Here is a sobering thought. It’s been twenty years since developer Rare’s famous bear and bird first burst onto the video game scene. Yikes. Making its debut on the Nintendo 64, Banjo-Kazooie is an iconic platformer, chock-full of humour, pioneering spirit and ambitious ideas. A masterclass in the 3D platforming genre, the game is right up there with the likes of Super Mario 64 and other first-party Nintendo titles of the era.
In it, you play as Banjo and Kazooie, a bird and bear, exploring the lair of wicked witch Grunty in a quest to save Banjo’s sister, Tootie. You traverse nine (it's technically eleven, including the hub and training area) super-immersive worlds collecting items - lots of items! - that open up yet more content and secrets. It’s early days 3D platforming at its best, before the advent of DLC and the internet holding your hand every step of the way.
We caught up with two of its developers, Chris Sutherland and Steve Mayles, now the head honchos at Yooka-Laylee studio Playtonic Games, to chat about Banjo-Kazooie’s origins, its development and the secret to the game’s enduring popularity.
Codename: Project Dream
Rare was a special place in the '90s. Pre-YouTube and pre-online gaming news, the development studio almost had a mythology surrounding it, a small team of developers operating out of a converted barn in sleepy Twycross, Leicestershire. Chris recalls a number of special factors coming together, both “creative and situational” that eventually gave rise to Banjo-Kazooie, which grew out of the legendary 'Project Dream'. “At the core, we were a small team that had worked together for some time. Before Project Dream started, we’d been working on Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 2, which were games that were developed in one year, so we were all itching to finish something as soon as possible.”
Project Dream started out as an experiment in “2.5D platforming”, where the main character had undergone a massive transformation, from pirate to bunny to bear. “Thankfully the bear was chosen, else you’d all have been playing ‘Bucky McBunny and the Quest for the Golden Carrot’. Or something,” says Steve Mayles. “The influence of Mario 64 showed what could be done on the N64 and we felt the 2.5D game wasn’t a big enough step forwards.”
Opting for a fully 3D game and agreeing on its protagonist, Banjo, Kazooie wasn’t far behind. Originally conceived as a means of simply giving Banjo a double-jump, she would evolve into the shade-throwing and hyper sassy “Red-Crested Breegull” we’ve come to know. Starting out as a quirk in Banjo’s backpack, Chris says, “we added legs for a fast run move, so with wings and legs already coming out of the backpack, the logical step was to have a whole bird in there.”
Other scrapped content, characters and themes from Project Dream would later make their way into the game’s sequel, Banjo-Tooie. In the game, if you go to the tavern in Jolly Roger Bay, you’ll find the scrapped antagonist for Project Dream, Captain Blackeye, drowning his sorrows. Speak to him enough and he’ll eventually fall over, lamenting:
I were in this fine game… Arrr! I had a dream once. A bear stole me glory… Looked a bit like you ‘e did.
It’s a clear nod to the early days of the cancelled project. And twenty years later, Rare has finally developed its long-anticipated pirate game, Sea of Thieves, although Blackeye is yet to make an appearance.
The Birth of Banjo (and Kazooie)
On its release in 1998, the colourful, eye-popping visuals and memorable characters of Banjo-Kazooie were on a par with the likes of Mario 64. Graphics, gameplay and controls were super-tight, Rare's development teams having had two extra years to get to grips with the N64 and learn how to squeeze the most out of the console. The sheer size of environments like Freezeezy Peak, experiencing Click Clock Wood in four different seasons, exploring the grounds of Mad Monster Mansion and playing the piano with a giant hand… It was impressive in the relatively new space of 3D gaming. “For me, it was the freedom to explore the whole world,” says Mayles. “When we got things working like swimming underwater, and flying for the first time in Treasure Trove Cove, it was great. I’d fly as high as I could above the Jinjo on the ship’s mast and beak buster straight down – you’d either collect the Jinjo or die. It kept me amused for hours.”
Other memorable characters, like Clanker “the giant metal shark thing” were not easy to pull off, pushing the N64 to its limits. Not only was the character huge, but he was also animated - throw in the player being able to interact with him and it added up to major challenges with frame rate. Mayles recalls it being a persistent problem, working with small texture sizes of 64x64. “We overcame this by manually cutting up larger textures into usable pieces. Sure, you might have got a few more seams, but the result was worth it. We’d seen earlier N64 games with blurry, muddy textures and really wanted to improve in this area. Something we did a lot of was render hi-res models with lighting then apply these textures to the in-game models. It definitely helped give the game the rich, detailed look we were after.”
