The following is part of Now Loading, a series that renders verdicts on whether or not your favorite video games deserve a place in the canon of works that have contributed to video-game storytelling in landmark ways. Read the series’ full mission statement here.
Gather ‘round, let my words be heard! I’m here to talk about Bear and Bird.
A game on the Nintendo 64, what could lie betwixt the lore?
A bear, a bird, a mean green witch, a dying genre becoming niche;
Believe me, of the title, I’m not being eschew-y: I’m talking about Banjo-Kazooie.
A tale of fun, then a question shall wait: asked by an analyst from With a Terrible Fate.
But this one’s not related to Ganon: Does Banjo-Kazooie belong in the Video Game Canon?
What Started As A Dream…
But how did it start? How did it begin? The bumbling Bear and his feathery friend?
A story of pirates, a story of fate; across several consoles, both early and late!
Spinoffs and sequels, spiritual successors; What am I, the Banjo-Kazooie professor?
In 1995, Rareware took only a moment to bask in the critical acclaim brought on by their hugely successful Super Nintendo title, Donkey Kong Country, before deciding to push themselves to make something even better. This drive would set them on the course to develop one of the kookiest platformers ever.
They soon began development on a game that was operating under the name “Project Dream.” Project Dream was planned as a westernized adventure RPG revolving around a protagonist, Edison, his unintentional involvement with a pirate captain, Captain Blackeye, and his scurvy pirate crew.This game stayed in development for several years until Rare made the decision to shift development for the game away from the SNES platform, and towards the much more powerful Nintendo 64 platform. When they began looking at other Nintendo 64 releases like Twelve Tales: Conker 64 and Super Mario 64, they opted to take a similar approach and create a 3D adventure platformer, scrapping the RPG mechanics of the game entirely. During this development period, they also did away with their human protagonist and swapped (swopped) him out for an anthropomorphic bear: Banjo.
They also introduced, alongside Banjo, his feathered friend and companion: Kazooie. Kazooie, a red-crested breegull, spends most of the Banjo-Kazooie games inside Banjo’s backpack, offering beak attacks, egg projectiles, and endless snark. The dynamic duo is joined by a slew of quirky side characters, weird enemies, and so many things to collect it’ll leave you pondering whether or not you have something better to do with your life (spoiler alert: you don’t).
After the critical success of Banjo-Kazooie, Rare developed a direct sequel, Banjo Tooie, as well as two Gameboy releases (Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge and Banjo Pilot), and in 2008, ten years after the release of the original, Rare (now owned by Microsoft) released Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, which served as a vehicle-building-focused adventure platformer. Not to mention a handful of canceled games along the way, and a spiritual sequel from the original development team!
We’ll get to all of those in a bit. But, for now, we’ll be focusing on the initial Nintendo 64 title, Banjo-Kazooie, which launched on June 29, 1998.
Story and Characters: Guh-huh, Ree-rehh, and Brrreeeeee!
An unlikely duo with ridiculous voices; a classical story of stylistic choices!
It’s goofy, it’s quirky, and best of all: Banjo-Kazooie breaks the fourth wall!
A rhyming witch got me stuck with this schtick, I wish I could stop, it’s making me sick.
A game self-aware, possessed by its humor. Easily funnier than Amy Schumer.
During the opening of Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo’s little sister, Tooty, is excited to go on an adventure with her older brother. She wanders through Spiral Mountain, headed towards Banjo’s house, when she meets Bottles. Bottles asks what she’s planning on doing today, and she tells him about adventuring with her (lazy) brother.
Meanwhile, Gruntilda the Witch (or, “Grunty”) converses with her cauldron, Dingpot, up in her evil lair near the peak of Spiral Mountain (the area where Banjo and Kazooie live). She asks him who the prettiest witch of all is, echoing sentiments of classical witch behavior, and Dingpot tells her that she is, for certain, the prettiest witch of all. He then informs her, however, that there is one other girl who is prettier than Grunty by far.
Really? Just one?
This upsets Grunty like nobody’s business, and she decides that she’s going to do something about it. Back at Banjo’s place, Bottles sees Grunty flying towards Tooty and himself. With his notably poor eyesight, he mistakes her for Banjo. Tooty is then kidnapped by the evil witch. Grunty plans to use an insidious machine to steal Tooty’s youth and beauty and leave her with a giant booty.
Banjo and Kazooie rally to rescue Tooty, and the game begins. Players are able to navigate Spiral Mountain, combat evil carrots, and eventually climb to the peak of the mountain and enter that hideous, ugly, disgusting lair.
