Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be talon-trotting to the beat of Banjo-Kazooie‘s drum. The internet is mercifully rich in retrospectives on this beloved platformer series, so I had numerous options. I referred liberally to the following sources and unreservedly recommend them for more information:
- Unseen64 – Project Dream / Banjo-Kazooie (Text)
- Virtual Bastion – Project Dream‘s Evolution into Banjo-Kazooie (Text)
- Nintendo Life – Feature: 20 Years After The Release of Banjo-Kazooie, We Speak to the Guys Who Made It (Text)
- Cel Jaded – Retrospective: Banjo-Tooie (Text)
- Games Rader – Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is a misunderstood gem (Text)
- The Game Direct – The History of Banjo-Kazooie (Video)
All years refer to North American releases unless otherwise noted; readers can generally assume that the Japanese release date is earlier.
British studio Rare had produced a string of major hits on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System by the mid-1990s. The most significant of these, Donkey Kong Country, was the subject of an earlier Franchise Festival entry. Shortly after completing the first two titles in this legendary platformer series, the development team was assigned an ambitious new project.
Rare had worked up a strikingly robust game engine for its Donkey Kong Country games. This hewed closely to side-scrolling platformer conventions, but utilized pre-rendered 3D graphics for characters and environments. These backgrounds would become common on 32-bit titles, even as character models more commonly came to be made up of textured polygons rendered in real-time, but Rare was on the cutting edge of visual design in the early 1990s. Given the extensive foundation that the studio had established with its Advanced Computer Modeling system, executives hoped to get a bit more mileage out of the engine before the close of the 16-bit era.
To that end, Rare programmer Tim Stamper was leading the development of Project Dream by 1995; legendary composer Grant Kirkhope came on board that same year and was quickly put to work drafting themes for the game’s characters. Project Dream was intended to be a role-playing game in which the player took on the role of a boy named Edison as he fought pirates led by the nefarious Captain Blackeye.
A number of elements which would later be featured in Banjo-Kazooie were already included at this stage. In particular, Banjo was already a side character. Gruntilda, along with Diddy Kong Racing character Tiptup the Turtle, were also present. Even as the title’s development underwent significant overhauls throughout 1996, the team wouldn’t forget its memorable characters – villain Captain Blackeye himself would go on to cameo in 2000’s Banjo-Tooie.
Rare’s concerns about the waning popularity of 16-bit hardware proved to be prescient. The PlayStation had been released in 1994 and the Nintendo 64 would be available to consumers worldwide by the end of 1996. Developing an ambitious pre-rendered RPG for the SNES was quickly becoming untenable. Consequently, Rare switched the game’s development to the Nintendo 64 shortly after it received development kits for the hardware. The release of Super Mario 64 dramatically altered the industry’s outlook on the ability of platformers to offer grand experiences, as well, and this led Project Dream‘s team to re-design its game as a 3D platformer. Around the same time, the main character briefly shifted from Edison to a rabbit before becoming the now-iconic Banjo.
All that was left was the addition of Kazooie. The bird had appeared in Project Dream as a character found by Edison’s young sister, but was not immediately associated with Banjo in the redesigned platforming build. The team wanted Banjo to have a double-jump, and the ability to move faster (utilizing legs which sprouted from his backpack), so grafting Kazooie on seemed to be an elegant aesthetic justification for these mechanics.
Of course, other elements were eliminated – Project Dream‘s subtitle, “The Land of Giants,” would be dropped as that setting as abandoned. Captain Blackeye and his pirate crew disappeared, replaced by a new set of more supernatural antagonists. By 1997, when Banjo-Kazooie was shown off at E3, the game would be largely representative of its final state. Project Dream would be remembered as nothing more than the shared dream of its creators.
