Michael Koczwara is the developer of Banjo-Kazooie Returns, a freelancer for many major publications, an avid traveler and still finds time to run Mario Party Legacy, a fan-site dedicated to that series and Nintendo news!
I asked him on Twitter if he’d like to conduct an interview and thankfully he obliged! If you’d like to thank him for all his wisdom, he can be reached here @SuperZambezi.
Hey Michael — or should I say Super Zambezi? About your tag, I was pretty surprised when I learned your last name isn’t Zambezi! How’d you stumble upon those unique syllables?
Oh, it’s dumb. I really wish I had a better story for it, maybe I should make something cooler up and use that from now on! But it’s pretty simple, I was in seventh grade, geography class. For whatever reason we talked the Zambezi river over in Africa. Yeah. Later that day I was home and signing up for a GameFAQs account. Needed a username! And I wanted it to be unique. And bam, SuperZambezi was created. I never stopped liking it so it has stayed since, plus I never have to worry about it getting used by someone else.
Super Zambezi does sound pretty rad! You’ve just given anyone reading this the tools to dig up even more sweet gamertags for themselves!
I believe I read once that you sort of got your start as a content curator for a fan website. How did you find an opportunity like that? Were you the one running it?
I was always fascinated by all the fan sites covering Zelda, Mario, whatever other series and I always wanted to start something of my own. A nice opportunity came along and I started a Mario Party focused website when I was fourteen. Picked that series in particular because there wasn’t really a hub for that online and that paid off. I created a community that still exists in one way or another today.
It was rough at the start but the site, Mario Party Legacy, eventually got its footing and it’s still around today.
That’s crazy! I’ve definitely used MP Legacy a few times over the years. Incredibly useful resource when trying to remember the names of mini-games and which entry in the series those mini-games came from.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say most fans of any anything don’t go so far as to start a website dedicated to the things they love. Is there something about creating and curating that excites you?
I love being a creator. I’ve always prefered to create rather than consume. When I make content for my website, I’m always satisfied seeing the end result. But only if I know I did a good job! It’s even better when I see others commenting and letting me know something I wrote or produced helped them or informed them in some way. If there’s something you enjoy online, let that creator know!
For Mario Party Legacy specifically, I started a side project back in December where the goal was to update the core content of the site along with some of the mechanics like a mobile friendly theme to better fit the needs and wants of today along with improving SEO for long term stability. It’s hard to clear out and remove old content but replacing it with something better gives off such a great feeling. It’s very fulfilling.
Looking at the site now (April 2020) it’s still quite impressive! You’ve organized an exceptional clean interface that cuts right to the chase with each game!
In the circles I run in, you’re most well known for Banjo-Kazooie Returns, a super high quality romhack that’s aiming to feel like a new game for the original series! This is quite an ambitious project, what motivated you to choose romhacking a 64 to be your canvas?
I appreciate the kind words but high quality is a strong term! I’m pretty proud with the progress I’ve made with my own modeling capabilities so maybe in that regard.
I have always been fascinated with modding and rom hacks. I think there’s something really special about taking a game you love and expanding in ways that were not possible when you were a kid. I think a lot of us went through a phase where we designed our own levels for our favorite games. For me it was mapping out my own Zelda dungeons, sketching up a new Mario Party board, imagining what an extra world in Glover would look like, and yes, creating my own Banjo-Kazooie worlds. My initial interest in actual modding started with the really early Super Mario 64 mods where basic level geometry became importable. Crazy to think how far it has all come.
Personally I’ve gone my whole life with a soft spot for this franchise. It’s the first game I ever played on the first system I ever owned. Unlike a lot of experiences from this era, I’d say playing Banjo-Kazooie still holds up exceptionally well to this day!
Nostalgia hits everyone a little differently so I’d like to ask what Banjo-Kazooie (and of course Tooie) brings out in you as a person… as a gamer… as an explorer!