This deceptively simple storyline gives way to some seriously hilarious dialogue, which is a cornerstone of Rare’s game design. We see Banjo and Kazooie face off against all sorts of enemies:
- A gorilla
- A giant crab
- A DnD-style Mimic
- A particularly upset snowman
The bulk of the game itself actually takes place within Grunty’s Lair, the home of the evil antagonistic witch. This familiar design choice is reminiscent of Super Mario 64 and the original design for Ocarina of Time. Banjo must navigate these worlds and find shiny golden musical notes and jigsaw pieces, or “Jiggies,” in order to unlock doors, open new worlds in Grunty’s Lair, and eventually save his sister. The true charm of this game comes from the simplicity of its story mixing with sardonic, occasionally-fourth-wall-breaking dialogue and fun, quirky character designs.
Combined, these things establish the fun, quirky game design that Rare was well known for during this era of video games. In fact, Banjo-Kazooie is almost a how-to manual for Rare’s definitive style. But, more on that in a bit.
Gameplay, Visuals, and Music: Getting Jiggy With It
You knew I’d make that joke, you saw it coming; now here we are, that song we’re humming!
The story is great, but the gameplay is too! Give me a second, I’ll explain it to you.
Collect all the things, hold on to them tight! A bear with a bird, they can punch or take flight!
A goofy shaman with a transformation obsession; beat up the witch, then answer her questions!
Banjo-Kazooie puts the player in control of both Banjo and Kazooie, who typically operate as a single avatar despite being a duo. Kazooie spends most of the game inside Banjo’s backpack, offering her abilities in combat, platforming, and climbing. Banjo himself serves as the game’s woefully naive lovable oaf, not always the brightest but clearly with his head squarely on his shoulders. Kazooie, on the other hand, serves as the sharp-witted, often rude snark machine, spitting acerbic lines of dialogue at every opportunity.
Joining them in their journey are several fun side characters:
- Mumbo Jumbo, a shaman who offers his magic as a way to transform Banjo into a multitude of creatures, granting him new abilities
- Bottles, a mole who offers Banjo and Kazooie helpful tips throughout the game and serves as an in-person tutorial
- Brentilda, the nice sister of the evil with Grunty. Brentilda offers hints towards Grunty’s deepest secrets
- Cheato, a floating anthropomorphic book who shares cheat codes with the protagonists, much to the vexation of Grunty.
With these characters, Rare began cultivating a style for the series. Each of the characters has goofy character audio to accompany their text-based dialogue, lending a personality to their speech. Banjo’s signature, Goofy-esque “Guh-huh!” sound became one of the cornerstones of the series. Mumbo’s dialogue is actually voiced by the game’s music composer, Grant Kirkhope, saying “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.” One of the other signature elements of the series was the creature design for many of the NPCs in the game, utilizing a very generic, slightly-animated body, and a pair of large, googly eyes. This design was utilized in every further iteration of the game to give life to many enemies based on normally inanimate objects.
Our dynamic duo travels from world to world using the common hubworld concept: an area within the game which is used to travel to other levels, or worlds, within the game. Princess Peach’s castle from Super Mario 64 is an example of a hubworld. In Banjo-Kazooie, the hubworld is Grunty’s Lair: the tower-like building that the antagonist resides in. Players travel from world to world collecting golden jigsaw puzzle pieces, Jiggies. The player then uses these puzzle pieces in a mini-game to progressively unlock additional game worlds.
This concept of “collecting” is the core mechanic that drives the game. Banjo-Kazooie belongs to a genre of games that it helped pioneer: the collect-a-thon, which was part and parcel to the 3D Platformer genre. Collect-a-thon games revolve around the concept of collecting myriad different items. In Banjo-Kazooie, the player collects everything from Jiggies to Musical Notes to Golden Honeycombs to Jinjos (small, colorful, goblin-like creatures who are in need of rescuing).
The player receives help from Mumbo Jumbo, a local shaman who befriends the dual protagonists. Mumbo’s services include transforming Banjo and Kazooie into different creatures depending on which world they’re in. These transformations include:
- Bee (which may have inspired the antagonist of Banjo-Kazooie’s spiritual successor)
Each of these transformations offers Banjo and Kazooie several unique abilities. The player then uses these abilities to solve puzzles in the world and to gain access to locations they wouldn’t normally be able to access as their bear-and-bird selves.
Banjo-Kazooie also relies on small boss battles throughout the game to serve as half-puzzle, half-challenging-fight. This culminates in the ending of the game, where Grunty puts the duo (and the player) to the test in a quirky trivia challenge, filled to the brim with questions about the game. These questions are made easier by finding and talking to Brentilda, Grunty’s nice sister, who reveals secrets about Grunty when you find her.
