The number of classic 3D platformers can be counted on one hand (or maybe spill over to a few fingers on a second), and most of those have Mario in the name. There was one company that attempted to beat Nintendo at its own game though. Rare released four platformers on Nintendo's 64-bit console (two Banjo-Kazooie games, Conker's Bad Fur Day and Donkey Kong 64), and now its first, Banjo-Kazooie, is available to play on Xbox LIVE Arcade. Some ten years later, having seen numerous consoles come and go, Rare's bear and bird platformer is still a fine slice of gaming entertainment.
If you grew up playing Nintendo games chances are you've already played Banjo-Kazooie, but for those coming to this re-release not in the know we'll summarise the story. You play Banjo, a bear who carries a bird (Kazooie) in his backpack. Banjo's sister Tooty is kidnapped by evil witch Gruntilda in order to use Tooty's youthful good looks to make herself look younger. It's all very dastardly and evil, yet also quite fun and cartoon-like, and, of course, it's up to Banjo and Kazooie to save her. What follows is a 3D platformer spread over numerous game worlds with tons of items to collect (jiggies, musical notes, jinjos, honeycomb pieces, skulls and more).
Anyone who's played Rare's most recent boxed Xbox 360 title, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, might be expecting some vehicle action, but in the late 90s Banjo was a very different bear. Back then he was all about jumping, double jumping, punching and rolling into enemies, and using Kazooie to do all manner of things - even fly. Banjo-Kazooie was essentially the only 3D platformer at the time that was able to rival the brilliance of Mario 64, and in today's market will seem really rather different to the average game taking up shelf space in Gamestation. We just don't get too many 3D platformers these days, so despite Banjo's aged controls and visuals, going back to 1998 isn't as awkward as you might think.
This is partly down to the way the game has been ported to the Xbox 360. Sharp HD visuals are in, and it's a huge improvement over the now extremely blurry look of the N64 original. Widescreen support gives you more game to look at, the draw distance has been vastly extended and the frame rate is silky smooth. As a kid (or just a younger adult still new to 3D gaming) you might have had visions of what Nintendo's RAM expansion pack was going to do, thinking up wondrous things, only to get Turok 2 in mildly higher resolution. This HD version of Rare's classic is like N64 expansion pack gaming on steroids, and by far the best way to play the game.
Over the years much has been made of the amount of collecting you're forced to do in Banjo-Kazooie, but it's not nearly as bad as many people make it out to be. This is mainly because you rarely have to get everything to progress, meaning you're able to leave one area and look at something else for a while, before returning to mop up some more jiggies at a later stage. On the subject of things people moan endlessly about, the camera is pretty darn good too, especially for a game originally released ten years ago. It causes the odd moment of annoyance from time to time, especially when it prevents you from taking control, but for the most part it doesn't get in the way at all - something that can't be said about the still terrible underwater controls.
Completely new to this version are a set of Xbox 360 Achievements, making the quest to get all those collectables all the more important, and a functioning Stop 'n Swop feature. This exciting feature never came to light in the N64 games, so for many fans this will be an extremely exciting moment. Here you can use the feature to unlock an item in Nuts & Bolts, but we won't ruin the surprise for you. The audio has also been re-mastered, although it's debatable if any sane person can put up with a whole game's worth of nonsensical animal blabbering.
1200 MS Points might seem a little steep for a game that originally came out ten years ago, but this is a true classic and a game that stands up very well today. Visually it's certainly showing its age, but the HD spruce up means it's by no means ugly and the core gameplay is just as universally appealing as it ever was.