RETRO: Banjo-Kazooie [Spooky Edition]

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Banjo-Kazooie is a 1998 3D platformer game for the Nintendo 64 by Rareware, and is considered by many to be one of the best games for the N64 altogether. It involves a bear (Banjo) and his best friend (Kazooie) on a quest to save Banjo’s sister Tooty from the evil witch Grunty, who is planning on stealing Tooty’s vestal beauty for herself.

Although Banjo-Kazooie is widely considered to be one of the greatest hits of the 90s, that just means it’s filled with what a lot of those great 90s had in common: pure, pure fear. Although Banjo-Kazooie is a light romp at heart, certain areas of the game are filled with unabashed fright. And no, we’re not just talking about Mad Monster Mansion here – Mad Monster Mansion is child’s play compared to how terrifying some of these levels can get.

After the jump, we’ll journey with the bear and bird to the deepest, spookiest recesses of Grunty’s castle.

Treasure Trove Cove

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We start with the second world in the game: Treasure Trove Cove, a tropical pirate island filled with treasure… and fear! Possibly one of the defining characteristics of this level isn’t just the aesthetic or the puzzles, but one specific enemy that has struck fear into the hearts of children: Snacker the Shark.

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Snacker is a hungry shark that prowls the exterior waters of Treasure Trove Cove, looking for unwary swimmers to munch on. Snacker will show up any time you enter the water on the edge of the map and immediately start chasing you until you leave the water or die. He can swim faster than you (although you can outpace him by constantly jumping out of the water), and cannot be killed by normal methods. To make it worse, the music changes from the jolly sea-shanty the level normally plays to a haunting pastiche of the Jaws theme. The only way to defeat him is almost impossible to figure out yourself: You have to drop eggs on him while you’re out of the water and hope they hit him enough times to knock him out. Use your newfound swimming time quickly, though, because he’ll just respawn after a minute!

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Aside from Snacker, Treasure Trove Cove features one other enemy of terror. Nipper is a giant hermit crab that lives on one small stretch of beach who offers Banjo help in his journey. Unfortunately, Kazooie’s abrasive attitude offends Nipper who becomes enraged and tries to attack our heroes. Nipper is too big to move anywhere, but his enormous claws can easily put the pinch on Banjo if he’s too close to the crustacean. Nipper’s creepy appearance, with mottled green skin and enormous bulging eye-stalks, is uncomfortable to even look at. Not to mention that triggering his encounter also changes the level’s music, this time to a faster-paced boss rendition! Fortunately, unlike Snacker, Nipper is trivial to beat by hitting him in the face three times when he becomes exhausted after snipping at you.

Clanker’s Cavern

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The third world is Clanker’s Cavern, an enormous sewer that Grunty uses as her personal garbage dump. This is the first water-oriented world in the game, and the one that focuses the most on being in the water. That in itself makes it very scary, as the grimy glumness of the level makes you very much not want to go in the water. This level is loaded with tons of little frightening areas filled with all kinds of horrors to discover.

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In one little alcove, you encounter the Mutie-Snippets, green mutated crabs that you must fight to earn a Jiggy piece. This fight isn’t hard as it’s simply a few common enemies with a different model, but it’s your surroundings that make it so fearsome.

The alcove that you encounted these Mutie-Snippets is very small, forcing you to get very close to the enemies. For a clumsy kid, this can quickly mean defeat before you understand what’s going on. The area is also bathed in radioactive green light – this is creepy enough in itself, but as the Mutie-Snippets are also green it can make it hard to see exactly where they are. Even the music is tense, being a sped up marimba rendition of the level’s theme.

Of course, this is far from the most frightening thing the level has to offer. No, the worst is the level’s namesake: Clanker himself.

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Clanker is a gigantic mechanical whale that is enslaved by Gruntilda to serve as a garbage disposal. He is first found at the very deepest part of the level underwater. To meet him, you must swim through a narrow tube that forces you to be shoved face-first into his massive toothy maw. Clanker himself isn’t evil, though: he asks for your help to rise to the surface so he can breathe fresh air. To accomplish this, you must swim through a key that is locked to a chain holding Clanker down.

