Let’s Talk Retro With Modding Legend Mark Kurko of ‘Kurko Mods’

Retro Dodo background for Let's Talk Retro interview with MarkKurko

If you’re into your N64 mods, then you’ll no doubt have heard the name Kurko Mods before. For many, the name has become synonymous with both Banjo and Kazooie in recent years, with Mark Kurko giving us some incredible platforming adventures featuring our favourite Bear and Bird duo in brand-new scenarios for us all to enjoy.

Retro Dodo, and indeed Retro Gaming as a whole, is all about that feeling of nostalgia, that feeling of coming home after school and playing with 90s toys or turning Ocarina of Time on and playing till bedtime, a sense of excitable joy that comes with all those games that made our childhoods so fun. Mark Kurko of Kurko Mods creates games that capture all of those feelings and simply make me smile; I switch off from whatever stresses are happening in my world and immerse myself in funny, well-thought-out adventures that feel familiar yet new at the same time.

Whether searching out Mumbo Jumbo in Hyrule Market Town or listening to Cheato explaining the plot of ‘The Gruntch Who Stole Christmas’, these mods just seem to capture everything from my youth into one neat little package, not to mention a Nirvana mash-up that you’ll be reading about shortly!

I chatted with Mark Kurko about all things modding, retro gaming, and Nirvana, as well as the fact that if you want to see what he actually looks like, then you’ll have to search for the picture of him in The Forest Temple or while walking through Santa’s Village (if you know, you know). Let’s hear from the international man of mystery himself and get to know the man behind the mods!

Interview With Kurko Mods

Retro Dodo: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Mark. Why don’t we start by you telling the readers a little bit about yourself, when you first got into modding, and what prompted you to start creating?

Mark: Thank you for this opportunity! It all started back in 2014, when I discovered the first Super Mario 64 Mods and I was amazed, I didn’t know that something like this was possible! Later that year I started my 3D Modelling studies, so I started looking if there was any similar tool to modify Banjo Kazooie, and that’s how I found the Banjosbackpack tool forums and it all started.

Gruntilda as the Grinch in KurkoMods game

Retro Dodo: It’s amazing how we can suddenly stumble across something that we never knew about that can have such a strong visceral reaction with us, that’s great to hear! What is about Banjo-Kazooie that appeals to you so much? What drew you to modding with the Bear and Bird in mind?

Mark: My favourite N64 games are Banjo Kazooie and Zelda Ocarina of Time, so when I started making my first models and wanted to try modifying an N64 game, I first looked for these two. I don’t remember if there were Zelda Ocarina modding tools at that time, but if I had found it before Banjo Kazooie, I would probably be a Zelda-focused modder by now.

Retro Dodo: I’m glad you’ve mentioned Zelda because that brings me nicely to my next question. I love Zelda, our readers love Zelda, and you clearly do too. Tell us about how you got the idea for favourite ROM hack of all time, Jiggies of Time.

Mark: The first Kazooie banjo mod I made as a test was a modified version of Bob-Omb Battlefield from Super Mario 64, in November 2014. It only took me a single month and it was very well received, so I thought about what a full mod would be like in the world of Zelda Ocarina of Time and the ideas didn’t stop coming to my mind. At that moment I thought that if one world had only taken me 1 month, 9 worlds + Hub World would take me 1 year maximum. That was a ​​brave but naive summary… the full development took about 5 and a half years!

Banjo going into Kakariko Village from Ocarina of Time

Retro Dodo: Jiggies of Time is a game that has so much depth to it. Ganondorf playing Zelda II: The Adventure Of Link in Hyrule Castle Dungeons, being able to head into Hyrule Castle, they’re completely new areas that we all wanted to see in Ocarina of Time the first time around. How was the process of bringing them to life and getting to use your imagination to enhance an already classic game?

Mark: I would like to say that I have a creative process that always works for me, but the truth is that I don’t. In the case of creating levels based on existing games, the first thing is to observe the model of the map you want to use and little by little ideas come here and there. And especially in the case of Hyrule Castle and the Castle Town; as a child, I had always wondered what the inside of the castle was like, or what was in the back alleys where there was no access, so now I could create it myself. I thought that all this would add extra motivation for the player to explore the levels, even if they already knew the original versions of Zelda OoT.

Retro Dodo: And your hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed! Exploring Hyrule Castle made me feel like. a kid again, and I remember feeling the same urge to see what was inside the castle. How difficult is the process of reskinning characters from the world of Banjo Kazooie into Ocarina of Time? I’ve always assumed the bomb bag uses the pumpkin from Mad Monster Mansion, and your imagination in Mumbo’s new creations is fantastic.

Mark: Now there is a new tool that makes those things a little easier, but then there wasn’t one and everything was done with the hex editor. Both the transformations and the reskinned enemies are thanks to Bynine. We both worked on the ideas together, but without his knowledge of it they would never have been possible. By the way, I would like to take the opportunity to recommend your game Cavern of Dreams, now available on Nintendo Switch and Steam. It’s an N64-style platformer and it’s really good, don’t hesitate to check it out!

Mumbo Jumbo and the Bomb Bag in Mumbo's Hut

Retro Dodo: Nintendo’s influence on you as a gamer and modder is instantly apparent. What does Nintendo mean to you, and (last Jiggies questions) How long did it take to place all of the N64 game cases around Hyrule? 

Mark: My first consoles were a clone of the NES, and later the N64 and a Gamecube, so I grew up playing mainly Nintendo games and I think that marks you for life. Although I now play little and more variedly, Nintendo games will always have a special place in my heart.

As for the games in Jiggies of Time, I added them as I modeled the maps, so it literally took me 5 years or so to add them all.

