It's not been an easy few years for Rare. It's a clich to point it out, of course - you'd be hard-pressed to find an article about Rare in the last few years that doesn't mention its fall from grace following Microsoft's buyout, and we've no doubt that the studio is sick of hearing about it.
However, if you're going to talk about a return to form, it's all a bit hollow without mentioning that there have been tough times in the past. That old Rare magic, which thrilled and delighted the studio's fans for many years and turned it into one of the N64's most desirable developers, simply didn't show its face on the Xbox - and lacklustre early showings on the Xbox 360 left us wondering whether it would ever go right for the former British powerhouse.
Viva Piņata was the end of that pessimistic outlook. It may not have been the greatest commercial success, and it may not have clicked well with the Xbox 360's audience at the time, but by god it was a fine slice of gaming. Its feet firmly on the ladder back to gaming glory, Rare is now taking on one of its most-loved IPs, Banjo-Kazooie, and preparing to launch an update which should - fingers crossed - prove for once and for all that the spark of genius never quite left Twycross.
We caught up with studio boss Mark Betteridge for a chat about the new Banjo-Kazooie - and quickly learned that this year's E3 is actually a big milestone for the franchise as a whole. "This week, it's ten years since Banjo Kazooie on the N64," Mark informed us at the outset. They grow up so fast.
"When we first thought about building another Banjo game, we had a lot of discussion about what kind of game it should be," he reveals. "It's inherently a platform game, but we wanted to address a couple of things with this, if we were going to do it at all."
"Firstly, we wanted to build a game that couldn't really be built on previous consoles - to add something new in terms of gameplay. That's nothing to do with graphics at all, it's in terms of gameplay and what I'm actually doing in the game. That was high on the list."
"Secondly, platform games inherently have suffered from a bit of a replayability problem. People have put in multiplayer and things like that to try to add longevity to what is, in many ways, a single gameplay experience for a lot of people. They complete the game once, and go "okay, I've seen it, done it, seen everything, got the t-shirt" - and then move on to another game."
"Obviously there's one other side to that in today's market, which is that a lot of people are good games players and are able to simply rent the game for a few days, and complete it in that way. So we wanted to address that longevity in our gameplay as well."
The team's solution to both of those challenges lies in the game's newfound focus on vehicles. By allowing players to build their own vehicles and use them to complete the bulk of the challenges in the game, the new Banjo Kazooie should hopefully give people a limitless number of ways to enjoy the game - while the advanced physics required to make all those vehicles work properly is definitely something that couldn't have been done in the last generation of hardware. But won't it change the game so fundamentally that it isn't really a Banjo-Kazooie game any more, we ask?
Mark's response is adamant. "It's still a Banjo game - you've still got the Banjo character, with Kazooie, still very much the same humour. What we've done though is that if you think about it in simple terms, Kazooie's moves in the previous games used to allow you access to different areas. Here, you collect parts in a platforming way, in the hub world, and then assemble those parts into functioning vehicles."
He pauses for a second. "It's a bit like electronic LEGO," he says. "That's not really a phrase that we use a lot, but you can think of it in those terms."
The structure of the game, and how you progress, will remain familiar to anyone who has played a Banjo-Kazooie game (or indeed any decent platform game since Mario 64). As before, you move between various worlds taking on a variety of challenges in order to earn money (called Jiggys in the game) and new abilities, in this case thanks to discovering new vehicle parts.
"You'll speak to a character and he'll give you a challenge - you do X, Y, Z, and you'll get a Jiggy for doing that," Mark confirms. "That could be scoring a certain number of goals in something like a football game. There's a challenge where you manoeuvre through hoops in a certain amount of time. Some of them are collecting or transporting objects, or typical platform-type challenges. Because you're able to construct a vehicle, it's really down to the player how they approach that challenge."
That's how Rare hopes to keep players hooked. There'll always be the possibility that a slightly tweaked vehicle design - or even a radically different approach - could give you a vastly better time in a challenge you've done previously. Hitting the top of the Xbox Live leaderboards won't just be about superb skills, it'll also be about really clever design - and the occasional stroke of genius. The Rare team reckons that while conventional vehicles will get you decent scores in the challenges, people who really think outside the box who will discover ways to shave massive chunks off the top times.
"Some players will spend many hours fine-tuning their vehicles - or making things that you wouldn't even consider vehicles," Mark predicts. "When we gave the game to testing, they really opened it up! A significant part of the game is the community aspect, the ability to trade blueprints and see what else other people have built. Within a few hours, our testers had built things as diverse as a space shuttle that actually took off vertically, someone else made an aircraft carrier... Someone else made a Godzilla, complete with breathing fire and laser eyes! They all actually worked, as vehicles."
"When you think of vehicles, there's a tendency for people to think of a plane, a boat, a car or something of that type," he says. "There are many, many different aspects to this, though, and once we've had this game on the market for a while, I think we'll be all stunned by the variety in what the community comes up with."
Mark Betteridge is Studio Head at Rare.