Banjo Tooie N64 Console
Image: Nintendo Life

'Sniff my snapdragon!'

Banjo-Tooie, along with Mickey's Speedway USA and Conker's Bad Fur Day, would end up being one of Rareware's final N64 projects to see release. The Banjo team’s next game, Grabbed by the Ghoulies, began development on the GameCube.

"I remember the team was a bit burned out by having made two Banjo games in succession and up for something different to a sprawling adventure game," says Malpass. "Ghoulies sounded like a bit of a hoot and simpler to make, as it had a linear path through it. There were no complicated moves for players to learn — it was all handled automatically but still looked really cool. So it was meant to be something of a palate-cleanser, something relatively quick to knock out for the GameCube."

That plan went awry, of course. "Halfway through development, Microsoft bought Rare and just by chance [Ghoulies] ended up being the first game released by Rare under Microsoft. So it suddenly had a lot more stakeholders and it also had to become an Xbox game... Of course, when it was released all eyes were on it and there was a lot of scrutiny."

Grabbed by the Ghoulies is a game we've got a real soft spot for, although as Rare's debut release following the Microsoft acquisition, the Xbox audience of the time were in the first throes of evolved combat and really didn't take to this spooky, comical little adventure. We asked how the team took its negative reception following the adoration of Donkey Kong and Banjo fans.

"It just wasn’t something anyone was expecting on Xbox, a console aimed more at hardcore gamers than GameCube," Malpass continues, "even though Microsoft bought Rare to expand its portfolio of games with broader appeal. In retrospect, thanks mainly to the art style, it’s aged very well and it’s still a fun game with bags of humour. I think Rare Replay helped in bringing some overdue appreciation for it. We had a right laugh making it anyway, so it’s a happy memory. Pet my piglet, rub my radish, etc!"

After the epic Banjo games we all just wanted to do something that was simpler to play and more akin to Rares older games like Atic Atac

"The trouble with Ghoulies," says Hurst, "was that it was only ever intended to be a quick simple 'arcade' game. After the epic Banjo games we all just wanted to do something that was simpler to play and more akin to Rares older games like Atic Atac. After the Microsoft buyout a lot of attention was suddenly put onto the game and people were expecting it to be another epic game which is something it was never meant to be."

"We were gutted!" admits Steve Mayles. "The team thought they’d made a really fun game so when the mixed reviews and low sales came in it was a bit of a shock. It was the first time working at Rare since 1992 I’d experienced negative reviews for a game I’d worked on. We’d been used to selling millions of copies before Ghoulies, with rave reviews for the DKC and Banjo series. I think the game suffered for being Rare’s first under new owners Microsoft – wrong demographic, and an anger towards Rare at splitting from Nintendo."

"I remember it was a bit of a roller coaster," says Gavin Price. "I recall Eurogamer giving the game a great review and really latching on to the features and tone we hoped people would love. Sadly reviews like this were the odd ones out. I think everyone on the team has a special place in their heart for that game and I’m glad since Rare Replay came out, it seems to have found a small but warming second wave of affection."

"It did hurt a bit," says Gregg Mayles of Ghoulies' rocky reception. "The change from a Gamecube game to an Xbox one didn’t really suit it, but we didn’t have enough time to figure out how to adapt to its new audience. It was a fun game to make though and the team had a great time doing so. I have also managed to get 17 years of jokes out of it, lamenting its poor sales and fanbase that’s less than double figures."

The team are disarmingly self-deprecating when it comes to Ghoulies' commercial failure. "Nowadays we're usually the first to make fun of its notorious unpopularity," says Sutherland, "although ironically it seems to have more favourable response from more modern players; and its visual style has transitioned well to modern higher resolutions." We couldn't agree more, and the Ballroom Disco remix of the main theme is some of Grant Kirkhope's finest work, too.

Tooie twenty years on

Thinking back to when Banjo-Tooie first released, we recall feeling slightly overwhelmed by it. Despite playing through its predecessor on a regular basis, we've properly revisited Tooie only once since launch, back in 2009 when the game released on Xbox 360. Its large interconnected worlds are less immediately approachable, and its open-ended nature felt intimidating after the more contained, intimate and knowable spaces of the first game.

Banjo-Tooie holds up far better after two decades than we expected, though. Perhaps our experience with open world adventuring in the years since has improved our 3D spatial awareness, but after spending hours conducting research for this feature (at the coalface of video game journalism for your sake, dear reader), we regret not returning to it sooner.

"You know what I haven’t," says Kirkhope when asked if he has headed back to the Isle of Hags in the past twenty years. "I don’t think I’ve played it since it came out. I’ve played BK but not Tooie …… I’m just thinking to myself how crazy that is, I really must revisit it!"

"I last played it when it was remastered for Xbox Live Arcade and included on Rare Replay, and thought it had aged even better than the first game because of its complexity," Malpass says. "Like you say, open world games have made big environments more commonplace." That's not to say he wouldn't make some tweaks and changes given the chance, though. "I did think that today's more impatient gamers would benefit from a bit more signposting. More texture variety in the environments and extra dressing would’ve helped orientation too, but there just weren’t any system resources left at the time. The game does have summary screens that track collectibles but a few extra pointers and perhaps a map would’ve helped. Super Mario Odyssey recently handled this well, with a system you can switch on if you're struggling."