This isn’t easy – the only way to not run out of your air meter is to touch bubbles being blown by a constantly swimming goldfish. It’s very, very easy to miss these due to clumsy swimming physics, so get ready to drown and start the whole thing over again.

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Once you’ve managed to free Clanker, he rises to the surface of the water where you’re free to explore him. Yes, explore him – you can enter his body through his blowhole and venture through his fleshy innards. Clanker’s inside is just as menacing as his outside, being filled with fleshy whipping vines and spinning fan blades. Clanker may not be a bad guy, but we’ll admit we’d be hesitant to invite him to any of our parties.

Rusty Bucket Bay

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Rusty Bucket Bay is the eighth world, and considered to be one of the most difficult in the game. The primary reason for this is that it is a water level, but a water level with a unique gimmick. The centerpiece of the level is the titular Rusty Bucket, Gruntilda’s own enormous cargo ship that is constantly polluting the water around it with oily sludge. As such, the water in the level is heavily polluted, causing your air meter to be constantly dwindling when in the water even if you’re above the surface.

The Rusty Bucket is fully explorable, and both inside and outside feature plenty of horrors to behold. On the exterior, metal pipes stick out of the ground with their openings just primed to be jumped into. Some of these will allow you to enter the ship; others, enemies in disguise that will bite you when you try to jump into them. These pipe enemies aren’t just tricky, but one of the few enemies that cannot be defeated by any means – even invincibility will not kill them.

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Inside the ship is even worse. Although you can explore mundane areas like the ship’s galley and berths, the worst place in the entire game may just be the engine room. This enormous, cavernous engine is the heart of the Rusty Bucket and possesses a massive challenge to even seasoned players. To reach the Jiggy trapped in the engine room, you must navigate across a large series of rotating crankshafts, cogs and fans. It’s hard enough to just get the Jiggy, but you’ll have to revisit this dank place several times while playing the level to trigger other events involving the ship’s machinery.

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Oh – and did we mention the second Snacker that’s in this level? Yep! Journey to the south-west corner of the level and you’ll be in a closed-off section containing yet another shark! This one won’t taunt you, fortunately, but considering the level’s air-draining water it makes it a real hard challenge to escape from this one. There’s a trapped Jinjo in this area, too, so if you want to complete the game there’s no getting around this shark.

Grunty’s Furnace Fun

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Finally, after making your way through all of the worlds in Grunty’s castle, you face one final challenge: a horrifying quiz show. Grunty’s Furnace Fun is Grunty’s final effort to stop the bear and bird before they can rescue Tooty. The entire game is set upon a tabletop game style board, with each square having a trivia question that must be answered to progress.

Also, the whole thing is above a boiling lake of lava.

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For every question you get wrong, you are damaged for one hit point which means you have a generous amount of attempts. However, certain squares on the board are marked with a skull. If you answer wrong here, you are thrown directly into the lava where Banjo and Kazooie die instantly.

Game Over

Once you’ve lost all of your lives the game of course ends. Grunty succeds in her plan to steal Tooty’s beauty, and becomes beautiful herself. That isn’t scary in itself; what’s scary is what happens to Tooty.

Tooty, now the vector for all of Grunty’s hideousness, emerges from the machine a growling, green-skined monster. A sad rendition of the game’s main theme plays on the banjo as Tooty requests a word with Banjo… now. It’s a chilling scene on its own, but one small detail makes it a lot worse: This game over plays when you quit the game from the pause menu as well. Even when you’re just done playing the game, you’re subjected to horror!

After the fact…

If Super Mario 64 defined the 3D platforming genre, Banjo-Kazooie was the game that perfected it. Improvements made to the graphics, gameplay, and audio made for one of the best experiences available for the Nintendo 64, even to this day. Of course, improved experiences included the horror experience, even if it was unintended. Banjo-Kazooie will always be one of the greatest, and unintentionally spookiest, games ever made.

What was one of the moments in Banjo-Kazooie that scared you the most? If you haven’t played Banjo-Kazooie before, why the heck do you place so much value on your sanity? Let us know your experiences in the comments below!

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