How Banjo-Kazooie Controls Difficulty and Player Flow

Controlling player flow is one of the most crucial aspects of a game’s design. Flow is what keeps players playing your game. As my favorite game, I’ve spent a good deal of my time in flow in Banjo-Kazooie throughout my life. Now that Yooka-Laylee is coming out this week, I wanted to analyze how Rare made sure Banjo-Kazooie players were in flow to see how they’ve modified their ideas in Yooka-Laylee 19 years later.

From what I can tell, Banjo-Kazooie controls flow by having a variety of abilities, levels designed to let the player choose challenges to focus on, and gates to block harder challenges until you completed enough easier challenges.

Abilities

A core part of the design in Banjo-Kazooie that separates the game from other 3D platformers of the time is abilities that are learned throughout the game. These abilities are used to mix up the gameplay, be “keys” to unlock parts of the game,  and allow different types of challenges to keep players entertained.

Banjo-Kazooie was made for a less mature audience than Super Mario 64. To make the platforming easier for younger players, the game gives the player a double jump. The second jump, Kazooie’s Feathery Flap, allows the player to hold the jump button down to hover a bit to help control where you are land and jump further. This makes the platforming challenges in the game easier and is a core part of Banjo’s game design. This also leads Banjo-Kazooie to have less platforming challenges than other 3D platformers. Instead, the game is more focused on exploring and finding small puzzles to solve.

The Talon Trot allows Kazooie to walk, allowing the player to go up slopes that Banjo couldn’t. The Talon Trot also allows the player to move faster while sacrificing some maneuverability and stability. Moving fast along a narrow walkway, for example, will increase the likelihood of the player falling off. Jumping with the talon trot will end up making the player slip a little bit, making jumps a bit harder. It ends up being a clever way to allow more skilled players to move quickly through the game while increasing the difficulty slightly for them. Less skilled players will tend to walk using Banjo more, which is safer but slower. More skilled players will want to move faster through the game, thus use the Talon Trot more, which makes it harder for them to do the jumps they want to do and move exactly the way they want. This is a good way the game keeps the player in flow while playing.

Offensively, players are given a few options. Banjo’s Claw Swipe is a simple attack while you are standing still that in practice is rarely used because the Forward Roll is better in almost every situation because it’s easier to hit what you are aiming for and you don’t have to stop running. The Rat-a-Tat Rap is an ability that you must be in the air to use, but it will often hit enemies on the ground, too. Shooting eggs can be used as a long-range offensive ability. There’s also the Beak Barge, but it doesn’t have much use as an offensive ability because it’s essentially the same as the Forward Roll except you need to crouch to perform. If you are in the air and there’s an enemy below you, the beak buster is a cool way to pound down onto the enemy for a good kill. Wonderwing can also damage enemies but is more used as a defensive or last resort measure.

In the end, even with various options, the Forward Roll and Rat-a-Tat Rap are the abilities you are likely to use for offense most of the time. They overlap in their function for many enemies so the result is, if the enemy is in the air or on the ground and tall enough, you will use the Rat-a-Tat Rap if you are in a Talon Trot and the Forward Roll the rest of the time. This leaves the offensive abilities kind of lackluster, but since the game doesn’t really focus much on offense, I think this is fine. It might’ve done the game better to have a more complex system where certain enemies could only be killed by certain abilities, but I think that may have made the game too hard for younger players. I would’ve like to see some reasons to use the Beak Barge or Claw Swipe the since the abilities are so underused in the game. Below is early concepts of the game’s move set. You can see it had more abilities related to combat that was rejected in the end, so the game designers clearly made the choice to make combat less meaningful to the game.

Other abilities include seeing pads or shoes in the environment and limiting your usage of them. The Shock Jump is a very high jump that can only be used on a Shock Jump pad. You can only begin flying from a Flight pad. The number of red feathers you have a limit how much you can fly. Running shoes allow you to run faster and the Wading boots allow you to go through terrain that would normally damage you. These only last for a certain amount of time. These abilities aren’t really that interesting. They more serve as a way to block you from reaching certain things until you activate the ability., they do add to the game by allowing different types of gameplay and offering more types of puzzles the player must solve.

The variety of abilities adds to the game by allowing different types of gameplay and offering more types of puzzles the player must solve. The various worlds mix up the abilities you need to use in order to provide the player with different types of challenges so things don’t get repetitive and boring, contributing to keeping the player in flow.

There is one caveat to abilities contributing to flow. Due to the nature of being a 3D game, it’s naturally more complicated. This inheritely requires more coordination be required – thus making the game harder for very low-skilled players. You can read more about the impact of 3D controls to the narrowing of the player base in my post on the downfall of 3D platformers.

Flow Control and Difficulty

As I said in my post on analyzing the level design, levels are made to encourage exploration and find their own challenges. This leads to the player being in a wide open world and able to choose any challenge they want to face. This is very similar to the point I made in my Breath of the Wild post on flow control. The game gives the player several orthogonal challenges to complete and it’s their choice which to complete.

