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….
Oh man, I don't remember this game as well as Mario 64 so it is bringing back a lot of memories. Mad Monster Mansion is one of my favorites for sure, I distinctly remember at the time thinking it was amazing how packed the area was with different ways to move around... weren't you climbing through drain pipes or something at some point?
Zero, Yes indeed. As the pumpkin you can go through some pipes inside the house which I allude to in the Top 10 but you also end up riding the gutters and you go down the water spout into a bucket where a Jiggy can be found.
I also added the music as I stated. I had submitted the list before doing that. Each entry has music with it now and I highly recommend people listen to the tracks as they read.
Have you played it on XBLA at all? I've only played the demo for it and Banjo-Tooie but they both looked fantastic.
Edit: I also think my favorite level is actually Gruntilda's Lair itself. It took the exploration aspects of Peach's Castle and really pushed them much further. I loved that doing things in each level could actually trigger changes in the hub world. A warp mechanic (while a tad confusing) also helped alleviate some of the backtracking. It was always a joy to find a new area in the hub. By the end of the game, you knew ever last bit of that hub world.
Because it's not Click Clock Wood. But despite it being number 2, it's a DAMN CLOSE number 2. No two levels in a single game probably share my love like those two. How do you feel about the rest of the list?
I pondered whether to consider Gruntilda's Lair and opted not to. But you're absolutely right. It was a blast to work through and I feel like that's one of the many reasons the game is so groundbreaking. It's also a reason I put it a notch above Super Mario 64 as a whole. The fact that even the hub world had jiggies to find, puzzles to solve, etc etc... amazing. Banjo-Tooie kind of expanded TOO much in that regard in my opinion. I get lost easier there.
I have purchased Banjo-Tooie on XBLA but I need to go get Banjo-Kazooie just so I have it on something not requiring an N64 controller.
The rest of the list is fine, I guess. I don't know these stages as well, since Banjo-Kazooie doesn't have much of a nostalgic pull for me. But Treasure Trove Cove was one of the stages I remember the most, so I always feel that's the #1 stage in the game. It's the first stage you get to fly too, IIRC. That counts for big points, in my book.
That's how I felt while working on the whole thing. All of these notes came from memory. I looked up the screens after the fact. I did listen to the soundtrack while writing each level and what not but man, so much greatness packed into one grey cart.
Click Clock Wood is just a legendary level. It's funny we share the same favorite levels for both this and SM64. I wonder if there's a quality about the levels that they share which appeal to us or if we are more alike than we know and thus it worked out that way.
I like the fact that this list was made even if I can't get behind the rankings.
Any list like this that doesn't have Rusty Bucket Bay at the very bottom, I just can't see eye to eye with. The level is claustrophobic, made a difficult mechanic even more difficult unless you're using cheats what with the oily water, and it has the single, most unforgiveably difficult Jiggy challenge in the game: turning the engines off in time to swim to the front of the ship and collect the Jiggy behind the propellers.
And while I really enjoyed Click Clock Wood, I still found it a little tedious... After all, you can only utilize Mumbo in like one of the seasons (maybe two; I forget), and with only a few minor exceptions, the level just consists of making you climb the same giant tree four different times with little changing about the actual ascent part aside from the platforming getting a little easier for the most part. I found most of the other levels to be more interesting.
A very quick (and therefore subject to change) ranking for me:
I can't decide whether I prefer TTC or CC. I really like the exploration of Clanker and the various things you can do to help him out, but I also like the wide world with everything there is to do in TTC (plus it's the level that introduces flight). I probably should rank Mumbo's Mountain lower than I have it, but it was such a perfect introductory level that I couldn't help but rank it that highly. I have absolutely no complaints about MM. It could be a little bigger, but if it was, it wouldn't feel like the intro level that it's supposed to be. The only common thread I can see in my bottom 3 are that they all feature water that hurts or debilitates you more than normal water, so that may or may not be telling. But I guess it is true that I'm not a fan of the stay-out-of-the-water mechanics in most video games. Then again, Treasure Trove Cove featured a similar mechanic, but it was delayed much more (and avoidable) than it was in those other three levels.
Great post. Thanks for doing this top ten. Brought back soooo many memories. As much as I loved Mario 64, I've always thought that Banjo Kazooie was the better game. There was sooo much to do and collect in this game. As far as the order of the levels, well, I never really thought about it. Though, if I had to pick my favorite, it would probably be Freezeezy Peak, cause it was really fun and moreso cause of the music. I just loved the Christmasy feel that oozed out of this level.
I still remember those damn twinklies....man it took me many tries getting them to their goal!
I would say Rusty Bucket Bay was probably my least favorite. The level was not as bright and colorful as the rest, its like it just had this drab/dark undertone to it.
I loved the end sequence of the game as well! Glad I paid attention during the game!!
Excellent write up! Honestly, growing up Rusty Bucket Bay was always my least favorite one. I admit it is claustrophobic and what not but in retrospect I found surprisingly that I enjoy it more than I originally did. I note this about the fatigue that sets in around that point of the game but by the end of it I was always having fun. There's no doubt that the platforming inside the engine room is tricky and at times just plain frustrating.... but somehow I was able to be okay with that in the general whole of the level. I love Clanker's Cavern too and so it's weird I put it at the 10th spot but really, all these levels are amazing and perhaps six months from now or six months ago I would have placed Clanker's Cavern at a different spot on the list. There is definitely something to love about that level.
This list really makes me sad that Banjo-Threeie... turned out to be Nuts and Bolts. Who's idea was it to fix what wasn't broken?
Also I felt such tension in escaping the shark for that one honeycomb in the ocean..
That was the point I realised the Rare guys had a sick sense of humour,
So I'm cautiously poking around the coast, exploring what I can without getting attacked by the shark. And I spy a lonesome little island way off shore. Surely there must be something good there? Right?
Throwing caution to the wind, I swim out as fast as I can, staying just ahead of Snacker. And what do I find when I make it to my destination?
Nothing. A pointless spot of land with a signpost: 'Sharkfood Island'. Oh crap.
Of course that turned out to be the resting place of a bonus egg later, but it was still annoying at the time
Also, on the topic of Banjo-Kazooie, this was the first game I played in a 3D world where the levels felt "perfect" in size to me. None were so big that it was a chore to get across (so many games suffer from this now IMO) and apart from maybe Mumbo's Mountain (which honestly I still say was a perfect size- just specifically for a "starter first level") none were too small and cramped.
I wish today's games packed more charm into a smaller space like BK did. I really dislike how huge and sprawled out things are now.