July 11, 2010

Refresh Rate Double Dose – Banjo-Kazooie & Conker’s Bad Fur Day

The year is 1984.

You’re watching MTV, where music videos are still played, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” comes on. Bruce is rocking out on stage but… he keeps making eyes at this somewhat androgynous brunette in a sleeveless t-shirt. Then, during The Big Man’s sax solo, The Boss actually pulls her up on stage for a brief, intimate, and somewhat awkward dance. And thus the world was introduced to Courtney Cox; she of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Scream and Friends fame. From those dubious beginnings, a long and fruitful career blossomed.

For two of the N64’s most well-known anthropomorphic platform heroes, the beginning was almost as humble.

The year was 1997.

The pluckiest member of the Kong clan, Diddy, had developed quite a cache for himself with a series of successful games on the Super Nintendo and Game Boy, and the developers at Rare hoped to capitalize on the chimp’s achievements by bringing him to the big time. That meant giving him a titular role on a next-gen console; a racing game in 64 glorious bits.


Now, rather than populate Diddy’s game with the same familiar apes and baddies from the Donkey Kong Country games, a whole new vibrant cast of assorted creatures was brought in for Diddy Kong Racing. These creatures would go on to become staples in hit games for the N64 for the rest of the decade and beyond.

Who could forget creatures like Tipsy Mouse, Timber Tiger, and Bumper Badger? I’m only kidding of course.

While Rare might have plucked all of these characters out of obscurity (onto the world stage, so to speak) for Diddy Kong Racing – only two of the new characters ever went on to star in games of their own: Banjo and Conker.

It was the diligent honey bear who took the reins in his own adventure first, in 1998, alongside a backpack dwelling bird in a game called Banjo-Kazooie.

Where do I start in describing the dynamic duo that is Banjo and Kazooie?

Their games for the N64 (including the original and the sequel Banjo-Tooie) are a little more immersive than the previous titles I’ve reviewed in this Refresh Rate section, so I’ll have to start with the basics.


I recall these games as being so playable for quite a variety of reasons. They’re filled with cheeky dialogue, immense and diverse environments, fiendish villains and noble allies – and they were just the antidote for gamers who had grown tired of the same old characters again and again in the Super Mario franchise.

As long as I’m comparing Banjo and Mario, I think it’s worth looking at their attacks. For almost the first ten years of his reign, the only thing Mario had going for him was a good solid jump, and the occasional fire flower or raccoon tail power up.

But right out of the gate, in their first adventure together, Banjo and Kazooie presented players with some real options for bowling over or otherwise tearing into the evil witch Gruntilda’s henchmen.


Standing still, you’ve got your basic Banjo paw swipe, but you can also have Kazooie unleash a flurry of pecks from your back pack; you can crouch down and have her perform a battering ram ‘beak barge’ technique, or cough up any number of projectile eggs; running, Banjo can roll right through some opponents with a fearsome somersault of death – and these are just the attacks readily available to the player early in the game, without even going into the many items and moves learned later on.

Of course, there are also a few things the bear and bird owe to the portly plumber (the act of collecting magical golden trinkets to advance to further worlds; worlds that include watery caverns, treacherous quicksand-filled deserts, haunted houses, and snowy winter wonderlands prominently featuring snowmen… to name a few).

If there’s another thing I should mention in discussing Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel Banjo-Tooie it’s that, well, they’re both kind of benign aren’t they?

The plot of the original is basically that of a Disney fairy tale, where Banjo’s sister is kidnapped by a witch who hopes to steal her beauty – and the danger is pretty light-hearted, with Banjo basically guffawing like Goofy whenever he dies. In the sequel you get the added weight of Bottles dying, but even the problems brought on by that are neatly fixed at the game’s conclusion. Even though Kazooie can be sort of a ball buster and troublemaker, the game is squarely within the ‘G’ rating bracket.

Conker’s Bad Fur Day, released in early 2001, was a different story. In it the player experienced things like actual verbal dialogue that you could hear, raunchy and gory action, and a few well-executed movie spoofs and genre send-ups – in many cases for the first time in a console platformer. And the ending was far from a fairy tale. Yes, for these reasons, Conker brings with it some fond memories.

Now let me remind you of some of the crappier parts.

For all of the funny bits of dialogue delivered in cartoony accents, there’s also a load of tedious cut scenes between an evil panther king that sounds like Dr. Claw, and a strange weasel professor who’s a mix of Dr. Strangelove and Megavolt from Darkwing Duck.

There’s so much going on in these scenes, but I still just wish I could skip them altogether – the game would seriously not be affected by their removal.

The evil Professor Von Kripplespak is a groveling servant of the Panther King in public, clumsily bowing to his every whim, but behind the king’s back, Von Kripplespak is developing things like anti-gravity chocolate and an army of robotic teddy bears. For all his apparent scientific proficiency, when the king breaks a leg on his throne-side table, the best solution the professor can come up with is to use a red squirrel in place of a leg… rather than, you know, a piece of wood of an appropriate length. It’s barely a chuckle-worthy gag (that the scientist and king are too inept to figure out the simplest solution, thereby causing all means of problems for our protagonist) but for some reason it’s drawn out across several excruciating cutscenes at the opening of the game that the player is forced to endure.


They may have been speaking in irritating “wah” and “screech” sounds, but at least when Banjo and Grunty were jawing away at each other you could speed that business up to get back to playing.

Looking back, I think Conker could have greatly benefitted from some sort of dialogue options system; something that would allow players to control some of what their foul-mouthed avatar was saying, thereby keeping them more invested in the surreal misadventures of the jacketed squirrel at their control.

Conker starts out with some fairly basic and unimpressive attacks, a frying pan for melee combat, and a slingshot for some terribly inaccurate ranged attacks, but the weak weaponry is quickly improved with gusto as the player is handed a shotgun from the hands of the Grim Reaper himself for the zombie episode, not to mention a pair of SMGs for the war against the Tediz, and an equally impressive arsenal in the Matrix send-up.

I still appreciate the playful toying Conker does with platformer conventions, like including magical ‘context sensitive buttons’ that provide the player with whatever they need at that particular moment, and I also like how Rare changed the cute squirrel from Diddy Kong Racing to the swearing, scheming opportunist fish-out-of-water that showed up in Conker; but I must also point out a disturbing theme that stretches from Conker’s Bad Fur Day all the way to Banjo-Tooie.


I sense an obsession with fecal matter. While Banjo is forced to speed through a sewer clearing out renegade… ‘clinkers’ in his second adventure, Conker is forced to roll up his sleeves and feed prune juice to a number of ill-fated cows in order to expedite their digestion, thus benefiting some wise-talking dung beetles. After he’s done that, Conker is awarded a doo-doo ball of his own to roll around and generally wreak havoc.

Real mature, Rare. Real mature.

1 Comment »

  1. Great games overall. I actually just finished replaying Conker’s Bad Fur Day not too long ago. I’ll give both Banjo-Kazooie games a run over the summer.

    Comment by EdEN — July 12, 2010 @ 11:54 am

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