Why I enjoyed Banjo-Kazooie despite all of my complaints


In our Banjo-Kazooie Podcast, something that immediately stood out was the progression structure of the game.  

You collect jigsaw pieces to unlock Paintings - those paintings have notes and jigsaw pieces in them - You use the notes to unlock doors which contain more paintings that you unlock with the jigsaw pieces.

That’s the main progression system in the game until you get to the very end, facing the trivia section and the final boss. There are minor secondary progression systems - move unlocks and health upgrades - but these definitely play second fiddle to the note/Jiggy loop.

It made me wonder how important motivational goals were for video games as a whole, and whether Banjo’s was actually that different from other games.  It seems that you’re mostly motivated by collecting shinies because you need to collect more shinies - and that’s it.

We can firstly say that the narrative justifications for doing any of this are quite weak.  We have an overall narrative justification for going through Grunty’s lair - we’re trying to rescue our sister, Tooty.  But the details of what we’re doing there get lost in several layers of abstraction.

What are there worlds in Grunty’s lair?  How and why are they inside paintings? Why are there note doors blocking entrances?  What the hell even is a note door? Why are the collectables randomly scattered around the levels?  Why are there monsters and characters dotting these landscapes? How does jumping into a painting transport us to the world?  And what does all this stuff even have to do with rescuing Tooty?

This isn’t a deal-breaker of course, there are plenty of games that couldn’t care less about the narrative - like Doom or Super Hexagon. But some games do of course, and even make it the primary source of motivation - if you’re not playing the Last of Us for the story, why are you even playing it?  The co-op ladder climbing?

So Banjo has to get it’s motivational goals from somewhere else.  And I don’t think it's purely from the collecting of things, because Jiggys and Notes do not affect the gameplay experience at all.  When I find a cool new weapon in Dark Souls, or a new Charm in Hollow Knight, or a Neuromod in Prey, I can use that newly discovered item to change my gameplay experience for the better.  When I find a note or Jiggy in banjo, my note or Jiggy counter goes up. And yes, they do play a satisfying little jingle when you pick them up, but if that were the extent of it I’d grow bored quickly.

What ultimately pushed me to collect all these items was a desire to explore the worlds of Banjo Kazooie. There’s an ice level with a giant (and I mean enormous) snowman in the centre of the map. The snowman has like 8 different sections - his nose, the brim of his hat, his scarf which doubles as a slide etc.  And all these different bits are covered in various collectables. It wasn’t the collectables themselves that pushed me to explore, but the fact that the spaces themselves were interesting locales.

Banjo does this trick where your size can change dramatically when you go inside an object.  So what would on the surface be a small turtle turns into a symphonic hall, or a Christmas tree a giant platforming gauntlet.  Banjo revels in being a game where you get to check out a bunch of cool places.

So while on the surface it might appear that the main gameplay motivation is appealing to Collecto-mania, it's actually just getting to travel through the creative but thematically consistent places that inhabit this crazy world.  Experiencing Click Clock Wood through its 4 seasons is the motivation I need, not any shiny pieces of gold. The fantastic world design leads to a beautiful atmosphere, and that’s why Banjo is such a pleasant place to stay for a while.

Its telling then, that when it forces you to collect the last pieces of the puzzle that it overstays that welcome.  Once you've been everywhere, being forced to wander round in circles and retread your footsteps to find those last few jigsaw pieces is an ugly experience. If the collection counter had been set at 80% instead of the the 94% that the game demands this unpleasantness could have been avoided all together.

But in the end, I reluctantly enjoyed most of what Banjo had to offer. I complained endlessly about the camera, the controls, the platforming and the combat. I quit the game for a matter of days when I got to some of the water sections. But the beauty of its world, filled with nooks and crannies ended up capturing my heart and soul despite this.