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‘Banjo-Pilot’ Was One of Rare’s Difficult Steps Into a Nintendoless Future

Banjo-Pilot was fundamentally doomed the hour Rareware and Nintendo’s long-lasting partnership had been severed…

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15 Years Later: Looking back at ‘Banjo-Pilot’

On January 12, 2005, Banjo-Pilot became the fourth and final title to release within Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie series in North America on Nintendo’s line of home consoles and handheld devices. After suffering five years of a disjointed development that lost its direction near the finish line due to licensing issues, Microsoft opted for Rare to push out what became the only title holding Banjo’s name to receive a mixed reception from both critics and audiences- in the territories it even managed to release in, that is.

Despite being one of the hottest topics for journalists covering the closed doors demo stations for the Game Boy Advance just four years prior at the Electronic Entertainment Expo [E3] and Nintendo Space World 2001, Banjo-Pilot was fundamentally doomed the hour Rareware and Nintendo’s long-lasting partnership had been severed when the second party developer became part of their competitor’s first-party lineup of content creators through unfortunate circumstances.

A History That Will Make You Say “Guh Huh?”

During the fifth generation of consoles, the Nintendo 64 held a steady grip over the market with first-party icons such as Donkey Kong and Pikachu leading the charge alongside Mario, but one notable exception- or rather two- who often appeared in Nintendo’s promotional advertisements and console box-arts was none other than Rareware’s bear and bird duo Banjo and Kazooie. While Rareware planned to create a handheld Banjo-Kazooie game titled Grunty’s Curse for the Game Boy Color, a racing entry featuring the animal dyad was never originally in the cards.

The only Banjo-Kazooie products in development after the release of Banjo-Tooie was a tech demo for next-generation codename Dolphin (Nintendo GameCube) and of course the planned Game Boy Color game Grunty’s Curse. Banjo-Pilot began development in the year 2000 except there were never any Banjo-Kazooie series characters present in the game’s entirety- it was only up until the last five months of development where Banjo was forced to take the spotlight from Nintendo’s Kong family of characters due to pitiful circumstances.

Diddy Kong Pilot was intended to be a handheld successor to Rareware’s popular 1997 kart racer Diddy Kong Racing for the Nintendo 64. Rather than making another game featuring the Diddy Kong characters and karts, Rareware wanted their next title to stand out against other racing games that were already available and in development for Nintendo’s current hardware at the time. An unorthodox device that Rareware was interested in developing games with became the main inspiration for the concept of a Diddy Kong Racing sequel, but it also served as a key factor for the game’s impending doom due to a necessity of polish that could not be accomplished in Nintendo’s suggested release time frame.

At the dawn of the new century, Rareware staff were mesmerized by the accelerometer technology that various second and third-party companies working with Nintendo had been experimenting with for handheld titles on the Game Boy line of systems. Most notably, HAL Laboratory at the time used the new cartridge device to add controllable gameplay elements to their action-puzzle game Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble for the Game Boy Color that could only be accomplished through the add-on. HAL Laboratory’s favorable success inspired other companies such as Rareware to use the accelerometer device in unique “Nintendo” ways.

Rareware pushed for the inclusion of the accelerometer for their Diddy Kong Racing sequel after seeing other developers enhancing the fun factor of their titles with the device. The developer was able to convince Nintendo’s higher-ups at the time that tilting the system from left to right could potentially be used as a unique way of precisely controlling vehicle steering without having to use the standard directional pad.

Taking Off at The Wrong Time

One year later at Space World 2001, despite impressive positive critical reception from journalists who received exclusive closed-doors demo sessions of the game, Nintendo became concerned with the development of Diddy Kong Pilot due to the functionality of several gameplay aspects including the tilt feature not living up to their product quality standards. The game was in need of a coat of polish from programmers at Nintendo who truly understood the hardware being utilized, but scheduling conflicts had Rareware and Nintendo at odds. Many of the programmers who worked on Diddy Kong Pilot believed that the title should have been either heavily delayed or flat out canceled because of how far off the game was looking from its scheduled March 2002 release window.

During Diddy Kong Pilot’s development, Rareware was going through a transitional period of ownership as the company’s creators were preparing to have a complete buyout. Several projects including Diddy Kong Pilot were up in the air with unforeseeable futures, leaving staff to work on and off on the game although it was nearing completion. Once the entire company went up for sale, almost all of the workers thought that they were guaranteed to become future Nintendo employees, but in a shocking twist, their most trusted ally would not budge when Microsoft Corporation had outbid them for the remaining 51% of Rareware’s stock.

