When Nintendo released Super Mario 64 in 1996, they revolutionized the 3D platform game forevermore. Pretty much everything about it – the scope, the free-roaming nature, the variety of environments – was done the right way and set the standard for everything that followed. Very few things even approached it, but one of the rare games that not only did that, but arguably exceeded it, was Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie, released in 1998. It took the same basic mechanics and playing style and expanded upon them. It received glowing reviews, save for complaints by some that it was a ripoff of Mario. However, in all it was a brilliant game, but it might not have even existed if Mario 64 hadn’t preceded it. The groundwork was in place; all they needed to do was refine it.

In late 2000, before any Mario follow-up had seen the light of day, Rare released the Banjo sequel, which in a vintage smartass Rare move, was titled Banjo-Tooie rather than something like Banjo-Kazooie 2. It was bigger than B-K and in many ways, better. It had some interesting level design features that made it especially stand out. Chief among them:

1) One level, Hailfire Peaks, was a fire level and ice level in one. Fire and ice levels are two old standbys of platform games, and this was a clever way to use them. There was a fire side and ice side, with each directly accessible from the other. Some level objectives required the player to cross over between sides. All in all, a fun, inventive twist on a potentially tired formula.

2) The level after Hailfire Peaks (and the last main level in the game) was titled Cloud Cuckooland. This, to my (very limited) knowledge, was one of the strangest levels in video game history. Bizarre element after bizarre element kept popping up. The level was based around a huge mountain, with a bunch of floating platforms on the outside. There was a huge opening inside the mountain which housed a (somewhat) more traditional platform environment. Oddities outside included a giant wedge of cheese and garbage can (both of which the player had to go inside to achieve some objective), flowers that suck in the Banjo-Kazooie team and spit them out onto some faraway platform safely onto what appeared to be a giant gumdrop, a giant pot of gold (reached by walking along a rainbow…get it?), and a bouncy castle that seemed to be made out of Jello. The giant cavern inside the mountain contained enemies  that were possibly thought up while the entire design team was stoned. These things varied in color, were two-dimensional for no reason, held a variety of “weapons” (flowers, candy canes, sausages), and popped out of the ground to a cash register-esque noise. It’s hard to describe them, so here is a picture of them.

Oh yeah, and they were also hideously ugly. Lastly, the level featured the transformation of the Banjo-Kazooie team into a bee, actually an idea recycled from the previous Banjo game.

Fast forward to 2007, and the newest Mario installment, Super Mario Galaxy, has been released to well-deserved rave reviews. It has many familiar gameplay elements, some curiously familiar:

1) A lot of platform-to-platform jumping, rather than more sprawling environments. Mario is shot from planetoid to planetoid by spinning under a star launcher.

2) One segment of the game, the Freezeflame Galaxy, contains both fire and ice elements.

3) Mario can transform into a bee.

If these elements indeed sound familiar, it’s because I mentioned them all as having been in Banjo-Tooie seven years ago. Does anyone else remember this? Did Nintendo think everyone would forget? Did they just not care either way? To their credit, they came up with a major innovation to the platform-hopping element, allowing for 360-degree movement on the top, bottom, or side of an object. In Cloud Cuckooland, it was more traditional, “stay on top of the platform or you fall off into a bottomless pit” fare. Still, the similarities are striking to me.

Perhaps this kind of sharing/borrowing/refining of ideas is the norm throughout the entire gaming industry and therefore not much of an analogy to symbiosis in nature. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see it manifested in a high-profile, high-quality game like Mario Galaxy. And come to think of it, the last two levels in Super Mario 64 (Tick Tock Clock and Rainbow Ride) had a lot of platform-hopping and weren’t really sprawling, continuous environments, although as far as I can tell Tooie pioneered the element of being shot through the air to different platforms. Then again, Mario 64 had those cannons…maybe a better analogy would have been an intricate web. For now, I will state once and for all that Banjo-Tooie and Super Mario Galaxy are both excellent games, and when IGN said in its review of Tooie  back in 2000 that “even Nintendo itself has got to be taking a few notes because it’s such a great platformer,” they were right on, no matter who came first with exactly what.

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