Banjo and Kazooie, a honeybear and a red bird hiding in his backpack, arrive at a sunny beach called Treasure Trove Cove. There’s a stranded pirate ship nearby and Banjo is not agile enough to climb on it alone, so Kazooie emerges from the backpack and talon-trots her hefty companion onto the vessel. There, they meet a crying hippo, who promptly introduces himself. “Ahoy there! I’m cap’n Blubber, an’ I lost me treasure when me ship crashed,” he said. Instead of immediately engaging in an obstacle-course-like search for the treasure, though, Kazooie taunts him with “Well go find it then, Blubber guts”. Problem is, the hippo cannot swim. “Sure, we’ll find it for you,” the bear politely offers.
This is just an example of the quirky interactions you can find in Banjo-Kazooie, Rare’s 3d platformer for Nintendo 64 that turns 20 this summer, and that, unlike most of its counterparts back in the day, had a solid script, characters that were more than a sideshow attraction, and worlds that were more than an obstacle course testing the player’s ability to press A at exactly the right time. It was the most sophisticated a platformer could get before morphing into a de facto action RPG.
This does not mean it was highbrow. Au contraire. “The game was very reflective of our humor. The humor in Banjo was the humor of the team,” lead designer Gregg Mayles, now creative director at Rare, told us, citing among their inspirations Scooby Doo, Monty Python and The Simpsons.
The humor mainly emerged with the plot and characters. Banjo-Kazooie’s main antagonist, Gruntilda Winkybunion, only wanted to look like Victoria Beckham circa 1998, so to achieve that, she kidnapped Banjo’s sister, uttering off-putting lines such as “don’t scratch and bite my little bear, soon you’ll need bigger underwear”. While many of the main characters of that era were just “silent protagonists” (with the exception of the amnesiac heroes of the Final Fantasy series), Banjo and Kazooie were a bantering duo consisting of a docile, dim-witted bear and a very clever and rude bird. Initially, Kazooie was introduced for practical purposes, to aid Banjo in his moves. It was a fortunate addition. “It was when we put Kazooie in the backpack that we felt like it had become a double act, and we needed to give them a double-act personality,” Mayles said. “Pretty much all double acts rely on opposites.”
“One of the things Banjo-Kazooie got so right was understanding that the characters themselves were indicative of a broader world, where lots of intriguing creatures actually lived,” videogames scholar Ian Bogost, a longtime Banjo fan who got hooked to it during a long winter in Ithaca during graduate school wrote in an email. “The game had a lived-in feel, like a splenetic, bananas Star Wars universe, in a way, and Mario has never had that, not even 20 years later.”
In fact, when it came to designing levels, Mayles wanted to create a consistent universe. “I found that the worlds [in Mario] were a little bit abstract and a little bit odd in places, so I was keen to create a world that was not necessarily realistic, but a lot more believable,” he said. They went for a fairy-tale aesthetic, full of popping colors, rich textures, and a fantastic but consistent internal logic. Many aspects were exaggerated and could not exactly be called realistic, but, within their own context, they made sense. “Rather than having loads of floating platforms in the middle of nowhere, I was kind of really keen to give all the worlds a ‘grounded’ feel, the feel that they could exist,” he said, in order to emphasize exploration over goal-oriented activities. He remained faithful to the platformer conventions that require a beach level, a haunted house, a wintry landscape and a desert world, but always made it a point to go an extra mile. The wintry level, for example, has monsters who enjoy munching on cutesy fairy lights; in the beach level, once the hippo stops crying, he starts belching endlessly. In Mad Monster Mansion, the haunted-house level, a spirit thanks Banjo and Kazooie by saying “Thank you” but it sounds more similar to “Fuck you”.
In what was perhaps my favorite aspect, you did not have to spend all of your time dodging and killing enemies. Sometimes, you could just wander around and marvel at Rare’s state-of-the-art graphics: the moss-covered turrets at Treasure Trove Cove were a personal favorite, as was the transparent water in woodland and mountainside areas. “Even if there’s danger in the world, it’s not constant danger, it’s in isolated pockets in between areas of interest: there’s empty and quiet spaces that almost give you time to reflect or almost look forward to the next thing you’ve gotta find,” Mayles commented, “Like in many areas of life, there are periods where you’re very active and periods where you’re not, and I think that’s true of games as well. How you play it is actions between periods of exploration, then some more actions. It’s got a rhythm to it.”
Speaking of rhythm, the soundtrack of Banjo-Kazooie was far from being just background. Grant Kirkhope, a classically-trained trumpet player who, prior to joining Rare as a staff composer, had a decade-long career as a self-taught heavy-metal guitarist, created tracks that were the melodic equivalent of Banjo-Kazooie’s weird sense of humor: he strove for an overall upbeat, yet oddball effect, and he achieved it through what he described to me as an “oompah” and “polka-like” base, which he inserted in every level, from the wintry, Christmas-like landscapes of Freezeezy Peak to Mad Monster Mansion. “I used to purposely make the modulations quite complex, to try to keep that quirky and oddball note. The characters were quirky and oddball and the music reflected that,” he said.
