A bear and a bird. Who ever knew these two animals would co-exist in such a way. After Super Mario 64 released in 1996, the 3D-platformer world was the wild wild west. It was open with possibilities and free for the taking. Since Nintendo themselves had no plans to release a new Mario title until the Gamecube era, Rareware stepped in. This was during the prime period of Rareware, when they were the kings of Nintendo gaming. It was a beautiful time that also brought us Goldeneye and Donkey Kong 64 and many more. The game can be seen as an evolution of Super Mario 64 and for that I fell in love with it. The different moves, the unique and entertaining music, and absolutely the level design.
Each level was incredibly charming; something a bear, a bird, or a shaman could love.
There weren't as many levels as Super Mario 64 but they were more dense and each one had a unique theme to go along with it. Since there were only nine main levels, a top ten would be kind of tricky. However, because the end sequence is quite full of content anyway, I decided to lump that in as a 10th option, providing me with the minimum needed to perform one of these lists. I have provided links to the music from each of the levels since the game had such beautiful distinct music. I encourage you to play that file along with each reading.
Clanker could be found in the third world of the game. It was dark… it was wet… it was just how Clanker liked it. Though he didn't like all of it. This level has you searching for Jiggies (the Banjo-Kazooie version of Super Mario 64's Stars) inside a sewer more or less. At the very bottom is our whale-sized mechanical fish. The poor thing has been trapped under there by the evil witch Grunty and you must not only explore all the nooks and crannies of the level but also you must help this creature surface. Once you do, you can enter his body! The level suddenly expands with a mini-level inside it and you can even enter him through various orifaces. You can sneak in through his blow-hole, slide in through his gills, or even knock out some painful gold teeth he has. It makes no real sense but it's awesome. For a level this fun to be at number ten, you can only imagine the fun to be had elsewhere in the game. This level is also the game's "water" level. Much of the level is above the surface but more of it is below. Swimming isn't the easiest thing to do in the game but it's not too bad, and for that this level makes it in at number 10.
One you make your way through the game's demo-level, Spiral Mountain, you end up traversing to another mountain… Mumbo's Mountain. This is a rather standard area in terms of thematic design. It features an anthill atop a mountainside and a small area of water with a small area for various platforming. The brilliance of this is that it makes a great initial level to really get your feet wet in this game. While Spiral Mountain teaches you the moves, Mumbo's Mountain teaches you to become proficient at them. There's a giant ape to contend with, ants to dodge, slopes to climb, and Jinjos to find. On second thought, those 'ants' might be in fact 'termites'. Regardless, this is where you start collecting notes and Jiggies and Jinjos to add to your collection and start opening doors elsewhere in the game. The music is light and fun and kind of reminds me of what it might sound to be one of those ants or termites walking around. Speaking of these creatures, it is also the first level where Mumbo appears to help you on your quest. He is a skull-headed shaman who aids you on your quest by performing transformations. In this level, where you only just learned to climb slopes, you must use the ant/termite transformation to climb even steeper slopes. The level isn't too large and it's not that hard to collect everything. In fact, I don't think you even need any other moves or powers making it almost 100% beatable if not 95% in the first go.
Rusty Bucket Bay
Suddenly I realize I might be subconsciously lumping the closest thing this game has to water levels together. Nothing against water levels, honest. In fact, you really shouldn't go into the water of this level as it's mostly toxic. That makes some of the water-based moments all the more tense though and in most cases in a good way. This level's backdrop is a giant oil tanker. The level is filled, as usual, with a bunch of little nooks and crannies of which you can enter and do more with than just the primary base landscape. You do a little more rescuing as well with a poor dolphin that kind of resembles the one found in the previous Donkey Kong Country games. There are lots of enemies and activity on the outer edge off the boat. Then there's the fun on the boat. Finally you can go into the damn thing for one of the trickiest platforming challenges the game has to offer. When playing this game, I often feel a little fatigued when I get to level and I assume I won't like playing it. Then I play it and I find I am once again being an idiot. I don't know what about this game makes me dread it sometimes and then makes me have so much fun once I'm there. There isn't a single 'bad' level in the game so I think it just has something to do with the juxtaposition this level has with others… something I'll get into shortly.
