At the end of August, a small Banjo-Kazooie mod came out called BK: 3D World made by the up-and-coming modder, JacksonG13. Now I’m pretty sure that JacksonG13 is quite a bit younger than a lot of us within the modding community yet despite this, his knowledge of Banjo’s Backpack is quite outstanding! On his YouTube channel, JacksonG13 has trailers and links to mods he’s made. These include Mini-Game Madness, a warp mod that spawns you into any of the mini-game rooms in the base game, a BK Randomizer that changes the location of collectibles and warp points in the base game, and BK: Legend of the Crystal Jiggy, a mod with a new quest and set of levels for the bear and bird to explore. Talk about an impressive portfolio!
So far everything I’ve seen of Jackson’s shows a lot of heart and character on his behalf. Taking the time to put new models of existing Nintendo characters into the game, then script and program conversations for Banjo and Kazooie to have with them — in game — is really quite wholesome.
Jackson, if you’re reading this: I hope you keep designing games! I really do think you’re going places with your ability to turn ideas into reality. It’s for that reason, however, that I want to give you some constructive criticism towards a few of the design choices in your most recent work.
Thankfully, many of the issues found in Jackson’s mod were quite small and easy to fix. In fact, I’d go as far to say that most beginning level designers could make these same mistakes during the early phases of learning. It’s for this reason that I wanted to use BK: 3D Worlds for my example of 4 lessons to learn when making your first game.
1. Start your game off strong
Above is the first screen you see when launching 3D World. Instantly, I was reminded of RetroNuva10 discussing block level syndrome in the Banjo’s Backpack Discord and how immersion breaking this can be. Notice how Banjo is talking to Bottles on an island that has grass going down into the water without a sand or dirt buffer… and the water is even right next to the visible edge of the level. Flowers on this island are as tall as Banjo and the palm trees are only slightly taller than the flowers! Before I reading the dialogue, I became worried about the lack of polish I’d be experiencing.
I believe what JacksonG13 was going for in his rom hack was a style reminiscent of Super Mario 3D World’s linear overworld. Nintendo avoided box syndrome design by rounding off the edges of point. The WiiU’s high polycount really helps sell this idea but it’s entirely possible to achieve this affect using the N64’s limited polycount. The easiest fix for this would be to triangle off the corners of the island with two triangle’s rotated ~30°s from each cardinal direction.
Then, copy that face and paste it underneath the existing one, past the water level and stretch it out a bit. Next, connect the two faces and put a sand texture over all sides. Lastly, delete the face underneath to save your polycount and bam! By spending minimal polygons, we’ve transformed our rectangular grass block to an island. I would also recommend working on the scale of things like flowers and trees. No matter how big the island, everything really should be proportional to our player model.
2. Conveying enough information to the player
Right after Bottles tells us that we must explore the eight worlds on the island, we’re gated by a note door. Despite this looking like an obstacle we could avoid just by walking around it, there’s actually an invisible wall that completely blocks our path. So, we approach the note door and realize that it’s blank. My assumption was that because there isn’t a required balance to enter, my zero notes should suffice yet the door doesn’t open nor is any indication given on how I can obtain notes. At this point, I actually considered restarting the game because I thought this was a bug.
I tried running around the invisible wall, breaking down the door and jumping over it to no avail. When I attempted to jump onto the palm trees, thinking I could bypass this error, the screen faded to black and I was warped to the first world.
Yes, walking into the palm trees was suppose to be my next action. Unfortunately, Bottles said nothing about this during my conversation with him nor was their any clear evidence to guide me to this conclusion.
This problem has an easy solution. Keep the palm trees as the warp point but make an arrow sign to guide the player into the trees. Really, just do anything to let the player know that their game isn’t bugged and they’ll be warped to the first level. Chopping down a few of those palm trees would easily result in enough free polygons to make this sign and even resolve the island’s box syndrome.
The strangest design choice about these invisible walls is how there’s no indication where to walk through them once the note door is gone. At the end of each world, the player is warped back to the start of the island where you then must run through each opening in the invisible wall to reach the next note door in your path. A small, fence sprite that begins and ends at the doorway of each note door would help the player navigate this section. The invisible walls become especially frustrating when you experience slow down between the third and fourth level.
Touching back on the warping issue; every time you finish a level, the player has to stand there and skip through the same speech by Bottles about how you’ve collected the most notes ever. Wow, sweet. Then it’s the conversation from the start of the game all over again. Returning the player just outside the level they exited would have resolved this or just letting the player know that you can skip conversations entirely by pressing L+R+A+B at the same time… but really, the first option is what should be used.
3. Exploration should fueling collection, not the other way around
The first level of BK: 3D World was pretty linear but still fun to navigate! Notes were very easy to grab and I never felt threatened by enemies/platforming so I ran right by them as I progressed onward. Just a minute or two later, however, and I already hit the end of this straight forward level. Climbing the BK pole would warp me back, as mentioned earlier, and I wasn’t ready for that. Instead, I surveyed the layout of the collectibles surrounding me to find the most efficient path.
