How do you compete with Mario? It’s a question that dominated gaming for decades, giving rise to all sorts of good ideas (Sonic the Hedgehog!) and bad ideas (Izzy the anthropomorphic Olympic torch!) But imagine having to develop a game that competes with Mario and is on a flagship Nintendo console?
Banjo-Kazooie from Rare arrived on the scene in 1998. Beloved now, fans were bitterly divided upon its arrival given that Rare was the standout Nintendo developer behind hits like Donkey Kong County, GoldenEye, and Killer Instinct. When it was revealed Rare’s new game was “like Mario” many assumed it would fall short. It didn’t.
Banjo Kazooie immediately tweaks the Mario formula from the outset. Why settle for one character? Players got to follow the journey of Banjo (the bear) and Kazooie (the bird) as the pair teamed up to thwart the nefarious witch Gruntilda who had kidnapped Banjo’s sister Tooty. To access Gruntilda’s lair, the duo must collect a series of magical puzzle pieces called jiggies to unlock the path.
The analog to Mario should seem obvious thus far — villain kidnaps the damsel and locks her away in a dungeon unless the hero collects enough stuff to break in. But what made Banjo Kazooie such a flawless game was the way it iterated on Mario 64’s open world-level design. It fills its vibrant settings with loads of memorable characters and clever dialogue. It writes circles around Mario.
Banjo Kazooie outplays Mario in spots, too. By combining the two characters' abilities into one player’s hands, Rare expanded the moveset Nintendo fans had come to expect. There were some familiar moves (Mario’s ground pound and Kazooie’s beak stomp in particular) but expanded mechanics gave way to deeper exploration, with well-crafted levels stuffed full of objectives and minigames.
You aren’t confined to being a bear or bird, either, as you’ll meet a shaman named Mumbo who can transform you into things like termites to traverse special levels. All this wonderful discovery is paired with one of the best OSTs of the era, too. Banjo Kazooie received nearly universal perfect scores upon release because of how much thought and creativity was poured into every single detail.
All that writing and innovation did not come easy. The development was intense in large part because Nintendo made a multi-million dollar marketing commitment to the project. This meant deadlines were highly scrutinized and Nintendo executives could insist on giving game-changing notes at a moment’s notice. Eighty-hour work weeks were common, and there was a lot of creative problem-solving along the way.
The creation of Diddy Kong Racing came about when it was apparent Banjo Kazooie wouldn’t make its original release window. (Composer Grant Kirkhope told Inverse that the team “all started to shit ourselves” when they had to tell Nintendo they’d miss the deadline.) To salvage something for that holiday season, Rare slapped some Donkey Kong skins onto an RC racing game they were developing and inadvertently created another smash hit — and gained some much-needed breathing room.
So there’s no better time than now to honor all the blood, sweat and McMuffins poured into this Rare gem (pun intended).
Banjo Kazooie is available now with the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack and Xbox Game Pass.