Behind the Fur and Feathers with 4J Studios
Banjo-Kazooie XBLA (and its soon-to-be released sequel) has been making its presence known on the Xbox Live Arcade. Yet, besides the fact that 4J Studios has been responsible for developing the ports, there's little to no information on how the idea came to be to re-release the classic Banjo games.
Established at Dundee in 2005 by Chris van der Kuyl, Paddy Burns and Frank Arnot, 4J Studios were the ones chosen to port both previous Banjo titles to the Xbox Live Arcade. With only 18 employees overall and up to 7 of them working on the ports, it's impressive to know that such trust has been given to them by Microsoft.
Thanks to Paddy Burns, one of the cofounders of 4J Studios, MundoRare is proud to present an interview that promises to delve deeper in how our nostalgia for platformers resurfaced for the new generation to enjoy.
MundoRare: Let's start painting the initial scenario. When did Microsoft contact 4J Studios to ask for ports of two Rare N64 titles? When did you start working on Banjo-Kazooie XBLA and Banjo-Tooie?
Paddy Burns: Early 2008. Microsoft was looking to create a triple header for the relaunch of Rare’s Banjo series. Their pitch to us was to bring faithful ports of the original titles to XBLA to refresh players memories of what they were all about.
We started work around May on the tech, by the end of May we had Banjo-Kazooie playable on the X360, and by July Banjo-Tooie was up and running too, but it then took a back seat whilst we got Kazooie done and dusted ready for the launch of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts.
MR: So we can all appreciate your work on this project: briefly, what did your jobs consist of? What is the complete process? Which were the major difficulties you knew you'd find, and which were the unexpected ones that arose when you were already working on it?
Burns: Wow, that’s a big question, most of which is more suited for a few ales and the odd packet of crisps ;) From the source dump from Rare it’s a process of going through the code piece by piece to get what is happening. Then slowly but surely we unhook the N64 code and start hooking up the game to our 360 components, something’s are simple to get working, some aren’t. Making the adjustments to the game flow to incorporate the new changes have proved to be the most troublesome: it's 10 year old code so crow-barring seemingly simple additions has given us a few sleep-starved nights….
Unexpected ones? I think with both games their sheer size and ways-to-play have given us biggest difficulties, just when everything seems buttoned up, often a particular play combination threw up a horrible problem that would cause us to rework some major part of the game. One of the hardest thing to do under that situation is to make sure the original gameplay stays faithful, a thing we believe we’ve been very successful at doing.
MR: How much time have you spent working on each port? How was the transition between both games, bearing in mind that they have elements in common, and we know that both are 'connected'?
Burns: The full project was officially 9 months, though Tooie has been cooked a bit longer than initially anticipated to make sure it is as it should be. The two games do share similar tech but they’re not identical, Rare had made considerable upgrades to their engine between games as well as changing the way they handle gameplay and they of course had added a lot of new stuff to Tooie with multiplayer etc. That said the transition was a smooth as we could have wished for.
MR: How was the relationship with Rare during the porting process? Did you have constant contact with them?
Burns: Heh. No juicy gossip here ;) It’s been great working with MGS and Rare, everyone is free to talk to everyone. On the day to day, the project was run by MGS rather than Rare.
MR: The main difference between the BK and BT ports and the original N64 games is the implemented Stop 'n' Swop connection. It works not only between BK and Nuts & Bolts, but also between BK and BT, recovering "the original plan for Stop ‘n’ Swop, for the first time on any platform ever and after many long years of waiting." Can we have a total guarantee that this will be the original plan fully recovered?
Burns: It’s a popular and potentially explosive discussion point ;) Stop ‘n’ Swop means different things to different people. When the BK and BT ports were conceived, SnS was only to be between BK and Nuts & Bolts, a simple reward system, in a modern day emulation of what the original cartridge swapping idea was supposed to do.
Doing something with the much bigger Tooie was considered to be the mutterings of madmen, especially as that would require much deeper thought and preparation... But nevertheless as we all started to spec out Tooie it became more plausible especially as we had become quite comfortable with the code base.
The Stop ‘n’ Swop legend is a monster amongst fans of the series; so, with that in mind, we hope people will enjoy and appreciate what has been done. We have implemented, under MGS and Rare guidance, the gameplay that completes the SnS journey; it is, as much as anyone can say, the ‘original plan’, and everyone involved thinks it’s cool. It’s certainly more than a reward system. Bearing in mind we cannot create new areas, gameplay or content, it wasn’t trivial to implement either.
MR: That makes us wonder if Tooie will be slightly 'different' because of those changes: will we be able to enjoy the 'other' Tooie that we'd have enjoyed if -ten years ago- Stop 'n' Swop would have been finally possible?
Burns: Yes, it does mean that XBLA Tooie is different to the N64 version, for those who know the original game, we couldn’t give you the ‘original plan’ if the eggs and ice key remained from the N64! If you don’t have Banjo-Kazooie you’ll never see them, just like you wouldn’t have 10 years ago...
