Putting the Pieces Together: A Celebration of Banjo-Kazooie
When it comes to producing colorful and whimsical worlds, there was a time Rare had the formula on lockdown. The studio hit it big their revival of Donkey Kong on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and continued to beat that drum successfully. When it came time to develop for the Nintendo 64, they would continue their pedigree of success not only Donkey Kong and the iconic shooter, Goldeneye 007, but with a brand new colorful world that would capture the hearts of gamers once again: a lush, puzzle piece-collecting adventure starring a bear and his backpack bird. Today in 1998, players took their first steps into the fantastic journey of Banjo-Kazooie.
Development for Banjo-Kazooie eventually started with a project that came late in the life of the Super Nintendo. Originally called Project Dream, this game was to use the Advanced Computer Modeling technology that had been used to create games like the Donkey Kong Country series. There were a few ideas for the main character, including that of a boy who would use a wooden sword named Edison. However, as development continued, Edison would be swapped out in favor of several other characters before the developers eventually arrived upon the character of a bear named Banjo. Project Dream was canceled despite one full year of development because of the introduction of the Nintendo 64, but the concept character of Banjo would survive to be in his own game.
Banjo-Kazooie was designed with the success of Mario 64. The core concept of Banjo-Kazooie was to capture the spirit of Mario 64 and mix it with visuals inspired by Donkey Kong Country. Rare wanted to create a game from the bottom up that all ages could enjoy, featuring animation and design targeted at younger audiences while also including some clever content and humor that would appeal to older players. Originally there was no explanation for why Banjo’s backpack could sprout wings for gliding or long legs for fast travel. The inclusion of these and other abilities informed and eventually arrived at the concept of the character that simply lives in Banjo’s backpack: The bird named Kazooie.
As mentioned before, Banjo-Kazooie is an adventure game. Banjo’s sister Tooty is kidnapped by the witch Gruntilda, who has created a machine that will transfer Tooty’s beauty over to the ugly witch. Banjo and Kazooie are tasked with journeying across nine different worlds in non-sequential fashion, completing objectives and defeating enemies that allow them to collect puzzle pieces known as Jiggies. Along the way, Banjo and Kazooie learn abilities that allow them to traverse different parts of levels with better efficiency and explore otherwise unreachable areas. Even further, players could find the shaman, Mumbo Jumbo, who would allow Banjo to transform into several different creatures, each with their own unique uses and abilities. Much like Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie was created in a way that is entirely non-linear and allows players to pursue challenges in any order, including skipping challenges if they can get enough Jiggies to get to further levels.
Banjo-Kazooie was a fantastic success upon release, landing nearly two million in unit sales in the United States. As it was so similar and built upon the concepts of Mario 64, it is often compared and contrasted with the plumber’s iconic N64 adventure. It hasn’t aged greatly due to its mechanics as mostly a collect-a-thon, but it inspired two sequels, both of which gained their own levels of success, as well as a spiritual successor known as Yooka-Laylee, created by former Rare employees. Banjo-Kazooie may fall in with many of the adventure games that Rare, Nintendo, and numerous other developers released during the life of the Nintendo 64, but it also certainly stands out as one of the best.