Oh wow! What do these two games bring out of me as a person and gamer. Not sure I’ve been asked this before! I think both games inform me what I like about games and what I gravitate towards. I like collecting things, to a reasonable degree, and I like to explore but not to the point where I repeatedly get lost. I like humor but not so much that it’s always up in my face and I like my curiosity to be tested so that I don’t lose interest. I don’t like unfair backtracking! That’s right Freezeezy Peak, get those Turbo Trainers out of there. You have no business being the only jiggy in the entire game that requires you to go to a future level.
Not to say that I won’t play other games. You will absolutely find me online for hours blasting away opponents in Halo or spending weeks diving into dozens of hours in a visual novel. Games are awesome!
Why do you think you’ve gravitated towards continuing the bear and bird legacy versus working on an indie game? I’m sure some of it’s the convenience of having lots of pre-modelled/pre-scripted assets but is there also a sense of love and care for the franchise that you just want to grow and see prosper with other gamers?
I think it has a lot to do with what I mentioned earlier, the fact that we get to expand these childhoods games in ways we could only imagine as kids. There’s something very special about that. I didn’t start doing this because I’ve always wanted to create my own game, I started because I love Banjo-Kazooie specifically.
And you’re absolutely right, working on a mod is a lot more accessible than creating your own game, provided the tools are advanced enough. I had to teach myself to model but to use Banjo’s Backpack, the modding tool for Banjo-Kazooie, I had to read up and understand the game mechanics. A lot easier than starting something from scratch!
On your livestreams, it appears you’ve got a pretty strong bead on how you’d like your game to look and play. In fact, you churn out content quickly then spend a ton of effort working in that ‘eye for detail’ state of polish — it’s impressive! When you first started development all those years back, did you intend to make a mod with as large of a scope as this?
Oh, that’s interesting that I come off that way in the livestreams because it’s usually not the case! I very much decide things on the go. It would probably be better if I mapped out the entire mod and knew exactly what went where, but that’s just not how I roll. I like to plan a world at a time and go from there. And given the amount of times I’ve gone back and completely ripped an entire section out of the mod like it’s some hot pile of garbage, it’s probably for the best.
If I remember correctly, Banjo’s Backpack was released in May of 2013 and I started a month before that. It’s been a very long time but please keep in mind I don’t work on the project as consistently as people think. Plus, almost everything from 2016 and earlier has been scrapped. Just not up to par with what I can create today! This has all been a learning process.
Do you feel like you’ve ever had to overcome mental hurdles during development? I’m sure it can be pretty intimidating to put a ton of time into one area then think, ‘Alright! I’m 3% closer to my end goal!’
Yes and no. I struggle the most with creativity and vision. There are times where I’m not motivated because I don’t really know what to work on or what to do. I try not to stream at those times because the thing I create usually feels empty or souless. I often seek the help of our Discord when that happens and they always pull through!
Outside the live streams, I don’t feel any pressure or intimidation. This is a side project and I’m vocal about that. My family, friends, work, and even other hobbies come first. This comes after all that. The live streams are great because they push me to (hopefully) stream myself working on it once a week. So in that sense I feel required to do at least a little bit when times are slowing down and I’m not working off stream.
This is also why I work solo. I don’t want anyone to have to rely on my slow and random schedule. It would not be fair to them. I also feel like this is a reason why so many other projects fail. There’s never an equal balance of work and oftentimes things will become a chore rather than a passion. Not a fan of deadlines with fan projects!
The last stream I tuned into, you were working on a world that seemed to be inspired by Feudal Japanese architecture. In a short amount of time you went from nothing to something thanks to your confidence in terraforming and what I perceived to be a strong sense of understanding with how your designs should look.
I’m sure you have a great body of knowledge to pull from so how do you decide what makes it into your game or not?