While the game is full of collectibles, you don’t need to collect everything to continue on your quest and unlock new worlds. Often note doors or puzzles require you to collect a percentage of Jiggies or notes to continue. If you find it hard to get a specific Jiggy, you can move on to another one and try that challenge instead. As you get stuck in later levels, you can go back and try the ones that were difficult before. With your new-found skills, you will probably be able to conquer these challenges and continue. Meanwhile, this will train you to be better at challenges in the future. This allows players to find challenges within their flow channel themselves.

The game increases difficulty very gradually through the worlds. Mumbo’s Mountain is an easy world. There are no high places where you can fall off. Enemies are simple but can be intimidating. Treasure Trove Cove offers harder enemies and gives you high places that you can fall off of. By the time we get to Bubble Gloop Swamp, there are now hazards in the environment we can’t touch – the swamp water. Bubble Gloop Swamp lets you explore the hazard by not offering many high places to fall off of to get stuck in the hazards. Freezeezy Peak and Gobi’s Valley build on that by having hazards and high places to fall from. Mad Monster Mansion gives a spooky atmosphere but isn’t as difficult as it makes you think it will be. The hardest things are the Ghosts and timing challenges. Rusty Bucket Bay has the hardest timed-platforming challenge and makes falling in water more dangerous with its oil-water increasing the timing of getting back to land. Click Clock Wood is a proper final world because it mixes most of the mechanics you’ve seen before into one level that lasts a long time and has the most vertical sections with tricky platforming to master. One wrong step can make you fall down the tree potentially to your death. Dying at any point in this world leads you to need to collect all the notes again.

Gruntilda’s Lair also makes it harder to unlock new levels the further you go through the game. It starts simple, with Mumbo Mountain’s puzzle being right next to its opening. Treasure Trove Cove and Clanker’s Cavern make you explore a little more to find the entrance. This gradually increases until Rusty Bucket Bay makes you find various water-level rising switches and Click Clock Wood makes you need to remember where you saw its puzzle and figure out how to unlock placing Jiggies on it.

You need to get most of the content in the game before you can battle Gruntilda, the final boss. One could argue that you need to complete too much content in order to get to the battle with Gruntilda. This may be considered true, but I see the fight with Gruntilda as an after-game experience. The first ending is after completing a clever game-show board game that makes you remember all the amazing things the game had to offer. This is meant to be the normal ending. You save Tooty, but the battle with Gruntilda is still locked off. Gating Gruntilda gives players more motivation to explore every world very thoroughly. Since you’ve already achieved your main goal before this, rescuing Tooty, I think this is a fair compromise. After beating Gruntilda, you get the more satisfying true ending. I can’t imagine a better reward for completing that much content in the game than getting to get revenge on Gruntilda.

How could flow be better?

Most of the problems relating to flow in this game relate to 3D platformers in general. Basically, 3D platformers narrow the skill window required to be in flow. High-skilled players will find it hard to be in flow because there aren’t enough challenges. Low-skilled players find it difficult to be in flow because of complicated controls and open-world gameplay. This is true in Banjo-Kazooie as well. I have a blog post that goes into more detail here.

The one place that violates most of Banjo-Kazooie’s good design practices around difficulty is in Clanker’s Cavern. In Clanker’s Cavern, you can only get 2-3 Jiggies without freeing Clanker. To make this even more annoying, freeing Clanker can be very challenging because it requires you to swim very precisely while running out of breath. The game had barely prepared you for this challenge, so this seems unfair. This leaves most of the world is blocked off until you do this challenge. Luckily, because you don’t need everything in order to get to the next world, you can go back to Treasure Trove Cove or Mumbo’s Mountain and collect more there. I wonder if the designers intentionally made Clanker’s Cavern like this in order to encourage players to go back to the other worlds.

Best note score. I hate best note score. This really violates several of the great design I’ve mentioned above. Mainly, if players are worried about collecting all the notes before leaving the world, they either won’t leave the world or just accept the loss. If they are stuck in the world or just want a change of scenery, this means they can’t simply go to another world without feeling a loss. This provides frustration to a player that’s already feeling either frustrated or bored. Once you return to the world, you need to collect every note you already collected which is just boring and doesn’t provide any new interesting decisions other than collecting them faster potentially. The remaster in Rare Replay saves your note progress, so you can feel free to exit the world and come back later with no loss of notes.

Conclusion

Banjo-Kazooie is a game I find myself going back to every year or two. It meant a lot to me as a child due to the sense of wonder it gives you while rewarding you for finding the secrets the game has to offer. There are several non-linear challenges in the game that encourage you to use your diverse move set to navigate the amazing worlds. I’m very much looking forward to Yooka-Laylee to see how much it compares to the original. I’m wondering how it tries to keep me in flow and how it might fail, and you can be sure I’ll write a post about it.

For those who don’t know about Yooka-Laylee, if you read this far you are probably craving a game just like it. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you get a 20% discount on preorders and new games, anyway. You can get a free trial of Amazon Prime here. Also, Here’s a link to Rare Replay if you want to play the remastered version of Banjo-Kazooie along with several other classic Rare games.