If I wanted to go and collect all the notes in this world, it wouldn’t be hard, just time consuming and boring. No new sights, just revisiting everything I saw in the span of a minute. Every level — no matter how interesting the setting — had notes that were extremely easy to collect assuming you didn’t mind pausing every ten seconds to backtrack.
To bring back the Super Mario 3D World comparison; that game does an amazing job at using collectibles to lure the player into taking a new approach to overcome challenges. The coins on the ledge above aren’t required for completing the game, however if the player leaps over to grab them, they’ll be rewarded with an alternate path through the level, be a tad bit closer to earning a 1-UP and have a little risky fun.
Banjo-Kazooie 3D World instead uses its collectables as a requirement. Collecting is easy, yet tedious. The required note total to open the next door isn’t ever given, either, so collecting all the notes feels like something the player must prioritize since levels don’t organically incentivize note collection to reach the goal.
In the early levels, collecting every notes for the sake of collecting every note doesn’t feel so bad. It’s in the later levels with wonky layouts that this becomes a chore.
For this lava level, the player must hop from platform to platform while surrounded by instant death juice. This challenging spot is nowhere near impossible, but there are many many opportunities for a player to make a mistake. Unfortunately most the the notes come from running around the perimeter of larger platforms. I’m sure you see where this is going — repetitive tasks that become more deadly and thus more repetitive if you auto pilot and fail the simplest tasks in the game.
The headache is cyclical.
Then the game throws this set of platforms at you. Jumping over lava prevents Banjo’s shadow from casting underneath him — thus, there’s no way to know if you’re over the platform until you see your shadow on it. If your reactions are on point, I recommend ground pounding the moment you see your shadow. If your reactions are getting you killed, then I’d advise smallest of windows to correct your landing. Just be sure to go neutral on the stick the moment you land or you will run off the side.
Notes in the space themed world are more dense than other levels but walking around the asteroids they’re located on can be deadly. Every note is positioned less than a step away from a slope that Banjo or Kazooie will immediately slide off. Thankfully, if you do slide off, you won’t lose all your note progress. BK doesn’t consider an out of bounds to be an instant death in most cases, but you will have to ride this clever, yet frustrating rocket back over.
4. Designing around the mechanics of the game
The space shuttle is a neat piece of custom content but it follows an unnatural flight pattern. When the rocket makes contact with the asteroid Banjo is standing on, it essentially teleports to the right facing the other direction. If Banjo is standing on it when this happens, he will fall out of bounds then respawn on this asteroid. This loop of it travelling to and from locations lasts about 10 seconds. In other words, it’ll feel like an eternity for the rocket to return. When the shuttle comes back, you must where its away cycle will be before it begins, since the shuttle has a faster air speed than Banjo. Trying to correct a nervous jump often times leaves the rocket flying away before you touch down. Little to say this new mechanic doesn’t synergize. However, a bit of retiming and touching up the rockets animation would solve this problem easy!
The area you explore after Space is what I’m presuming to be a recreation of the modder’s own house. I say this because every room is free of any signifying furniture and feels quite arbitrarily designed for gameplay yet some parts are modeled in such high detail that I could picture this being a real home somewhere.
Stepping inside to collect notes feels more akin to an extremely close up game of Pac-Man. The camera doesn’t rotate if it’s next to a wall and won’t clip through a wall until the player is a certain distance away. It’s a good thing there’s a counter for how many notes you can get because if I would have kept backtracking into rooms I didn’t need to be in if I hadn’t hit 50 notes.
One of the notes you’re asked to collect here is on a descending staircase that leads to nothing but an out-of-bounds fall. However the camera won’t follow the player when they go down each step. I should note that this isn’t a slope meant to resemble stairs, but actual rectangles the player must fall down. To reach the note, I gently nudged Banjo down each stair, relying on intuition like crazy. The moment I collected the note, I took a screenshot to show my position. That little tiny chunk of Banjo peaking over the steps and around the wall was all I could see.
Despite the flaws I talked about, I still had fun playing this rom hack! Yes, every level was short, easy and quite linear but they were still fun and I was curious to visit each new settings. If this mod spent a bit more time polishing up its graphics and tweaking some of the level design, this would be an easy recommendation for any long time Banjo-Kazooie fan.
Fortunately, this mod has enough charm and individuality that I could easily recommend it to any budding designer as both a source of inspiration and a demonstration of what decisions they should avoid making when drafting their own game.
I definitely want to congratulate JacksonG13 on his accomplishment here! I might have been critical of this romhack, but the fact that it exists is proof that he is one dedicated gamer! Thanks for making this, dude, I really hope you keep working on romhacks and game design in general. When ever you release your next game, I’ll be one of the first to play it!
If you’d like to play this mod yourself, you can find the patch for it in the description of it’s release trailer, right here!