, and as too impatient of a kid and too busy of an adult, I was never able to overcome how intimidating a game of its caliber was. It was just too dang big and too dang hard.

But when Banjo and Kazooie were announced as the next downloadable fighter in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and with one precious weekend of free time left before I committed myself to writing my master’s thesis, I figured that I ought to revisit the Isle O’Hags while I still could. I wanted to put that dusty game to bed before yet another project, yet another passion, consumed my life. Yet Banjo-Tooie isn’t some idle, disposable experience. I was right to have been intimidated by it for so long. It’s a bona fide adventure — and adventures, even a virtual ones, can reveal a lot to the people who go on them.

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Missing Pieces

Before diving into Banjo-Tooie I fortuitously wrangled myself a copy of Banjo-Kazooie. It felt right to finally play the first game, well, first, and Banjo-Kazooie certainly deserves all of its praise: the lair of Gruntilda the witch set a high water mark for hub worlds and each of the game’s individual levels are exceptionally memorable. Most mascot platformer games are content to lazily throw together generic fire worlds, ice worlds, and water worlds, but Banjo-Kazooie breathed new life into old themes. The horror world requires breaking-and-entering into a multi-floored mansion, the ice world is abundant with Christmas decorations, and the water world is actually an abominable mechanical elasmobranch garbage disposal vore dungeon.

All of these worlds, however, feel ephemeral. For all of the creativity bursting from the seams of Banjo-Kazooie, it presents itself unremarkably as a compilation of obstacle courses. Its levels are efficient, just the right size, and densely littered with one hundred golden musical notes that lead players through their challenges. Each level contains ten jigsaw-shaped Jiggies — the most valuable collectible in the game, one of which you get for finding a quintet of creatures called Jinjos — and a singular central landmark from which all of the other points-of-interest are connected. Finally, with only one exception, you’ll be equipped to scrub each level of everything worth anything in one clean run the first time that you walk in, with no reason to return once you do. Beating levels in Banjo-Kazooie is the equivalent of charging into a playplace at McDonald’s and being out by the time your order is.

If you do return, the game won’t even be sure why you did, or how to entertain you now that you have. Any notes or Jinjos that you have collected reset themselves upon exit and entry, and objectives will be undone even though their reward cannot be claimed by completing them again. 

For example, Conga the Ape can be pelted with eggs once for a Jiggy but will be undefeatable on all successive visits to Mumbo’s Mountain. Still, he stands atop his tree. In Super Mario 64, redoing a challenge produces a transparent “shadow” star, a useless but nevertheless present recognition of an accomplished feat. In Banjo-Kazooie, there is nothing. The scripted motions Conga the Ape goes through no longer have a purpose or an end, and Conga has rendered himself a googly-eyed gorilla Sisyphus. 

This is not to say that this is a bad way to create levels for a 3-D platformer. It just throws into relief how disposable the experience becomes when the player’s lasting impact on the world is so limited. It’s a game, sure, but not an adventure. Not yet.

“Banjo-Tooie Make Banjo-Kazooie Look Like Joke”

Two years passed not just between the release of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie but between the events of the games themselves. Banjo’s voice has deepened into more of a gruff and daddish register, and his and Kazooie’s home now bears the scars of their climactic battle with Grunty. The witch has been reduced to a skeleton by decomposition — revealed during her extradition from beneath a boulder by her sisters in a tricked-out tunnelling tank — and she actually kills Bottles the mole upon her resurrection. 

All of this is made apparent in an introductory cutscene that singularly eclipses the complexity of every cinematic from Banjo-Tooie’s predecessor combined. When you eventually gain control of Banjo and Kazooie, yellow text fades on-screen: Spiral Mountain. The totality of the last game’s inhabitable space has been reduced to a single area. When the player follows the tracks of Grunty’s Hag-1 digger out to the Isle O’Hags, they’re venturing into enemy territory, a stakes-raising similar to that which made the trek to Crocodile Isle in Rare’s earlier Donkey Kong Country 2 so atmospherically tense.

The first area beyond Spiral Mountain is the colorful Jinjo Village. In Banjo-Kazooie, Jinjos only existed wherever you were supposed to find them and they disappeared after you did. Now, they have an actual and established home, someplace that feels more for them than it does for the player. As the Isle O’Hags is further explored, that practice of placing things in the world as opposed to your inventory becomes all the more appreciable. Gone are the enclosed obstacle courses and magical paintings put together by Jiggies. Instead, Jiggies are the sacred tokens used by the sagely Master Jiggywiggy to remove obstacles across the Isle O’Hags. His glittering temple foreshadows the game’s first world, a Mayan-themed rainforest of ancient pyramids and idols. Other levels include a bustling gold mine, a condemned theme park run by Grunty herself, and a waterfront tourist trap at the Isle O’Hags’ most beautiful lagoon. While analyzing the metaphors of Banjo-Tooie, David RH observed that these levels are “actual locations which exist in relation to one another, not activity centers or digital playpens to be loaded into,” and these relations are far more than just proximal.

Individual levels are directly interconnected with each other through intricate and often secret entrances and exits, and acquiring Jiggies will often require learning new skills or altering the environment across multiple areas. Grunty Industries, for example, extracts its resources directly from Jolly Roger Bay and Hailfire Peaks through drainage pipes, and the player can’t enter the level’s massive factory without riding the Isle O’Hags’ railroad in from another level. This interconnectivity is thrown into relief in the final level, Cloud Cuckooland, in which the player can view the entirety of the Isle O’Hags at once from miles and miles in the sky. 