Ah, the muddy murky swamp. This level, as opposed to being very open like many others, is kind of a spiderweb of canyons in which to explore. These are filled with giant flying mosquito-type bugs, poisonous frogs, and a handful of Crocodile-Dentist machines begging for you to fart eggs into their mouths. This level is notable for a handful of reasons. On the downside… it had a primary need to use the special item of the Wading Boots. This allows Kazooie to walk through swampy waters without being bitten by those that lurk beneath. It's an incredibly slow power up that I never really caught on with. However, on the upside… Mumbo is back to turn you into a tiny little gator! This was always a neat transformation if not at least an adorable one. It allowed you to crawl into a giant crocodile's nostril and have a mini-game battle with another more aggressive crocodile. It was one of the most challenging mini-games I can remember being in the game. The music was extra atmospheric also. It incorporated the bubbling swamp along with crickets and frogs to make for one of the more memorable tunes in the whole game. This level was a blast to play for that alone.
If you've read my other list involving Super Mario 64, you might have noticed I was a fan of the Shifting Sand Lands level. There's something about desert levels that appeals to me. Even in The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword the desert area was one of my favorites if not my favorite. When done right, the desert can be as inviting as an oasis. In fact, that's right where the level puts you in at. The oasis features a beloved returning character in Gobi the Camel. That's right, the same Gobi the level is named after. After using him to help you solve a few puzzles he gets kind of pissed and runs off hoping you never find him again. The desert here has plenty of hills and valleys within it which hold a variety of pyramids. It even holds a Sphinx that looks kind of like a dog. Each pyramid can be entered in some way and each has their own variety of puzzles. Some include mummies which are adorable and threatening while others involve timing mechanisms meant to show off a badass power up in the Running Shoes… a power-up designed to be the opposite of those previously mentioned Wading Boots. The sunshine, the flying you do, and everything else about this level definitely makes it round out the bottom five and just barely miss the top five. Too bad the game was even MORE awesome than this cause perhaps Gobi's Valley would be higher than number six.
Mad Monster Mansion
So far we've had deserts, swamps, boat docks, mountains, and sewers… Banjo-Kazooie had a lot of thematic variety in their levels. To find a haunted mansion themed one kind of comes out of nowhere, fits beautifully with the fact the game's primary antagonist is a witch, and shows you how to have a lot of fun running around a graveyard. The level had all sorts of spooky halloween hallmarks. It had a hedge maze with ghosts, a giant mansion full of different puzzling rooms, a spooky graveyard outside a spookier church… and to top it all off, there's even a toilet! To navigate the house you had to enter through the outside for all the rooms. This meant lots of vertical traversing besides the horizontal movement and is exactly what you'd want from a 3D platformed in the late nineties. The music was very moody and reminds me a lot of the Frantic Factory music from Donkey Kong 64 which came later. While it was neat and tricky to navigate the level as a bear with a bird in your backpack, things were even trickier and more fun when Mumbo would transform you into a pumpkin. A hopping pumpkin with big oogly eyes. I actually use an image of this as my Halloween-themed icon around the forums here. Pumpkin Banjo is a basic but neat transformation that I always appreciated! I mean… how else would you fit down a toilet… but don't do that…. why would you… right?… right?… ;) I felt that was a perfect way to end this paragraph but I had to mention that church again. It's huge with huge pews and a huge organ you must also traverse and even play. The game's levels always seem to expand from what they initially appear to be. I love that about this game.
