Banjo-Kazooie: A History by a Lifelong Fan
On this day 21 years ago, Banjo-Kazooie was released exclusively for the Nintendo 64. The game is a 3D platformer akin to Super Mario 64, regarded by gamers as one of the original “collectathons,” that took platforming and collecting elements from its predecessor and vastly expanded upon them. Trust me when I say that I can elaborate on all of the game’s technicalities and logistics until Banjo-Kazooie’s next anniversary – but on this very special day where Banjo and Kazooie can now legally drink within the U.S., I feel compelled to share my personal history of this ageless series and the characters that inspired my very first tattoo.
Diddy Kong Racing
When I was 2 years old, my parents entered their names in a raffle for a $500 gift card from Toys R Us. The year was 1997, and when my parents got word that they had in fact won the grand prize, they bought two of the hottest toys on the market: the Nintendo 64 and a copy of Diddy Kong Racing.
Diddy Kong Racing (DKR) was the first video game I ever remember playing, and it was beautiful. The colorful overworld of Timber’s Island felt so immersive, the music tracks composed by David Wise were so infectious, and the zany cast of characters that made up the roster gave the game so much life.
One character, a bear named Banjo, resonated the most with me. Unlike some of the other racers that squeaked out their dialogue in the highest pitch imaginable (I’m looking at you, pre-Bad Fur Day Conker), Banjo’s southern twang and goofy exclamations of “Guh-huh!” felt endearing to toddler me. Coupled with his simple design – yellow shorts, a shark tooth necklace, and a blue backpack – and he was just perfect. Little did I know that even perfection could be improved upon.
My Original Duo: The Twins
I owe my eventual obsession with this character to my identical twin uncles. In 1998, my uncles moved to the States and brought with them their insatiable thirst for competition. While they shared the same Nintendo 64 console, each of them had their own set of game cartridges. They constantly fought over who had reign of the system (did I mention they were 11 years old?) and I remember my oldest uncle fighting especially hard the day he got his newest game – something silly called Banjo-Kazooie.
Not only did the name “Banjo” strike me as familiar, but I’d recognize those yellow shorts anywhere! Of course, Banjo wasn’t completely how I remembered him from DKR. This time around, he was the star of his own adventure and was no longer tethered to a vehicle (I’ll eat my words for this later). Most notably, Banjo now had a fast-talking, sarcastic companion named Kazooie to help him along the way – and you can believe I canonized Kazooie being in his backpack the whole time during DKR.
It wasn’t enough to keep watching my uncle play the game, so I begged my parents for a copy of my own. At this point, Banjo and Kazooie were already regarded as Nintendo mascots, appearing on Nintendo 64 console packaging next to other such icons as Mario, Donkey Kong, and Pikachu. I was more than ready for my turn with the alien-shaped Nintendo 64 controller, and after a trip to Best Buy, I was set off on an adventure that would change my life.
In the game, we are introduced to an evil witch named Gruntilda who wants to be “the nicest looking wench” in all the land, ala Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Realizing she’s second to the only other female character in Spiral Mountain (minus Kazooie), Grunty kidnaps Banjo’s sister, Tooty, and takes her back to her lair where she plans to steal her youth. It’s up to Banjo and Kazooie to enter Grunty’s Lair and traverse the many worlds and perils that await them inside. Of course, they won’t have to do it alone!
Bottles the mole and Mumbo Jumbo the shaman are two of the many whimsical characters you encounter on your journey. Bottles teaches you moves that will help you to combat Grunty’s minions, run faster, and even fly. With his assistance, I managed to cross the bridge into the witch’s lair and find my very first collectable: a jigsaw piece. These puzzle pieces, called jiggies, are instrumental to progressing in the game. As you venture deeper into the lair, you’ll find various jiggy-shaped pedestals scattered around that accompany a partially empty puzzle. By using jiggies to complete each puzzle, new doors open within the lair that lead to different-themed worlds. To this day, I still think this method of expanding a game is ingenious. From a snow-covered wonderland to a hot, hostile desert, you can count on Bottles to meet you inside with fresh new moves for you to learn.
Jiggies may be the main collectable to find in each world, but they are far from the only ones available. Among the coveted puzzle pieces exist red feathers for flight, gold feathers for invincibility, blue eggs for Kazooie to fire at enemies, little fairy-like creatures called Jinjos that need rescuing, skull tokens that Mumbo needs to be able to transform you into different creatures, and musical notes that also help to expand the lair. Specifically, collecting musical notes will open musical note doors that require a set amount to open. The first note door requires 50 notes, and I’d swear that I had collected more than enough after exploring Mumbo’s Mountain for what felt like hours. And yet, after only completing this first world, I was already stuck outside of this note door not knowing what to do, as I didn’t understand the mechanics behind note-collecting just yet. What I eventually learned is that there are a total of 100 musical notes in each world, and should you either leave the world or die before collecting all of them, your “best note score” would be recorded before the collected notes reset. Essentially, I must have perished a considerable amount, which would explain why it took me so long to accrue 50 notes. I was three years old, give me a break.
