Note: This is the 2nd in a three-part series on Banjo-Kazooie and Yooka-Laylee. While I recommend checking out the first installment, each is written such that they can be read in isolation, so it is not required to continue.
Banjo-Tooie is my favourite game of all time. It’s not the most controversial videogame opinion ever, but also not entirely self-explanatory, and one I sometimes feel is better left unsaid depending on whose company I’m in. From the groan-worthy pun of a title to the doubling down on problematic indigenous stereotypes to the over-advertised and unfulfilling split-up mechanic that totally misunderstands the point of a buddy-duo, it’s not the most cherished title in the 3D platformer canon, and some even question whether it’s a “true” platformer at all. Furthermore a lot of Tooie’s appeal for me has to do with the very specific situations in which I first encountered it.
First off, I played Banjo-Tooie before Banjo-Kazooie, which I know right away gives me pretty clear primacy bias. But much more integral to my childhood experience of the game was the fact that I never actually owned it until the Xbox Live Arcade version in 2009. The physical Banjo-Tooie copy of my youth belonged (and still belongs, I assume) to a close friend and former neighbour, who received the game for Christmas of 2000. At the time I didn’t have my own Nintendo 64, so hands-on time with the game was limited to mornings before school and weekend sleepovers. When I did finally did get my own console, I would frequently borrow it and play on the same save file as a sort of asynchronous single-player co-op in the hopes of making some modicum of progress — for most of the game’s easily obtainable jigsaw pieces were already collected, and all but one level unlocked. Many of these Jiggies laid in tantalizingly plain sight, but with no obvious method for retrieval, which only made it all the more rewarding when I successfully unknotted the game’s perplexing level layouts.
While scraping together enough trinkets to reach Gruntilda was the end goal, I also spent plenty of time aimlessly wandering around for the fun of it. At a time when games like Driver and Shenmue were still very much rated T for Teen (and on consoles I didn’t have access to), Banjo-Tooie was the closest thing to a full 3D open-world game you could get, yet still retains that sense of hand-craftedness and intentionality. This may sound counter-intuitive, but although I did start my own save file for the sake of it I didn’t feel compelled to play it as much — why cut myself off from the single best thing the game had to offer — its world.
ISLE O’ HAGS/JINJO VILLAGE
The thing that most defines Banjo-Tooie is that it is not Banjo-Kazooie. This is made explicit from the beginning, where a revived Gruntilda remorselessly murders Bottles the Mole, no whacky hijinks just single-minded revenge. Banjo’s sister Tootie — whose rescuing is the entire narrative thrust of the first game — is also nowhere to be found, seen only as a texture on a milk carton with the caption “Missing Last Seen in Banjo-Kazooie”. After Grunty’s rampage, Banjo and Kazooie’s home of Spiral Mountain is trashed and filled with enemies, and the upbeat bluegrass music is replaced with a down-tempo minor key rendition. To quote Leigh Alexander, “All the best games find ways to structurally subvert the place established to the player as ‘safe’”, and the fact that the game reuses the same starting area at all is in and of itself pretty unique, as most platformers see fit to fashion a new Mushroom Kingdom or Wumpa Islands or Mobius/Station Square/Soleanna/wherever for each new entry. However the bridge to Gruntilda’s Lair is both figuratively and literally severed, housing only the living spell-book Cheato and a few spare items in its foyer — the entrances to Mumbo’s Mountain and the rest made inaccessible by debris.
In the opening cutscene we are also introduced to the game’s deus ex machina and eventual final boss, the HAG-1, a drilling vehicle operated by Grunty’s heretofore unmentioned sisters. The HAG-1 punches holes through Tooie’s gameworld, the Isle O’ Hags, but also threads it together. Despite the myriad diversions Banjo and Kazooie’s primary objective is always made clear as they retrace its tank-treaded tracks through various tunnels. After a mini-boss fight with Klungo the pair resurfaces at the Jinjo Village. On its face the location is somewhat nondescript, the domed architecture is vaguely Middle Eastern but the lush surroundings could be any continent really. However as our first taste of Isle O’ Hags we can already detect a marked shift in aesthetics.
