Did you know Banjo-Kazooie began as a dream? Actually, that’s not totally accurate;Banjo-Kazooie began as codename (or Project) Dream. It was 1995 and Rare’s newest title was set to be a very ambitious SNES game starring a boy named Edison battling the evil pirate Captain Blackeye. Quite a difference from the seminal work starring a bear and his bird pal. B-K lives fondly in the memories of Nintendo 64 fans due to its lush graphics, lovable characters, and impeccable play control.
Rare and its co-founders the Stamper brothers were hard at work on their next title, the aforementioned Project Dream. Development was proceeding smoothly, but it was clear that this time around the SNES’s limitations weren’t going to be overcome. A switch to the N64 was in order, Nintendo’s new, shiny console that was packed with power. With the move complete, Tim Stamper noted that Edison just wasn’t cutting it as a lead and suggested switching to an animal character. Nestled amongst some of Dream‘s side characters was a bear…. and the rest is history.
The transformation of Dream‘s bland bear into Banjo was well-received by upper management, but the game wasn’t going to be ready in time for the ’97 holiday season. Rare decided to insert Diddy Kong Racing in its stead, but feature Banjo as a playable character-which actually makes that game his first appearance! Rare’s goal with Banjo-Kazooie was to make a 3D platformer from the mold of Nintendo’s Super Mario 64. Not a humble ambition, as SM64 was and still is one of the most influential (and fun) games of all time. Despite some cynical chatter about SM64 and B-K being too similar, Rare carried on confidant that the end product would easily differentiate itself. The DKR stall was necessary to give B-K the polish it needed to stand even in the same room as Mario. Thankfully, their strategy paid off.
B-K is the embodiment of Rare’s creative and technical brilliance. You absolutely can’t talk about B-K without paying tribute to its graphics. Where most N64 games’ graphics have not aged gracefully, B-K is so beautiful that it withstood a HD upgrade on the XBox 360. B-K‘s world is fully-realized, with a charming aesthetic that mimics the vibrancy and life of a Pixar film. Droplets make ripples, textures are intricate and smooth, and the characters practically breath. Like a Pixar film, though, the pretty images are just a veneer for what lies underneath.
Many 3D platformers fail because they can’t sell a sense of immersion; B-K does not have that problem. While the graphics are a big part of that, the other half of the magic comes from the witty writing. Crude, irreverent, and sometimes goofy, the cast is essential to the experience and will suck anyone who plays it right into the adventure. B-K has as perfect a marriage between its graphics and writing as the Uncharted games. By the time you reach the end, you’ll find yourself invested in seeing things through just to squeeze another cutscene out of the game.
As we all know, a great story is no substitute for poor gameplay, but Rare was kind enough to pull out all the stops in that department. I mentioned that SM64 and B-K share some similarities, and one of them is gameplay. However, Banjo separates himself from Mario in several key ways. Where Mario’s moveset conveys athleticism and speed, Banjo’s is more about nuance and aiding with puzzle-solving. B-K gradually introduces the bear/bird duo’s moves and abilities, as each is used to solve specific puzzles or tackle particular aspects of the environment in a level. Banjo moves at a methodical trot, discovering new paths and secrets with each unlocked skill. It’s really rather Metroid-esque, with the player needing to use new abilities to backtrack to formerly-unreachable areas.
One of the biggest legacies of B-K is also the strangest; the infamous Stop ‘N’ Swop feature. This alone is not only a blog unto itself, but literally is a website’s worth of debate and speculation. In brief; Rare created a feature called Stop ‘N’ Swop that was supposed to be used with B-K‘s sequel, Banjo-Tooie. Players would go to the Stop ‘N ‘Swop screen inB-K, “stop” to take out the cartridge from the system while it was still on and then “swop” (get it?) in B-T to unlock hidden features in that game. This process involved the N64’s internal memory and a smattering of tech-talk that makes my brain hurt, but it seemed like a really cool idea. Sadly, Rare ultimately had to scrap it due to some hardware revisions and a couple of other factors.
Since Stop ‘N’ Swop ended up being unused, it might seem strange that so many people know about it. Nintendo Power and a few other magazines are actually to blame, as they published legit, in-game codes that let players unlock and access the eggs, ice key, and even menu screen that would have facilitated the feature. Stop ‘N’ Swop and its associated
conspiracies theories can be found in full on the Rare Witch Project (therwp.com), a lovely little site devoted to all things hidden within the lines of coding in Rare games. It’s a cool site that both Rare fans and code fiends will have a lot of fun with. Did you know that apparently there’s some coding for the ice key in Donkey Kong 64? Your mind just got blown, didn’t it? Hahaha.
As ever, I will recommend the original version on the N64 as the ideal way to experience B-K. If going retro is not your cup of tea, then feel free to download the excellent HD re-release on the XBox 360. The 360 version is not only faithful to the original, but prettier and easier to find. Still, either one is going to rock your senses. B-K might be a dormant franchise these days, but it was a revolutionary experience on the N64 that pushed the hardware and the platforming genre to new heights. Go play B-K and find out what legions of diehards are still raving about today!
Released 1998. Developed by Rare, published by Nintendo.
Banjo-Kazooie is available on the Nintendo 64. A HD remake was released for the XBox 360 and is available for download via XBox Live.