Having evolved into a 3D platformer, Rare’s team could very easily have riffed on Super Mario 64 and called it a day. Such a game would likely have been welcomed in 1998, and would have fallen easily into the platformer-heavy library being established on the Nintendo 64. Indeed, Banjo-Kazooie seems to pull a handful of mechanics directly from its inspiration – an interconnected hub world and Kazooie’s ability to fly around the skies once the skill is learned hew particularly close to Mario’s 1996 adventure. In many other ways, though, Rare pioneered its own path in the 3D platformer genre.
Players take on the role of Banjo and Kazooie as they attempt to save Banjo’s sister from an evil witch named Gruntilda. Gruntilda has set up her base of operations in a spooky laboratory perched atop a hub world full of sometimes friendly, sometimes dangerous – but always comical – creatures. Jigsaw pieces must be acquired by Banjo and Kazooie to open up new levels and eventually access Gruntilda’s headquarters. These pieces are gathered by completing objectives within stages or, occasionally, the hub world.
Nine sprawling levels are accessible, aside from the connecting area. These include a few standard elements – hapless Jinjo characters to seek out and save, 100 music notes to collect, and often a hut containing side character Mumbo Jumbo (more on him later) – along with a host of distinctive features. Themes include platformer standards, like a desert and haunted mansion, as well as more peculiar environments like a mechanical cavern and a forest that changes seasons. All levels are bursting with unique characters, including humans, anthropomorphic animals and sentient objects. Even many geographical features have eyes and speak to Banjo.
With regard to speaking, Banjo-Kazooie was released at an odd time. Voiceovers had begun to appear more frequently in games following the rise of FMV titles and the expansion of memory on 32-bit and 64-bit platforms. Quality varied wildly and was clearly not the priority of most studios – Capcom’s Resident Evil (1996) and Mega Man 8 (1996) reveal how even major developers could spectacularly fail at recording believable voiced dialogue. At the same time, avoiding spoken dialogue entirely was no longer a viable option, as it would come across as hopelessly archaic when juxtaposed with other modern titles. Rare chose a surprising third route. Characters are fully voiced at all levels, from principle players like Kazooie to one-off NPCs like Clanker the steel whale, but the voices consist solely of incoherent noises. This has the impact of making the characters instantly memorable while also keeping costs down; staff members recorded the voices in their downtime while developing the game, as was the case in some other contemporary titles, but the lack of proper line readings kept their voice acting inexperience from showing through.
The voices, absurd as they ,are contribute to an overall cohesion and sense of place that made the game so beloved among fans. Side characters who would already be engaging in a non-voiced game are all the more charming when accompanied by wacky voiceovers and animations. One of these side characters, Mumbo Jumbo, takes on a particularly outsized role as the game progresses. Mumbo tokens, a collectible currency found throughout levels, are exchanged at the hut of this skull-faced witch doctor for transformations that allow Banjo to overcome environmental obstacles. These include an ant form which allows traversal of steep hills, a crocodile form that permits walking through piranha-infested swamps, and more. Mumbo himself is a thoroughly amusing figure, cracking wise and offering memorable rhymes as Banjo transforms.
Banjo-Kazooie also manages to iterate upon the foundation of Super Mario 64 by structuring its levels in a more interconnected fashion. The hub world spirals out into numerous corners, offering players something of an environmental mystery to unravel. Secrets abound, including shortcuts between areas and sentient books which provide spells to enhance Banjo’s skillset. Levels themselves are significantly larger than those in Nintendo’s 1996 trend-setter, and include a number of smaller scenes and characters to engage with. These comparatively massive locales were made possible by Rare’s characteristic programming ingenuity, as the team made use of many small textures rather than large ones and rendered only visible portions of a level at any given time; the framerate remained an almost rock-solid 30 frames per second in spite of the environments’ grandeur. Still, these settings remained compact by the standards of what would come later – virtually no space is wasted throughout the hub world or the nine stages.