I take a lot of inspirations from other games and artwork I find online. My best ideas come when I’m out in nature or exploring something outside what I’m normally surrounded by. A lot of what goes into the game is simply if I would enjoy playing it if I were to play it right now. If not, it’s most likely not going in.
How much more relaxed do you feel when working on personal projects versus assignments you might accept for a job position? Do you feel like you’re a fair judge of the quality of your work when you’re working on personal projects?
I can be a bit sloppier working on my own personal projects because I don’t have someone over my shoulder making sure I stay on track or the pressure that comes from getting edits from an editor. And it all depends on the project but over the years, I’ve gotten better about putting the same care into personal projects versus something contracted by another outlet.
Have you had to learn any skills you didn’t expect you’d need to make it this far in Banjo-Kazooie Returns’ development?
Hmm, well the entire point of livestreaming my mod progress was because I wanted to force myself in front of a camera. Still need to work on it but I’m a lot more comfortable doing it. Thanks BKR!
Do you consider yourself a very nostalgic person? Based on your Twitter, you seem very much capable of living in the moment. How much of that is rooted in grasping a better appreciation/understanding of the past versus a desire to craft your own future?
Not sure if I would consider myself a nostalgic person. It’s actually kind of sad, because a lot of my nostalgia comes from games I regularly see and interact with games of my past, I don’t have as strong nostalgic vibes over them anymore. Wish that wasn’t the case but if you repeatedly see something over and over, it loses that effect.
I totally feel that. Making gaming somewhat of a career is gratifying but boy can it also lead to a bit of impostor syndrome when I spend time with super fans!
In addition to gaming, I see you’re a super active fan of many TV series and movies! You even watched the series finale of The Good Place at the Alamo in Texas?! How’d you find yourself in a place like that at a time like that?? And how was the ending, too?
I love TV shows. I find video games to be lacking the most in their storytelling department since it’s hard to weave that into appropriate gameplay mechanics. There are absolutely great examples like The Last of Us or God of War, but TV has it beat, especially in the current age of shows like The Leftovers, Fargo, Breaking Bad, etc. It’s unfair, video games have so much more they have to focus on so I understand, but that’s simply how it is.
The Good Place at the Alamo was awesome. Found out about it way too late on Twitter and checked my local theater and there was only a seat in the front row left. But it was awesome! It was literally the TV channel streamed on the big screen so there unfortunately we still had to deal with commercials.
Does your appreciation for cinema and gaming share any qualities? It seems you can appreciate a good narrative so is absorbing and reflecting on this aspect of the two mediums something you’d like to focus on in your career moving forward? Or would you prefer to keep work and relaxation separate in this regard?
Ha! Work and relaxation separate, I don’t know if that will ever happen. It’s hard to turn off my guides part of my brain when I play a game just for fun. I want to record gameplay just in case or I try to collect or achieve things a certain way to make it easier to write about. I think about if there’s any kind of story I can pull from this game to turn into an article. It’s easier with TV since I write about it less, but it still happens from time to time.
I’ve seen your name in the byline of quite a few publications — IGN, The Hollywood Report, Kotaku, Nintendo Life just to name a few. Are you a full-time freelancer? How’d you make the leap?
I am a full-time freelancer and never had to make a leap. Everything started when I created my website. I worked on that while I was in school, eventually was able to start monetizing there, started writing for other publications in college while also starting a YouTube channel. And it never really stopped!
What do these sites have you writing about most often? I think what I read most of yours are on Hollywood Reporter; the latest one touching on a sequel to the NieR franchise coming to mobile. That’s such big news yet your article was and still is the only source I’ve seen cover it.
As a freelancer, this will vary depending on when you ask. Right now my most consistent gig is the mobile games round-up I do for The Hollywood Reporter. I gather up the five biggest pieces of news for the topic and present in short blurbs to give you the most important info succinctly. Mobile games are a weird thing to cover, they’re such a huge success in the market but in terms of coverage, not so much. Beyond that I’m regularly pitching features and trying to build up the video portion of my skillset.
