Video Games Issue 2021

The oral history of Banjo-Kazooie, the N64’s unlikeliest hit

The dream factory: Banjo-Kazooie creators relive Rare's golden age.

Page Mehrer

“Put Super Mario 64 back in its box,” declared Official Nintendo Magazine in June 1998. “This could be the best platform game ever.”

A fairy tale adventure starring a dim-witted bear and his wisecracking avian companion, 1998’s Banjo-Kazooie carved a unique place in gaming history thanks to a treasure trove of memorable characters, vibrant level designs, and ambitious attempts at cross-title connectivity.

It was the product of Rare, the superstar video game studio founded by Tim and Chris Stamper in 1985 and based in an 18th-century farmhouse in the Great British countryside. Nintendo had acquired a 49 percent stake in the business after the success of 1994’s Donkey Kong Country, which sold 9.3 million units to become the third most popular game on the Super Nintendo.

That partnership kicked off a hot streak that produced all-time classics like GoldenEye 007, Donkey Kong 64, and Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64. But Banjo-Kazooie remains the studio’s greatest achievement. Beyond the polluted shipyards, sandy deserts, giant snowmen, and trippy musical score, the game is punctuated by a distinctly British sense of humor that mixes sarcastic wit with a rhyming script that mischievously mocks players in memorable style.

Banjo-Kazooie spawned a franchise that includes a celebrated N64 sequel and an underrated Xbox 360 entry, which followed Microsoft’s acquisition of Rare in 2002. Its place in history was cemented in 2018 when the titular duo returned to Nintendo as playable characters in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate after years of speculation.

Page Mehrer

With the franchise as beloved as ever in 2021, Inverse tracked down six core team members from the height of Rare’s golden years to take a stroll down memory lane towards the developers' own Gruntilda’s Lair in Twycross, Leicestershire. They include:

Chris Sutherland — Donkey Kong Country veteran, head programmer for Banjo-Kazooie, and the voice of the bear himself.

Steve Mayles — The creator of the latter’s dual lead characters as well as Rare’s incarnation of Donkey Kong.

Grant Kirkhope Now based in Los Angeles and the beloved composer for Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye 007, Donkey Kong 64, Yooka-Laylee, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, and its upcoming sequel, Sparks of Hope.

Ed Bryan Character artist and animator on Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel, Donkey Kong 64, and the life sim Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise. He proudly boasts of still owning a jumper he bought during the original game’s development.

Kieran Connell Joined Banjo-Kazooie as a junior software engineer once it became clear that “the game had no chance of being completed on time.”

Gavin Price — Won a copy of the game from Official Nintendo Magazine a few months before joining Rare as a games tester. He moved up the ranks as a designer on Banjo-Tooie. He went on to found the independent game studio Playtonic in 2014 where he works today alongside Steve, Chris, and Ed.

Across four chapters, the team shares their vivid memories of working at a studio like no other. In the heart of the British countryside, they would build one of the decade’s most cherished works in total secrecy, using primitive technology over all-night work sessions — with plenty of office antics and wild celebrations at car dealerships, local pubs, and E3, which were the genesis of friendships that endure to this day.

Grab onto your jiggies — this talon trot’s a wild one.

The Video Games Issue 2021 is an Inverse celebration of retro favorites, forgotten gems, and the latest and greatest in interactive entertainment.

The dream factory

A picture from Gamefan’s September 1994 issue featuring Donkey Kong Country developers Gregg Mayles, Chris Sutherland, and Steve Mayles.Gamefan Magazine

Nearly a quarter-century has passed since Banjo-Kazooie began development under the original title “Dream”. While Chris Sutherland and Steve Mayles were already Rare veterans, for other members of the Banjo team, the game was a major first step in their careers.

Price: I met [Banjo-Kazooie lead designer] Gregg Mayles during my interview. And in terms of people being really friendly and welcoming, it was totally the opposite. They were all straight-faced and super intimidating. I’d have rather been interviewed by the police for thinking I've done a murder!

Kirkhope: I was a classically trained trumpet player, but I just wanted to be in a metal band. I joined [hard rock band] Little Angels on the trumpet, and we toured with Van Halen and Bon Jovi, playing 90,000 seat arenas in Germany and football stadiums. When Little Angels split up I was back at home again, playing in pub cover bands for £35 a night. I thought I’d end up being homeless.