MR: When the gamers have already played Nuts & Bolts, the Stop 'n' Swop areas in BK XBLA appear automatically open. It seemed a bit unfair to us, especially after so many years of waiting. Was any original -although unused- Stop 'n' Swop cutscene deleted or not included for some reason? Will we enjoy any kind of SnS explanation in between Kazooie and Tooie?
Burns: It was Rare’s request to do it this way. They wanted SnS to be approachable and usable for all so having all areas open altogether was the only real option. Trekking back between games maybe fine for the hardened gamer but not for those new to the series. This might be a bit of disappointment for some but as far as we can tell there’s no cutscene ‘missing’, nothing exists in the source.
MR: Were there any additional ideas Rare or you had for the port (such as the ones we've seen like changes in icons) that time simply didn't allow for? Can we expect any little changes like that for Tooie XBLA?
Burns: Pretty much all the idea generations came from MGS and Rare, we kept our creative juices free for physically solving their requests in the game ;-). Adding Live multiplayer and Bottles Revenge has come up quite a lot but in the end both of those would have been a considerable step outside of the ‘faithful port’ remit. They would have needed lots and lots of new gameplay, new AI, new tech, new levels even, that just wasn’t what this development was about.
But, aside from SnS, there are quite a few changes in Tooie that followers of the game will spot, some are little, some aren’t but all add to the experience.
MR: Why was Berri's portrait circa Twelve Tales/Conker's Pocket Tales in Rusty Bucket Bay changed to Conker? Not only does it make us question what the sailor drones really like, but we're just curious as to what the reasoning was towards changing that.
Burns: Any changes like this were at MGS and Rare’s request. Some are for legal reasons, some are simply because the old artwork could not be recreated in acceptable HD quality so it was a simple replacement. Nothing sinister, no message or meaning intended.
MR: Quite a bit of Nintendo references were taken out of BK XBLA, but why did the Game Boy still stay intact? Has it been a lot of work taking out the Nintendo references in BT (such as the DK64 magnet in Grunty Industries), or has that been just business as usual?
Burns: Rare owns all the assets in both games, so everything you see in them is correct per that ownership. Rare doesn’t own the right to show trademarked/registered Nintendo things. The same sort of changes that you see in BK have also been made in BT.
MR: We've appreciated that some of the icons from the dialogue bubbles or interface elements look 'stretched' now that we enjoy the game in widescreen. Do you have any plans to fix them somehow? Will they be 'corrected' in the Tooie interface?
Burns: All the assets you see and their implementation are approved by Rare and MGS. All the icons were recreated with original artwork or models wherever possible. The code doesn’t actually stretch them as far as we can see, so you won’t see any change in Tooie.
MR: One of the biggest tragedies in BK XBLA was the note-collecting glitch. It was a blessing to have the notes be collected as in Banjo-Tooie, but the Bottles Puzzle Glitch made sure that didn't happen. Could you explain how the problem was fixed? Do you expect any issues similar to that in Tooie thanks to your experience in porting Banjo-Kazooie?
Burns: It was a bug, a really unfortunate bug and one that was exasperated by the Bottles Puzzle achievement and also one we had fixed by the time the game was officially launched, as well as the 1080i/p slowdown issue and leaderboard scoring.
All your readers should know from the games they play, bugs happen. No developer or publisher intentionally leaves a bug in but regardless of how much test effort goes in, some player somewhere will find something the army of testers didn’t. No game is ‘safe’. We were all as fed up as you guys were! Tooie has been in the test oven a long time, we hope it’s all cool when it reaches your X360’s.
MR: Are you as a company privy on how the game has been selling through digital distribution? If so, has the game been selling to your expectations, even with the pre-order bonus?
Burns: MGS have said it’s been performing well above the average. They expect it to continue selling at a good rate too.
MR: Any special incentives this time around like BK XBLA, or will it just be a matter of buying it as is this time?
Burns: Not that we are aware of.
MR: Will the multiplayer be kept in the port? If so, would you give us some details of it?
Burns: Of course. It’s all there as it was in the Nintendo release, all the games and 4 player split but with awesome 30fps and HD resolution.
MR: On the subject of multiplayer again, has there been consideration to have all the multiplayer modes playable through Live? That would really give some more replay value to an already great game.
Burns: As mentioned above, it was considered in detail but to do it to the high standard required would have needed a sizeable investment, far exceeding the remit of the original project. Simply making the current couch-play games Live wouldn’t be very good or a lot of fun.
MR: Do you have an approximate idea of the size of the final BT XBLA download file?
Burns: It's 94MB.
MR: What part of the game will the demo version consist of, if there are any plans to release a demo?
Burns: Fraid it's too early to talk about this and why spoil the surprise ;)
MR: Will this collaboration with MGS and Rare be necessarily limited to the Banjo franchise? After Tooie is finished, would the company ideally like to continue the working relationship between Microsoft and Rare in terms of past classics? There are quite a few other franchises that fans would love to see hit the Xbox Live Arcade.
Burns: We’d love to keep working with MGS and Rare so I guess just keep your fingers crossed along with us!
This interview couldn't have been done without George Kelion, Paddy Burns, and Rare (for making this fun game all those years ago). A special thanks goes out to you all, and we hope that readers like you will enjoy this look into an incredibly smart move on the Xbox Live Arcade.