A look back at Banjo-Kazooie's levels, from the worst to the best0 Comments
Last year's Rare Replay afforded fans the opportunity to play through many of Rare's classic games, but none were likely played quite as much as Banjo-Kazooie. Not only is it one of the best 3D platformers ever created, it may also be Rare's most memorable game to date, thanks to the originality of the eclectic bird and bear duo and some sharp game design.
I recently had a chance to revisit the classic, and with the game's 18th anniversary fast approaching, what better way to celebrate than to look back and reminisce on its levels, ranking them in order of worst to best?
Let's start this list from the bottom with one of the game's most infamous areas. A little level known as...
9. Rusty Bucket Bay
Undoubtedly the game's worst level, Rusty Bucket Bay could have been so much more. It has a poor level design, with the ship in the middle operating as the centerpiece, and all of the outlying areas not containing much else other than a few sub-areas with some musical notes and some minor extras.
One of Rusty Bucket Bay's hallmarks revolves around the harbor's oily water being virtually unswimmable — Banjo loses health while swimming above it, and twice as fast swimming beneath it. This could have made for some difficult, yet interesting challenges, but the water is virtually devoid of anything aside from a dolphin that needs rescuing and a Jiggy that is just behind the ship's rotating propellors.
What really does the level in, however, is its over-the-top difficulty. Two of the Jiggys inside the boat are the hardest ones to get in the entire game, and chances are you'll die a lot trying to get them thanks to how easy it is to fall into the giant bottomless pit in the ships's depths. I'll give Rare some credit for the unique setting, but it really feels as if they were running out of inspiration when they designed this one.
8. Bubblegloop Swamp
While not necessarily a terrible level, Bubblegloop Swamp is rather mediocre when compared to others. The entire level is divided into 5 areas connected by a central spot, and the design couldn't be more boring. There's little mystery to any of it as all of its main areas are essentially open and accessible from the start except for the pirahna-infested swamp water.
It's also a haven for uncreative minigames: one has you repeating a musical sequence composed by chirping turtles; another has you simply defeating a bunch of frogs that are one-hit-kills. Possibly the most memorable challenge is one where you play a game that's a cross between "Hungry Hungry Hippos" and "Whack-a-Mole" against a red alligator, which says a lot about the level's overall quality. Bubblegloop Swamp also features the game's most disappointing Mumbo transformation: an alligator that isn't used for much more than entering a few small openings and exploring the swamp water unharmed by its effects. Lame.
7. Mumbo's Mountain
First levels generally aren't amazing affairs, but Mumbo's Mountain is a pretty solid one. It has that easy, introductory yet satisfying level of challenge, not to mention a charming mountain-based atmosphere that's fun to explore. Additionally, the theme in Mumbo's Mountain is one of the most recognizable tunes in the game, thanks to it being one of the very first ones you hear.
It's also the first place you encounter Mumbo, one of the game's few recurring side characters, and who can resist his Tiki-esque charm? Speaking of which, Banjo's ant transformation is one of the more memorable transformations in the game, giving him the ability to stick to any surface and explore the entirety of the level.
Though every Jiggy is fairly easy to collect — you could probably get all 10 within 10-15 minutes or less if you know what you're doing — there are at least a few that are pretty memorable, thanks to characters like the orange-tossing ape Konga and a colony of enemy ants who seem to take a liking to Ant Banjo's fashion sense and even try to bully him into taking his backpack and shorts.
6. Clanker's Cavern
You've got to hand it to Rare for designing a level that's extremely outside the norm for a 3D platformer. It's all too easy to base each level around a different ecosystem (fire level, ice level, beach level etc.), so the fact that Banjo-Kazooie's third level is quite literally based in and around a giant, mechanical trash grinder is, ironically enough, a breath of fresh air.
Clanker himself is quite a cool character. His low rumbling and mumbling gives him one of the more distinctive voices in the game, and his metal, shark-like body makes him stand out among others in design as well. Not to mention that half of the level takes place literally inside him, and — true to his purpose as a trash disposal — his innards are full of blades and death traps, making for some intereseting challenges. However, like Rusty Bucket Bay, having the level centered on Clanker means the rest of the level's design isn't anywhere near as interesting or memorable.
