I sat on Banjo Tooie, because I wanted to experience it, but I didn't want to experience it quite so close to Banjo Kazooie. I was genuinely looking forward to what Plague Knight had in store for me at the end of Shovel Knight. I wanted to delve into Simon the Sorcerer and find out if time - and my memory of that game - had treated it well. I also wanted to see if - a year on - Jazzpunk was still that spellbinding, silly experience I found it to be while watching Lucahjin play it.
You can read my gung-ho and ready post about all that here.
This tragic tale is a tale of how that all fell flat and how I ended up playing three games that weren't even on my list. Well. Kind of.
[Please Note: Some of the links in this article will take you away from Twinstiq. They have been formatted such that they will open new browser tabs.]
Greywolfe Picks His Favourite Retro-Styled Games From 2015
Welcome to my retrospective for 2015 in which we talk a little about those games that invited you to think of gaming's past through the lens of what's happening right now. This list covers games that - somehow - evoked games of yesteryear, whether in their visuals or in their gameplay styles.
2015 was a pretty good year for this style of thing - I didn't play all of the games that had retro-styled conceits, [like Freedom Planet or some of the bigger RPG releases] but the games I played that used those sorts of ideas were all [more-or-less] fun.
NB! The text links in this article will open in a new page and will take you to review pages on my personal blog. Read more
My comfort zone when it comes to video games extends to slow games. I like adventure games. I like turn based strategy games [assuming there aren't a billion units]. I like turn based role playing games [assuming there isn't a stupid ton of micromanagement]. So, platformers are generally right out. The speed of a platformer, coupled with the number of enemies and the level of sheer frustration those games can engender just make them not worth my while.
But I've been trying. I most recently beat Evoland 2, a game that takes some inspiration from platformers of the past. I also beat Shovel Knight, again, earlier this year, because I love that game a great deal.
Both these games are great, but they're modern and have modern gamers in mind. Evoland - thoughtfully - saves your progress every time you change scenes. Shovel Knight has a clever, player-directed difficulty setting where you can either break your checkpoints or you can leave them intact, allowing you to make the game incredibly difficult, or just "somewhat challenging."
Banjo-Kazooie, however, comes from a different time. A time when men were men, squirrels could get their own game and you could still get away with making a cutesy, animal-based platformer.
Banjo-Kazooie is this last, a cute, animal-based platformer that doesn't really take itself seriously at all. The plot is pretty simple: Bad witch discovers she's not the nicest looking witch in all the world. A bear by the name of Tooty is. She decides this simply will not do, kidnaps the bear with the intention of swapping bodies and gets caught in the act, red-handed by a mole named Bottles. Bottles yells for Banjo to help his sister, which, basically starts the adventure.
The creepy nature of the plot aside, Banjo-Kazooie is a blast. You start at Banjo's house where Bottles teaches you a couple of moves that you can use to jump, stomp and run through each ensuing level. For the first few worlds, your move set will slowly broaden until you can fly, bomb creatures from the air and run extra fast with the help of a pair of running shoes.
Each level is a complete little world, with it's own particular perils and theme. In one world, you might be in a winter wonderland, while in another, you may be traversing a scary mansion. No two worlds are ever quite alike. Each has its own [fantastic] musical theme, little character designs that show just enough personality to be memorable [but, given the brief nature of your visits to each, don't get fleshed out overmuch] while never getting in the way of game play or bogging the player down with superfluous fluff.
This particular game comes from an age that incentivized exploration through collectibles. In Banjo-Kazooie, the main "currency" of the game is the musical note. You can pick up 900 of these and each note that you pick up brings you closer to opening sections of Gruntilda's [the witch] lair. At the beginning, you simply need fifty notes to progress, but as the game slowly winds up the difficulty crank, so it expects you to rise to the challenge of collecting ever more notes.
To unlock future worlds, you need puzzle pieces that complete picture frames throughout the lair. Again, starts off simple - you only require one of these to get into Mumbo's Mountain, but by the time the game winds down, you're going to make sure you're scouring levels for as many as you can get. These are - in the game's parlance - Jiggies.