Grunty's Furnace Fun / Final Battle
This entry in the top-10 is the primary and only exception… it's not a level in the traditional sense that the other levels are but between Grunty's Furnace Fun and the final battle, it can act as the final level. You see, throughout the game, Brentilda, the sister of the evil Gruntilda, shows up to give you factual clues. Some of these include details of her reading habits, her best friend at witch school, and even what she wears under that dress of hers. Each question had three answers which would change with each play-through so at this point in the game it would change each time. Grunty's Furnace Fun is literally a board game where you get to move forward for correct answers and get punished for wrong ones. There were many squares which had different categories and types of challenges. It might sound boring but I assure you it is not. The music is tons of fun and the challenges/questions are a treat for anyone who paid any attention during the game. Once you made it past this you had to head up to the final battle. Grunty needed to be taken down. It's a long fiery battle and very dynamic for it's time. There's a lot to keep track of and to do and even then, there's more. The music changes to a much more series tone and yet it's very familiar as well. I won't spoil the ending flat out because it's awesome in my opinion but I assure you that after making it through all these levels, you're in for a major treat. The game does not disappoint at the eleventh hour… and that's why Grunty's Furnace Fun/Final Battle makes the list at number four.
So that leaves three left… what could the three best levels of this already awesome game be? Well I'm sure there will be lots of contention here in terms of what order these would go in but here's mine. Number three is one of the greatest wintry-Christmasy levels to ever grace a game… Freezeezy Peak. Here you'll find an icy world that is just utterly huge. In the center of it all is a gigantic snowman that you will literally climb up and slide down by the end of the level. The Jinjos are well hidden in this level also. If you didn't want to climb up the snowman, it was likely you'd choose to just fly up there instead. This level heavily featured the red-feather flight mechanic and was kind of the point where the mechanic had to prove itself. You learn the dive bombing move which allows you to destroy evil top-hat-wearing snowmen which are smaller than the main one, but still much bigger than you. These would act as drone guns but with snowballs and they'd have pretty solid aim. Attacking these enemies is one of the most fun moments in the game. There's also a nice cast of side characters here. The Twinklies need your help to light up a Christmas Tree without them getting eaten and Boggy's kids need their presents. Boggy himself is major player as he's a bear you have to race around the level in a rather challenging moment. I always found it tricky but still a lot of fun. The most notable character is probably Wozza, the walrus who guards not only a secret you can obtain in the game but also the infamous Ice Key! Unless you use a GameShark you can't actually obtain it, but be careful! On my original copy I used it to obtain the key and saved the file… now all save files, even new ones, have the key missing and already achieved. If only Mumbo could use his magic to undo my childish acts… but instead all he does is change Banjo into Walrus Banjo… which is a walrus that can travel frozen waters and small passageways… and yes… it's awesome.
Treasure Trove Cove
Between this level and the last one in this list, it is very challenging for me to pick a particular winner. I might as well give them a tie… but alas I cannot…. and so my second pick is the amazing Treasure Trove Cove. This is the level that comes directly after Mumbo's Mountain. You'll find that with Mumbo's Mountain you discover how to use your moves and it is here where you finally get to play. Treasure Trove Cove is an amazing island in the middle of shark-invested waters. Try to stray and you might get bit! The island also holds a giant enemy crab… well before Sony's Kazuo Hirai tried to make it cool. If you take him down, you can go inside his shell! The level had a variety of levels to it starting from the ground and moving up and up until you reached a lighthouse way above the whole thing. Rocky cliffs supported the structure and you could tell that you were far from safety being up there. Even the music cuts out and you hear mostly wind when you go high enough. The level features no Mumbo transformations but none are needed. All you need is you bird in a backpack to flip inside angry toothy treasure chests and to swim inside a pirate ship. The ship by the way has a blubbering hippo on it's deck. Luckily you can cheer him up if you find a bit of gold. Another very notable addition to this level is the giant sandcastle. Once drained, you can enter inside it and on the floor you'll find a slew of letters. If you butt-stomp on them in a certain order you'll find yourself unlocking all sorts of secrets. At least a decade later it was finally revealed that all the hidden eggs and the ice key were actually legitimately obtainable despite the lack of a Stop n' Swap feature. There were long codes snuck into the game that must be put in at the castle. These weren't just some random assortments of letters but those chums at Rareware were a bit more clever than that. For example, CHEATUPYOUGOWITHOUTAHITCHTOTHEWATERLEVELSWITCH, was used to raise the water level near Rusty Bucket Bay. The game is full of these codes which were probably used to help debug the game but were kept in. Some cheats like GOLDFEATHERS would max out your gold features and another like WISHYWASHYBANJO would allow you to become a washing machine for fun. However others like CHEATOUTOFTHESEAITRISESTOREVEALMORESECRETPRIZES would allow you to gain access to one of those eggs originally intended for Stop n' Swop. This level was an amazing one to have at the start of the game and it's likely that it's the main reason I fell in love with this game to begin with. I still find myself singing and whistling this tune all the time. It's with me for the rest of time.
