Super Mario 64 might be the father of platformers, but an extremely compelling case can be made that Banjo-Kazooie is actually the best platform game for the N64, and one of the best Nintendo 64 games, period. The main characters alone make Banjo-Kazooie more fulfilling as they have actual personalities. In comparison, Mario said, "Wahoo!" when he jumped - end of character profile.
None of this is to suggest that Super Mario 64 wasn't a great game - it absolutely was and was absolutely revolutionary. But Banjo-Kazooie is too often viewed as a knock-off, and while it was inspired by the exploits of its Italian predecessor, it took the format to a whole new level. If only the two could have had a crossover, although Diddy Kong Racing (another great knock-off) offered something close to that by suggesting the two occupied the same universe.
Mario may stand atop the highest pedestal in the pantheon of video games, but here's why Banjo-Kazooie was the best version of the style innovated by the former. Be warned, after reading this you'll almost certainly have an irresistible urge to go buy Banjo-Kazooie, and maybe even a 64 if you don't have one, or yours can be revived with no amount of spittle-spewing blowing.
There Were NPCs Galore
So many NPCs! Each world was bursting with inhabitants the player could interact with, providing both mini-puzzles and sass, rewarding players with various collectibles and hearty laughter. Conversely, Mario 64 generally had one or two characters per world, tops, that one could interact with. They'd set the player on a straightforward quest to collect a star, only giving as much textual dialogue as was required to instruct the player. No frills and no zany individuality. Mumbo Jumbo alone was greater than any character from Mario.
Humor Was A Priority
Mario didn't really have much humor because it didn't try. Sure, there was a lot of whimsy, but not humor. Banjo-Kazooie had humor. First of all, the big baddie's name was Gruntilda the Witch, a hilarious spoof on Glinda from The Wizard of Oz, but perverted to reflect this 64-bit villain's dumpiness. Then there was the relentless insults Kazooie leveled upon his furry companion with every piece of dialogue. Nabnut's exploits have already been mentioned, and the whole thing came together when Mumbo Jumbo showed up after the credits to tell the player of the sequel, showing off pictures of worlds yet to be discovered.
Banjo-Kazooie Strove To Have Fun WITH The Player
The game was exceedingly self-aware, offering quests and puzzles that were irreverent of themselves. Part of the process to defeat Gruntilda includes participating in her game show that forced the player to answer questions about various elements of the game's entire world, but also included questions like, "What does Gruntilda use to wash her hair?" (Spoiled milk, in case you want to capture that sheen for yourself.) Rare was in on the joke, as the game never took itself too seriously because it's about a banjo-playing bear and a kazoo-tooting bird, yet it still offered a depth of gameplay that proved the developers cared.
There Were Actual Collectibles
In Mario, the player collected coins and stars, the former not even being necessary. In Banjo-Kazooie players collected musical notes and Jinjos and puzzle pieces called Jiggies and adorable skull-shaped Mumbo tokens - there were just so many different collectibles to keep the game engaging. What's more, those collectibles all served a different and significant purpose. The notes unlocked doors, Mumbo Jumbo tokens were used to purchase various transformations from the witch doctor, the puzzle pieces offered a macro-reward, as players collected them across various worlds to complete a puzzles, unlocking levels or an upgrade. Most mind blowing were the Jinjos and their endgame.