Best Of 2020: Banjo-Tooie Turns 20 – The Rare Team Tells The Story Of Bombs, Bugs And Bottles – Nintendo Life

© Nintendo Life

Over the holiday season we’ll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!

This feature was originally published in November 2020.

Nowadays, there’s nary a game that doesn’t finish with a post-credits tease to tee up a sequel or spin-off. There’s always a tantalisingly loose thread or Easter Egg hidden in the DLC hinting at a further instalment. It would be a very bold move, though, to name your sequel and directly reference it in a game that hadn’t even released yet.

Rare’s 3D platformer Banjo-Kazooie was arguably the first credible challenger to square up to seminal Nintendo 64 launch game Super Mario 64. With large, colourful 3D worlds to explore, a cast of loveable characters and a dash of British naughtiness in its humour, it became a fast favourite with fans. It also finished with possibly the best sequel bait in video game history, with the titular bear and bird taking a well-earned break at the beach after their adventure before shifty shaman Mumbo Jumbo shows up with a set of animated polaroid pictures showing innaccessible areas you ‘missed’ with secrets which would be used in the next game.

The team must have been confident in what they had, but was —the ambitious follow-up which launched in North America on 20th November 2000—genuinely on the cards before the first game even released? “Yes it was,” confirms Gregg Mayles, designer on both platforms, “but only as a name and us wanting to include the ‘Stop n’ Swop’ items that formed a link between the two games. What Tooie would actually be had not been thought about at that point!”

“There was a positive reaction to what we showed publicly,” says head programmer Chris Sutherland, one of several Banjo veterans that would go on to found Playtonic Games and recapture the Banjo spirit in the Yooka-Laylee series. “There were a bunch of ideas that never made it into the first game, so it seemed like the sensible thing to do to move onto a sequel. Some of the team originated from DKC games so in some ways it mirrored how we’d rolled straight onto DKC2 from DKC1… I guess it also puts Banjo-Kazooie into a shortlist of “games that (successfully) announced the name of their sequel in the game”!”

The moody second act

From the very beginning, Banjo-Tooie feels darker—a little more dangerous, a little less forgiving—than the previous game. It’s still very much a fairytale romp but from the off Tooie leans into Brothers Grimm-style darkness. Bottles (bespectacled, move-teaching mole and stalwart pal to the protagonists) meets his demise at the hands of Gruntilda in the introduction cutscene, and mere moments after making the friendly Jinjo King’s acquaintence, he’s transformed into a shambling zombie by the vengeful witch.

“It was deliberate,” Mayles says of the classic ‘darker second act’ approach. “We didn’t want to do the same thing again as the first game and we wanted to surprise players. I don’t think anyone would have expected us to kill off one of the main supporting characters and I can remember us laughing when we plotted Bottles’ downfall. There were some pretty dark and mature elements to the tone that we tried to balance out with our sense of humour, I think my favourite was when Bottles’ family was asking about him and Banjo had to pretend he didn’t know the mole was no more.”

Bottles’ angelic spirit lingers where he fell outside Banjo’s house in Spiral Mountain, and a devilish alter ego was intended to return in the canned Bottles’ Revenge mode which would have allowed a second player to take control of NPCs.

“I guess we were seeing how much fun we could have with the characters and worlds,” says Steve Mayles, head artist and brother of Gregg. “When you’re making a sequel there is a natural progression of things I think, you want to push the envelope a bit more. Bottles got what was coming to him anyway, he was pretty annoying in Banjo-Kazooie!”

That slightly grimmer tone influenced the musical direction. “I think I just felt that it was a darker game,” composer Grant Kirkhope tells us. “The levels were definitely less jolly then the first game. Honestly I was pretty much left to my own devices by this time, I think Gregg Mayles had finally grown to trust me …. ha!” Having established himself in Rare’s luminary stable of composers, Kirkhope was more-or-less left to his own devices on the sequel. “I don’t think I had to make any changes to the music on Tooie, those pieces were all my first ideas.”

Design duties on Tooie were shared between Mayles and Steve Malpass, freshly-promoted in his first design role. “I started in QA as most wannabe designers did at Rare back then, so Gregg was training me up on the job,” he tells us. “[Gregg’s] previous assistant designer had left the team to head up DK64 and he needed a replacement.”

Another big game that came along while we were making it was Metal Gear Solid, which we loved. Games just seemed to be growing up a bit.

The sequel’s bleaker tone and expanded ambitions were influenced by trends and titles of the day. “Tooie was intended to be more of an adventure and less of a platform game than Banjo-Kazooie,” Malpass explains. “There was a desire to make the environments feel interconnected and part of some larger world, hence why you can only reach certain areas in one level by accessing them from another. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time came out at the end of 1998, while Tooie was still in early development, which only backed up that idea.”

“So with that extra level design complexity also came a slightly more grown-up story, even though it was still intended to be funny and appeal to all ages. The direction was all down to Gregg but I certainly remember agreeing it was the way to go. Another big game that came along while we were making it was Metal Gear Solid, which we loved. Games just seemed to be growing up a bit.”

Getting down to design

With two designers at the helm and ideas left over from the previous game, there wasn’t a lot of pre-production. Tooie was more of a ‘get stuck in’ project, especially for Malpass who was learning on the job.

“To begin with we were coming up with ideas for tasks, puzzles, level features, etc. That stuff always came first, with the worlds designed to accommodate them, never the other way around. Gregg had lots of stuff for the first few worlds left over from Banjo-Kazooie so he did the level design for those. Then he showed me how it was done and I got involved in that, so the design of the worlds in the second half of Tooie was more of a joint effort. Level design seemed like a bit of a dark art at first so it felt like a real achievement when my stuff made it into the game. Though I found it difficult to begin with, with lots of rules to bear in mind. It was all done on paper as maps and sketches back then, followed by lots of iteration with the environment artists. You couldn’t just quickly build a ‘grey box’ level like you can in Unity or Unreal now.”