Bryan: In four years I left home, left college, went to university, and then [started at Rare]. I lived in Twycross for the first three months in a bed and breakfast, opposite the farm where Rare was based. I walked to work because I couldn’t drive.

Connell: We were practically kids. It was my first game, first job, first everything.

Kirkhope: I sent Rare five cassette tapes over the course of ’94 on the advice of [Rare composer] Robin Beanland. And I got the bloody job. I moved out of my mother’s house, finally, at 33 years old, and went off to work at Rare. It was the first job I’d ever had in my life.

Chris Sutherland plays Donkey Kong Country at the Rare office in Twycross.Photo courtesy of Chris Sutherland

The offices themselves belied expectations. The adjoining barns of the huge farmhouse were divided among development teams to ensure the utmost level of secrecy was maintained, even across departments.

Kirkhope: It encouraged a friendly rivalry. All the doors had keycodes, and you couldn’t get into any barn that wasn’t yours.

Bryan: We were almost like tribes. One barn was Killer Instinct and then GoldenEye. And then there was another barn that was the Donkey Kong barn. They built a new barn for Banjo. And then, what became Diddy Kong Racing went upstairs.

Connell: They put me in an office at the end of the corridor and just left me on my own. I expected to have a boss and somebody to tell me what to do, but I never had a manager at Rare. It didn’t really exist as a concept.

Kirkhope: I had to go into this thing called the “chicken shed” at first. I was the last composer in, so there was no room for me in the music block. Eventually, I moved and sat in with the team.

Bryan: You had two of you to a room. It was a bit like a college house. I shared an office with Steve and we had a special PC with an orange screen. It had a monochrome monitor, and you'd have to get a floppy disc to copy your pictures off it.

Mayles: My desk space in those days was taken up by this big, multi-changer CD system. And then CDs, like New Order, Depeche Mode, and Pearl Jam.

Price: They were like prison cells. I remember going to the barn for the first time and thinking, “Wow, that guy’s got Page 3 girls up in his room!”

Connell: We didn’t get the internet at our desks until we were bought by Microsoft, either.

Bryan: There was one little room that became the legendary internet room, and we literally used it to print out stuff. If there was a Banjo thing on a website, I'd get a printout so I could have a copy. I’ve still got some today.

Tea, toil, and trouble

Rare’s Twycross studio in 2019.Rare Ltd. via Twitter

The demands of the job ensured work was often brutal.

Kirkhope: Being at Rare at that time was like being at Disneyland. It was a great company and the Stamper family was brilliant to everybody.

Connell: But they were also interested in building a successful business. And a lot of that was just about bloody hard work. Gregg [Mayles] never seemed to leave, ever.

Mayles: It would be regular 80-hour weeks throughout the whole of the project. One time, me and Ed [Bryan] were really trying to go for a 100-hour week. Forty hours of normal time and then 60 hours of overtime. I just crept over with 102 hours in one week.

Price: When I joined, we had Jet Force Gemini, Donkey Kong 64, and Perfect Dark all shipping within a year. I hardly saw my mates at all. I canceled holidays abroad. I was working past midnight every night, hammering the games looking for bugs.

Mayles: Developers sometimes had to work until 3, 4, 5 in the morning.

Sutherland: One time, I woke up and there was this knocking at the window at my house. It was strange because I wasn’t on the ground floor.

I opened the curtains and there was Tim Stamper and Gregg Mayles throwing stones at my window, telling me that I’d slept in. I drove in and then on my desk they’d placed a McDonald's meal so that I could have my breakfast and get cracking.

“I thought six weeks and it’d be over; people would forget about it.”

Kirkhope: We had a meeting at E3 1997 with Howard Lincoln — number two at Nintendo of America. Banjo was supposed to be out for Christmas that year, and we knew it wasn’t going to make it. He told us: “We’ve committed $20 million to this campaign,” and we all started to shit ourselves. I thought he was going to have us all shot.

We had something called R.C. Pro-Am racing at the time. And Nintendo just said, “Stick the Kong characters into the game and we’ll have that [instead].” And that’s how Diddy Kong Racing came to be.

Connell: Tim [Stamper]’s appearance sent a shiver of fear through the code team in case he asked for new features when we were already tight on time. Three weeks before the final sign-off from Nintendo, I came into my office to see four Banjos on screen at once in a four-way split-screen.