Grant Kirkhope composed the music for Banjo-Kazooie, masterfully injecting the catchiest, most upbeat melodies you will ever hear that also perfectly embody the ambience of each vibrant world. After soaking up sun on the beaches of Treasure Trove Cove, getting nipped by Mr. Vile the crocodile more times than I’d like to admit in Bubblegloop Swamp, and celebrating my favorite holiday early in the Mad Monster Mansion, I had finally collected enough jiggies to enter the homestretch. After competing in a quiz show hosted by Grunty herself (“Grunty’s Furnace Fun”) to test my memory of my experiences in the game up to this point, I won the grand prize: Tooty’s release! I soon after completed the final puzzle to face Grunty at the top of her tower. It took more tries than I can even remember, but when the Jinjos I had saved banded together to help me unleash the mighty Jinjonator, Grunty was finished. She was knocked off her broom, fell to the ground below, and in what felt like a full-circle reference to Snow White’s Evil Queen, was crushed by a giant boulder. Tooty was saved, Banjo and Kazooie were victorious, and the witch was defeated… for now.
In the year 2000, two years after Banjo-Kazooie, the sequel released for the Nintendo 64. This time around, I was prepared. For my birthday, I asked my grandma for the game and I can’t remember ever being more excited to receive a package than I was the day I unwrapped Banjo-Tooie.
Taking place two years after the events of Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie sees the return of Grunty. With the aid of her faithful minion, Klungo, and her two sisters, Mingella and Blobbelda, the boulder is smashed into pieces and Grunty is revived – albeit as a skeleton.
From this point onward, it’s clear that Banjo-Tooie is a considerably darker experience than its predecessor. In the opening cutscene, skeleton Grunty attempts a magic spell to kill Banjo and Kazooie during their card game with Bottles and Mumbo, but instead ends up killing Bottles on the spot. What I most appreciate about this game is that it balances the more mature theming and darker elements with heavy doses of the witty, crass British humor that fans of the series grew up loving from the first installment. In no place is this better exemplified than when Kazooie responds to Bottles’ demise by simply stating, “He wasn’t the favorite character in Banjo-Kazooie anyway.”
To me, Banjo-Tooie embodies everything that makes for a perfect sequel to a video game. It expands the world previously established in Banjo-Kazooie, as you venture beyond the confines of Grunty’s decrepit lair into the vast overworld that surrounds it and Spiral Mountain both, known as the Isle O’ Hags. There are various new worlds to discover within, which are in themselves more complex and even contain secret passageways to each other.
The game also introduces a plethora of new characters with outrageous personalities – most notably, Bottles’ militant brother Jamjars, a drill sergeant who takes over the role as the game’s resident move instructor. The moves themselves are also significantly more advanced than those of the original game, as some of the highlights include Banjo and Kazooie eventually splitting up, Kazooie learning to fire different types of eggs including grenades, and the game’s introduction of a first-person-shooter element where Banjo can wield Kazooie like a gun. Not to mention, up to 4-person multiplayer!
Above all, Banjo-Tooie raises the stakes of the series tenfold, as instead of trying to steal Tooty’s youth, Grunty’s mission is to steal the life force of the inhabitants of Isle O’ Hags so that she can get her fleshed-out body back. It even parodies religion with its introduction of a jiggy cult and its leader, Master Jiggywiggy. The only way to stop Grunty is to collect jiggies to open new worlds, but instead of just finding random puzzles to complete, you must trek to Jiggywiggy’s Temple and complete his puzzle challenges. To top it all off, Grant Kirkhope’s legendary musical compositions reflect the maturity of this sequel in their more brooding, occasionally melancholy, and even sinister sounds. Funny enough, Banjo-Tooie was my uncle Anthony’s favorite game and served as the first distinction I was able to make between him and Albert. It also helped that Anthony acted a bit more adult than Albert, which perfectly reflects Banjo-Tooie as compared to Banjo-Kazooie.
After traversing the different landscapes that make up Isle O’ Hags, which include the Jinjo Village, Wooded Hollow, Plateau, Pine Grove, Cliff Top, Wasteland, Quagmire, and the heavens above the Isle O’ Hags, I finally reached Cauldron Keep where Grunty and her witchy sisters awaited me. After winning yet another quiz show, appropriately titled the “Tower of Tragedy,” I faced Grunty in her menacing drill-equipped tank sporting the license plate “HAG 1.” This final battle was considerably more difficult for me than Banjo-Kazooie’s, but I eventually came out on top to hear Grunty’s severed skull recite the words that would haunt me to this very day: “Just you wait until Banjo-Threeie…”
That Fateful Year
As a child, I didn’t understand or even care about “intellectual property rights” and other such corporate mumbo jumbo. However, when Microsoft acquired Rare in 2002, I learned quickly enough and was forced to care. With Microsoft’s buyout of the once second-party developer, who for years had developed games exclusively for Nintendo’s Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Nintendo 64, Rare’s characters, including those from both the Banjo-Kazooie and Conker series, were now considered Microsoft’s. Besides Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge and Banjo Pilot, two spinoff games released for Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy Advance in 2003 and 2005 respectively, the days of Banjo and Kazooie gracing Nintendo’s platforms were over.
