20 years… what the Hell? Banjo-Kazooie is almost two decades old! One of the N64‘s finest (if not the) platformers hit the shelves in summer 1998 and was a critical and commercial darling. British developer Rare, from its office in the tiny village of Twycross, was by this stage one of the world’s leading developers – after smash-hit Goldeneye 007, it set out to challenge Nintendo’s Super Mario 64 with a sprawling 3D adventure.
This was the result, a hyped-up game that looked the part… but would it deliver? Few doubted Rare would disappoint and, blow and behold, they sure as heck didn’t. It remains one of the N64’s finest games – most fans would stick it in the top five! Today, we’re celebrating this lovely, quirky, funny, charming adventure and everything it did for the world. Hurray!
Okay, so this did seem like Rare’s attempt to show off to Nintendo – a real attempt to try and topple Super Mario 64 as the greatest 3D platformer in the world (at that time). Visually, it accomplished this immediately – released two years after Nintendo’s classic, by then the developer knew more about the console’s specs and delivered a stunner.
It’s also a complete blast to play. It’s so wonderfully atmospheric and charming! Funny, too, with an excellent cast of characters. You star as Banjo, a goofy bear whose sister gets stolen by the wicked witch Gruntilda. She does this to steal the sister’s good looks, which is a bit of a weird plot, but there you go.
Thusly, Banjo sets off on his adventure and befriends the acerbic bird Kazooie as his partner. She’s able to fly and propel him around his world with agile aplomb. From there, it’s fairly standard collecting puzzle pieces to open new worlds, but the sense of imagination, challenge, and beauty of the game’s world that really draws you in.
The soundtrack is excellent, although from what we gathered not made by Rare’s usual industry legend David Wise. Instead, Grant Kirkhope got behind this one, but the results are still extremely good. Better, though, are the quirky sound effects Rare produced – each character has a distinctive soundbite to go with them, our favourite being shaman Mumbo.
There are some exhilarating moments, often provided when you transform into an animal of some sort. For us, the best bit there was turning into a bee at Click Clock Wood and soaring up into the skies. We used to hang out in the area outside this stage as teenagers (like drunken hooligans looking for an ASBO), hiding in the long grass and enjoying the spring dew hanging in the air. Such moments are sprinkled throughout the game.
Whilst highly similar to Super Mario 64 in many respects, we wouldn’t say it was plagiarism in any way. It was inspired by Nintendo’s legendary effort and builds on it in many ways (although it’s subjective which one you think is better) – it also sold some three million copies, making it one of the console’s biggest hits. We have nothing but happy memories with this one. It was a charmer.
With love for the original remaining so strong, it’s sad to see the series has kind of dribbled to a halt. Microsoft bought Rare away from Nintendo in 2002, but Rare has barely done anything of note since then – indeed, most of the key staff left around 2000 after the Perfect Dark project. Microsoft was, no doubt, convinced it had secured the gaming score of the century, but bought a developer about to begin a steady plunge into obscurity.
Rare did produce a solid sequel, Banjo-Tooie, for the N64 in 2000 and Banjo appeared for the first time in 1997’s Diddy Kong Racing. A decade after the original, Rare produced Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, which met with a caustic reaction from fans. Most seemed to want a “normal” 3D platform adventure the series was famed for, rather than the fun looking, innovative take on the game Rare made.
The intemperate bunch games can be at times, Nuts and Bolts actually received strong reviews for its release on the Xbox 360, but wherever we go online these days everyone (from the press to gamers) seems eager to pour scorn and vitriol on the title. Well, screw you Rare, for daring to try something a bit different! Be more generic in future, dammit!
Asides from Banjo-Kazooie getting an HD makeover for Rare Replay (a compilation in 2015 of Rare’s greatest hits, essentially), there hasn’t been anything since 2008. Is the series dead? For now, it appears this is very much the case, although the 20th anniversary may trigger some movement in Rare’s creative gut.
In the meantime, Playtonic Games, in 2017, released the Banjo-Kazooie homage Yooka-Laylee. The game even features a soundtrack from industry legend David Wise. This one is available on Steam, PS4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch. We’ve not got round to it yet, but will be looking to give it a go before the year is out. We’ve heard fine things, though, and it’s a fine tribute to a classic game from 20 years back.