Jiggies are earned through doing a collection of little "quests" throughout the level you're in and these are great. It's a very rewarding way to entice the player through the game. Some are fairly "standard." There's a Jiggy for collecting a "collection" of Jinjo's - little, bird-like creatures that have been scattered throughout the levels by Gruntilda, while others are more esoteric and need far more work. In one of the very last levels, for example, your patience with a young bird [that you hatch, yourself - and then later feed, too] is rewarded when, at last, the bird takes to the skies and reveals the Jiggy it was holding onto for you.
There are other collectibles: extra lives, honeycomb pieces [that extend your life bar] and Mumbo tokens [which allow you to visit the local shaman, Mumbo and be transformed into something native to the world you're in. In one world you might be an ant and in another, you might be an incredibly adorable walrus.] all of which you'll seek out, but the main game requires that you simply collect notes and Jiggies.
And this seeking out is the most fantastic thing about the game. Modern games will hold you by the hand and guide you, step by step through what you need to be doing next. Shovel Knight had the over world. Evoland 2 - while incredibly open in it's second act - still has a structure you can follow. Banjo? If you're smart and wily, you can sequence break - going into worlds that you should only visit further along in the adventure. Likewise, each level is wide open. You can start at any point [for the most part] and collect any Jiggy you choose. [This is almost always true. A couple of worlds force prerequisites on you - Clanker's Cavern has an entire second half that can only be done by doing a very specific Jiggy-related task.]
One of Banjo-Kazooie's greatest assets is this variety. You never quite know what you're going to run into while you're playing and this makes it easy to want to play. If there's one thing modern gaming has entirely lost, it's the element of "what's around the next corner" and this particular game has that down to a fine art. Wozza the Walrus won't deal with me if I'm a bear, but how about when I'm a walrus, too? There's this very weird camel guy in Gobi's valley that says all this funny stuff, I wonder if I can get him to move? All these little things add up to make Banjo-Kazooie a joy to play.
But it is not without its faults.
One early move you learn is a maneuver that allows you to toss eggs, but it's never as accurate as you'd like it to be, because 3d gaming was in its infancy and trying to aim your "missiles" so that they did what you wanted could be quite daunting. This is - to a lesser extent - a problem with every move in the game. 3D wasn't a perfected art at this point, so judging distances - especially when you're high up in a level and the prospect of falling is a clear and present danger - could be tricky. One of my single biggest gripes with the control of Banjo-Kazooie was that they didn't just come to a complete stop. Often, if you're running in a direction and you take your hands off the controller, there's a little gap between your action and the action on screen. Essentially, the bear and bird pair will skid to a halt a couple of steps further than you meant for them to be. This can create a weird kind of terrible tension where you absolutely need to stop dead, and sometimes, the game will keep moving you, plummeting you to your doom.
In the same vein, the forced swimming is atrocious. You get "used to it" by the end of the game, but it is difficult to control, has a tendency to make you overshoot your actual goal and drowning is a thing that can really happen.
And when you die...
...Well, I mentioned that this was an old game with an older design paradigm, so when you do kick the bucket, your notes that you collected get revoked. You're forced to re-play that section of the game again to re-acquire all the notes you just lost so that you can beat your "note score" for that world. This can be a frustration at the end-game where the levels get increasingly more difficult and require particular dexterity on your part. [Engine room in Rusty Bucket Bay, I'm looking at you!]
Besides, at least this frustration has been dealt with in the XBox re-issue of the game.[that you can currently snag through the Rare Replay compilation.]
This Xbox version introduces it's own set of frustrations - Motzhand's organ plays exactly the same note regardless of which key you hit while you're working with that particular puzzle. All of the Nintendo branding and shout-outs are gone [this is understandable, but sad] and that special kind of tension where you lose all your notes when you die is gone. [This can swing both ways. On the one hand, the challenge can be interesting. On the other, it can also be particularly frustrating.]
What do I think of Banjo-Kazooie? I think it's absolutely worth experiencing. The current re-release does some things rather differently, but if you've never played it, this would be the place to start. Of course, if you want the original experience, you should attempt to find it for the Nintendo 64.
This is easily, behind The Dig, one of my favourite games this year.