Fans, critics and the game’s developers alike consistently use the term “darker” to describe Tooie in relation to Kazooie, and one of the darkest jokes in the game is the destroyed remains of the Grey Jinjo house accompanied by a sign that reads:
“In Loving Memory of the Grey Jinjo family, who died quite suddenly and tragically when a giant drill ran over their house.”
A grim message which somewhat undercuts the area’s peaceful pan-fluted soundtrack. There’s something almost Dadaist here about Tooie’s use of absurdity to confront the horrors of mechanization, and because of this I would argue that a 100% run of Tooie is conceptually impossible. Unlike in Banjo-Kazooie not everyone can be so easily saved, and even if they could be Rare would retcon it anyways. Speaking of which, it’s also worth noting the absence of The Mighty Jinjonator, a Golem-like figure that was ultimately responsible for defeating Grunty in the previous installment. On the Banjo-Kazooie fan wiki it is postulated that “in Banjo-Tooie, King Jingaling is given the title of ruler of the Jinjos, so perhaps the Jinjonator is the god of all Jinjos”. If this is taken as truth, then it would appear that for the Grey Jinjo there is no god, only the machine.
In case it wasn’t yet apparent, Banjo-Tooie strongly implies a post-war setting. Gruntilda no longer stows away in an enchanted castle but rather a fortified bunker known as Cauldron Keep, which houses the Big-O-Blaster (B.O.B.), a “doomsday weapon” able to remotely extract and resurrect the life energy of plants and animals. I like to imagine this as the same mysterious force which causes enemies to annoyingly respawn, a form of active antagonism a la Grunty’s poetics in B-K, though this is not consistent with the game’s lore.
Additionally most visits to the Jingo Village will be a brief mad dash to a metallic silo in the middle of a cluster of houses, which is the first in a series of warp points which connect the different sub-areas of Isle O’ Hags — similar to the cauldrons in B-K except they are all networked together not paired. Activating this silo also serves as a passing introduction to Jamjars, the drill sergeant brother of Bottles and surrogate moves-vendor and arguable war-profiteer, who delivers tutorials in a loud-mouthed Full Metal Jacket cadence. Jamjar’s foxholes, which replace Bottle’s humble dirt hills, also tie in heavily to the changing ways in which players are meant to explore Tooie’s levels.
The importance of collecting notes in B-T is extremely downplayed: by the removal of note doors, grouping of notes into 5-note “nests” and the treble clef, which cuts to the chase and gives the player 20 notes. In all my playthroughs of Tooie I can only recall one instance of not having enough notes to buy a move, so their inclusion is really a formality. These systemic changes stem from the fact that Tooie’s levels are much larger than Kazooie’s, and partitioned such that exploring them in their entirety in one go-around doesn’t hold the same appeal (and frankly isn’t doable in most cases). Instead the most valuable currency in Tooie’s levels are warp pads, which akin to the hub world silos break down each level into more manageable chunks and landmarks. Tooie is often criticized for its level size and back-tracking, but as long as you know the closest warp point to where you want to go you should be able to get there quickly enough.
Once players meet Jamjars they will have also become fairly familiarized with Tooie’s cozy relationship with the fourth wall. Though genuinely funny at times, it’s a tone that can be understandably trying for some. Perhaps the most audacious early-game instances are the B-K game paks, tiny cartridges which contain special items that in turn unlock special abilities. This was Rare’s attempt to make good on the canned Stop ’N’ Swop feature, which would have used a Nintendo 64 hardware quirk to transfer data between Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie. While a fascinating case study in inter-textual game design, SNS was later deemed inviable, and so Tooie opts for a more meta-textual approach instead. SNS was supposedly restored in the XBLA re-release, however the implementation does not seem entirely in line with what was promised in Kazooie, and the bombastic music sting which plays when wandering into a “secret” area doesn’t feel as apropos as doing so on the N64 (via cheat codes discovered by members of the Rare Witch Project fan forum). These key themes of militarism and meta-narrative were later expanded upon by Rare in their final N64 opus, Conker’s Bad Fur Day.