Oh great. That’s just one more thing I have to collect.
This all works in tandem with the wonderful musical score from Grant Kirkhope, which is often comprised of catchy folk tunes tied in with the quirky themes of each representative level. These songs have been covered, remixed, reused, and adapted for all sorts of different uses throughout the two decades since the game. I’m a pretty big fan of this live cover of Spiral Mountain’s theme, myself.
The finished product of Banjo-Kazooie offers players a unique gaming experience full of a handful of quirky moments, a heaping helping of comedy, and a smidge of fourth-wall breaking. All of this combines to create the game so many of us hold as a cherished piece of our childhood.
Impact on Video Gaming and Culture: An Incredibly Rare Legacy
How many more of these stanzas are there? If I have to write more, I’ll pull out my hair!
This game was a blast, it’s lasted so long. If you thought it was great, you wouldn’t be wrong!
But just how great was it? What did it do? THANK YOU FOR ASKING, I’ll explain that, too!
A bird with her feathers, a bear so, so hairy: how is this duo so legendary?
Banjo-Kazooie had an inarguably far-reaching impact in the world of video games. In fact, we’re still feeling ripples of the game’s success two decades after its release, with the recent release of its spiritual successor, Yooka-Laylee, as well as the release of several sequels and related fan projects.
After the commercial success of Banjo-Kazooie, Rare went on to develop a sequel, Banjo Tooie, which received similar praise. Rare had created their iconic style with Banjo-Kazooie: anthropomorphizing inanimate objects with a simple pair of often-menacing googly eyes while simultaneously hamfisting dirty humor into an otherwise E-rated game.
This distinctive style served to diversify Rare’s game catalog and cement Rare’s place in the world of video games, set apart from the run-of-the-mill developers of the time. This eventually lead to their buyout by
corporate overlords Xbox creators, Microsoft, in 2002. After this buyout, the landscape of Rare (and by extension, of Banjo-Kazooie) changed drastically. The next generation of consoles had arrived, and Rare was tasked with developing a new Banjo-Kazooie game.
They began work on Banjo X, which was planned to be a near-remake of the original Banjo-Kazooie, updated for the current gen of hardware. The idea behind Banjo X was that, at the beginning of the game, it would appear as a perfect remake of the original, with only a few new characters.
However, in typical Rare fashion, the characters would begin to see through the fourth wall and recognize that they’re in a remake of a story they’ve already been through. Upon realizing this, Grunty would make drastic changes to her previous actions, taking the protagonists (and the player) down completely different paths in an attempt to succeed in her evil plot. This rings similar to Rare’s Conker: Reloaded game.
This game was ultimately, disappointingly, canceled. Many have speculated on the reason for this cancellation, but Gregg Mayles revealed that the game was canceled because executives didn’t have confidence that a 3D platformer would succeed. One element that lived on was the development team’s experimenting with vehicles to explore the large worlds. This concept was originally pulled from a recycled/canceled vehicular game, Banjo-Kazoomie, and ultimately found its day in the sun via 2008’s Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts.
Nuts & Bolts received decent critical reviews, but many fans criticized it for being inauthentic to the spirit of Banjo-Kazooie: a 3D adventure platformer centered on the teamwork between Banjo and Kazooie. Instead, Nuts & Bolts put much more focus on the vehicles used to accomplish the challenges and traverse the levels.
Over the several years between Microsoft’s
evil acquisition of Rare and the release of Nuts & Bolts, many of the original members of the Rare team left the company. After they saw the fans’ reception of Nuts & Bolts, the original members of the studio decided to band together once again and form a new studio: Playtonic Games. They immediately began work on a spiritual successor to the famed Bear-and-Bird duo that brought them so much success, and they were determined to recapture the magic that fans so fiercely desired from the original.
In Summer of 2015, Playtonic launched a Kickstarter for their debut game, Yooka-Laylee. This Kickstarter was fully funded in under 40 minutes, and throughout the Kickstarter, backers helped Playtonic reach every single stretch goal they set, eventually raising nearly $2,500,000. This was a testament to the genre of 3D Platforming, once thought dead, and has since served to resurrect this genre and repopularize it for modern hardware.
Banjo-Kazooie helped to kickstart the Adventure Platformer era that comprised most of the late 90s and early 2000s in gaming, which saw the popularity kick-off of game series like Spyro and Crash Bandicoot. Not only did it help kickstart an entire era of platformers, but it was also one of the earliest examples of a video game protagonist duo: a single player controlling two “characters” which both operate as a singular protagonist. This would give way to the incredibly popular Sony game franchises, Jak and Daxter as well as Ratchet and Clank.
