Fly the furry skies.
What a relief it is to finally see Banjo Pilot finished. It will probably go down in history as the GBA game with the longest development cycle. I first played it at E3 2001, when it was known as Diddy Kong Pilot and utilized Nintendo’s tilt sensor cartridge to control the planes. Now, in 2005, it is finally being released with Rare’s own Banjo crew replacing Nintendo’s Kongs, and the tilt feature long removed. And even after four-plus years in development, the game looks and plays as well as any other brand-new GBA title. It adds to a small pool of quality racing games on the system, yet sets itself apart (though not drastically so) with the flying concept.
The game looks like most other GBA racers, with colorful Mode-7 graphics and pre-rendered characters and vehicles. The flat racing surface is accented with various sprite obstacles, scattered power-ups, and a few boost rings, but the fact that you are flying over the terrain rarely comes into play. To keep you from skipping large sections of the course, the planes slow down dramatically when you fly over rough ground, and if you get really far from the beaten path, the plane will just veer back onto the course. Moreover, the vertical movement allowed is rather limited, being only about two plane heights tall. The tracks are completely flat, so there’s no need to fly over or under obstacles. Then what is the point of using planes instead of cars or go-karts? Some power-ups are located on the track at different altitudes, but otherwise, it makes little difference.
It might make a difference if the plane could perform moves that a car couldn’t. In Banjo Pilot, you actually can barrel roll and somersault, but both moves are practically worthless. Homing weapons hover behind your plane briefly before striking, so it would seem like you could do one of these aerial maneuvers to dodge the projectiles, (and the game says you can), but it never worked for me despite many attempts.
Banjo Pilot has the standard quick race and grand prix modes, with about a dozen tracks and their mirrored versions. There are also time trials and the Jiggy Challenge, in which you must win a face-off race while also collecting six Jiggy pieces hidden on the course. I use the word “hidden”, but the items in Banjo Pilot are always floating out in the open…you just can’t see them until the last second, because they pop in due to graphical limitations. The game also features multiplayer races and battles if you have multiple cartridges.
Grand Prix is the main mode, set up in chains of four races each. At stake is a gold, silver, or bronze trophy, depending on your position in the final point standings. You can also get a platinum trophy by getting first place in all four races. But to claim your trophy, you must defeat another character in a battle face-off. These boss battles take place above the clouds, in narrow flight corridors with one plane chasing the other. After a certain amount of time, the planes switch places, so each one gets a chance to shoot the other down. When you are being chased, the camera pans around so that you are flying into the screen, which lets you better see what the opponent is doing. These face-offs are an interesting break from the race-race-race-race pattern of the rest of Grand Prix, but there is little difference from one boss to another, and it doesn’t take long to figure out how to beat them all with the same pattern.
Banjo Pilot’s biggest problem is the simplicity of its design. It feels like you are flying the same tracks over and over (and often you are, though in reverse), and there is no feeling of connection to the physics because it doesn’t really matter what kind of level you’re racing on. The gameplay mechanics are only superficially different from other games of this type; even the weapons stick to basic shell/banana/mushroom rip-offs. Most of what was great about Diddy Kong Racing, and even going as far back as RC Pro-Am, is missing or understated in Banjo Pilot. It is a well made game and can be fun for a while, but it just doesn’t feel special.