GLITTER GULCH MINE
While tell-tale evidence of a technologically-enhanced world is strewn across the Isle O’ Hags, it cannot be said that Tooie’s levels do not engage with historicity, only that they are devoid of the wistfulness and old-world charm of the original Banjo-Kazooie in all its tokenizing glory (literally, in the case of Mumbo). In fact many of B-T’s levels could be considered blasts from the past — Mayahem Temple, Terrydactyland, Jolly Roger’s Lagoon — but perhaps the most relevant is Glitter Gulch Mine. In Kazooie this level would have stuck out like a sore thumb, as it has the same backdrop of claustrophobic space, poisonous air and back-breaking labour as Rusty Bucket Bay. Within Tooie’s new normal however Glitter Gulch Mine is actually fairly unremarkable, or at least it would be were it not for all the intriguing things laying dormant at the level’s edges.
The entrance to Glitter Gulch Mine is a rope hanging over a pit. When Banjo jumps down this pit, he transitions into the level in free-fall; however if the player cautiously clambers down the rope instead, the climbing animation carries through. This is fundamentally different from Banjo-Kazooie (and by extension Super Mario 64, Spyro, Sonic Adventure, etc.) where regardless of how Banjo and Kazooie enter a level they are magically teleported to a designated start point. Tooie’s departure from this method of warping may seem inconsequential, just a nice bonus bit of detail, but the ramifications of this simple interaction set in motion a certain expectation for how the entire game will play out.
You see Isle O’ Hags functions as a hub world but it feels like an overworld, and unfolds like a Metroidvania. Initially the game may seem paced more linearly because of this, but over time we as players come to understand Tooie’s levels as actual locations which exist in relation to one another, not activity centers or digital playpens to be loaded into. It may seem like small potatoes now that open-world adventuring is the de facto model for third-person action, but this sort of blending of formalized multi-objective level structure and deconstruction of said form was totally unprecedented in the 3D platformer space, reminiscent only of semi-obscure 2D titles like Clash at Demonhead, Kid Chameleon, Wario Land 3 and Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap.
In this respect Glitter Gulch Mine goes all out. We free an avian person named Canary Mary, who we reunite with in a later stage. After defeating the level boss (yet another reason I prefer B-T over B-K), we are granted access to a locomotive able to make stops in several other levels and the hub world. We clear a path for a mysterious floating box, which turns out to be a flying saucer for a rail-shooter mini-game accessed in the next level, Witchyworld, a run-down retro-future theme park (again satirizing and laying waste to the notion of these places as shallow Disney-esque attractions). In fact we can technically enter the level early before unlocking it; a sort of self-enabled sequence break. This strangely beautiful moment of crossover perfectly captures how Banjo-Tooie mix-and-matches disparate elements with little regard for individual aesthetic “purity” in service of a more unified sense of worldliness and traversability. In this way the game is perhaps more postmodern than even Banjo-Kazooie, which to me always seemed a little staid and hokey in comparison. Banjo-Kazooie has tighter, maybe even flat-out better level design, but the interlevel design of Banjo-Tooie is unrivaled in the genre (and a whole decade before Dark Souls too!).
Uncovering everything Tooie has to offer often requires outside-the-box thinking. Pipelines course through the Isle O’ Hags, carrying oil, water, and occasionally, a Jiggy. Breakable walls hide secret passages between worlds, and characters from different walks of life mingle in unexpected ways. In the year 2000 as the internet began to play a larger role in people’s daily lives this approach to design was all too timely. Banjo-Tooie’s interconnected levels reflect an increasingly interconnected world — a global village rebuilt from the ashes of a failed modernity where past, present and future are cybernetically fused as one. Crazy as it is, in a post-Brexit society the borderless vision of the Isle O’ Hags feels like a lost utopia.