Though modern titles and consoles are far more complex, improved tools make the task of creating a video game much more user-friendly these days. Back in the late ’90s, designers at Rare were using the N64’s controller itself—one of console gaming’s most ‘Marmite’ of pad designs—to interface with the editor.

having to create something like a camera spline with an N64 pad and then tweak it to make the movement feel realistic was quite a chore

“We shared the setup work using the clunky in-game editor (with an N64 pad!) to place collectable items like music notes, invisible volumes (triggers for characters, cameras, etc.) and such,” explains Malpass. “Designer tools were usually a pain to use because there were no established tools for us as there are now. All the tools for Banjo were written by a programmer on the team, with scant regard for usability as their time was better spent on the game itself. So having to create something like a camera spline with an N64 pad and then tweak it to make the movement feel realistic (e.g., the Saucer of Peril ride) was quite a chore, as such things are much easier with a keyboard and mouse. Pretty much everything that involved using that editor was a faff, really.”

As the veteran of the pair, Mayles had the final say on design elements. “Almost everything went through Gregg, so ultimately he decided what ended up in the game, which was great for consistency. But he was always very fair at picking what he thought was best for the game, regardless of who came up with it. There was only the two of us as designers on the entire game, so the work was very varied and I learned a huge amount in a relatively short time, as you can imagine. It was daunting, because there was a lot to learn, but it was also fun and relatively stress-free, as I recall.”

Friendly rivalries

© Ed Bryan
© Ed Bryan

The turn of the millennium was a particularly fertile time for the Twycross-based studio, and Rare had a bevy of quality platformers on its books. launched in November 1999, Tooie released a year later in North America (although it wouldn’t arrive on European shores until the following year) and Conker’s Bad Fur Day launched just a handful of months after that. That’s a whole lot of colourful 3D platforming from the same company on the same console in a relatively short space of time.

“Looking back it seems an utterly bizarre thing to do… it certainly wouldn’t happen these days!” says Gavin Price. “I can imagine there was a fair bit of concern amongst some teams about shipping titles close to each other – I was in QA so not really exposed to what each teams opinion on the matter may be… I think it probably caused more rivalry problems than benefits in the long-run sadly.”

At that time 3D platformers were so popular I don’t think we were concerned about having multiple examples of the genre as long as they distinguished themselves from each other in some way.

Rare’s practice of separating teams across its infamous ‘barns’ naturally created some competition. “I’m not really sure we thought about that at the time,” remembers lead environment artist Steven Hurst. “In those days each team worked in relative isolation and competed against each other to develop the ‘best’ games – a healthy rivalry if you like. I do remember actually that we changed BK to be more of a ‘proper’ 3D game (similar to Mario 64) after seeing the work that the Conker team were doing. Up until that point BK was more akin to a 3D game playing in a 2D plane with a fixed camera. Changing to a fully 3D game gave us more gameplay opportunities. At that time 3D platformers were so popular I don’t think we were concerned about having multiple examples of the genre as long as they distinguished themselves from each other in some way.”

Secrecy around the projects inevitably generated hearsay and gossip around the studio. “Grant [Kirkhope] was always a great source of gossip,” remembers Malpass, “as the musicians tended to be involved with multiple projects. But Gregg, being someone [joint studio head] Tim Stamper probably trusted most, got to play and feedback on the other games periodically, so he knew mostly what the other teams were up to.”

“Rare was famously secretive,” Steve Mayles recalls, “and that included other games being made in the company. Many people on the team wouldn’t have seen much (if anything) of DK64 and Conker. With Banjo Kazooie, we’d created a game that seemed to be universally popular, so there was no reason to think the sequel wouldn’t be received just as well, regardless of what other games were being released. Also, I think Banjo-Tooie had a different enough identity when viewed against other Rare platformers.”

Rare was famously secretive, and that included other games being made in the company. Many people on the team wouldn’t have seen much (if anything) of DK64 and Conker

The teams were obviously conscious of this confluence of quality 3D platforming and made tweaks to give them different flavours. ‘Twelve Tales: Conker 64’ and its bushy-tailed protagonist were famously restyled to feature the foul-mouthed squirrel we know and love who ended up having a Bad Fur Day.

“I remember being aware of the new direction and that their humour was very in-your-face and ‘mature’, compared to Banjo’s, which is more subtle and laden with innuendo,” says Malpass. “The gameplay of Conker was very different too, relying heavily on movie references and set-pieces, so it seemed enough of its own thing. DK64 was being lead by George Andreas, who was Gregg’s no. 2 on Banjo-Kazooie, so Gregg was much more involved in overseeing the design of that. Some of our artists were helping out on it from our building too, so we got to see bits and pieces and were well aware there were things in common.”

Overall, Rare’s segregated approach produced some impressive results. “You occasionally get to see another team’s game,” recalls senior artist Ed Bryan. “It was always fun to see what the others were up to. I think we worked on the idea that the games were different enough, with their own mascots and their own kind of style, that players would want to play all of them. Within the team it was always nice to see other stuff as it helped to focus what you were doing; you can see how others have approached art problems, design problems, that sort of thing. It keeps you on your toes!”

Steve Malpass agrees. “It just created a bit of friendly rivalry and motivated us to try and make our game as good as we could. There may have been concerns higher up about the similarities but they were some of the sorts of things Rare was renowned for, so I don’t remember any great panic about it.”