Alongside its environments, the characters you meet are what make Banjo-Kazooie one of the N64’s most memorable titles. As with all Rare games of this era, it was often the company’s own developers and staff that voiced their creations, giving them the most authentic voice possible, even if - as in Banjo-Kazooie’s case - that was simply a bunch of well-edited sounds. Sutherland, AKA: the voice of Banjo, recalls the origins of the character’s famous “Guhuh” and the decision to go with sounds, rather than voice acting. “I think it may have even been Tim [Stamper] that suggested the “Guhuh” style noise. When we switched from developing Dream to Banjo, there was a focus on getting the game finished as soon as possible, so we knew that one thing that could save us development time would be to swap prerecorded speech for text. We did want to maintain the feeling of speech though, thus the development of the vocal noises that play as the text appears. I probably spent many a drive to/from work muttering strange sounds in my car!”
Cut Content and Easter Eggs
The internet has found the majority of Banjo-Kazooie’s secrets and extras, including extensive exploration of the scrapped Stop ’n’ Swap feature, but there are a couple of more subtle references you could have missed, such as a screenshot (portrait) of Project Dream hanging in Banjo’s house, and the 1881 barrel in Mad Monster Mansion being “a reference to the ZX Spectrum game Atic Atac.” Pretty deep cut.
“There were plenty of ideas, of course, some which made it over into Banjo-Tooie, but in terms of assets, we wasted very little,” says Mayles. “There was an awesome new idle animation for Banjo-Kazooie, ‘cack bad egg’, where Kazooie hilariously pooped out a rotten egg which gassed Banjo. But Chris didn’t put it in. I’ve never forgiven him. Did I ever tell you how he always removed frames from my Donkey Kong animations to save his precious memory from being used up?”
Clues of a scrapped post-game adventure also exist, Grunty being trapped under a rock, which the player can interact with, and the witch firing a spell at the end of the game that, seemingly, does nothing. “There were a couple of mad ideas thrown around near the end of the project,” says Mayles. “The spell Grunty fires was going to hit Banjo and turn him into a frog and you’d have to play again, as a frog…and also multiplayer.” Multiplayer, of course, made it into Banjo-Tooie, but not the frog. Although, playing as a T-Rex in the sequel was arguably cooler.
Legacy and Nostalgia Factor
The popularity of Banjo-Kazooie has endured. Search the game’s title in YouTube and you’ll be greeted with pages of 'let’s plays', reviews and soundtrack compilations. Part of that success is, at least in part, due to its first generation of players coming of age and looking for very specific content on YouTube, but there is a lot to be said about the game's brand of humour and cartoonish visuals that surely have helped it stand the test of time. “It will date less quickly,” says Sutherland. “Added to that, it was one of the more visually advanced N64 titles of its time, aided by us choosing a 30Hz (mostly!) frame rate,” and all the other tricks the team used to achieve it. “Those returning [to Banjo-Kazooie] will often spot jokes in the visuals or dialogue they didn’t quite ‘get’ first time around. I think the way the game appealed on multiple levels to kids and adults helps show the game in a positive perspective for those looking back.”
Whereas visuals can age and become dated, relationships between characters hold up for far longer. Banjo and Kazooie’s contrasting personalities created something distinctive that, when players return, is still amusing by today’s standards. “Having two characters, rather than a single protagonist, also helps,” says Sutherland. “Because each has quite a different attitude, and the interactions between them [are more relatable] in the players’ minds. We weren’t the first to do this of course, and even then it wasn’t deliberate from the start, but it can be very effective.”
Mayles appreciates character development but cites Banjo-Kazooie’s special kind of world-building immersiveness as a primary reason the game still has a fanbase and that there is a market for Playtonic’s flagship title, Yooka-Laylee. “Banjo-Kazooie was one of the earlier games, certainly on the N64, that created a fully immersive, believable 3D world, which players could get lost in and just have fun. We tried to ground things in reality a bit more than Super Mario, give everything a reason for being there, a story, and I think people really appreciated it. The nostalgia factor is very strong [with these same people] and is part of the reason Yooka-Laylee had such a successful Kickstarter.”
Sometimes when you go back to N64 titles, the experience can easily fall short of expectation. The pioneering days of 3D gaming were not always the most pleasing to look at, with players being able to count the number of polygons that made up their protagonists and a lot of games suffering from short draw distances. Despite this, Banjo-Kazooie - with it’s popping colours, relatable characters and solid gameplay - holds up really well. “I often see messages on Twitter of people doing playthroughs of the game for the umpteenth time,” says Mayles. “Very occasionally I’ll break it out, drag the kids off Fortnite and we’ll have a go. I’m usually consulting the internet to help me remember by World-4 though!”
It’s easy to see the impact that Banjo-Kazooie has had, especially from the very first screen of Yooka-Laylee. Even the game’s menu is lifted directly from the N64 outing, now rendered in beautiful HD and is a nostalgic treat to look at. Throw in some “Pagies” (the game’s equivalent to Banjo’s Jiggies), some massive sprawling worlds, as well as humorous characters and you are on to a pure Banjo-Kazooie nostalgia trip, which fans of the original series will have no problem subscribing too.
To celebrate Banjo-Kazooie’s twentieth year, dust off your N64, slam in your battered cartridge and experience a piece of history; when Rare worked for Nintendo, 3D platformers were all the rage, and controllers had three handles.