So we see that ultimately Rare’s nihilism towards the military-industrial complex gives way to an optimism for the possible progress afforded by technological advances, while still remaining critical of the automated forces which govern them. We see this most prominently in Grunty Industries, where Rusty Bucket Bay’s subtext of “capitalism is evil” becomes plain text. The level even has a similar reputation as least-liked, though not to the same extent. In keeping with this assessment I personally enjoy the level a lot, from its multi-tiered structure to all the different ways in which the player must weave through its inner and outer workings to accomplish tasks. Beyond that however I don’t get quite the same ominous spine-tingling sensation as I do from Rusty Bucket Bay, except maybe in the basement section. Perhaps this is because it feels less abandoned, as it is teeming with human, mechanical and leporine life, tying in to my overall argument that Banjo-Tooie’s world-building psychologically primes us so that by the time we reach the factory entrance it doesn’t feel at all foreign or uncharacteristic.
Throughout Tooie we are continually confronted with the artificiality of the mechanized body, from the previously mentioned B-K carts to the self-destructing Clockwork Kazooie eggs to the decoy Jinjos known as “Minjos” who growl and surge with electricity as they attack you. It also comes across in many of the series-trademark transformations. In Banjo-Kazooie these were exclusively organic creatures — animal or vegetable — but in Tooie the bear and bird can become mass-manufactured readymades, such as a money van, submarine or TNT detonator. Most telling of these is Grunty Industries’ washing machine transformation, which actually made a cameo in Kazooie as a chance occurrence, to which Mumbo responds “Umm… spell went wrong.” In B-K’s purview the idea of having the player turn into a washing machine is nothing short of ludicrous, and while the humour is not lost in Tooie where you can fire pairs of underpants as a ranged projectile, it is also entirely in keeping with the mechanistic theming of the level and Isle O’ Hags as a whole. Through seizing the means of production Banjo and Kazooie are able to show solidarity with the Grunty Industries employees by providing them with more sanitary working conditions.
The final full-fledged level of Banjo-Tooie is Cloud Cuckooland, and as mentioned before it was the first level of the game I personally had a hand in unlocking. The mental image of meandering through a purple-blue fissure to reach a twisty rock formation and entering the “bubble elevator” like something out of a Roald Dahl or Dr. Seuss book is something forever burned into my brain. From this moment onward Cloud Cuckooland sets itself apart from every other level in a few key ways. For starters it only has two warp pads, one near the entrance and another inside a mountain — the focal point around which a series of islands are suspended in midair. Also within the central cavern is a split-up pad, and while I generally dislike these here it serves an almost Zelda-like puzzle-solving purpose. Kazooie can easily fly around on her own but Banjo cannot, so getting him around to complete objectives with his character-specific move set requires alternate methods, such as flowers which spit him into the air or the hatching of Floatus Floatium creatures that bestow a temporary ballooning ability. While navigating this level can be maddening at times, the parity between its exterior and interior is impressive, and adheres to the game’s overall connective logic.
Cloud Cuckooland is also the only level with two Mumbo skulls: a red one and blue one on opposite sides of the peak. This might be my favourite subversion of expectations in any game of my childhood, as the more easily-reached blue skull contains the level boss Mingy Jongo, a red-eyed robotic doppelgänger of Mumbo who attacks you with his electro-quarterstaff. That moment of “wait a minute, didn’t I already see a different skull?” followed by the sucker-punch reveal is too perfect, and further underscores the game’s themes of violation, mechanization and disguise (again I’m reminded of Leigh’s tweet re: safe spaces). But Cloud Cuckooland has yet another dastardly secret up its sleeve, one that is never mentioned in-game and doesn’t appear on any totals screen.