For the way it worked out in Mad Monster Mansion (a personal favorite of his) which checks all the musical tropes for its setting, such as the theremin and the use of the minor key, he credited Danny Elfman’s Beetlejuice. “At that time I was really trying to find a way to use a very dark harmony and not scare people,” he said. “ I listened to the Beetlejuice soundtrack quite a lot. It has that “oompah” to it. So, I would say that you can use dark harmony if you dress it up in a comedic fashion, but it still gives you that feeling of darkness.”
And while composing the soundtrack, Kirkhope never wanted to lose sight of the main characters and their duality. To achieve that effect, he used the tritone a lot. In music, the tritone is the furthest you can get the notes to be apart from one another: in the C major scale, Kirkhope told me as an example, that would be a C — F Sharp interval.
“Banjo and Kazooie were opposite characters: Kazooie was sarcastic and clever, and Banjo was a little bit dumb, and I felt the music should reflect that,” Kirkhope explained.
Alongside level and character-design, the soundtrack proved to be equally important in the making of a genre-defining and defying game: upon its release, Banjo-Kazooie sold more than 3 million copies and, in 1999, it won “Console Action Game of the Year” and “Outstanding Achievement in Arts and Graphics” at the Interactive Achievement Awards.
The 2000 sequel, Banjo Tooie fared just as well. It was a darker, and more ambitious chapter in terms of level design, where both the hub world, Isle O’ Hags, and all the levels interconnected with one another. “Banjo-Kazooie was my first 3d. I was teaching myself how to design 3d worlds,” said Mayles. “By the time I came to the second one, I could take what I learned and really start pushing it a lot more: all the world connected together, it’s a little bit quirky, it went overboard!” He became enthused by describing the sequel’s seaside level, Jolly Roger’s Lagoon, which is half pirate-town, half Atlantis. To him, it was “pure self indulgence.” “I always wanted to do a pirate-y themed level, where you kind of started in the kind of pirate town, and when you dive down, it morphs into an Atlantis theme,” he said. “In all the games I’ve created, I always tried to fit in pirates somewhere, because I have this personal like of pirates.” His lifelong passion most recently reemerged in the new Rare title Sea of Thieves. “I grew up playing pirates, and I never grew out of it. I had this romantic notion of freedom, of just going out there and do whatever…and the fantasy of it, where they just had telescopes and were trying to find buried treasures.”
Despite the success in sales and in reviews for both the original and the sequel Banjo Tooie, Banjo did not become a lasting saga. Rare was acquired by Microsoft in 2002, and, the following years, they released two GBA secondary titles, such as Grunty’s Revenge (2003) and Banjo Pilot (2005) — handheld consoles were not affected by the deal.
Eventually, Mayles’ team published Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts in 2008, which reimagined the bear-and-bird duo as vehicles-fanatics, letting go of its signature gameplay and aesthetic, and it received mixed reviews. “A lot of people did not like what I did with Nuts and Bolts, and maybe, in hindsight, it was a step too far, but I was trying to take it in different direction, almost trying to create a different platformer, and maybe I took too much of what players liked about Banjo,” said Mayles.
In 2015, a team of former Rare members, under the name Playtonic, launched a Kickstarter that promised to deliver “a 3d Platformer Rare-vival” that basically promised to be a spiritual sequel to Banjo Kazooie. The response was so enthusiastic that the project took in more than 2 million GBP (2.7 million USD) in forty days, with their initial goal of 175,000 GBP (232, 000 USD) reached in 40 minutes. The game would feature a male chameleon, Yooka, and a female bat, Laylee, trying to collect the pagies of a prized book, that had been destroyed by evil corporation Capital B and scientist dr Quack. Yet, when, in 2017, Yooka Laylee saw the light, critics bemoaned the fact that it was too nostalgic. Video-games writer and Youtube personality Alex Faciane, 30, likened this phenomenon to what happened to underwhelming sequels of great movies. “With games, tech has so much more of an effect on the perception of the final product than music or film, and while Yooka Laylee would have probably been a 10/10 in 2002 or whatever, in 2017 it’s like Sin City 2,” he said. “Yeah, the first one pushed boundaries and influenced future films, but if you wait over a decade to make the sequel and evolve it just a little, the industry and public interest just leaves it behind.
Mayles understood the impasse his former coworkers faced. “It was very difficult for them: they pitched the whole thing as this is going to be a successor to Banjo, so they were almost backed into a corner,” he said. “They got the game funded saying they were going to do a certain thing: if they had tried to make too many new things, the people that backed it expecting a game like Banjo would have been really disappointed.”
Mayles does have some vague ideas regarding a 2018 version of Banjo.“If I did another game [like Banjo] I’d take what’s good about it, but then I’d try and look at the way modern games are played, or the things modern games have got available now that we did not have at the time,” he said. “Everything is online at the moment, I’d certainly look at how to bring an online element in it as well.”
Fans might have to accept that the fact that Banjo did not become an enduring franchise like Mario does not take anything away from the original, which might be even more praiseworthy because it can’t be infinitely warmed over and served anew, no matter how good or bad each individual iteration is. “The pressure to turn everything into a franchise that excretes title after title, year after year has become so second nature, it’s difficult even to imagine a game (or movie?) that is singular, or even just one that comes in a set of two,” said videogames scholar Ian Bogost., “It makes me think of the just-announced Daria reboot.” Bogost continued. “On the one hand, awesome, Daria was amazing. But on the other hand, how can you reboot Daria? It’s like rebooting Silkwood.”