In 1992, Nintendo released Super Mario Kart, which starred a handful of Mario characters racing each other in go-karts. They might not have realized it at the time, but Nintendo had invented an entirely new video game genre now known as the kart racer. This genre focuses less on realistic car controls and high-speed action, and more on zany track design and item-based combat, and typically features a cartoony art style. And Rare is no stranger to kart racers, having developed the critically acclaimed Diddy Kong Racing, as well as the surprisingly decent Mickey’s Speedway USA. They were creating a sequel to Diddy Kong Racing that emphasized the plane gameplay, but when Rare lost the ability to use Donkey Kong characters after being bought by Microsoft, they needed a new set of characters to fill the void, and the Banjo-Kazooie cast was the most obvious choice. It was time for Banjo to earn his wings. *subtitles by CloudConnection* At the time of the Microsoft acquisition, Rare was working on three Donkey Kong games; Donkey Kong Coconut Crackers, which turned into the obscure puzzle game It’s Mr. Pants, Donkey Kong Racing, which was cancelled altogether, and Diddy Kong Pilot, which eventually became Banjo-Pilot. Diddy Kong Pilot would have starred Diddy Kong and a bunch of other Donkey Kong characters racing each other in bi-planes on tracks inspired by the Donkey Kong series. The last known build of Diddy Kong Pilot was finished in 2003, and there’s virtually no changes between this build and Banjo-Pilot. The gameplay, items, graphics style, and track layouts are more or less the same; the only real difference is, obviously, the characters. However, there was another separate build of Banjo-Pilot that featured an entirely different engine that used voxels to create 3D environments. While this version is more technically impressive than the finished product, with some of the best-looking graphics for the Game Boy Advance, it was too demanding for the hardware, with heavy lag and choppy draw distance, so Rare reverted to the earlier build. The game was released in North America on January 12th, 2005, and would be the last Banjo game released on a Nintendo system. It’s hard for kart racers to stick out from each other, so does Banjo-Pilot shine above the rest, or is it just another average kart racer that we’ve all played a million times before? In Banjo-Pilot, up to eight characters race each other to the finish line in a series of tracks inspired by worlds from the Banjo series. The most distinguishing feature in this game is the use of planes rather than karts, though on the surface, they aren’t that different. You can move your plane horizontally and vertically across the screen, allowing you to turn your plane as well as ascend and descend. The ability to move on the y-axis is pretty unique, and you can use it to avoid obstacles, reach items and speed boosters, and get around other racers. You hold down the A button to accelerate, and you can hold the R button to make sharper turns. The planes control decently enough, though it’s a bit tricky to maneuver your plane at high speeds, and in the later levels, the turns are way too tight for these plans to handle. Beyond this, you can also shoot bullets using the B button, but this is barely useful in races; it really only comes into play during the boss battles – more on that later. Finally, you can perform aileron rolls (which are not barrel rolls), or flip your plane 360 degrees by using the L button, which lets you dodge projectiles if you time it correctly. The controls are a little more complex than your basic kart racer, but it’s still simple enough that you’ll get the hang of it within a few races. However, the gameplay does have a few annoying quirks. For one thing, it can be difficult to determine where racers are spatially in relation to you, and it’s impossible to know when they’re right on your tail, and if they bump into you, they’ll slow you down or send you crashing into an object. If an item targets you, it does take a second to attack so you can dodge it, but there’s no way to know if another racer is behind you waiting to bump you off-course. Speaking of which, going off-road slows down your plane, which makes no sense considering you’re flying above the ground. I get that you need some way to define which areas are track and which aren’t, but why this affects your plane speed is something I just don’t get. There’s already a bunch of obstacles off-road anyway, which are more than enough to deter players from trying to cut too many corners. Finally, there’s the rubber banding. If you’re unfamiliar, rubber banding is a system where opponent AIs increase or decrease their skill level depending on how you’re playing. If you’re doing well, the AI becomes more challenging, and vice versa if you’re playing poorly. Now, I understand that rubber banding is, in moderation, a good thing, since it allows for better competition between the player and AIs. But in Banjo-Pilot, it just seems unfair sometimes. There were several times, especially in the later Grand Prix cups, where opponents just seemed to rocket past me out of nowhere, and it turns what should be fun races into irritating challenges. You start out with four characters to choose from, each with their own stats, including top speed, acceleration, and handling, but you can unlock an additional five characters as you play. These stats don’t have a major impact on how the game controls, but you’ll definitely notice that some characters handle better than others. From personal experience, I couldn’t tell you which of these stats is more important; I find the best racers are more balanced between all three, until you unlock Bottles, who is absolutely broken. I do like how each character has their own style of plane, though; it’s a great touch that helps everybody stand out from each other during gameplay. As this is a kart racer, you can pick up items if you fly into these Honeycombs, which allow you to gain an edge against your competitors. You’ll definitely recognize these item behaviors if you’ve played a Mario Kart game, but they are themed after Banjo-Kazooie items. The Fire Eggs target the racer in front of you, and the Ice Eggs create a block of ice that will cause racers to crash if they touch it. The Saucer of Peril homes in on the racer in first place, just like a Blue Shell but less annoying. Turbo Trainers give you a big boost of speed, Golden Feathers grant you temporary invincibility, and Mingy Jongo shrinks all other racers which slows them down. Many of these items are holdovers from Diddy Kong Racing, and while their functions aren’t