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Company: Nintendo64
Price: $49.99

From the moment you pop Banjo-Kazooie into your N64, you know you're in for hours of cute insanity. The characters serenade you with their favorite instruments, which happen to correspond with their names.

Players who brake only for cool-type video games will be tempted to pop Banjo-Kazooie right out of their Nintendo 64, but stick around and you'll be treated to a grand Nintendo adventure.

Banjo-Kazooie, while it resembles Mario 64 in looks and even feel, is so much more. For starters, the breadth of moves the combo of Banjo, the honey bear, and Kazooie, the breeze gull, can pull off is staggering. Six levels into the game -- and these are huge levels -- you'll still be learning maneuvers that are necessary to complete the stages.

After a quick introduction to Banjo's basic abilities, the bear-bird team makes a break for their arch-enemy's castle. The castle of Gruntilda, the evil witch, holds the portals to nine worlds, while the castle itself is an elaborately designed series of great rooms and passageways, full of secrets all its own.

The worlds themselves are huge, even epic. As in Mario 64, Banjo and Kazooie can roam wherever their skills will take them, tromping across a snow- covered tundra, over an arid desert and into a haunted mansion. While the backdrops are standard video game fare -- they all appeared in Mario 64 -- the level design is impeccable.

The game relies less on quick reflexes and more on brain activity, forcing players to solve riddles in order to earn puzzle pieces, which open up new levels. You'll spend more time trying to find and collect items than beating up on baddies.

The storyline of Banjo-Kazooie offers a pleasant diversion from the action. Staying close to the plot of Snow White, Gruntilda has kidnapped Banjo's sister Tooty to steal the comely bear's looks. Gruntilda's better half, her sister Brentilda, magically appears here and there to inform Banjo and Kazooie of some of the evil witch's dark secrets. For example, she cuddles with a huge, sweaty baboon in bed at night. You'll want to write these tidbits down, because you'll need them later in the game.

In all, Banjo-Kazooie is an unquestionable masterpiece and reason enough for die-hard PlayStation fans to at least rent the Nintendo 64 for a few days. It's a shame there aren't more titles like B-J for the N64, but then again, how much cuteness can one person take?

-- Robb Guido, Times correspondent


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