When Banjo and Kazooie enter or exit Cloud Cuckooland, the camera cranes down to show for the first and last time in its entirety the Isle O’ Hags as seen from above. There are a few identifiable landmarks mostly tied to specific puzzles, namely Hailfire Peaks and Terrydactyland, however the rest of the map is pretty much indecipherable. I remember as a kid I would continuously steer Banjo and Kazooie off of the level’s sides, sliding down the steep insurmountable slopes so I could re-position the camera at just the right moment to catch a brief glimpse of detail (maybe even naively hoping I could somehow actually land on it). As the entire rest of the game practically beckoned me to do, I tried in vain to make spatial sense of the Isle, convinced that this grey square could be Mayahem Temple or that pink dot could be Cauldron Keep or that baseball-diamond looking patch of land could be Spiral Mountain…except surrounded by water. Recently, reddit user ManStanBand attempted to reconstruct this amorphous overhead view through emulation tools to some avail, but the puzzle pieces simply don’t snap together like they ought to.
In hindsight, a big part of playing these kinds of early 3D games was being able to parse the difference between a “flat” pre-rendered texture and a polygonal 3D object to determine what was and wasn’t interactive— kind of an extension of the cracked wall sprites of A Link to the Past — a convention Tooie mostly abides by. However there were also exceptions to these rules, such as the Rusty Bucket portholes, which only further ignited this desire in me to overturn every virtual stone. Cloud Cuckooland even taunts you with this knowledge in a way, materializing its enemies out of thin air with a nonsensical “cha-ching” cash-register noise. So you can imagine my surprise and dismay when I found out that the Isle O’ Hags layout I obsessively pored over for so long was merely a modification of the life meter face texture from Banjo-Kazooie; something that easily could have been cranked out over a lunch break with little rhyme or reason to its arrangement.
For me this revelation resonated heavily with a passage from Liz Ryerson’s polemic “FUCK MARIO” the first time that I read it:
“you spend your days building houses within houses to store all those pieces and parts you see of yourself and everyone around you. the houses are haphazard, and half-built, and improperly wired, and laying in strange positions on unstable land. but they’re good enough, right, so that you can continue plotting and mapping some kind of impossible route — a route many others, in actuality, have already mapped — to that paradise. but you will never acknowledge that. you see this as a gold inside you, as something so pure and beautiful that no one will ever take from you. you will never wear it on the surface, but inside you’re feverishly, desperately trying anything and everything to realize that fantasy, that Eden, running towards that horizon, towards that light at the end of the tunnel — but that land is only really there in your mind.”
If Tooie’s beginning evokes the Dada, the series of twist endings found within Cloud Cuckooland are a full-on Surrealist masterpiece, not only in the bizarre, abstracted architecture but in its tendency to psychoanalyze its own existence. Cloud Cuckooland, as a game level and concept, is Banjo-Tooie’s grand thesis and antithesis all at once. It re-writes the rulebook for how a 3D platformer is supposed to operate and then proceeds to throw those rules out the window. Sure you can keep on playing, do the trivia quiz game, defeat Grunty and get the false promise of a Banjo-Threeie, but once you see the faces in the inkblot for what they are you can never truly go home. The burnt-out façade of Banjo’s house remains dilapidated, forever. It’s okay though, I could never beat that stupid second Canary Mary race anyways.
While I’ll always sing the praises of Banjo-Tooie, I think there is some validity to the sentiment that in its radical departure from the norm the series gave up part of its soul. This dissociation is even more pronounced in the 2003 GBA interquel/prequel Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge, in which Gruntilda becomes a robot and also travels back in time (Rare really likes the Terminator films evidently). Considering this, the fact that Playtonic Games started as the Twitter handle @MingyJongo speaks volumes to me — almost Freudian in its transparency — a tacit admission of impostor syndrome right from the outset. Yooka-Laylee takes Rusty Bucket Bay’s dissonance and Cloud Cuckooland’s artifice, but does not provide the needed context to make these qualities meaningful — instead putting them front-and-center, amplified in an echo chamber of crushing self-doubt and compromise. And on that note (pun intended), in the final installment of this series I think it’s time to address the most mechanized and least beloved game in the franchise, Banjo-Pilot…wait no, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts.
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