Long, long ago. Back when computers were new and gaming was just a twinkle in Nintendo's eye, the music that computers actually made was...well, atrocious. It sort of depended on which computer you had, of course, but the IBM PC - my gaming platform of choice - largely went silent in those years, because it was a pretty binary choice. You either enjoyed the sounds of silence or you had to contend with the PC speaker. And oh God. You did not want to contend with the PC speaker.
Capable of only outputting one tone - a high pitched bleep - composers would try to wrangle the PC speaker into making music that would make you grit your teeth. Some folks managed semi-interesting sounds: The opening of Xenon 2, Megablast, wasn't terrible on the PC speaker. The same is arguably true of Maniac Mansion, but by and large, most people's reaction to PC speaker music was "TURN IT OFF."
So, when sound cards came along, I bought one immediately. And it changed my entire perspective on gaming.
And Sierra Said "Let There Be Music" And Lo, For There Was
The first few companies to seriously embrace music on the PC did so at great cost: the only sort of electronic machinery capable of playing the sounds that the original developers wanted to hear were expensive, costing easily into the $500 realm. This, of course, simply wouldn't do. So Sierra helped usher in the era of the cheap FM-Synthesis card in the form of the Adlib. And from there, things took off at a swift pace.
Cryo, masters of beautiful, somewhat confusing games, threw their hat in the ring. The Dune soundtrack is - to this day - a marvel of FM Synthesis. However did their composer get that card to make those noises? No one but he [and some professionals who know that hardware very well] knew what he did, but it was magic.
It was the first game sound track I fell in love with and it opened my ears to a world I'd - quite frankly - formerly ignored.
But There Were Many Machines And They All Sounded Different
While I'm talking - most specifically - about the IBM PC, because that's what I got to know the best, there were a bunch of other machines out there - and they all sounded a little different, because they all used very different music chips. The Amiga, for example, used the Paula sound chip to great effect, allowing composers to use samples as part of their songs. A game that perfectly showcased this ability and that made a lasting impression on anyone into gaming music was Shadow Of The Beast 2.
But then, too, there were the consoles. And each console was created differently - because nobody could settle on standards at that particular time and place - and we were grateful of it, because it allowed us to hear so many different soundscapes.
On the NES, for example, there was the awesome, proto-rock of Contra. You couldn't help but bob your head along to the music of the first stage. And while it wasn't quite the same as the sounds coming out of an arcade, it was of a vintage all it's own. Something you soaked up and listened to long after the game was over.
As time marched onward and music chips got better and better, so too did the sounds. The 8 bit frontier gave way to the 16 bit land of Utopia and with it came a new plethora of sounds and songs that could get pretty dense if listened to in the right atmosphere. I remember the very first time I heard the slow, pulsating electronica of Stickerbrush Symphony and being absolutely blown away by how complex that piece of music was - how many different layers of sound were bubbling just underneath the surface of such a simple song.
The Most Important Thing: Every Machine's Sound Was Unique
One thing that - I think, anyway - is missing from modern computing and modern gaming is how different each of these sound chips were - what they could do, how they would sound, which musical genuis would learn the ins and outs of this specific hardware. A lot of that mystery has fallen by the wayside as we reached the pinnacle of sound in the form of CD-Quality music.
Sure, you can get a symphony to record your soundtrack now, but the problem with that - for me - is that anyone can do that. There's no real mystery in what I'm hearing anymore. No interesting finessing of the hardware to produce something radical and interesting.
On the other hand, this has given me some of my favourite more modern soundtracks. While there are only a handful of real "songs" in To The Moon, each song [with vocals - something that was difficult to achieve in that long-ago time of near-silence] is special in it's own particular and beautiful way.
And - to be fair - modern composers might find the soundscapes of the NES somewhat stifling - having to only work within very particular constraints to produce very particular tones means that there are limits to what you can do. While - for example - the soundtrack of Shovel Knight was amazing, I imagine that the composers for that game might have been genuinely taken aback at first with what they could and couldn't do, given their desire to slavishly emulate the NES.
So, you win some and you lose some. But I am just grateful - in the very long run - that we moved away from the sound of silence. The mystery of music is far better.