unique, they are helpful when you’ve fallen behind. Also helpful are the Glowbos, which you need to unlock first. Once you do, they appear on a track and will give you an advantage if you shoot at them. Purple Glowbos spawn a series of speed boosters that let you zip through a part of the track, and Green Glowbos create a portal that temporarily takes control of your plane and carries you along the track at a faster pace, essentially acting as an elongated warp to a further section of the course. The Glowbos are pretty hard to hit, though, and the boosters they spawn disappear after a few seconds, so you need to fly carefully to take advantage of them. Finally, in Quick Race and Grand Prix mode, there are four Notes on each track which help determine how many Cheato Pages you earn. After each race, you earn a number of Cheato Pages depending on which place you finished in, and the Notes act as multipliers to this number if you collect them. You can give these Pages to Cheato to unlock features, such as Grand Prix cups, characters, and tracks for Battle Mode. Banjo-Pilot is actually pretty heavy on things to do, more so than your average kart racer. Quick Race simply allows you to race on a single track of your choice, and Time Trial does the same thing, but your objective is to beat pre-set times around each course. In Grand Prix, you compete in a series of cups that contain fourtracks, and you get points for each race depending on which place you come in. If you win enough points, you earn a trophy plus the chance tofight the champion of the cup. These fights take place in a condensed arena and the object is to shoot your opponent down using your plane’s gun and items when you can get them. Your acceleration is fixed, and you’ll always be either behind or ahead of the other racer, which can either be an advantage or a detriment depending on what items you have. Each opponent has a special attack that is either really easy or really difficult to dodge, and they have much better aim with their standard gun attack than you’ll ever have, which makes these battles much more frustrating than they should be. There are four Grand Prix modes to choose from: the Bottles GP, which features all the standard tracks in the game, the Grunty GP, where you race on each track backwards, the Jinjo GP, which places you into six random tracks and the opponents are all Jinjos, and the Endurance GP, where you need to race on all 16 standard tracks in a row and deal with AI racers that are extremely competitive and bloodthirsty. Your only real reward for beating a GP besides Cheato Pages is adding trophies and rosettes to your collection, but it is the best way to experience every track in the game. The final mode is Jiggy Challenge, where you need to collect all six Jiggies on a track while also beating your opponent, either Bottles or Grunty, to the finish line. All the Jiggies are marked on your minimap, and since you’ve likely played on these tracks a few times before attempting this mode, it isn’t hard to grab them all and still come in first place. I should mention that Banjo-Pilot also features multiplayer capabilities if you have multiple GBA systems and a link cable, which I don’t have, so I can’t exactly try it out. You’re able to race your friends on any track in the game and participate in Battle Mode on specifically-designed courses, and from what I can gather, it doesn’t offer anything that any Mario Kart game won’t provide. The game certainly has a lot of stuff to keep you occupied, but it’s all bogged down by Banjo-Pilot’s biggest drawback: the track design. Now, these tracks are absolutely fine, if a bit basic, and there’s no annoying design choices on display, but there’s two main issues with these courses. First, they’re all pretty boring. Every course is just a linear track with the occasional branching pathway or shortcut, and while the aesthetics are different, a lot of courses blend together after a while. You can argue that that’s true of every kart racer, but this leads into the second problem: these tracks don’t take advantage of the plane gameplay. What was great about the plane stages in Diddy Kong Racing was that they accounted for a plane’s ability to fly higher and lower, so the level design wasn’t restricted to the same flat terrain as the kart sections. That doesn’t apply here: each track’s terrain is levelled off, with no height differences anywhere. And that’s such a wasted opportunity that makes the planegimmick feel unnecessary. Because of how sterile and empty the track design is, you never feel like the planes are helping you race more effectively. What’s the advantage that planes bring to these tracks? There isn’t one. Even disregarding this issue, there aren’t any interesting hazards or level gimmicks that make these tracks stand out from each other. There are obstacles, sure, but they’re all just static objects that are incredibly easy to dodge. I imagine this would have been addressed if the game stuck with the voxel engine, as it would allow the team to create more advanced terrain, but as it is, these levels never rise above just being okay. At least the graphics and music are nice, though. The character sprites are pretty decent and the environments are nice and colorful, and maintain the same 3D-esque look of Grunty’s Revenge. Kart racers don’t need advanced graphics anyway, so keeping things simple is to be expected. The music, composed by Jamie Hughes and Robin Beanland, is alright too, though it again lacks the Banjo soundtrack style. Most of the music was created for Diddy Kong Pilot, so it sounds more like a Donkey Kong soundtrack than anything else, but the compositions are pleasant to listen to, even if they’re drowned out in the heat of the race. And that’s Banjo-Pilot, an average kart racer with an interesting but slightly underutilized gimmick. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with it, but it doesn’t do anything that other kart racers haven’t done before and done better. The game controls very well, the Banjo theme is fun, and the game looks and sounds okay, but the track design leaves something to be desired and the difficulty feels artificial at times. At its worst, it’s a quick cash grab trying to capitalize on the success of Mario Kart, but at its best, it’s an okay game that might entertain you for a couple of minutes. This would be the last time until 2019 that Banjo appeared on a Nintendo system, though, as there would finally be a Banjo-Kazooie game on an Xbox console in 2008, and let’s just say that Banjo-Pilot wouldn’t be the last game to feature Banjo and Kazooie messing around with vehicles.