Click Clock Wood
The very best level in the game is hands down Click Clock Wood. I just had to say it first thing this paragraph. Luckily this is also the final primary level before the final gauntlet. That means that the gamer is treated to a game that gives you good stuff all the way through and ends it with a bang. Click Clock Wood for starters features one of the best songs in the N64 library. It samples the bird enemies from the game, crickets, some kind of flute… it's all very wonderful and whimsical. What's great is that there are three other themes besides the primary Spring theme. Fall, Winter, and Summer are song varieties because this level features four different facets. You enter it four different times and experience the changes that go along with the changing seasons. For instance, there's a large flower that will grow depending on how late into the year it is. Our buddy Gobi even shows back up here only for you to piss him off again. He finally threatens to go to the lava world… of which Banjo-Kazooie has none. It's a clever nod to the future of the series with Banjo-Tooie. There's also a large lake which will either freeze over or dry up a bit depending on things. A beehive goes from buzzing and busy to busted and decrepit in the winter. You experience an adorable baby eagle grow into an adult. All of this takes place around a large towering tree. The height is arguably the highest in the game, perhaps only being matched with Treasure Trove Cove's lighthouse. You can choose to climb up the tree, jumping over gaps and pecking back at the birds. Or if you so choose, you can speak with your buddy Mumbo one last time for one last transformation. In Click Clock Wood you end up transforming into a bumblebee… making it cool well before Mario tried in Super Mario Galaxy. The whole level oozes charm and despite going into it four times in a game already about collecting many things, the 100 notes, 5 jinjos, 10 jiggles, they all are spread amongst the four so it's not multiplied in any way. In fact, this allows the level to breathe a bit. It's not surprising the the level with the big tree and nods to nature ends up being the most organic of them all. This level will have you using all of your arsenal of moves. In the winter for instance the same snowball-tossing snowmen are back and you have to take them out in a new arena. This level alone I believe is the main reason anyone needs to play this game. Luckily for them, there's a badass game to get through before you reach it.
There's a great debate on occasion about this game and it's importance in gaming history. The role it played in pushing the 3D platforming genre forward has been argued at length. In fact, the thread pitting Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie against each other are the reasons I put this list and it's Mario counterpart (found here) together. In the end, I personally feel that Banjo-Kazooie took the Super Mario 64 concept and delivered even more on it. My detailed descriptions above show how much I remember from memory and how beloved the game has always been to me. It's sequel was also quite strong if not perhaps too grandiose for it's own good. Either way, I will always look back on the ol' Bear and Bird, and their Shaman friend, as some of the most comforting and pleasant gaming experiences I ever had growing up. The game is currently available on Xbox Live for around $15 bucks. It's absolutely worth the price of admission and they've even cleaned up the graphics ever so slightly. I'll leave you all with one final cheat for the sandcastle….
It's sequel was also quite strong if not perhaps too grandiose for it's own good.
That sentence describes everything I didn't like about Tooie perfectly. I also agree with -JKR-. It's an opinion most people don't have about the game, and I'd love to see you elaborate. I'm not sure why, but your writing style reminds me of Nintendo Power in a good way.
Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this list. My order of preference of the levels differs, but I still like hearing other people's opinions.
Here's my top 10 list that is very likely to change in the future.
I think what this list has made me realize and appreciate more than ever is how Banjo-Kazooie was a game that pretty much anyone who played it loved and while people's level-lists might be different, they will always share that feeling that people get playing this game. Also you'll always find at least one similarity with others. Like how you have Click Clock and Treasure Trove in your top three like me, but you also have Clanker's at 4 which I had at 10.