I might have gotten a mild case of the ‘bigger must be better’ bug. I think reducing some of the complexity and helping players with other parts would have helped

"It has been many years since I played Banjo-Tooie for any significant length of time," Sutherland tells us, "but I think apart from removing the BKCKB entirely to eliminate my own past debugging traumas, maybe another pass on the optimisation could have eliminated a few of the lower frame rate areas. Although nowadays these aren't noticeable as everyone is probably playing on emulation!" It's certainly true that the increased power available via Xbox emulation serves up a much smoother experience than the original release. Purists, though, will probably prefer to use an N64 pad; it may have been a nightmare to use as a developmental input tool, but the game was designed around that three-pronged beauty.

Gregg Mayles hasn't touched Tooie in a while, either. "I haven’t played the game since it was released! That’s quite often the case with the games I have worked on, it took me 20 years to play DKC after its release, although I do like a quick dabble on Grabbed by the Ghoulies most Halloweens. I think [Tooie] holds up reasonably well, although I think the complexity is a bit much in places and I might have gotten a mild case of the ‘bigger must be better’ bug. I think reducing some of the complexity and helping players with other parts (e.g. a decent map of the factory accessed from signs on walls) would have helped."

If you put Tooie down for a couple of weeks it was pretty difficult to remember what you’d done and what you were supposed to do next

"We were just trying to make the environments as big as possible, lean heavily on exploration, push the system," Malpass muses. "Keeping track of everything they had to do was probably the biggest ask of the player. But games back then often demanded a lot from players. Back in 2000, Banjo-Tooie retailed for £59.99 which is about £100 now! So because cartridges were relatively a lot more expensive than games are today there was an assumption that players would rinse a game completely and get their money’s worth before moving on to something new. If you put Tooie down for a couple of weeks it was pretty difficult to remember what you’d done and what you were supposed to do next, but because it was expensive you’d be more likely to persevere. We didn’t really keep more casual players in mind, which is easier to see as an oversight looking back."

Remembering the good ol' days

Banjo Tooie Character Render

The next game 3D entry in the Banjo series, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, moved way from the series' pure platforming and added an intuitive and adaptable physics-based vehicle creator as a core gameplay compenent. Looking back, it's tempting to spy a kernel of that game's sprawling worlds in Tooie's ambitious environments, although Gavin Price—on design duties by that time—says they were dicated more by the vehicular nature of the game.

"On foot the worlds could seem huge, but build the right vehicle and the dynamic of the level completely changes. Only Showdown Town was built out to favour the gameplay of controlling Banjo alone, all other levels were all about providing the vehicles a playground within which players could express themselves and go crazy with their vehicle-building imaginations."

what amazes me looking back is what an intense period of creativity it was at the time. You don`t realize it when you're in the middle of it... we managed to produce so much stuff in such a (relatively) short amount of time

Although well-respected and far better-received than Ghoulies, some Banjo fans were—perhaps inevitably—put off by Nuts & Bolts' reliance on vehicles over the classic platforming of old. It's another example of the team rejecting the easy path and creating something new and fresh. Nuts & Bolts is a joy to play about with and prefigures a particular brand of sandbox creativity that would explode in popularity with the release of Minecraft just a few years later. It's another game which holds up extremely well today; another one that arguably didn't get its due at launch; another one we'd urge you to revisit. It's available on Rare Replay along with Kazooie and Tooie — oh, how we dream of one fine day when Microsoft puts that collection on Switch.

The 'golden' N64 Rareware era, which came to an end not long after Banjo-Tooie's release, remains a special time for the team, though. Steven Hurst looks back warmly on the game and that particular period at Rare. "I think what amazes me looking back is what an intense period of creativity it was at the time. You don't realize it when you're in the middle of it but I think we managed to produce so much stuff in such a (relatively) short amount of time. I'm very proud of what we did and I'm glad so many people look back on those games so fondly!"

"Those days were really special," Kirkhope agrees. "We had a lot of fun on that team, both at the studio and out of the studio. I think the fact that we all got along so well and hung out together made the Banjo games what they were, it was just an extension of all our personalities all rolled into one!"

Image: Ed Bryan

A huge thanks to all the original team members that contributed to this feature, including (roll credits): Ed 'Jinjo' Bryan, Steven 'Honey B' Hurst, Grant 'Old King Coal' Kirkhope, Steve 'Mingella' Malpass, Gregg 'Grunty' Mayles, Steve 'Blobbelda' Mayles, Chris' Superstache' Sutherland, and Gavin 'Guffo' Price. Special thanks to Ed Bryan for many of the images and Gregg Mayles for the tweets, too.

If you can't get enough Banjo-Tooie love, we highly recommend checking out the short Rare Revealed: Making of Banjo-Tooie developer video that the company created for Rare Replay, which features several of the team members above.