5. Mad Monster Mansion
This is where the game really starts to get into some great design. Mad Monster Mansion riffs on horror-themed elements, such as the creepy, abandoned house in the middle, the graveyard, and other such tropes.
It also has quite possibly the best transformation in the entire game: Pumpkin Banjo. At first it almost seems as if the developers are trolling you, because Pumpkin Banjo seems utterly useless since he can only bounce around and jump. That is, until you discover that he can enter the acid-like green water, move across thorned hedges unharmed, go down gutter downspouts, and even be flushed down a toilet (possibly the funniest/grossest gag in the game).
Out of all the transformations, Pumpkin Banjo is also used to the best effect; at least three of the level's Jiggy pieces are only obtainable through the use of the transformation — not to mention that it's used for one very important objective outside of the level as well. Transformation aside, Mad Monster Mansion is one of the most memorable levels thanks to its frantic theme, well-executed atmosphere, and highly explorable areas.
4. Gobi's Valley
Beyond its catchy musical theme and great, Egyptian-based aesthetic, Gobi's Valley is notable for being one of only two levels in the game where fulfilling certain objectives directly changes the level's layout in significant ways, leading to even more ways to explore the surroundings. It also has a slew of characters to interact with, from the parched palm tree at the level's entrance to a greedy camel, a snake charmer, a giant mummy hand, a talking Sphinx, and more — all of which contribute to a level that feels very alive and populated with things to do.
3. Click Clock Wood
In what is probably the most original idea in the game, Click Clock Wood features one central, forest-themed level amid four different seasons, with the player only getting to select the Spring version at first. Each season has different effects on the level's design, leading to different opportunities and outcomes, and only by exploring each season could players find a button to unlock the next season and so forth.
Each season isn't for just for aesthetics either; they all affect the level's design in significant ways. Summer features a completely dried up river while Autumn has giant leaf piles that allow easier access to certain areas of the tree. Winter coats the entire level in snow, freezes the river over, and features those annoying snowmen enemies you first encounter a few levels back. In Spring, certain plants and vines and platforms haven't sprouted yet, but you can visit Mumbo to use the game's most fun transformation: Bee Banjo — who can fly as high and as long as he'd like without any limitations.
However, Click Clock Woods' most intuitive design revolves around a number of challenges that take multiple seasons to see through, such as a giant plant that you'll grow in Spring and then water in subsequent seasons, or nursing a giant bird from hatchling to adult, or even helping a Beaver get back into his blocked-off dam.
2. Treasure Trove Cove
Chances are that Treasure Trove Cove will blow you away the moment you step on its sandy shores. It's full of places to see and things to do, from a pirate ship with sunken treasure (and its Hippo captain who belches when he talks) to a giant, cranky hermit crab, a treasure hunt where "X marks the spot," and much more.
What's most impressive about Treasure Trove Cove is how evocative it is of the spirit of adventure and how all of its themes come together to convey it, whether it be the upbeat music that carries with it a sense of wonder and excitement, the Treasure Island-esque vibe the level gives off visually, or its many different and varied areas (including climbing to the peak of the island). This is amplified especially by the fact that it's the first level that allows you to fly as Kazooie, truly allowing you to see just about everything there is and go everywhere there is to go in the level.
1. Freezeezy Peak
Treasure Trove Cove may be a fantastic level, but Freezeezy Peak is a masterclass in amazing level design. It's the best level in the entire game thanks to its incredible layout, music, challenges, and characters making it a real in-game Winter wonderland.
Sure, there may be one or two challenges that miss the mark (like protecting colored lightbulbs from getting eaten while they journey to a large tree in order to decorate it) but by and large, Freezeezy Peak exemplifies Banjo-Kazooie's best aspects because it utilizes the entire area of the level to the fullest by filling it with so many things to do and see, creating a real sense of exploration around it. Not one bit of the level is wasted; from Oggy's Igloo and a giant tree to a giant snowman that you'll traverse and a race against a Walrus around the entire area, there's so much to do and exploring it all is a blast.