After a long journey filled with deadly enemies, tricky puzzles, and a bunch of shiny new prizes, it’s nice to have a place to go back to where you can unwind before your next adventure. A place where we can wrap ourselves in the warm blanket of familiarity. A place that acts as our compass, guiding us back on the path whenever we might run astray. And in video games, nothing fits this role quite as well as an effective hub world, such as that of Gruntilda’s Lair in Banjo-Kazooie.
Good hubs can be a home away from home for you and your crew, like the Normandy in Mass Effect or Eva’s Hammer in Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus. They can be social spaces where you show off your character, like the Tower in Destiny. Or they can evolve over time and help push the story forward, like Mother Base in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Whispering Rock Summer Camp in Psychonauts, or the Nexus in Demon’s Souls.
But if you’re anything like me, when you think of hub worlds, your mind immediately wanders to 3D platformers. And of course, Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64 completely revolutionized the way a central hub can act as a tutorial, playground, and challenge in and of itself. That said, I feel like it was surpassed in so many ways by what Rare did with Gruntilda’s Lair in Banjo-Kazooie, which, for me, remains the perfect video game hub world in nearly every single way. And that, in part, has helped solidify Banjo as an iconic character. One need only look at the reaction to Banjo’s Super Smash Bros. Ultimate reveal back at E3 2019 to see how beloved the character still is.
Banjo-Kazooie begins with an effective tutorial that solidifies the game’s core mechanics, light-hearted tone, and penchant for rewarding those curious enough to really poke around the world. It also sets up Gruntilda’s Lair as an ominous presence in the world, high atop Spiral Mountain. This sort of spatial awareness is a key component in what makes continually returning to the castle a joy. Once inside, it quickly becomes clear that the witch’s lair is much more than just a glorified menu between the core levels. It’s a connective tissue with a life of its own, complete with its own charms and challenges that contribute to the game’s central energy. This is made abundantly clear the first time Gruntilda herself chimes in and chastises you on how slowly you’re progressing through her lair.
All of the game’s collectibles and mechanics feed back into Gruntilda’s Lair. Musical Notes unlock progression gates, while Jiggy pieces are needed to fill out the world portraits, which let you enter new levels. This creates a satisfying system of locks and keys that allows you to press on through the world, even if you haven’t found every single secret in each level.
However, those who do want to scour each map are rewarded for their efforts. Switches hidden throughout the levels impact the layout of Gruntilda’s Lair, creating the continual evolution of the world. For example, in the first level, Mumbo’s Mountain, there’s a switch that makes a Jiggy appear outside its entrance, high atop a hill. However, the incline is too steep to traverse. Thankfully, inside the level, you can find Mumbo himself and transform into a termite — a form that allows you to scale steep slopes. Exit the level as the bug, and you can easily scamper up the hill and snag the puzzle piece. This early example teaches you how the game’s various systems work in unison throughout the entirety of the castle.
As you press deeper into Gruntilda’s Lair, the surroundings morph into different themes that act as foreshadowing to future levels. A poisonous bog means you’re close to Bubblegloop Swamp, while shifting sands signify that Gobi’s Valley lies ahead. These hints feel like carrots on a stick, enticing the player to keep pressing on in order to see new things. The best one of these is the puzzle gate to the game’s final world, Click Clock Woods, being hidden quite early on in the game. Curious explorers can stumble upon the entrance to this final challenge long before they can actually enter it.
The challenges also grow throughout the lair. Using a spring pad to bounce inside a tall vase, or strapping on a pair of running shoes to quickly make it to a disappearing flight platform, acts as a sort of exam to test how well you’re mentally juggling all of these different abilities. And with these increased obstacles comes a greater chance for rewards, such as meeting Cheato, a magical spellbook who teaches you — you guessed it — cheat codes. But instead of just toggling these on in a menu, Banjo-Kazooie has you trek back to the second level and input them on the puzzle floor of a drained sand castle. Again, all of this feeds into the interconnectedness of the world thanks to the excellent hub.
But in my mind, the standout feature of Gruntilda’s Lair is how the game’s fantastic soundtrack seamlessly adapts to the theme of whichever new world you’re approaching. There’s generally one core theme you hear as you’re wandering around the hub world, but that music transforms depending on where you are in the castle. Walking up to Freezeezy Peak introduces sleigh bells and celesta into the orchestration. But entering Mad Monster Mansion’s graveyard translates the song through a spooky Halloween filter. It’s a subtle and genius way to immerse the player into the theme of the world they’re about to explore and a marquee moment for video game music in the ‘90s.
Gruntilda’s Lair stands among the very best hub worlds in video game history, and it is a big part of why Banjo-Kazooie is still beloved, all these years later. Its wealth of secrets, distinct challenges, and infectious charm all help make it an area you love revisiting again and again. Could the 10 worlds of Banjo-Kazooie have just been connected through a simple menu? Yes, of course. But would the game have been significantly less memorable and magical without Gruntilda’s Lair as the glue that tied it all together? Absolutely.