Why can’t more water levels be like this one?
Genres: Action, Platformer
Many different types of levels exist across the realm of video gaming. There are fire worlds, ice worlds, maze levels, war-torn battlefields, racetracks, escort missions, and ancient, ruined cities, just to name a few. While opinions tend to vary wildly on just about every type of level out there, there is at least one that seems to be universally reviled: water levels. It’s very rare to see them being spoken of without the phrase, “I hate water levels!” being tossed out in some capacity and, while I don’t agree with something that general, I can see the reasoning behind such statements. Oftentimes, water causes game developers to make unique mechanics take center stage and many aren’t happy with either these potentially underdeveloped mechanics becoming very important or the control changes that come with the territory, so to speak. The design philosophy for such levels also has a tendency to be basic or uninteresting, the best example of which being the dreaded sewer level. However, despite all that, I have found many waterlogged areas to be instances of wonderful level design, my favorite of which being the subject of this article: Jolly Roger’s Lagoon from Banjo-Tooie.
While the majority of the lagoon is, naturally, underwater, the first location, a small seaside town, is not and instead builds up actually going into the water level proper while being a very fun area in its own right. Despite mainly consisting of only three buildings, two of which are stores, a small cove, and a little communal pool, it still gives off a great sense of being the tiny port it aims to be. The entire area is paved with the bricks you would expect to see in such a town and there are numerous things both inside and outside the buildings that you would expect to see there, such as a bar complete with a seemingly drunk pirate, netting covering most of the windows, and ship parts in the stores. Granted, there are out-of-place things, like a wave racer shop and a pipe from an advanced factory dumping sludge into the aforementioned pool, but that goes along with the game’s sense of humor and doesn’t hurt the feeling the town gives off.
Also adding to the feeling is the small currency system put in place at the lagoon. If you want to buy anything there, you need to find doubloons scattered around the port because the people at the shops and inn won’t accept anything else for their various products. I’m really fond of this little system as I have never seen a platformer other than this one make a town area have legitimacy as a town in and of itself and not just have it be another area to jump through. It’s something unique and adds a lot of interest and interaction to an area that could have just been there for looks. Additionally, as previously stated, it grants anticipation for the main meat of the level as you get information from a couple different people indicating a monster has been spotted nearby in the deeper recesses of the lagoon. One of these people, town proprietor Jolly Roger himself, thinks his partner has been attacked and asks you to look for her, with the reward of a Jiggy promised, as is custom in Banjo-Tooie.
Of course, the town, while enjoyable to play through, is merely a small part of this mostly underwater level. After exploring the town and getting as much as you can, you need to dive down into the hole in the lagoon to get to the myriad undersea areas. Naturally though, your protagonists need to breathe and the time almost any character can spend underwater is limited because you inevitably need to get air. Oftentimes, this can make water levels very bothersome due to the small timeframe you have to do anything while diving down. This problem is avoided completely in Jolly Roger’s Lagoon due to the intervention of everyone’s favorite magical shaman, Mumbo Jumbo. Mumbo’s role in the game is to use different magic powers for every level in order to help Banjo and Kazooie and the power at play here, Oxygenate, is probably the most important of all, as it causes all the water of the lagoon to become breathable, thus eliminating one of the most major problems in any water level. I find this to be one of the smartest things they could have done here as it’s much easier to fully experience and enjoy the level without the ever-looming threat of drowning hanging over your head.
Under the sea, there are numerous interconnecting caverns all over the place, with the major locations being Atlantis, the Sea Bottom, and Big Fish Cavern. Of the bunch, Atlantis had the most character, with multiple ruined buildings that could be explored fully that, both inside and out, really gave a sense of an ancient, sunken city. Despite a couple places there having slightly annoying gameplay, I was always interested to see what each old temple and overgrown sanctuary had for me to explore. However, that’s not to say the other locations were boring or uninteresting, as each place had at least one unique aspect which kept me intrigued as to what I would encounter next. Big Fish Cavern had, shockingly enough, a gigantic fish that you had to blow the teeth out of before going inside, where you can find Jolly’s partner and save her from the “sea monster.” The Sea Bottom had an area with pressure too high to enter normally and, more noticeably, actual lockers scattered around with names of the developers for Banjo-Tooie on them, besides the obvious inclusion of Davy Jones. I like these nods to popular sea stories in addition to the genuine interest the areas generate, as they add that depth which shows the developers put a lot of effort into their design.
Getting to all these interesting places, however, would be nearly impossible without the new moves of the level being implemented well, which they are. There are three techniques you learn here, in addition to Ice Eggs being added to your egg arsenal in the hub world outside: Wing Whack, Talon Torpedo, and Sub-Aqua Egg Aiming. While the first is merely a basic attack move for Kazooie so that she can fight when she and Banjo are separated, the other two are only usable underwater and, as such, have heavy importance in the lagoon. An important part of gameplay is firing out eggs and ammunition to accomplish goals, clear obstacles, and defeat enemies so, naturally, gaining the ability to fire eggs underwater is absolutely necessary. Although the egg aiming in this game is slightly wonky, it’s implemented just as well underwater as it is in the air and on the ground. By nature of the game’s design, Jolly Roger’s Lagoon is also the first area you can truly use Ice Eggs to great effect and the game introduces them well by making the player freeze many difficult enemies and fast-moving obstacles throughout the level. The Talon Torpedo is also shown off well, as it is used to open numerous areas and get many of the collectibles in the level that would be otherwise unattainable. When I left the lagoon, I understood how these abilities worked very clearly due to the great implementation and design of the obstacles of the level.