Apparently, Tim had asked to see if multiplayer might be possible, so he’d hacked something together. Thankfully it was deferred until Banjo-Tooie. Otherwise, the game would have never been released on time.

The team don sombreros for Ed Bryan’s stag do in 2003.Photo courtesy of Grant Kirkhope

With so much time spent together, the Banjo team cultivated their own culture of pranks and antics. That same sense of humor would eventually become a hallmark of the finished game.

Bryan: There was all kinds of chicanery going on. Someone hid bread rolls on the back of Steve [Mayles’] bookcase. They were there for months.

Kirkhope: It was just constant piss-taking. Ed Bryan was “the Shine” because he was a bit bald. Steve Mayles was called “Winky Boy”. And Gregg Mayles was the team leader, so it was his job to judge everything, and he never used to smile. So he was called “the Judge”.

Sutherland: I would sometimes get a phone call in the evening and I would pick it up, and it would be Depeche Mode being played down the phone from Steve's room for no reason at all.

“So it would be cake slap, shorts down.”

Connell: If it was your birthday, it was up to you to bring a cake in for the rest of the team.

Kirkhope: When someone had cake in their hand you used to hit their hand [into their face], and then someone behind them would pull their shorts down. So it would be cake slap, shorts down.

Everyone got wise to it so they’d wear belts and have their shorts on really tight so you couldn’t get them down.

One Banjo team member was a notorious culprit of much office mayhem.

Mayles: If Grant [Kirkhope] appeared in your room, you’d think, “Oh God, what's going to happen.”

Connell: He would just come into your office, sit on your desk, and refuse to leave until you've done whatever work he wanted you to do.

Mayles: Or he’d just spam hundreds of pictures to appear on people’s machines.

Sutherland: There were these people who would come around with cups of tea for the staff, and then when they came to collect the cups later they’d say, “Any cups in here?” Grant sampled that and would play it repeatedly through people’s speakers.

Kirkhope: The first time I was there, in the chicken shed, [Rare composer] Robin Beanland sampled a monkey going “ooh ooh ooh.” They played it late at night, at volume 10, and I nearly shit myself. Twycross Zoo was just up the road, so I honestly thought a monkey had gotten into my room. It was absolutely terrifying. I was called “Monkey Boy” after that.

After long working weeks, it became a tradition to spend Sunday night at an institution called Jimmy Dean’s — where another Banjo staffer built a reputation for his dazzling attire.

Price: This place was in the middle of the countryside, a kind of a converted country pub in the middle of nowhere.

Mayles: It was unfortunate that it was open on a Sunday, because of course the next day we had to go to work. So on a Monday morning, we'd all be nursing Jimmy Dean’s hangovers, made worse by the kebabs and burgers we’d had after.

Sutherland: I got into a habit of spending money on various different designer clothes. All sorts of weird and wonderful outfits for when we went clubbing.

Mayles: He looked like a cyclist some of the time. They were always skin-tight. Sometimes he’d look like a spaceman in a shiny silver outfit or a bright orange all-in-one.

Kirkhope: He had this outfit that was a black T-shirt, and then it was all the star constellations, right down to his trousers. With a pair of red patent Doc Martens.

Sutherland: There was one that had cycling shorts and a cycling top, but it had flames coming up the legs and all sorts of hand-drawn images on it.

Mayles: This all went on for two or three years. We were like, “We're going to be coming here forever.” Then we got too old and it shut down.

Meeting Miyamoto

The Rare team at E3 1997.Photo courtesy of Ed Bryan

E3 1997 left the press salivating. “Banjo-Kazooie will be the biggest hit of the year,” wrote 64 Magazine. This kind of speculation made many team members realize just how significant their work was going to be. With GoldenEye 007 and Twelve Tales: Conker 64 also on show that year, Rare whisked the Banjo team off to Atlanta for a work trip to remember.

Bryan: We were making up all this crap as we went. Then you get to E3, you walk out onto that Nintendo booth, and you realize that people are spending literally millions of dollars getting it all ready. That was quite amazing.

Kirkhope: We just ran to the Banjo stand the minute we got through the door. There was a big Banjo, and a big Mumbo Jumbo, and all the machines were laid out. It was spectacular. We were so unbelievably proud to be there.