Ganondorf playing Zelda II - The Adventures Of Link in Hyrule Castle Dungeon

Retro Dodo: It’s probably going to take me 5 years to find them all too! Your mods all have a comedic narrative running through them that makes gamers laugh while playing. How do you come up with your comedic quips and what is the writing process like?

Mark: Here all the credit goes, again, to Bynine. I’m not a native English speaker (I’m from Spain) so it’s really difficult for me to write jokes that fit and are funny, since these kinds of things in each language have their own “code”. So I wrote all the texts and added jokes here and there, and Bynine rewrote everything and adapted it to fit Banjo Kazooie.

He also had the freedom to add his own jokes and to modify all the texts as he saw fit as long as they fit with what I wanted to convey to the player. He is simply a master at doing this.

KurkoMods Legend of Zelda: Grunty's Mask mod

Retro Dodo: I’m intrigued as to your thought process about Banjo-Kazooie Nostalgia 64: What does this game mean to you on a personal level and on keeping that feeling you get while playing the N64 alive for older gamers and future generations? 

Mark: With Nostalgia 64 I have tried to convey what I feel about the N64 to all those who also played the console when they were young, or to new generations who want to try the games included in the mod. Basically, it’s like putting yourself in the head of a 10-year-old Mark Kurko and seeing how he imagined the inside of n64 back in the day.

Banjo in a SM64 inspired world

Retro Dodo: I love the personal touch in that answer and that this is almost an imprint of you as a child, it’s a beautiful notion! You primarily work with Banjo-Kazooie as a base for your mods, but are there any other games/characters you would like to branch out into at another time?

Mark: I have already done some test mods with other games like Zelda or Mario Kart 64, but what I would really like one day is to have enough time and money to be able to start my own prototype with Unity or Godot Engine.

Retro Dodo: Banjo-Kazooie: Stay At Home was a great gift for people who were bored during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and seeing the duo in the GoldenEye 007 Dam level is just amazing. How did you pick the worlds for this game?

Mark: I was just thinking “Would it be interesting to explore this world with BK?”. “Are there enough elements to make it fun?”. “Do I think people might like it?” And the most important part was “Do I feel like doing it?”

It was with this mindset that I got to work. Some levels were discarded as soon as I started working on them, or even before starting (Blast Corps, Kirby 64, Paper Mario, Mario Party, Spyro 2, etc.), and the rest you can see on the mod itself!

Banjo standing in the damn level of GoldenEye 007 for the N64

Retro Dodo: Now it’s time for a curveball. As a Nirvana fan, the Banjo-Kazooie Nevermind mash-up has so much nostalgia imbued into it. Why did you pick Nevermind, and how long did this stroke of brilliance take to complete?

Mark: Wow, I’m glad you liked the album. I am very proud of that work, although unfortunately, it did not have much impact. As you can guess from my name, I’m also a big fan of Nirvana, so when a couple of years ago versions of Nevermind made with video game sound fonts (SM64, Crash, Spyro, etc.) started to appear, I thought it was just a matter of time. Someone needed to make one with Banjo Kazooie, and I wanted to be the one to do it. After a few months passed and I saw that no one was doing it, I thought about commissioning the guy who currently helps me with the music for my mods, since he is also a Nirvana fan, and little by little the project was consolidated. We have made the album more or less 50% between the two of us, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it alone since he has more knowledge than me about music, and he helped me correct things that were wrong in my songs.

As for the versions, at first, the idea was to simply make MIDI versions with the BK sound font, but I always like to go a little further, so I had the idea that each song would have a setting of some BK map or BT, and I started adding sound effects and creating little stories with each song as if they were songs that play while someone is actually playing Banjo Kazooie. It took about a month to complete I think.

Retro Dodo: Well it might not have made as much of an impact as you had liked, but I think it’s a great piece of music and more people need to check it out! Now, I know you probably get asked this a lot, but what advice would you give to other creatives looking to get into modding games?

Mark: There are many things I could say to someone starting out in modding, but I think the most important thing would be to start with a small mod. A single level that can be played and completed, that’s it. I’ve seen dozens of people who start modding say “I’m going to create a complete game with nine worlds, a Hub World and you will be able to do this and that, etc” and surprise surprise… those games never see the light of day.

It’s very easy to feel burned out with a project as more and more bugs appear and things that were working suddenly break, and it’s really difficult to feel inspired and want to work on a fan project for a long time. I myself have had to take a break from all my big projects for this reason, and it is very difficult to get back to them once you have stopped working on them. That’s why my advice is, to make a small mod and publish it. People’s feedback will help you improve and give you the strength and desire to work on something bigger next time.

Retro Dodo: Let’s keep on this topic for one more question – what are three pieces of kit/software you rely on every day while creating?

Mark: My main tools now are Blender for modeling, Photoshop for textures, and Banjosbackpack to modify the Banjo Kazooie ROM.

Retro Dodo: What is your favourite Banjo-Kazooie moment in all of your mods?

Mark: Wow, I wouldn’t know what to say. I think I choose the first time you arrive at Grunty’s Castle. I don’t think people imagined something like that, with that soundtrack playing.

Retro Dodo: Finally, if you could see three games remade from the ground up for the Nintendo Switch 2, what would they be?

Mark: Banjo Kazooie, Zelda Ocarina of Time, and Super Mario Galaxy.

Thanks to Mark Kurko for speaking to us about his work. It’s been a pleasure taking a step into his world and we’ve loved exploring his work. An in-depth article about his mods will be coming soon, and you can support him on Patreon while discovering his past works and keeping updated with his new creations!

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