In September of 2002, Microsoft declared ownership of Rareware and finalized the purchase for all of the company’s internal assets including their characters who had become Nintendo icons. Rareware was forced to cancel nearly all of their Nintendo projects in development for the time being as they were to immediately start creating new titles for Microsoft’s Xbox. However, Microsoft decided that the Xbox brand would not be entering the handheld market any time soon. The newly rebranded Rare was given the opportunity to continue development on their handheld titles, but licensing issues with Nintendo would become a major issue for both the developer and Microsoft’s higher-ups.

Flying From Somewhere to Nowhere

Microsoft wanted Rare to continue developing ports of their Donkey Kong Country series for the Game Boy with Nintendo and finish their larger projects that were nearing completion such as Star Fox Adventures, but they also wanted the company to start avoiding their competitor. As a result of this, Microsoft tasked Rare with replacing the Kong family featured in Diddy Kong Pilot along with any other future releases made in-house that would have featured Nintendo’s characters. The Banjo-Kazooie series was chosen to completely replace all traces of any content featured in Diddy Kong Pilot that was directly owned by Nintendo.

As Rare and Nintendo severed ties on the project, the developer was forced to abandon several gameplay aspects found in Diddy Kong Pilot including the main tilt gimmick that the gameplay was centered around due to a lack of knowledgable resources who could tend to the issues at hand and time constraints from Microsoft. With only five months given to retool and finalize the release, the developers had to make several cuts to ensure that Banjo-Pilot could even be ready to go gold for store shelves. Game modes, various items, and even a proper Banjo-Kazooie themed soundtrack had to be left on the cutting room floor so Rare could overhaul the gameplay to accommodate a standard Game Boy Advance control scheme.

By the time the game had been revitalized, the only remnant that remained of Diddy Kong Pilot had been various backgrounds used for individual levels and the game’s original soundtrack composed by Robin Beanland and Jamie Hughes. A recomposed rendition of the original Banjo-Kazooie theme for the title screen and main menu was the only piece of music found in the game that was not from Diddy Kong Pilot‘s latest build. Overall, Banjo-Pilot lost out on several promised features that its precursor would have delivered on.

A Legacy With No Takeoff

When it came to reception from both critics and audiences, it was mostly agreed that Mario Kart: Super Circuit and Konami Krazy Racers were far better alternatives available in the genre. Besides its soundtrack and some detailed sprites, critics did not have much else to praise for the title. Many reviewers compared the game to Super Mario Kart and other early fourth-generation kart racers claiming that Banjo-Pilot was a downgrade in several regards to what the Game Boy Advance was truly capable of. Several review outlets such as Eurogamer even criticized Microsoft and Rare for releasing the game after cutting the tilt controls that made it notably innovative for the time.

While the advertising may have claimed that “bears no longer need a bird to fly” it is evident that perhaps a certain other species of mammals such as a chimp who wears a branded red hat should have either taken the helm of this sick flight or make certain that it never saw takeoff. Banjo-Pilot was wrongfully stripped of its originality through a string of unfortunate corporate circumstances that could not have been prevented. Despite its loveable thematic appearance, it will forever be the one entry in the Banjo-Kazooie franchise that the majority of fans forget to acknowledge- if they even know it exists.

In 2011, a nearly complete version of Rareware’s Diddy Kong Pilot leaked online. For gameplay, you can click the link right here to see what the full game was like for journalists who play-tested a beta version of the title at 2001 game show conventions.

Journalist major and part-time film writer. I have always held high interests in the fields of professional writing and communications. You can find me with my head deep in the espionage genre, on a collectathon, or in a kayak upstream. I’ll always be first in line for the next Hideo Kojima or Masahiro Sakurai game.

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‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season

Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.

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atelier ryza

The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.

Ryza starting her alchemy journey.

Like a Warm Blanket

Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.

The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.

The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.

The titular Atelier Ryza.

An Intimate Take on Storytelling

Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.

It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.

The town drunk and Lent's father, Samuel.

Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.

The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.

Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.

Atelier Ryza

Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.

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PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘The Artful Escape,’ ‘Foregone,’ and ‘Tunic’

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This past weekend, PAX South 2020 brought a huge variety of promising indie games to the show floor in San Antonio. Here are just a few of the most remarkable games I got to try, including a hardcore action game, a classic adventure, and an experience that can only be described as dreamlike.

Tunic

Simply put, Tunic is a Zelda game, but foxier. Tunic takes significant inspiration from the classic Zelda formula, complete with an overworld to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to fight, and a protagonist clad in green. My demo even began by leaving me weaponless and forcing me to venture into a nearby cave in order to discover my first weapon.