Mayles: I remember Twelve Tales was next to Banjo, and Robin [Beanland] and [Rare composer] Chris Seavor would keep telling the Nintendo people to turn up the Conker music. Grant [Kirkhope] came along raving, “You can't hear Banjo, Conker’s too loud!” He was really angry.

Connell: Even in 2000, for Banjo-Tooie, I remember everything was managed for us. There’d be a tour bus organized, and we had a little travel pack, and we were shuffled around almost like school kids. I’m not sure they trusted us to be competent enough to get to the airport.

Bryan: That was my first flight as well. I could remember thinking this would be it — I'm never going to come home again.

Price: I’m pretty sure they directed it from the top at one point to split the development team across two separate flights, which isn’t reassuring. They were worried about the game not being done on time in case they lost the team all in one go.

E3 1997 was also a chance for the team to celebrate their achievements properly.

Bryan: I’ve never been anywhere so humid. Getting out of the airport was like walking into a wall of hot water. I can remember walking around at 4 in the morning thinking it’s warmer than it's ever been in the UK.

Mayles: There was too much free drink, especially at the Nintendo parties. I remember Tim [Stamper] always seemed to have a cigar ready for anybody who wanted one.

Price: When I went for the first time with the Grabbed by the Ghoulies team in 2001, we had to do a stint on the booth. I remember some of the older guys like Grant moaning, “What? We only go out there to get drunk. We don’t even go to the show most days!”

“I turned around and Mr. Miyamoto was right there, looking at me.”

Kirkhope: We just used to go out and get plastered on a night out. One night we were in Atlanta, all drunk at the Nintendo party, and Mr. [Nintendo director] Miyamoto was there — the absolute legend.

I went to the toilet, and [Banjo-Kazooie assistant designer] George Andreas was in there, going for a piss at the urinal. So there I was, literally on my knees trying to whack his trousers down, pulling them down from the back. And I turned around and Mr. Miyamoto was right there, looking at me.

It was so unfortunate. And George had his belt on so tight I couldn’t get his trousers down anyway.

The Rare team poses under Mumbo Jumbo from Banjo-Kazooie at E3 1997.Photo courtesy of Ed Bryan

The game went on to become the 10th highest-grossing on the N64, with over 3 million units sold. The team was rewarded handsomely for their efforts.

Connell: You joined the Rare family and you were expected to work to make the whole family successful. There was an implicit deal, particularly in the ‘90s, that you work hard and we’ll give you a house and a car.

Kirkhope: Rare were super generous with the bonus scheme. On GoldenEye, the team got a royalty of something like 17 cents per cartridge. But on Banjo-Kazooie, we got 50 cents per cartridge, and on DK64 it was $1 per cartridge. It went up as time went on. A lot of people bought Ferraris.

Mayles: I had a couple of Porsche 911s.

Price: I was 21, driving around in a two-seater sports car. A two-tone, metallic purple-blue MG. Chris Sutherland got yellow spray paint on his Rav 4 — yellow for the bananas of Donkey Kong.

Sutherland: It didn’t come in yellow and I wanted it yellow. So I said, “Can you spray it yellow?” and they said, “Well… yes…”

I don't know whether it was because of spending so long working on Donkey Kong Country, but in any case, I wouldn’t do something so crazy nowadays!

Kirkhope: Me and Robin Beanland both had mortgages at Halifax, and we got to the counter at the same time one day and said, “I’d like to pay off my mortgage please.” Everyone in the place thought we’d robbed a bank or something. It was crazy. I wish I could do it now.

Price: “Long may this continue!” I thought. It didn’t.

Looking back

Kirkhope (second from left), Mayles (center), and Sutherland (second from right) attend the wedding of Chris Tilston and Louise Stamper. The Ferrari may have belonged to one of several Rare staff members, who drove their supercars down the high street of the UK town Ashby-de-la-Zouch to celebrate the wedding.Photo courtesy of Grant Kirkhope.

With so much work and office chaos endured over more than two years of development, team Banjo still holds some of their achievements and personal touches dear.

Kirkhope: That was the first game I’d worked on where I’d done all the sound effects, all the music. I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I felt like I really had to prove myself.

