Super Mario 64 vs. Banjo-Kazooie

By Joe Delaney

This article is a continuation of a series where we pit two games against each other: a game that originated or popularized a style of gaming, and another that successfully copied and/or improved upon that formula. It’s innovator vs. imitator. Name brand vs. knockoff. This is Clone Wars.

Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, basically every game released was a collect-a-thon platformer. You had Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Silent Hill, Ape Escape, and so many others that had you jump around colorful worlds, trying to collect as much shit as possible. And there’s one game you can thank for this trend – Super Mario 64 – the game that basically created 3D gaming as we know it.

When I was thinking about which game would go up against Mario, there really was no contest. Really, was fucking Glover gonna go toe-to-toe with the Italian Stallion? He’d get his ass handed to him, and each of his fingers (limbs?) broken. No, it was always gonna be Banjo. If any game other than Mario 64 has come to define this subgenre, it’s Banjo-Kazooie.

For this installment of Clone Wars, I’ll be judging both games based on five different categories that they both excel in to determine the victor:

  1. Gameplay
  2. Level Design
  3. Music
  4. Charm and Cuteness
  5. Secrets, Collectables, and Rewards

These are two personal favorites of mine, so choosing a champion here is definitely gonna hurt. And I know that whoever comes out on top, some people will certainly have some feelings about it. So let’s get this over with and see which of these classics comes out on top.

Round 1: Gameplay

At the beginning of Banjo-Kazooie, the titular bear and bird meet Bottles the mole, who offers the player a tutorial for the game’s basic controls. He teaches you how to climb, how to swim, how to high jump, etc. Throughout the rest of the game, you find Bottles in other levels, where he teaches you even more abilities, like how to fly, how to shoot eggs, how to make Kazooie carry Banjo (which effectively makes Banjo worthless because Kazooie is much faster). 

The variety doesn’t end there though. With the help of Mumbo Jumbo the witch doctor, Banjo can even transform into other cute critters. You can be an ant, an alligator, even a pumpkin for some reason! There’s just so much you can do in Banjo-Kazooie, and all of it is fun…

But this isn’t a contest over which game has the MOST gameplay, it’s which one has the BEST gameplay. Banjo-Kazooie certainly has a lot of moves the player can pull off, but the moves all feel isolated from one another. When you’re shooting eggs, that’s all you’re doing. When you do dat backflip tho, that’s all you’re doing. The game controls well enough, but the movement has no flow, no rhythm.

The same cannot be said about Super Mario 64. Unlike Banjo’s opening, the player isn’t given a tutorial for Mario’s move set at the beginning of SM64. No tutorial is needed. Mario’s movement is so responsive, so fluid, that it organically teaches the player everything they need to know. While Banjo’s moves feel disconnected from each other, you have Mario over here doing a triple jump, then kicking off a wall, before diving back down to earth, and finishes it off by dropping a baby penguin off a cliff while its mother watches helplessly.

Banjo might have more moves, but Mario’s moves are better. Quality beats quantity here.

Super Mario 64: 1

Banjo-Kazooie: 0

Round 2: Level Design

Mario may be better at running and jumping, but what about the worlds he’s running and jumping around in? Both of these games feature some iconic levels, and they actually have a lot in common. Both games’ levels are based around paintings, both games have desert levels, snow levels, and haunted levels that are way creepier than they have any right to be (and weirdly enough, the creepiest parts of those haunted levels involve pianos).

With 15 unique areas, SM64 certainly has more to see than BK, which has only 10. But along with having more levels overall, it also has more bad levels than BK, too. Of Banjo’s ten worlds, only two of them are stinkers, (Clanker’s Cavern and Rusty Bucket Bay), while Mario 64 has four (Jolly Roger Bay, Dire Dire Docks, Wet-Dry World, and Rainbow Ride). And while the good levels in SM64 are great, BK has Click Clock Wood, which is arguably the greatest level in any collect-a-thon game ever.

Furthermore, while the gameplay of Mario 64 flows better than in Banjo, it’s the exact opposite when it comes to the level design. When Mario collects a star in any given stage, he is immediately kicked out of the level, and you have to start it over again to collect the next star. But when Banjo gets a jiggy in one part of the level, he can just keep going to get the next one, and then the next one, until he’s done. Just like how Mario gets booted out of his levels, he’s getting booted out of this round.

