Who actually owns the rights to Banjo-Kazooie?
7th October 2021
Recently, the internet - or at least whichever portion of it cares about Banjo-Kazooie news - has been abuzz with the revelation that Rare’s beloved N64 Jiggy grabbing simulator will be coming to the Nintendo Switch (to the considerable surprise of everybody).
In 2019, an even more gobsmacked public reaction greeted the news that Banjo and Kazooie would be appearing in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate - something that almost everyone had privately decided would never happen.
This has led some fans to wonder: who actually owns the rights to the Banjo games? They were first seen on a Nintendo console, then on Microsoft, and now on Nintendo again? Did Nintendo buy them back? What’s going on?
It’s a reasonable question, and I think it deserves a bit of digging into. So let’s have a look at the current state of the Banjo rights, and how we got here.
The Nintendo era
Between 1994 and 2002, Rare LTD was part-owned by Nintendo, who initially had a 25% stake in the company that they later upgraded up to 49% as it became obvious that the Twycross game developer was basically a money factory. This made them a second-party developer exclusive to Nintendo (with Nintendo owning the rights to everything they made).
However, Microsoft had been watching from the wings, and over the course of several years they repeatedly approached Rare to discuss the possibility of buying the company. After the release of Rare’s one and only Gamecube title - Star Fox Adventures - the Washington tech giant finally got its wish.
Of course, Nintendo and Rare's subsequent parting of ways meant that the two companies had a bit of legal fiddling to sort out at the time, particularly as to who owned what out of the developer’s back catalogue.
Eventually, it was decided that the Donkey Kong games would belong to Nintendo (since the tie-wearing ape had been theirs since the beginning) and Rare would retain the rights to their own original inventions (such as Perfect Dark, Conker, and of course, the Banjo games).
And yes, the developer got to keep Mr. Pants in the divorce.
The Microsoft years
Following Microsoft‘s 100% acquisition of Rare, everything that was the property of Rare also became the exclusive property of Microsoft, including Banjo-Kazooie and its sequels.
There then followed a string of Xbox-only Banjo releases over the next few years, including high-definition remasters of the N64 games as ported by 4J Studios and a excitingly crap new adventure in the form of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts.
After that, the Banjo series saw… well, nothing, because basically everybody involved put the franchise in a drawer and that was that.
With Microsoft not being exactly delighted about the lacklustre sales of Nuts & Bolts, and Rare wanting to move onto other projects, that really seemed to be yer lot as far as the whole Banjo series was concerned (with the only other notable item on the timeline being the inclusion of the remastered versions of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie in 2015’s nostalgia cash-in compilation, Rare Replay).
Banjo on the Switch?
With Microsoft continuing to own and essentially sit on the Banjo rights (as they do to this day), nobody really thought it was likely that the backpack-wearing bear and his feathered companion would ever see the light of day on a Nintendo console again.
Of course, we all know that the surprise announcement of Banjo’s appearance in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate on Nintendo’s current-gen console caused everyone on the internet to fall off their chairs (with gamers everywhere wondering if they’d somehow slipped into an alternate universe where up was down and cats were dogs).
Apparently this eyebrow-raising event didn’t look all that interesting from the inside, with Xbox boss Phil Spencer commenting that it was a pretty straightforward deal to sort out:
“Obviously we’re one of the biggest third-party publishers on Switch, so we have great relationships with their third-party team. And you’ve seen the ambition they’ve had with every character that’s ever been in Smash and even more. So it was just kind of part of the partnership relationship we have with them… There wasn’t anything kind of CEO-to-CEO that had to happen.”
Nonetheless, this apparently unlikely crossover - along with the subsequent announcement of a Banjo-Kazooie port on the Nintendo Switch - doesn’t change the fact that the Banjo franchise is still very much owned by Microsoft.
Of course, the question on everyone’s lips is: what’s next for the series? Are we going to see a shiny new remake of the original games at some point, à la Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy or the Spyro remaster?
God, I hope so - and so does Steve Mayles (one of artists who worked on the original games at Rare), who has gone on the record to say that such a remaster could be a good way for Microsoft to judge the level of interest in a fully-featured new Banjo game:
“Could the reaction of fans to Banjo and Kazooie in Smash persuade Microsoft to make another Banjo game? The revival of Spyro and Crash went pretty well after all… I think a fairly safe way to gauge demand for a new game would be a remaster of the original two games.”
Until then, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens next. It does feel like things are gradually starting to happen in Banjo-land. Do these recent appearances suggest somebody is testing the waters to gauge whether we all still love the famous bear and bird?
Only time will tell, but until then… fingers and toes crossed, everybody!