There was no point in me writing all that Mario 64 poppy jazz stuff because Nintendo was really good at it. But I was watching Beetlejuice, and I really liked Danny Elfman. I realized you can use really dark chords with dark harmonies, and as long as the rhythm’s quite comical it’s not going to scare the kids. That was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me.

Bryan: It’s on the record — my failed attempt at making a rabbit, which would have originally been the game’s lead character. No one liked my rabbit.

I remember [Rare co-founder] Chris Stamper asking me in the cafeteria what I thought of Banjo the bear and me saying I wasn’t sure about him. That’s down in legend now.

Sutherland: There was no concept of voice actors at the time, so I did some of the voices. Originally, when we were developing Dream, I voiced the lead character, Edson. When it switched to the bear, we kept those noises like, ‘Guh-huh!’

Mayles: Kazooie came about as a bit of an accident because we wanted a double jump. We were just like, if we've got wings coming out, we might as well have a whole character.

I was always very pleased with how the talon trot move came together. It really is the iconic move of Banjo, where Kazooie carries Banjo and then they run along making that ridiculous noise.

Bryan: I did Mumbo Jumbo. I did the Jinjos. And I did the box art.

Connell: As the most junior engineer on the team, I ended up doing a laundry list of the jobs that nobody else wanted to do. So I did the vegetables on the training level. I made the carrots bounce!

Every single person that has played the game learned how to play using my vegetables, so I’m quite proud of that.

Rare’s golden years on the N64 weren’t to last. After the company was sold to Microsoft in 2002 (for $375 million, no less) many of the team stuck around, only to leave for pastures shortly after. Today, much of the original teamwork at Playtonic — whose Yooka-Laylee “Rare-vival” franchise raised over £2m against a goal of £175,000 on Kickstarter.

The characters Banjo and Kazooie wouldn’t return to Nintendo until 2018, when they joined the roster of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The news was a thrill to the team.

Kirkhope: Nintendo emailed me: “Dear Mr. Kirkhope, we have a project we would like you to collaborate on with us, are you interested?” I had no idea what it was. But it was Nintendo. I’d do anything for them. I thought in the back of my head, is it Banjo-Kazooie? I thought they’d never do it.

Mayles: I was absolutely overjoyed. I would have liked to have been involved, of course, but it's great to see them back. They did a great job, especially in terms of animation.

Bryan: It’s amazing. At the time you didn’t think that any of this stuff would still be around in 25 years.

Kirkhope: I thought six weeks and it’d be over; people would forget about it. I was sat there watching [the Smash Bros reveal] live with everyone else online. My Twitter was going crazy. When they played it, I honestly just burst into tears.

That’s the moment where you think that video games really do touch people to the heart around the world. It’s such a phenomenon, such a gigantic force. It really brings everyone together. I really do think that.

Looking back on the original N64 game today also conjures up a range of emotions for the team.

Bryan: I’ve got Blur's “The Great Escape” on the stereo here, pretending it's 1995 all over again. It’s really lovely. I can't help but feel incredibly old, though.

Mayles: It never fails to amaze me that so many people still love the Banjo games. We started this over 20 years ago and people still love the characters.

Kirkhope: I miss the camaraderie, certainly with the Banjo team. But they’re still my friends to this day. It’s never changed.

Doing Yooka-Laylee with a lot of the original guys, it was like Banjo-Tooie was yesterday and Yooka-Laylee was the next day. If I was there in person, I'd still be whacking down people’s shorts.

Connell: [Working on Banjo-Kazooie] really taught me how a team becomes a team — by going through a challenging project and finishing something together. When you work with the same group of people for a long time, you can do amazing things. The fact that you can make a triple-A game that has a 90+ percent Metacritic rating with 14 people is pretty amazing.

Price: That’s why we've tried to purposefully keep some similarities to Rare at Playtonic. You couldn't get away with doing half the things that Rare got away with, and the Playtonic offices are a million times worse than Rare’s.

The great thing about Yooka-Laylee was that we started a company to carry on from where we left off in the Nintendo era when we were at Rare.

The question remains — will a third Banjo-Kazooie game happen one day?

Mayles: Maybe, one day in the future, they will get a new game. In 2023, it will be 25 years of Banjo, we'll have a spike in interest again. Maybe we’ll even get a new game for that anniversary.

Kirkhope: I really wish. Someday. Someone’s got to do it.

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