What space does seem to be wasted points players towards one of Banjo-Kazooie‘s most enduring aspects: its sense of mystery. Easter eggs are plentiful, some explicitly referred to by the game and some only hinted at. With regard to the former, the Stop ‘n Swop feature is among the most memorable pieces of cut content in the medium. A cutscene at the end of Banjo-Kazooie reveals a number of objects hidden in inaccessible locations throughout the levels, promising players that they would be able to acquire these objects using a special mechanic once the sequel, Banjo-Tooie, was released.
Unfortunately, Stop ‘n Swop was abandoned prior to its implementation. Between the publication of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, a revision to the Nintendo 64 hardware would be published that reduced the time that data was retained in the console’s memory after being shut off. As Stop ‘n Swop would have required players to turn off their consoles with Banjo-Kazooie in the slot before swapping the cartridge for Banjo-Tooie and resetting it, a reduction in the time window from ten seconds to one second made the feature unworkable. Though the tantalizing mechanic would remain forever locked behind hardware restrictions, players would eventually discover a code – entered at an in-game sandcastle – to remove the barriers preventing access to the Stop ‘n Swop items; of course, they were an entirely cosmetic prize with the remainder of the feature stripped out.
More prosaic, if just as interesting, is the significant number of ‘dummie’d out content lurking around the edges of the game. The jigsaw puzzle room for late-game Click Clock Woods features textures which would eventually reappear in Donkey Kong 64’s Fungi Forest – this level had originally been planned for Banjo-Kazooie and may well have been connected to the Click Clock Woods region. An oddly empty transition area featuring prominent use of lava also suggests content being cut midway through development; this is believed to be related to another lost level, Mount Fire Eyes, which would later be repurposed in Banjo-Tooie. Humorously, a reference to the cut level remains in the game, as Gobi the Camel makes reference to a Lava World!
Finally, an odd moment at the conclusion of Banjo-Kazooie‘s climactic battle with Gruntilda hints at an entire game section that remained on the cutting room floor. An apparently useless spell fired off by the wicked witch as she’s defeated was originally intended to transform Banjo and Kazooie into a frog. At this point, two different results were planned during development: in one scenario, Banjo’s sister Tooty would need to complete a quest to return Banjo and Kazooie to their original state, while a second proposal involved the player completing another adventure as Banjo and Kazooie in their altered form. Neither were implemented, though the spell remained in the game.
The title’s legacy was far-reaching. Following the success of Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie cemented the reputation of the sandbox 3D platformer as the most popular genre of the late 1990s. It was no longer believed to be out of the reach of developers who lacked Nintendo’s deep pockets and established IPs. By the PlayStation 2 era, fans of the genre would see numerous heirs: Jak & Daxter (2001), Ratchet & Clank (2002), and Sly Cooper (2002), to name a few. In the interim, though, Rare would be hard at work on a much-anticipated sequel.
Development began on Banjo-Kazooie‘s sequel shortly after the first game was completed. Gregg Mayles remained the designer, Chris Sutherland was retained as the lead artist, and Grant Kirkhope would compose another memorable score. The release of the Nintendo 64 Expansion Pak peripheral, which boosted the console’s RAM, would permit the creative team to craft an even more ambitious world, though this was not necessarily an improvement on the strengths of its predecessor.
The player takes on the roles of Banjo and Kazooie, who retain all abilities learned in the course of their first adventure. In Banjo-Tooie‘s lengthy introductory cutscenes, Gruntilda’s sisters arrive at the boulder that crushed her at Banjo-Kazooie‘s climax. An animated skeletal version of Gruntilda is pulled from the ground and immediately sets herself on a mission of vengeance. Her first act, the attempted murder of her nemeses Banjo and Kazooie, goes awry when the pair’s pal Bottles the Mole is slain instead. Banjo, Kazooie and a now-playable Mumbo Jumbo set about tracking down the witches and foiling any further devastation.