Yet there’s nothing wrong with following such a traditional formula. At a time when Nintendo has largely stopped creating new games in the style of its classic Zeldas, it’s left up to other developers to rediscover the magic of the original gameplay style. Based on my time with the game, Tunic achieves exactly that, reimagining the charm of A Link to the Past for the current generation with gorgeous visuals and modern design sensibilities. The biggest difference from its predecessors is its green-clad hero is a fox, and not a Kokiri.

All, that is to say, is that if you’ve ever played a 2D Zelda, then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Tunic. It starts by dropping the foxy little player character into a vibrant, sunny overworld, and true to form, your inventory is completely empty and the environment is full of roadblocks to progress. Simple enemies abound, and although its greatest Zelda inspirations lie with those from the 2D era, it also includes an element from the 3D games due to its inclusion of a targeting system in order to lock onto specific opponents. What followed next was a linear, straightforward dungeon that focused on teaching the basics of exploration and item usage. It was extremely simple but hinted at plenty of potential for the full game later.

Tunic’s gameplay may hearken back to the games of old, but its visual presentation is cutting edge. It features gorgeous polygonal 3D visuals, loaded with striking graphical and lighting effects, making its quaint isometric world truly pop to life. My demo didn’t last very long, but the little bit I played left me excited for Tunic’s eventual release on Xbox One and PC. It could be the brand-new classic Zelda experience that fans like myself have long waited for.

Foregone

Foregone

These days, nearly every other indie game is either a roguelike or a Metroivdvania. Just by looking at Foregone, I immediately assumed that it must be one of the two based on appearances alone. Yet when I shared those assumptions with the developers, Big Blue Bubble, the response in both cases was a resounding, “No.”

Foregone may look like it could be procedurally generated or feature a sprawling interconnected world, but that simply isn’t the case. The developers insisted that every aspect of the game world was intentionally crafted by hand, and it will remain that way in each playthrough. Likewise, although there is some optional backtracking at certain points in the game, Foregone is a largely linear experience, all about going from one point to another and adapting your strategy along the way. In a generation where nonlinearity reigns supreme, such straightforward design is refreshing to see.

If there’s any game that seems like an accurate comparison to Foregone, it would have to be Dark Souls. From the very start of the demo, the world of Foregone is inhabited with fearsome enemies that don’t hold back. If you don’t watch what you’re doing, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and fall under the pressure. Thankfully, there’s a broad assortment of abilities at your disposal, such as a wide area of effect move that can stun enemies within a wide radius, and a powerful shield that can block many attacks. I fell many times during my time with the game, but it never felt unfair. Rather, it merely felt like I wasn’t being smart enough with my own ability usage, and I was encouraged to keep jumping back into the world for just one more run, this time armed with better knowledge of my own abilities and potential strategies.

And it’s a beautiful game too. Rather than featuring the typical pixelated aesthetics often associated with platformers, the world is actually built-in 3D with a pixelated filter applied on top of it. This allows for a uniquely detailed environment and distinctly fluid animations. Foregone looks to be a worthwhile action game that should be worth checking out when it hits early access via the Epic Games Store in February, with a full release on console and PC to follow later this year.

The Artful Escape

Bursting with visual and auditory splendor, The Artful Escape is easily the most surreal game I played at PAX South. The demo may have only lasted about ten minutes, yet those ten minutes were dreamlike, transportation from the crowded convention to a world of color, music, and spirit.

As its name would suggest, The Artful Escape is an otherworldly escape from reality. Its luscious 3D environments are populated with 2D paper cutout characters, its dialogue leans heavily into the mystical (the player character describes his surroundings with phrases like “a Tchaikovsky cannonade” and “a rapid glittering of the eyes”), and its music often neglects strong melodies in favor of broad, ambient background themes. This all combines to create a mystical, almost meditative atmosphere.

It only helps that the platforming gameplay itself is understated, not requiring very much of you but to run forward, leap over a few chasms, or occasionally play your guitar to complete basic rhythm games. This gameplay style may not be the most involved or exciting, but it allows you to focus primarily on the overwhelming aesthetic majesty, marching forward through the world while shredding on your guitar all the while.

This Zenlike feel to the game is punctuated with occasional spectacular moments. At one point, a gargantuan, crystalline krill called the Wonderkrill burst onto the screen and regaled me with mystic dialogue, while at another point, I silently wandered into a herd of strange oxen-like creatures grazing in a barren field as the music began to swell. The demo was filled with such memorable moments, constantly leaving my jaw dropped.

For those who think that games should be entertaining above all else, The Artful Escape might not be so enthralling. Its platforming is extremely basic and its rhythm minigames are shallow at best. For players who think that games can be more than fun, however, The Artful Escape is set to provide an emotional, unforgettable experience, an escape that I can’t wait to endeavor.