We can relate through our similarities and differences and I like that.
Do you think we will ever see a spiritual sequel to this series ever on a Nintendo platform? Do games like these just not sell anymore? I wouldn't consider the mario series as we know it to be like this.
I don't know. I think A Hat In Time comes close to the style of Banjo Kazooie. It's probably the closest thing we have at this point. I think that if everyone who was disappointed with Nuts and Bolts bought this hypothetical spiritual successor, whether it be A Hat in Time or something else, it would be a financial success.
Whoa, good write-up! I agree that BK's stages all really stood out and had lots of personality. Let me take a stab at this...
10. Clanker's Cavern - I don't really love the swimming mechanic in BK, although to be fair, for a "water level," Clanker's Cavern has plenty of on-foot platforming. It's still pretty fun to traverse, and enjoyable eerie at times, but I prefer the other stages.
9. Gobi's Valley - I'm a little surprised that this ended up at #9--I think that speaks for the strength of BK's stages. Gobi's Valley is good old-fashioned desert fun, and I really like the music. The various quicksand pits make getting around a bit of a pain though, and it's easy to confuse one giant orange tomb for another.
8. Grunty's Furnace Fun - This is a great end-game sequence, topped off with a spectacular battle. The only thing keeping it from ranking higher is that it's relatively short and straightforward compared to the other stages.
7. Rusty Bucket Bay - I think this is a cool theme for a stage, and the music is one of my favorites in the whole game (I also like its reprise in the final battle). It's also home to some of the most challenging moments of the game, a couple of which border on frustrating.
6. Bubblegloop Swamp - All-around enjoyable for the most part, and I like the gator transformation. Not really much to complain about here, outside of the semi-sluggish progression. I like the soundtrack too.
5. Mumbo's Mountain - It's simple, but it's always fun to start off on this introductory stage. It's well-designed for what it is and introduces a lot of the game's mechanics well. I'm not crazy about the termite transformation though.
4. Treasure Trove Cove - I don't like it as much as most of you, but it's still a cool stage with several neat elements (the ship, sandcastle, and lighthouse). Also, flying! The song's pretty good.
3. Mad Monster Mansion - Really great Halloween-flavored stage; it has pretty much every cliche element you could want in a level like this. The church is big and impressive, the graveyard was cool, and the hedge maze was a nice touch. Also, one of the better songs in the game.
2. Freezeezy Peak - Gotta love this one. I always look forward to Freezeezy Peak in my playthroughs of BK because it's so infectiously fun and enjoyable. Mario's got some nice snow stages, but BK really brings out the Christmas spirit in this level adorned with a giant snowman and tree. Traversing to the top of the snowman's hat is a little breathtaking, even, and it's just a blast to fly around the stage as well. Oh, and the music is my absolute favorite in the game...so awesome.
1. Click Clock Wood - It's a close match between this and number 2, but Click Clock Wood's super-creative seasons dynamic gives it the edge. The stage is truly massive and it's a wonderful concept that could probably become its own game. The music is also very well thought-out, giving a full version for each of the four seasons, in addition to the usual song alterations that you hear. There are plenty of memorable and creative moments in this stage, and for all those reasons, it's the top spot for me.
I'm not sure if I could choose a fave here, a lot of the levels blend together for me and there's nothing that stands out as particularly great. It would probably be between the cove, swamp, peak, or desert, as those levels appealed to me more than the rest. The woods one was such a good idea, but suffered from being too difficult to traverse and needing more than one way to change the seasons (collecting 100 notes was an absolute nightmare on this level). Overall, I prefer Tooie, it was more memorable for me.
I was going to pitch a fit if Click Clock Wood was not on this list. Nice to see it not only is, but is #1! It's not just the best level in BK, it's one of the best levels I've ever played in a game. It's the cherry on the sundae of a fantastic game.
Haha. I tend to regularly replay B-K, and that one Jiggy is almost enough to put me off of the playthrough each time I go through it. Fortunately it's so close to the end of the game that I usually just continue to press on through.