In addition to Mumbo now being playable, albeit with a limited moveset consisting largely of spells, Banjo and Kazooie learn a variety of new skills throughout their quest. The most significant of these are a first-person egg shooter mode and the ability to split up into two separate characters. The first of these skills echoes Rare’s success developing Nintendo 64’s GoldenEye (1997), but is under-developed and challenging to operate using the console’s unique controller. The latter, on the other hand, opens up a variety of new level designs.
With regard to friendly NPCs, the roster is rather different from that of the original title. Mumbo’s role is filled by a Native American-influenced shaman named Humba Wumba, though character transformations are less significant in the second adventure. New skills are now learned from Jamjars, Bottles’ brother. A mystical priest named Master Jiggywiggy functions as the gatekeeper to new worlds, which are now accessed by collecting jigsaw pieces and completing puzzles at Master Jiggywiggy’s temple. Finally, Gruntilda’s erstwhile assistant Klungo becomes an unlikely ally to Banjo and Kazooie as the narrative progresses.
Level design reflects the more ambitious approach to Banjo-Tooie‘s character roster. Nine levels are present, aside from the starting area and hub world, but their layouts are appreciably more vast than those of their predecessors. This results in stages with a greater sense of exploration and more varied challenges, but drawbacks are also present. Traversal can quickly become a chore; this realization likely prompted the developers to include shortcuts between levels, bypassing repeated returns to the hub world, as well as interconnected teleporters within each stage. Collectibles are likewise more numerous and result in bloated, sluggish progression akin to that criticized by reviewers in Donkey Kong Country 64 (1999).
The tone of the game marks its most conspicuous shift away from Banjo-Kazooie‘s identity. Rare has always had a dark undercurrent marked by humorously animated characters offering pun-laden dialogue directed towards older audiences. In Banjo-Kazooie this was present, but the balance leaned heavily towards whimsy over snark. Rare reversed course on Banjo-Tooie, beginning with the death of Bottles and extending throughout the adventure; even the absence of Tooty is treated with a grim joke, as she appears on a missing person advertisement posted to the side of a milk carton. Some fans appreciated this – indeed, it would form the basis of Rare’s next platformer, Conker’s Bad Fur Day (2001) – but many felt that Rare’s increased emphasis on dark humor clashed with the pleasant aesthetic established in Banjo-Kazooie.
Multiplayer has been added, as this feature had become a staple of Nintendo 64 titles throughout its four years on the market. Interestingly, it had originally been intended for Banjo-Kazooie but was abandoned during development. The main campaign remains steadfastly single-player, but up to four friends can engage in minigames from a menu on the title screen. A more bizarre two-player competitive mode called Bottles Revenge was cut from Banjo-Tooie, though enterprising hackers eventually found a way to introduce this feature back into the game using the Gameshark peripheral; in this mode, a second player controls the vengeful ghost of Bottles as he possesses enemies (and even one boss character), attempting to halt Banjo and Kazooie’s progress in the main story mode.
In characteristic Rare fashion, a few humorous Easter eggs managed to make their way into this game. Captain Blackeye, the antagonist of the abandoned Project Dream, drunkenly heckles Banjo in a tavern at Jolly Roger Bay. An image in Banjo’s home also reflects a development still of Project Dream in its 2.5D platformer build, though its low resolution led fans to erroneously speculate that it represents cut Banjo-Kazooie level Fungus Forest. A version of Stop ‘n Swop also makes an appearance, though it features no interaction with the original cartridge.
Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts (2008)
In 2002, Microsoft acquired Rare. It had been nominally independent until then, though Nintendo held a 49% share of the company. This had been the best of both worlds, as the studio received significant financial investment and early access to Nintendo hardware while still retaining a degree of creative control enjoyed by few second-party studios. Much of Rare’s output in the ’90s and early ’00s had included Nintendo IPs, including Star Fox and Donkey Kong, but they had also carved out a handful of distinct characters and universes; the most noteworthy of these, Banjo-Kazooie, seemed inextricably linked with Nintendo’s 64-bit console.
