Soapbox features enable our individual writers to voice their own opinions on hot topics, opinions that may not necessarily be the voice of the site. In today's article, editor Dom tackles a subject very close to his heart - his rabid love for a certain seminal platformer from Rare, and how the time is right to bring the bear and bird home to Nintendo...
I’ll preface this editorial piece with a claim that will surprise very few of you: I love Banjo-Kazooie. Scratch that, adore it. Not because I’m expected to as the editor of the best Nintendo games media site in all the land, but because it meant so much to a much smaller (and far less beardy) version of myself.
Whether Nintendo 64 was your first console or, like me, the first one you properly cherished with an almost fanatical devotion, its games play an incredibly important part in both Nintendo’s evolution in the ‘90s and in the way it shaped so many of our views on gaming as a whole. Banjo-Kazooie, and its equally brilliant sequel, played an integral role in that magical era - just as Ocarina Of Time, Mario Kart 64 or F-Zero X did around the same time.
Super Mario 64 opened our eyes to what a 3D platformer could truly be, but Banjo-Kazooie took the flag the mustachioed plumber had driven into the summit of 64-bit gaming and, somehow, took it even higher up the mountain. And, of course, it would be Rare that made this happen. The same legendary British studio redefined what a first-person shooter could be with Goldeneye 007, took destruction physics to a whole new dimension in Blast Corps and went full R-rated with Conker’s Bad Fur Day.
To a young 12-year-old Dom in 1998, Banjo-Kazooie (along with Spyro The Dragon on PS1 - yes, a PlayStation game, get over it) connected with me in a way few other games had up until that point. Everything from Grant Kirkhope’s instantly recognisable soundtrack to the endlessly replayable litany of worlds became something I loved dearly. Sitting and watching my eight-year-old son playing it on my Xbox One only this past weekend might have even brought a tiny tear to my eye.
But there’s the rub; that little detail that’s never quite sat well with me: Banjo’s now long-running association with Microsoft. The Big M bought Rare back in 2002 after all, and with it came most of its home-grown IP, including the bear and bird combo deal. There was, thankfully, a silver lining of sorts since we got to experience Banjo and its sequel on Xbox 360, without needing to rely on rubbish emulators that felt icky and hollow to use.
Rare was even afforded the chance to do a Banjo-Kazooie 3 in the form of 2008’s Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. That contemporary attempt to make Banjo relevant again was, arguably, a ‘rare’ misstep for the British studio as it buried much of the series’ charm beneath a frighteningly deep vehicle building mechanic. I’ll be honest, I quite enjoyed Nuts & Bolts when it released nine-and-a-half-years ago, but it was proof positive Rare had outgrown the platforming duo, and that Banjo and co really needed a new steward.
Ever since, those iconic animal heroes have gradually faded into the background as Rare focused on new ventures (remember the Kinect era? Dark times, indeed). Even the Rare Replay collection only contained a re-release of the aforementioned Xbox 360 port. And as for that appearance in Sonic & All Stars Racing? Just get it out of my sight.
Microsoft has, in the past, tried to do right by a once hugely influential property, but it’s long been a forgotten quantity that’s been left to gather dust in room filled with failed IP and elder franchise statesman. But Rare’s great platforming hope deserves better than that; it did in 2008 and it still does now. And what better place for it to shine than back on a Nintendo console, where it arguably belongs?
Phil Spencer, the affable face of Xbox’s global brand, has often stated he’s open to the idea of Microsoft IP appearing on rival systems; the company already releases its major games on PC as well as the Xbox One, so it's not too much of a stretch to believe that Microsoft could become a more platform-agnostic firm in the future. Furthermore, Spencer even stated on Twitter that he’d like to see Banjo and Kazooie appear in Super Smash Bros, so we know Nintendo isn't a no-go area for Microsoft. And while the thought of using Kazooie to peck Inklings off the side of stage fills me with a worryingly powerful sense of glee, I still want to see my beloved furry/feathered friends back in true platforming form on a Nintendo console.
The other interesting part of this puzzle is Rare studio head Craig Duncan's admission that he'd be happy for third parties to tackle its famous IP. So to whom should Rare and Microsoft pass that creative torch? Well, there’s an argument to made that the licence could be handed to a new studio, with fresh ideas and a creative energy informed by childhoods spent exploring Treasure Trove Cove and Freezeezy Peak. We’ve seen iconic franchises go to new developers and feel revitalised once more as a result, but there's no denying it's a risky move (and one that would need a significant financial backing to make it happen because, hey, this is Banjo and it deserves a proper development cycle with a team large enough to make it happen properly).
Microsoft could look to a studio with a little more experience. A studio that may have something of a background when it comes to 3D platformers. In fact, there's a UK-based team that knows Banjo-Kazooie very well… because many of its key members helped make it back in the ‘90s! Yes, of course I’m talking about the very talented developer that is Playtonic Games.
Now, here’s the thing. I enjoyed Yooka-Laylee last year. I was a backer, way back when, and I was sold immediately on the idea of a 3D platformer that cut away all fat to make a game that could recapture that lightning in a bottle that made Rare’s ‘90s output so incredible. But Yooka-Laylee wasn’t that game, it was an approximation of something greater, but it was still an impressive feat for a team that started out so tiny and with a budget far smaller than Rare is working with now.
Yooka-Laylee wasn’t the best platformer the collective talent at Playtonic has ever made, but it was a taster for what it could truly achieve, given the right kind of cash and timescale. If Microsoft could strike a deal with Playtonic - and bring Nintendo on board as well - imagine what could come it? And it's not like this kind of thing hasn't happened before - in fact, we had not one but two Banjo titles on the Game Boy Advance after Microsoft's purchase of Rare, so there's no reason why the duo couldn't return to Nintendo again. Nintendo and Microsoft both know Banjo still has plenty of brand appeal, and it’s a licence that’s going to strike a chord with any generation, whether they’ve played the original games or never heard of them before.
Playtonic is the ideal choice for Banjo’s future on Switch and beyond. It knows the console intimately and produced a Switch port of Yooka-Laylee that ran surprisingly well considering the obvious technical limitations. With the likes of Chris Sutherland, Gavin Price and Steve Mayles on board - who are just some of the veterans who worked on the original games - the bear and bird could finally have a new adventure, built from the ground up, with all the lessons from Yooka-Laylee learned and implemented, poised for a new lease of life on Nintendo Switch. In fact, I'd dare say that Banjo-Kazooie on Switch makes infinitely more commercial sense than Banjo-Kazooie on the Xbox One, and Microsoft should hopefully be aware of that.
It’s time for Banjo-Kazooie to come home, so let’s get those important conversations going...
So there's Dom's impassioned take on the potential future of Banjo-Kazooie. Now we want to hear what you think? Is the time right for Banjo to return? Is Playtonic the right choice of developer? Share your hot (and tepid) takes below...