Ugly Bear and Feathered Freak: Gender Equity in Banjo-Kazooie

Due to admittedly justified console favoritism on the part of Naughty Dog, I have yet to play The Last of Us—a state of affairs I lament, give its stellar reception. I get most of my information about the game from a close friend, who has told me “Winter” is her favorite section because she gets to play as Ellie. I understand that feeling, since I just about backflipped off my couch when I learned Elizabeth was going to be the player character in Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea Part 2.

What these two games have in common, among other things, is the prevalence of a male and female duo as main protagonists. Playing as such dual-gender pairs where both characters contribute to the success of the mission—either by player controlling both characters, or playing one while the other acts as a critical AI partner—is a dynamic that’s has been picking up steam in western gaming; examples as early as Ice Climber have led to more complex and intricate relationships in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Half-Life 2, Halo and the aforementioned Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite. While criticisms have been leveled at some of these depictions—some claiming, for instance, that Elizabeth is little more than a vending machine and Ellie is “weaker” than Joel—they are nonetheless an interesting evolution in western gaming, and a positive step in regard to gender equity.

“This is for anyone who tries to give you sass, ya hear?”

However, in examining this dynamic, attention must be paid to one particular game that often isn’t included in discussions of gender in gaming—a game that utilized a dual-gender pair so equitably and so seamlessly that it rarely draws attention for the effort, because it seems so effortless. Naturally, I am talking about Banjo-Kazooie. Of course.

Yeah, those two.

Released in 1998 by RareWare (the same team behind Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest), Banjo-Kazooie is an cartoony action-adventure platformer that won the hearts of gamers the world over. At first criticizing the game as a Super Mario 64 clone, critics eventually noticed how the game’s larger worlds, emphasis on exploration, effective soundtrack and very British humor showed it to be a cut above its predecessors. It was popular enough to see a sequel, Banjo-Tooie, released two years later to similar acclaim.

Too bad there was never, ever another one. EVER.

In the game, partners Banjo and Kazooie—a likeable brown bear and a cheeky red bree-gull—go on a mission to save Banjo’s sister Tooty from the evil witch Gruntilda, who spirits the girl away to a mountain lair to steal her beauty. The two travel through Grunty’s lair, searching for collectibles in a series of worlds contained within (from desert to swamp to a decrepit ocean liner), learning new moves to help them progress. Together they save Tooty and defeat the wicked witch, burying her under a gigantic rock where she conveniently stays until the sequel, when they do it all over again.

Silly and comical, Banjo-Kazooie doesn’t seem like a vehicle for social commentary, as it shouldn’t—for all intents and purposes RareWare set out to make a fun adventure-platformer with no “greater” ambitions in mind. However, some of the most interesting insight into social thinking can arise when no social commentary is meant, and the attitudes expressed in the work come naturally. This is where Banjo-Kazooie gets interesting on a critical level, because in developing their romp through colorful worlds in search of magic puzzle pieces, Rare created one of the earliest gender equitable partnerships known in gaming.

When Tootie is kidnapped and Banjo and Kazooie resolve to save her, it becomes immediately clear that the two don’t match the typical gender paradigm—Banjo is no great adventurer and does not look forward to the quest, while Kazooie is ready to go right out of the gate. Their personalities are similarly divergent, with Banjo being the mild-mannered face of the duo, and Kazooie being the hot-headed and boisterous partner. This setup is much different from many games (where warrior male and gentle female characters are more common) setting up an interesting partnership from the start.

While this dynamic is a notable part of the game’s sense of gender equity, it is not the  core. That comes in the gameplay itself, how the characters are utilized, and the moveset assigned to them as a pair. As opposed to games like those noted above, where dual-gender pairs are integrated through the use of AI or second player options, Rare cleverly incorporates Banjo and Kazooie as a compound unit. This design makes them controllable by one player, as if they were a single character, while keeping their actions visually distinct.

That isn’t to say they these actions are distinct in a gameplay sense—the vast majority of the moves available to the player represent simple, continuous actions that can’t be altered based on their individual parts. For instance, the Beak Buster move, in which Banjo jumps into the air and Kazooie slams her beak into objects to break them, will always involve those two components with no variation. However, each character’s involvement in making the move work is visually obvious—Banjo jumps and Kazooie turns her wings to execute a backflip, Banjo ducks and Kazooie shoots eggs out of her mouth, et cetera.

In most cases, Banjo is the weight that gives the move force—jumping, rolling, crouching—and Kazooie accomplishes the hairpin executions, pecking an enemy or flapping her wings to increase jump range. The two are eventually given the ability to separate in Banjo-Tooie and learn their own unique movesets, but their range of abilities is limited and they suffer greater disadvantages (less mobility, decreased defense) than they do when they are together.

This setup allows for the functioning of an extremely egalitarian team. Since both characters are equally pivotal to accomplishing the actions that allow them to progress through the witch’s lair, both play an equal part in the accomplishing of their goal. Without Kazooie, Banjo wouldn’t have the range of mobility necessary to complete many of the game’s challenges, and Kazooie would be absent the physical strength needed to take on most enemies and bypass obstacles. Although Banjo theoretically spends the most time on screen and Kazooie is often the finisher on many moves, neither affects the egalitarian nature of the game in a noticeable way—Banjo and Kazooie work so well and so seamlessly together that such divergences become insignificant.

Personal differences on the other hand…

Complaints regarding dual-gender pairs are often leveled at a lack of balance between the two characters, where one is perceived to be more important to the success of the mission than the other—some fans have noted, for instance, that Alyx Vance is absent from much of Half-Life 2, and Trip is less able to defend herself than Monkey in Enslaved. While such claims can be problematic (often glorifying offensive roles and techniques over defensive ones for reasons of perceived greater strength) true power imbalances can frustrate a team dynamic, turning player pairs from comrades to escort and helpless charge.

Determining how “useful” a given partner is to the team effort revolves around how valuable the game makes their contributions—for instance, a healer in a game where heavy damage to teammates is common is going to be much more important than the same healer when damage is light or infrequent. Given that support roles are often designated as feminine, such games can create a structure where the contributions of their female characters are regarded as less important, leading to complaints of damsels in distress. Effectively, if the game itself assigns less worth to a given character’s abilities, the team dynamic falls apart.

Banjo-Kazooie handily dodges this problem. Both characters contribute greatly to their mission’s success, and even if they fall into a cliché heavy- and light-lifter framework, at no point is either character’s abilities more highly regarded than the other’s. Kazooie’s precision work is not seen as less worthwhile that Banjo’s sheer bulk, nor does the game make Banjo useless in a misguided attempt to not appear sexist. They succeed and fail together in all ways, while giving to the effort in equal measure.

“If I go I’m taking you with me, partner.”

Games have progressed impressively over the years in regard to gender equity. While there is still much to be done toward equal and realistic representation, the steps that have been taken so far have been noteworthy: the fact that Ellie becomes pivotal in keeping Joel alive, Alyx protects and guides Gordon as much as he does for her, and Elizabeth takes up arms of her own beside Booker are all impressive strides forward. As we move into the gaming future, it is equally useful to look back at a certain bear and bird duo who did it early and did it well. In Banjo-Kazooie, using unique character controls, diverse requirements for success, and placing equal value on both characters’ contributions create a gender equitable pair that is to this day worthy of note. Take notes, everyone, and watch the cartoony masters at work.

They’ll show you how it’s done.

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