Perhaps this is why it took six years to release a true third game in the series on Microsoft’s hardware. Spinoffs were published on the Game Boy Advance in spite of Rare’s ownership by Nintendo’s competitor in the home console market during the intervening years, but no Banjo-Kazooie title was released on the original Xbox. When Gregg Mayles and his team went back to explore how they might revisit their memorable bear and bird duo in HD, they found that the landscape had shifted considerably.
3D platformers had dominated the home console world from 1996 to the early 2000s. By the middle of the decade, though, their dominance had begun to fade in favor of the first-person and third-person shooter. Over-the-shoulder perspectives established by Resident Evil 4 (2005), cover-based mechanics pioneered by Gears of War (2006), and the standardization of twin-stick FPS controls by franchises like Halo and Red Faction during the sixth console generation all made shooters the preferred genre for studios looking to turn a profit in the late 2000s. Unfortunately, this put a series firmly rooted in the mechanics of yesteryear on awkward footing for a revival.
Rare responded not by digging in its heels and attempting to recreate the past, but rather by finding a new way to approach the world of Banjo-Kazooie. This had not always been the development team’s plan, as they initially attempted to remake the original game before moving on to a traditional platformer; their designs were eventually quashed by suggestions from Rare co-founder Tim Stamper, however. He believed that the series needed a fresh perspective to remain relevant in the modern gaming landscape, and saw a return to platforming as stagnation.
The team opted to integrate a bold new vehicle design mechanic. Banjo and Kazooie, still linked by a backpack, can traverse vast environments on foot, but primarily interact with the world using custom-crafted vehicles. These vehicles are comprised of various found parts, applied to blueprints and augmented by the player’s own imagination. This forms a core gameplay loop as players explore environments, find collectibles consisting of currency and vehicle components, discover or purchase blueprints from NPCs, build new vehicles using what they found, and open up new spaces to begin the process anew. Collectibles had formed the backbone of the series since its 1998 debut, and this worked to reinforce a connection to the past even as the entirety of Banjo and Kazooie’s moveset was abandoned.
Structurally, the game resembles earlier entries while making some significant concessions to modern game design. A hub world still links players to five themed stages. Within these stages, though, are distinct sub-levels oriented around specific vehicular challenges. The player starts with access to ground vehicles but eventually acquires flight and sea transportation.
Much of the supporting cast returns, and the narrative is fuelled by an appropriately cheeky inciting event. A powerful figure called the Lord of Games (L.O.G.) interrupts a struggle between Banjo, Kazooie and Gruntilda as the latter attempts once again to control Spiral Mountain. The L.O.G. convinces them to participate in a series of challenges to assert their dominance and claim the land. The premise is self-consciously thin, explicitly functioning as a quick way to get players to Nuts & Bolts‘ central building mechanics. Mumbo plays an outsized role as well, trading in his shaman skills for a new career as an auto mechanic in hub area Showdown Town.
Multiplayer returns from Banjo-Tooie, and the game features a small variety of alternate modes. The Xbox Live online system allowed players to remotely compete with one another in challenges or exchange vehicle blueprints, but these features were eventually discontinued as the servers shut down. Hero Klungo Sssavesss Teh World, on the other hand, is a series of 8-bit sidescrolling stages starring (and ostensibly developed by) Gruntilda’s ex-henchman Klungo. Downloadable content would augment both of these modes with additional levels, as was the style at the time.
Sadly, the game was poorly received at the time of its release. Critics believed that Rare had abandoned the strong level design and platforming mechanics of its earlier Banjo-Kazooie titles while retaining “collectathon” aspects that were derided as early as Banjo-Tooie. Nuts and Bolts experienced a critical reappraisal in the 2015, however, when it was re-released in the Rare Replay Collection on Xbox One. Recent coverage suggests that the game suffered from being released ahead of its time, as crafting mechanics became a popular feature of numerous titles released in the decade since its publication. Nuts and Bolts may yet be considered a central part of the Banjo-Kazooie experience.
