Everyone’s got a plan until they get mauled by the bear

Banjo-Kazooie (1998)

Do you plan everything in your life? I certainly don’t. Life is at its most fun when it’s unplanned, spontaneous. I truly believe this can be applied to all facets of life. You may have found yourself holidaying with some awful people who try to plan everything to the letter. Distressingly, they bring in the use of something called an itinerary. I know, sounds like something for itinerants, but it’s worse than that. At 10 AM, we do this, at 12 noon we do that, it’ll involve walking 100 kilometres a day and if you wanna sit down and rest your little booties, forget it.

It’s the same with nights out on the town, the best nights are always those unplanned ones, the ones that start with a quiet drink and end up on the front pages of your social media, if not the newspapers. I even try to take this laissez-faire approach to work, which isn’t so great when you’re in project management and everything should be very orderly and prescribed. But oh, sod it, why not put your own little creative stamp on it? Why not play it by ear and see where things take you?

Start trying to plan every little facet of a gig and you’ll never get it off the ground. Planning stifles creativity, which is a cardinal sin. I’m using this mantra right now, writing without having any clue where we’re going to go to next. Freeflow, you know what I mean? You can put a bit of forethought into a book, a screenplay, a video game, a painting. But you just can’t beat sitting down with a half-baked idea, letting yourself drift off into what the pretentious call “the zone” and seeing where you end up, what kind of rabbit holes you’ll fall down.

You can put together as comprehensive a project plan as you like, but nothing beats getting hit by the thunderbolt of inspiration that often comes, not when you’re poring over a desk or costing your eyesight at a computer, but out on a walk, queueing up in a shop, drinking tea out in the garden. Even those most regimented of geeks, the programmers, will know what I’m talking about; simpering PMs like myself can put as much thought as we like into a venture. But any piece of code, no matter how well commented, is either stolen from somewhere else or it’s a proper bodge job, where the coder just kept on going until it worked.

This is also why, and I’ll probably be rendered unemployable or at least crazy for saying this, but if you ask me the best ventures, the most successful capers, all begin from a few drinks in the pub. Forget your stuffy boardroom meetings or your excruciating Zoom calls, it’s in the pub where things properly get done, and I’ll accept pub lunches into that scenario. And crucially, I think this is one of the key reasons why Rareware and their games were so beloved in the late 90s.

Quite apart from the fact that they rescued the Nintendo 64 from a fate worse than the Wii U, you always got the feeling when playing a Rareware game that much of the development and design was done, not in some underground computer dungeon or nastily modern meeting room where buzzwords rule the “narrative”, but rather it was all “conceptualised” down the pub, after a rake of Friday afternoon pints, possibly preceding a curry.

That really is the ideal setting, and you can’t beat the company and comradeship either – I imagine Rareware in those days comprised a load of workmates who were all in it together, men and women, all of them good stuff. Certainly not the dreadful, disingenuous people who we have strained conversations with under that sickly professional, always politically correct veneer that we must all pretend to be nowadays if we’re going to “get ahead” – that is, aspire to anything much over the living wage.

It’s why, even when you play a game like Banjo-Kazooie, you get the distinct feeling, the scent almost, of more than one donner kebab lashed down the throat of a Friday evening, after another long week of drinking and British-based development. That’s when your mind starts going wild, overthinking and coming up with all sorts of mad ideas. Why do you think Brendan Behan described himself as a drinker with writing problems? Actually, point me out any classic writer who didn’t love a gargle. Even priests lap up a bit of the old communion bread and the altar wine when they’re making up those lovely hymns and sermons.

Released in 1998 as the beater to Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie was to be the latest of Rareware’s flagship Nintendo 64 titles, after the system-selling GoldenEye 007, and one of my all time favourites, Diddy Kong Racing. It was like me when I try to take on the bouncers down at the club, smash hit after smash hit and we don’t know what hit us.

Well, looking at the bigger picture at the time, the PS1 was pretty much running away with the console war, leaving the N64 looking on enviously at this Sony star quarterback entertaining all and sundry at the most popular cafeteria table. But, you know, you always look up and not down, so Nintendo were meanwhile also trying desperately to ignore the pleas for company from the stricken-looking Sega Saturn over at the dweeb table.

Rare at least got one thing right in their planning, or rather their future-proofing: they opted to make Banjo a cute, cuddly, colourful platformer which at least wouldn’t age like milk. Hence Banjo-Kazooie looks good today, and even gets a slightly nicer coat of paint on Xbox 360. Actually, you might want to play the Microsoft variant – you’ll miss out on the stubborn N64 analogue stick that the game was designed for, not necessarily a bad thing. But you won’t have to collect every single Musical Note in every world in one single go, without dying, which is a tall order. That’s 900 Notes, as well as 100 Golden Jiggies to collect – a bit of a laundry list, you know what I mean?

You play as opposites, who probably don’t attract as they are entirely different species. You mostly play as a pleasant, easy-going bear called Banjo, who’s helped out by a wise-cracking bird called Kazooie, who happily lives in Banjo’s backpack. The two combine together to perform all kinds of acrobatic moves that get them through 9 massive worlds plus a large overworld that’s fun to work your way through.

And that’s before even getting onto the full-body transformations you can undergo, plus the fact that every single little object in the game seems to have its own bit of dialogue, punctuated by cute and funny sounds. This is a game full of what they call character, and it’s genuinely humourous – again, it’s a little bit of pub humour, a bit of banter you could even say. Generally, the other characters are just calling Banjo fat, but it’s all in good fun.

It’s good gas learning new moves in new worlds as well, as opposed to the Mario 64 deal of having all your moves from the off, and being able to practice them around Peach’s castle. Banjo responds with an excellent tutorial area, one of gaming’s best, and you won’t even have to get as far as the first 10 minutes of gameplay to appreciate one of the finest aspects of this game – the quintessentially Grant Kirkhope soundtrack.

Ah, Kirkhope. The man himself. He’s a terrific creator, a very funny guy, and he has spoken before about how he doesn’t plan, and he certainly doesn’t go back to his “tunes” and “optimise” – he puts something out, and if it’s good, then great. If it’s useless, no big deal, throw another one out if you’ve got the inspiration. That’s the creative process,  and it’s worth trusting. If I kept planning all the creative things I wanted to do, I’d end up being behind schedule on my panic attack, and I’d have to move back my nervous breakdown, and then before I knew it, I would have missed my cardiac arrest entirely. How am I gonna scrum my way out of that?

1 July 2022

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