But that’s right now! In the past I had my stint as the Weekend Web Producer at IGN, managing the home page over the weekend. There was the year I made a big push on YouTube and focused on pushing through 100k subscribers. I also had the six years I consistently wrote guides for IGN. It always seems to be different!
I bet occasionally you get the opportunity to cover topics that really spark your interest! What have been some personal highlights in your freelancing career?
I always love it when I can bring light to a topic or person or project that otherwise goes unnoticed or falls under the radar. I’m most proud of those kinds of features, like the time I interviewed Jeff and his incredible dedication to the Animal Crossing series or the time I chatter with the team behind the fan translation for The Great Ace Attorney. I like to search specifically for those that deserve the extra spotlight!
Everyone in the world right now is so focused on securing stability and I imagine maintaining your gigs is no different… but let’s say you had all that with no worries. What kind of project would you want to tackle? Would it be another personal project or something that’d require the support of a team?
Oh wow! I’ve had ideas here and there for big projects but they never came to fruition. It’s more than just having a good idea, it’s also being able and being okay with taking a gamble and not having it pay off. The time, effort, and even the skills needed to be able to pull something huge off like a documentary video series or a year long series of features centered around the same topic is not something many of us have the luxury of having.
I’m very focused on what I want. Right now I’m a freelancer but I’m always aiming for that coveted full time gig. It has been my dream for the longest and it’s what gets me motivated more than anything. That’s my current big project.
If there’s one thing that I will actually do, it’s to start another podcast. That’s a totally doable thing, I just want a unique topic or angle and I need to find the right people. Chemistry is important!
You were talking on Twitter awhile back about being thankful that your career grants you the ability to travel more than you previously could! Have you doubled or even tripled the states or countries you’ve visited since 2018 ended?
I’m especially thankful for the way my career has shaped up because many freelancers do not have the ability to travel and are working paycheck to paycheck. I have a decent amount of passive income thanks to my website and the YouTube channel so I can get away with traveling regularly. But still working while I’m away! I don’t say I’m lucky because I built my website and YouTube for years and I’ve earned what I have. I recognize that everyone is not in my position.
But yes, I’ve been traveling! I’ve always wanted to and when I’m not working on any major video focused content or game recording projects, it’s very doable as a freelancer. I’ve been doing it solo and it was hard to gather the courage to do it, but I finally did when I went to PAX East in 2018. Since then I’ve been to New York, Seattle, Chicago, Vancouver, and a few other places.
George from SuperBunnyHop compared his time with Death Stranding to a cross-country cycling tour he braved at a younger point in his life. Since you travel around the country too, have you had any Kojima-esque experiences that are too monstrous or subtle to keep to yourself?
For that matter, what methods of transportation have you been enjoying in your travels?
To be honest, not really. My time traveling has been way more relaxing than anything else. I have a very simple itinerary. Pick a location, walk there, and see what there is to see. And I see some incredible stuff, but it’s nothing I was left shaken about!
I have always been cheap, or “frugal” as my friends tell me I should say. I always check the transit situation in a city before I go and I pick my Airbnb or hostel based on its proximity to the train or bus. But like I said, I just end up doing a ton of walking.
Right on, Zambezi, It’s been awesome taking a moment to chat with you! Super enlightening! I hope you’re staying healthy and headstrong during the quarantine.
How can people find your work online and get involved with the communities you’ve been fostering?
Of course, thank you for chatting for me! It’s always great to get thoughts you have rolling around in your head on paper. Gives you a good amount of perspective.
You’ll mainly find me on my Twitter @SuperZambezi or on my YouTube channel, also SuperZambezi. Oh! And also on Discord. Surprise, it’s SuperZambezi again. Say hello, I’ve been getting better at being active on these platforms!
For updates on the latest content from Sheesh Forreal, follow me on Twitter @SheeshFr!!