As with an earlier article on Lunar, readers may be surprised to discover that the Banjo-Kazooie series managed to produce spinoffs in the midst of only three core titles.
Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge was developed by Rare and published on the Game Boy Advance by THQ in 2003. This was shortly after Rare’s acquisition by Microsoft, which made its appearance on a Nintendo platform rather peculiar, but it seems that Microsoft did not view Nintendo’s portable hardware as competition due to its exclusive focus on the home console market.
Grunty’s Revenge had been in development since 1999 and was originally planned for the Game Boy Color. It shares many cosmetic elements with Conker’s Pocket Tapes (1999), also developed by Rare for the GBC. An early version had featured a “what if?” scenario in which Grunty was saved at the conclusion of Banjo-Kazooie, but this was scrapped in favor of a time-traveling adventure set between the first two games in the series.
The game utilizes an overhead perspective rather than the third-person adjustable camera from the series’ Nintendo 64 entries. This provides a broad view on the surrounding environment, but flattens out the platforming action. Though flying mechanics are abandoned entirely, the bird and bear do still learn sixteen skills throughout their adventure across seven worlds. The scope is necessarily reduced from what series fans had grown accustomed to, but perhaps not as much as one would expect. Critical reception was still negative, however, and the game was seen as an inferior entry in one of the prior decade’s most impressive platforming franchises.
Three years later, another Banjo-Kazooie spinoff graced the GBA. Banjo Pilot (2006) is more or less a kart racer in the style of Mario Kart Super Circuit (2001), with sprite-based visuals being scaled to suggest 3D racetracks. In a significant departure, the vehicles are planes rather than go-karts. Characters are drawn from other games in the Banjo-Kazooie series. There is little to recommend about Banjo-Pilot, as its planes are functionally identical to the ground-based vehicles of other, superior kart racers (even down to moving slower when flying over grass).
Banjo-Pilot had been intended to be a follow-up to the far superior Diddy Kong Racing, but was altered when Rare lost the license to use Nintendo characters. Happily, Diddy Kong Racing alum Tiptup the Turtle still manages to make a cameo appearance! An early build also reflects voxel-based level design, but this was similarly abandoned as the project moved through development. In the end, characters were simple sprites racing through landscapes that would not have been out of place on the SNES.
Unfortunately, that’s effectively where the Banjo-Kazooie story ends. The core titles in the series have received a handful of celebrated re-releases, with Rare publishing HD versions of the Nintendo 64 entries on the Xbox Live Arcade digital platform in 2008 and 2009. All three primary games were also included in 2015’s Rare Replay Collection.
The re-releases of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie improved performance alongside their overhauled graphics, while also finally implementing a version of Stop ‘n Swop; this allowed players to make use of mysterious, formerly inaccessible items to unlock special content in Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, and was well-received by players who had first encountered the tantalizing feature a decade earlier.
While fans continue clamoring for a new entry, Rare has yet to commit to a new Banjo-Kazooie project. A fourth title in the series seems unlikely at this point, particularly given how many members of the original development team have departed Rare in the intervening years. Some of these former employees went on to form Playtonic Games and develop Yooka-Laylee (2017), a crowd-funded spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie. Time seems to have been unkind to their game design philosophy, however: Yooka-Laylee was heavily criticized for its unresponsive camera, too-large level design, disruptive minigames, and collectathon mechanics. At this point, Banjo-Kazooie may be fated to remain a pleasant memory of yesteryear.
What do you think about Banjo-Kazooie? Would you like to see this franchise return? If so, how would it adapt to the 2010s? What’s your favorite level? How about your favorite transformation (kidding – it’s obviously the washing machine)? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
Next week, we’ll begin the spooooky month of October with Alone in the Dark. Be sure to join us on Friday, October 5 at 9:00 AM EST.