To make matters worse, the new Banjo game that eventually came out for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console was… well… more than disappointing. So much so that I, along with countless other fans, don’t consider the game canonical to the series and pretend as if it doesn’t exist. The game's focus on building cars, planes, and other vehicles is actually fairly innovative. However, considering the misleading teaser trailer that Microsoft released for what seemed like a true third installment in the series, this just wasn't the Banjo game we felt we deserved after years of waiting.
For more on the catastrophe that is Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, see JonTron’s legendary retrospective on Banjo-Kazooie below (skip to 7:24 for Nuts and Bolts)
For over a decade, I’ve dreamed of the day that Banjo and Kazooie would rise from the dead. Each year, a new E3 conference would come and go and neither Rare nor Microsoft ever seemed interested in bringing back the old platforming mascots. In the end, I never expected a new game to be announced, but set my sights on campaigning for their inclusion in the greatest gaming crossover of all time: Super Smash Bros. I’m convinced that Banjo and Kazooie would have joined the roster in 2001’s Super Smash Bros. Melee had the buyout not followed suit. With Microsoft and Nintendo being direct hardware and software competitors for years, much like my uncles and their push for console dominance, Banjo and Kazooie’s spot in the ever-expanding roster seemed all but impossible.
After countless Twitter arguments where I defended Banjo and Kazooie’s legacy, I was beginning to feel fatigued. I followed every leak, rumor, and bit of speculation that I could and even with the rise in Banjo-Kazooie merchandising that seemingly began out of thin air, I was highly skeptical that my wishes would ever be granted. My last real hope was for E3 2019 to finally bring back the bear and bird, but as usual, Microsoft had nothing to show during their conference. All I had left was Nintendo.
On June 11, 2019, Nintendo showcased its E3 2019 Direct which opened with a character reveal for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The new character was the Hero from Dragon Quest 11, a game and series that I have yet to experience. I was happy for those who wanted the character, particularly the Japanese fanbase that considered Dragon Quest to be a legendary franchise. But just when all hope seemed lost as the Direct approached its end, a new trailer played for yet another Super Smash Bros. Ultimate newcomer. As soon as I saw a fully-rendered CGI model of a jiggy skip across the screen, I burst into tears. I knew EXACTLY who was to be revealed, and I could “bearly” believe it.
This is what I meant when I said that even perfection could be improved upon. Banjo and Kazooie have never looked better, as their Smash renders are completely faithful to their original Nintendo 64 design. Their voices are identical from those used in both Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, and their old moveset has been translated into Smash with so much precision and care. And yet, the element that means the absolute most to me is that Grant Kirkhope, the original composer of the iconic soundtracks for the series, was onboarded by Nintendo and Smash’s lead developer, Masahiro Sakurai himself, for the Spiral Mountain theme remix that was used in the reveal trailer.
Grant Kirkhope, simply put, is one of the greatest musical composers of all time. He is responsible for the music in such Rare classics as GoldenEye 007, Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark, and of course, Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie. I could ramble on and on about just how incredible Grant’s work is, especially how atmospheric the melodies in Banjo’s games are as they adapt to the changing environments in each world, but you can just listen to his music for yourself to understand why. If just listening to his art isn’t convincing enough, the simple fact that Grant is the first Western composer to ever be contacted by the Super Smash Bros. team in Japan to create a remix of his own original music should suffice.
Needless to say, I’ve kept up with Grant on Twitter for years and was just as blindsided as everyone else when he posted his video parodying Han Solo’s “Chewie… we’re home” moment with a Banjo-Kazooie plush in his hand, shortly after the duo’s Smash reveal.
Like a phoenix, Kazooie has risen out of the ashes of obscurity pulling Banjo by the straps of his blue backpack, back into the hearts of the millions of fans that have been here all along, waiting for them. I am honored to be a lifelong fan of the bear and bird duo, and the incredible reception to their inclusion in Super Smash Bros. has proven to me that these timeless characters will continue to be loved by gamers of all ages – people who are new to the series and have yet to understand their magical properties, and us veterans who never gave up hope. Whether we have remakes or remasters of the original games to look forward to, or even perhaps the mythical Banjo-Threeie, I know this won’t be the last we see of Banjo and Kazooie. With such an epic collaboration between Microsoft and Nintendo of this stature, it’s clear that you can absolutely teach an old bear and bird new tricks.