Banjo-Kazooie also inspired many indie developers to make their own 3D Platforming collect-a-thons. Some notable examples are Poi, developed for the Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC via Steam, by independent developers Polykid Games; and the spiritually authentic MacBat64, developed by one-man dev team Marcus Horn, who develops games as Siactro.
Suffice it to say, Rare made a huge impact with Banjo-Kazooie over the last twenty years. Imagine how different things might have been if they had made an even bigger splash, and other games took inspiration from them…
BONUS LEVEL: I Kirk-hope I Can Think Of A Funnier Joke Before Publishing This
It’s finally here, it’s written for you
It’s the Bonus Level of the article, too!
Put your hands together, if you give a crap
As I introduce you to, the writer of that rap!
BAFTA, ASCAP nominations, and an IFMCA win for Best Original Score for a Video Game or Interactive Media; voice-acting across five different games; musical scores for over 30 games, including Donkey Kong 64, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Yooka-Laylee, Mario+Rabbids, and of course, Banjo-Kazooie:
I, like many others, am a sucker for tunes. I spend a lot of time these days writing to myriad styles of remixes of the Ocarina of Time score by Koji Kondo. Video-game music has a special place in my heart. But removing myself from the equation, Grant Kirkhope is one of the greatest contributing aspects to what makes Banjo-Kazooie stand out in the hearts and memories of so many fans.
The soundtrack to Banjo-Kazooie was full of fun, catchy tunes that completely cemented players in the world of the game. The very first thing we experience, as players, when we boot up the game is a jaunting diddy across several folksy instruments as we’re introduced to key members of the main cast.
This opening fills me with untold amounts of nostalgia. It’s such a great way to introduce players to the game. The opening sequence song conveys the quirky feel of the game, the attitudes it takes towards comedy (with so many goofy sound effects thrown in), and the personalities of each of the characters we’re introduced to.
It says a lot that the opening is structured this way, and it says a lot more that they chose to keep this format for future games in the series. The music of Banjo-Kazooie is where the heart and soul of the game live. When choosing what the generic collectible item would be for this game about collecting, it should come as a surprise to nobody that tiny, golden musical notes won out.
Grant Kirkhope is also responsible for voice-acting several members of the main cast, including Mumbo Jumbo, Bottles, and all of the Jinjos in the game. Kirkhope brought so much life and spirit to this game, and for me, he’s one of the most important elements of the game. His work in Banjo-Kazooie won him a lot of praise that led him into a wildly successful career in video-game composition.
This man bleeds talent, dips his quill into the blood, and uses it to score the next game. Which sounds a lot grosser than I wanted it to. But I’ve already committed to saying it, so I’ll just move right along. Grant, please forgive this fanboy rant.
VERDICT: The Bear and The Bird Are Both The Word
This game has inspired so many things, from kids in hats to bats with wings;
Two decades later, and it’s still fun! In 3D Platformers, it’s number one!
We analyzed it through and through-y, looking deep at Banjo-Kazooie
You knew it would happen, this just in! The Bear and Bird have made it in!
Thank God, that’s the last rhyme in the article.
It’s hard to deny the level of impact that Banjo-Kazooie had on the world of gaming. It spawned a generation of 3D Platforming, and it inspired some incredibly popular characters like Ratchet and Clank. It’s part of what made Rare the development giant that it’s become, it’s had myriad spinoffs and sequels, and it was so impactful that fans rallied behind the developers of a 20-year-old game and raised two million dollars to bring it back to life in some way, shape, or form.
Even the developers at Playtonic were mesmerized and enchanted by this goofy little duo of a bear and a bird. After all these years, they’re back together, and making games like they used to (but with a little less hair than before).
The argument can be made that it isn’t the best 3D Platformer, and I think that’s a fine opinion to have. There have been a lot of them over the years, from Croc to Spyro to Crash Bandicoot. There’s no shortage of nostalgia-laden animal characters jumping from thing to thing. But Banjo-Kazooie stands out among them, like a shiny, golden puzzle piece.
I guess this is it, an article of rhyme. Thank you for reading, I’ll see you next time!
Ugh, this habit I cannot drop. Wait… GAH! MAKE IT STOP!
Jaron R. M. Johnson will be featured as a panelist in “Argue With Us: Which Games Belong in the Video Game Canon?”, one of two panels With a Terrible Fate is offering at PAX West 2018. Don’t miss this chance to learn more about the series and join us in a live discussion about whether an audience-selected game belongs in the canon!