Immersion on the Isle O’Hags

Banjo-Tooie was by no means received negatively, but the complexity and scale of its world was considered a detriment to the game by players who were more used to the straight-forward levels of Banjo-Kazooie. That said, Banjo-Tooie fares far better than Donkey Kong 64, which pushed the collectathon to its absolute limit by forcing players to scour enormous levels five times for five copies of each of its collectibles, bespoke for each selectable simian. Banjo-Tooie is just as big if not bigger, but by leveraging that scale with a more practiced hand, it doesn’t feel excessive. It feels like an epic.

“Immersion” gets thrown around a lot in video games criticism, and I think it’s important to distinguish it from “verisimilitude,” which is the impression of something being real, and “realism,” which is an artistic emulation of reality. Banjo-Tooie is neither versimilitudinous nor realistic but it is entirely and amazingly immersive. It’s immersive because the game world, for all of its googly-eyed objects and anthropomorphic animals and contrived collectibles, is immaculately interactable. 

Banjo and Kazooie’s skill set tokenizes combat; their full range of abilities gradually feels far more like the expansive and combinable inventory of a point-and-click protagonist or the explorative arsenal of Link from The Legend of Zelda. The practically-themed worlds (gold mine, theme park, etc.) give practical purposes to the game’s abundance of supporting characters, who you’ll frequently meet while they’re either at home or at work. To wit, every secondary character has a home somewhere on the Isle O’Hags, just like the Jinjos, and meeting Bottles’ wife and kids while knowing full well that he’s fucking dead is one of the funniest moments in the game.

What truly makes the game as immersive as it is, though, is its emphasis on effects. The reminders of Banjo-Kazooie’s climax in Spiral Mountain are an early indicator of this new appreciation for permanence. Unlike its predecessor, every collectible in Banjo-Tooie and every interaction with the world is retained, forever. Jinjos are not reset when you exit the level you collected them in — they’ve gone home to their family and you can even visit them if you want. 

Once you’ve collected every note, Jinjo, honeycomb piece, Glowbo, Cheato page, and Jiggy in a level, no challenges will remain for you. Unlike Conga the undying, your accomplishments will not undo themselves into purgatory. The interactions that you have with the world matter, and feel consequential, permanent, and earned. To have such a profound effect on an immersive world is what elevates Banjo-Tooie to the coveted status of adventure, but for all of its vastness it is still a finite game. An adventure isn’t an adventure unless it can end.

The End of an Adventure

As I had during my playthrough of Banjo-Kazooie before it, I collected every single item available for 100% completion and all that was left in my exhausting journey was the final showdown with Grunty at Cauldron Keep. I went up. We threw down. She lost. It was over.

The final cutscenes of the game show the aftermath of Grunty’s second defeat, including the revival of Bottles, a celebratory party, and a montage of all the characters that Banjo and Kazooie had helped in their quest. The final shot of the game is all of the heroes having a morbid “kick-around” with Grunty’s skull and a farewell wave from Captain Blubber, who rents out wave racers in Jolly Roger’s Lagoon, and then — “THE END.”

It was truly the end. Since collectibles and challenges don’t reset, loading your 100%-completed file after saving the world will load a world that doesn’t need to be saved anymore. You can visit and replay various minigames across the Isle O’Hags, but you could just do that from the main menu if you wanted, too. Actually returning to your completed adventure is to return to worlds rendered vacuous by your accomplishment, conspicuously absent of the notes and Jiggies that were so inviting to you on your first visit. There’s nothing left to do. There’s no thing left.

It’s a strange feeling to complete an adventure. When every day feels like just doing everything you need to do to get to the next day, finishing an adventure and having some kind of final triumph in an immersive virtual world feels simultaneously foreign yet cathartic. In Rare tradition, that impact is explicitly measurable by the menu screen displaying your accomplished totals for each level. 

I once thought that Banjo-Tooie was impossible to beat, and after twenty years, exhausting the inexhaustible feels bittersweet. I had made Banjo-Tooie my mission, and every day after work and all weekend I did nothing but progress through the game. When I finished it on a Sunday night, I realized that I’d have to do something else tomorrow. It made me wonder how it felt to be Banjo and Kazooie and not have to fight Grunty anymore, and to be able to just go back to “normal,” a concept which has a definite allure.

I knew when I began playing Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie that the week I had set aside for them would perhaps be the last time in a while that I would feel “normal.” I had to start my thesis soon, a research and writing commitment would eat up almost all of my time for a year, but finishing it would finally herald my exit from higher education. Additionally, I was single for the first time in three and a half years after the amicable conclusion of a long-distance relationship, and I had booked the first medical consultation of my gender transition for later that month. There was a realization that despite having Banjo-Tooie for twenty years of my life, completing it for the first time marked a threshold of radical change. It marked the conclusion of several adventures but the promise of many new ones. My final game time on Banjo-Tooie was 18:58:31, and this time is essentially the length of the intermission between two observably distinct chapters of my life. 

In Banjo-Kazooie, returning to the top of Grunty’s tower automatically triggers a replay of the final cutscene. In Banjo-Tooie, you don’t get finality twice. You can only walk around the empty, hallowed arena and think about what you’ve done. That’s what I did when I went back to my file after completing it. That was when I finally turned the game off for good.