Super Mario 64: 1

Banjo-Kazooie: 1

Round 3: Music

This is by far the most competitive round, at least to me. Koji Kondo vs. Grant Kirkhope. Two of gaming’s greatest composers at the top of their game, making two of the most memorable soundtracks of the N64 era. Some of you youngsters may not remember a time when games had catchy music, but listen to literally any track from either one of these games, and prepare to have it stuck in your head for the rest of your lives. 

I’ll pick two standout tracks from each game to highlight their excellence. Jolly Roger Bay and Dire Dire Docks from SM64 might be underwater levels (and therefore, lame) but you cannot deny the tranquil beauty of this theme.

On the Banjo front, I’ve selected one of the tracks from Click Clock Wood. There’s a theme for each season, but it’s the spring theme that really stands out. Those opening notes just sound like flowers blooming after a long, nasty winter.

Damn, I really wish I could make this one a tie, I really do. If I have to pick one though, it has to be SM64. I love all of BK’s music, don’t get me wrong, the songs are all fun and catchy as hell. But I must say, listening to the songs back to back, you start to notice a lack of variety in the compositions. Almost every track is upbeat and bouncy, even when a different approach may have been more appropriate. 

I’ll pick two more songs from each game now to prove my point. Here’s Mad Monster Mansion from Banjo.

A great track for sure, and it starts off pretty unique from the others, with the unsettling organ setting an ominous tone. But soon after, the tempo picks up, and it’s not unlike a spooky version of Click Clock Woods. Now let’s listen to the Haunted House theme from Mario 64.

That’s some nightmare shit, right there. And notice how it doesn’t sound anything like the Dire Dire Docks theme, or the main castle theme, or any other song from the game. There is so much experimentation in the Super Mario 64 soundtrack, and that’s something that’s missing from Banjo’s OST. Kirkhope is a terrific composer, but Kondo is the greatest composer in gaming history.

Super Mario 64: 2

Banjo-Kazooie: 1

Round 4: Charm and Cuteness

When it comes to making adorable games with adorable characters, no company nowadays comes close to Nintendo. But back in the 90’s, Rare gave the Big N a run for their money when it came to cuteness. And in the case of these two games, this one is honestly no contest. Banjo takes it in a landslide. 

Nintendo packed a lot of character into Mario’s first 3D outing, but it doesn’t come close to what Rare pulled off with Banjo. Sure, it was cute racing down a slide with a penguin as Mario, but that doesn’t compare to having a sled race with a polar bear as Banjo (who has been transformed into a seal at the moment). Even Banjo’s powerups had character, with each one having cute googly eyes and a voice! The eggs can talk! The eggs that you… shoot at enemies, causing them to break on impact… 

Let’s not think about that dark shit. Banjo is cute and he wins.

Super Mario 64: 2

Banjo-Kazooie: 2

Round 5: Secrets, Collectables, and Rewards

A collect-a-thon ain’t nothin’ without things to collect, and both games give you plenty to do on this front. Mario has stars and coins, Banjo has jigsaw pieces and music notes. So which one gives players a better reason to find them all?

Mario 64 is a mainstay among speedrunners and completionists alike because finding all 120 stars is both challenging and fun. The journey to 100% this game is hard, so the reward for doing it must be worth it, right? Maybe the prize for getting all the stars will be unlocking Luigi! L is real!

So after you get all 120 stars, a cannon outside the castle opens up, which allows Mario to blast onto the roof. Waiting up there is none other than Yoshi, Mario’s beloved dinosaur steed! Do we get to ride him and punch him in the back of the head, like old times? Nope! Instead he just gives you 120 lives… which you don’t need anymore because you’ve already done everything there is to do in the game…

Yeah, Banjo wins this one, too. 

There is JUST the right amount of stuff to collect in Banjo-Kazooie. Rare eventually went overboard on the collecting when they made DK64 and Banjo-Tooie, but here they find the perfect balance. And once you do find all the jiggies, your prize for doing so is an upgrade that doubles your health, which is super useful in the genuinely hard fight against the final boss. 

Final Score

Super Mario 64: 2

Banjo-Kazooie: 3 WINNER

In an effort to stay objective, I purposely waited until the end to state my personal favorite of these two. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to know that between them, Super Mario 64 is actually my favorite. It was the first single player game that I truly fell in love with as a kid, and as stated before, its controls are just so much better. So even though you lost the war today, Super Mario 64, you won my heart decades ago. And that’s the greatest victory of all.

Next time on Clone Wars: Inside you, there are two wolves. One is a vibrant and colorful, and the other is dark and edgy (you can tell because he wears an earring). It’s The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess vs. Okami.

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