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PAX South Hands On: ‘Boyfriend Dungeon’ Wields Weapons of Love

A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend, and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

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Boyfriend Dungeon

In most games, weapons are straightforward objects. Sometimes they can be upgraded or personalized, but at the end of the day, they function as little more than tools for a single purpose: to cut down enemies and make progress in the game. Boyfriend Dungeon, however, proposes a different relationship with your weapons. They’re more than just objects. Instead, they’re eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that are ready to mingle.

Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon crawler and dating sim hybrid all about forging an intimate bond with your weapons and, after demoing it at PAX South, this unique mix seems to be paying off.

There are two main activities in Boyfriend Dungeon: exploring the loot-filled dungeons (referred to as “The Dunj”) and romancing the human forms of your weapons. There’s been plenty of great dungeon crawlers in recent years, but Boyfriend Dungeon sets itself apart by humanizing its weaponry. This concept may sound strange on paper, but Kitfox games director and lead designer Tanya X. Short is confident that players have long been ready for a game just like this.

“A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

“I think the fans of Boyfriend Dungeon have been out there for years, waiting. I remember when I was in university ages ago, I was sure someone would have made a game like this already… but I guess I needed to make it myself!” She adds that “A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

Boyfriend Dungeon

My demo with Boyfriend Dungeon began simply enough. After a brief character creation phase where I chose my appearance and my pronouns (he/him, she/her, or they/them), I was dropped into the stylish, top-down hub world of Verona Beach. Here I could explore the town and choose where to date my chosen weapon. I decided to head to the public park to meet Valeria, a swift and slender dagger.

“Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Upon reaching the park, I discovered Valeria in her dagger form. When I picked up the weapon, a beautiful anime-style animation commenced in which she transformed into her human form. What followed was a visual novel-style date sequence complete with detailed character art and plenty of dialogue options to help romance your date.

The dialogue is full of witty, self-aware humor and charm – there were more than a few jokes about axe murderers along with other weapon-related puns, for example. Short herself put plenty of love into the writing. “Writing dates with weapons is a joy I never knew could be part of my job, but here we are. Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Boyfriend Dungeon

I loved my date with Valeria, but she’s not the only potential mate in Boyfriend Dungeon. Rather, there’s a cast of five potential partners in the game, each of them hailing from distinct backgrounds and identities. “When I was coming up with the cast for Boyfriend Dungeon, I tried to imagine as many kinds of people and personalities that I could be attracted to as possible.”

Short drew from her own personal experiences in creating the cast. “I was very lucky to meet my partner many years ago, so I haven’t actually dated many people in my life, but I become fascinated with people I meet very easily, and they can provide inspiration. Whether they’re upbeat and reckless, or brooding and poetic, or gentle and refined…there’re so many kinds of intriguing people out there. And in Boyfriend Dungeon, I hope.”

After building up this bond during dialogue, it was time to put it to the test by exploring the Dunj. Of course, this isn’t the typically dreary dungeon found in most other dungeon crawlers. Instead, it’s an abandoned shopping mall overrun with monsters to slay and loot to discover with your partner weapon.  

Boyfriend Dungeon

Combat is easy to grasp, focusing on alternating between light and heavy attacks and creating simple combos out of them. Just like how the dating content aims to be inclusive for people of different backgrounds, Short hopes for the combat to be accessible for players of different levels of experience as well. “Hopefully the dungeon combat can be approachable enough for less experienced action RPG players, but still have enough challenge for the people that want to find it.”

Based off the demo, Boyfriend Dungeon seems to achieve this goal. I loved learning simpler moves and discovering new combos with them. Movement is fast, fluid, and intuitive, making it a pleasure to explore the Dunj. Succeeding in dungeons will also result in a stronger relationship with your weapons, so it’s in your best interest to perform well during combat. Of course, your weapons don’t simply level up – instead, their love power increases.

An arcade environment

“Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

Fighting and dating may seem like two disparate concepts, but in practice, they manage to mesh surprisingly well. “The game is mostly about switching from one [gameplay style] to the other,” Short says, “and it’s nice for pacing, since you often want a breather from the action or get restless if there’s too much reading.”

The overarching story and general experience remain relatively firm throughout the whole game regardless of your decisions, but Short encourages players to enjoy the ride they take with the weapon they choose. “Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

In Boyfriend Dungeon, your weapons can wage more than just war. Rather, they can spread love and lead to deeply fulfilling relationships. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of the most refreshing games I played at PAX thanks to its engaging dungeon exploration and combat and its surprisingly positive view of weaponry. That’s the mission of peace that Short had in mind with the game: “It feels like a difficult time in the world right now, but that’s when we most need to find love and compassion. Let’s try our hardest to be kind.”

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