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.
The Jinjos Save The Day
A lot of games have collectibles and a lot of those collectibles serve no greater purpose than to be collected. That was definitely not the case with Banjo-Kazooie, which almost revolutionized collectibles with their Jinjos. Throughout the game, each world contains five Jinjos that one must collect in order to obtain a musical note for that world. But there's an ulterior purpose. In the climactic fight, those Jinjos Banjo rescued come to Banjo's rescue and help defeat Gruntilda. It was a really innovative way to reward the player for painstaking collection that in too many games comes with no reward at all.
The Sounds Of The Game Are Unforgettable
When the player visited Mumbo Jumbo the witch doctor and he performed his magic on Banjo, assuming the necessary skulls had been collected, his incantation included the phrase, "Eekum, bokum!" It's a meaningless line that may still pop into your head from time to time, even if it's been 10 years since you forgot where it came from. You may also recall the gibberish that the characters spoke, especially Kazooie. The sounds - not even the music, but the vast array of audial elements in the game brought the world to life so completely.
Jonathan Beach of Vice hit the nail on the head, saying of the game,
"[Grant] Kirkhope's soundtrack is a fireworks display of aural color, personality, and place, characterized by the way each tune and noise plays out with subtle changes in tempo, rhythm, and melody throughout each of the impeccably designed levels."
The Music Was A Carnival Of Fun
From the very opening theme this game told the player what it was: a wacky jaunt full of lively wonder. The music of each world was dynamic and unique, but always kept that tone of great fun. Mario 64's memorable music was limited to that from Bob-omb Battlefield, the very first world, which was fun and iconic in its own right, but it pretty much ended there. What's more, the music in Banjo-Kazooie was responsive: it would change in Gruntilda's Lair, reflecting each respective world as the player neared. And music was so much a part of the game's DNA that Banjo collected musical notes like Mario collected coins, though the notes actually served a purpose by allowing players to open corresponding doors instead of just giving a 1-Up with every 100 collected.
There Were More Than Two Acquired Abilities
If one can even call Mario's flying cap or Metal Mario "acquired abilities", they still pale in comparison to those Banjo-Kazooie had to offer. It was one of the first platformers to offer acquired abilities, an innovation still heavily in use today (think God of War). Throughout the game, Banjo and his feathered friend would learn new skills, such as Kazooie's Talon Trot that allowed the player to move faster and climb steeper hills, or the ability to use fire eggs, which was required for a plethora of tasks as well as being another form of attack. Rare built upon this in their later games like Donkey Kong 64, which wasn't as good (ironically, it felt like a knock-off of Banjo-Kazooie), but still had a lot to offer.