Genre: Action Platformer
Publisher: Microsoft Games
Release Date: November 11, 2008
It's been eight years since the last, proper Banjo and Kazooie game made an appearance. In that time, there have been a few spin-off titles and plenty of speculation about a possible Banjo sequel, but there were no substantive details until Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts was actually announced. The change in gameplay mechanics caused much gnashing of teeth and general Internet whining, but the fanboy drama was all for naught. Yes, Nuts and Bolts is different, but it's still Banjo to the core.
The game begins, as all Banjo games must, on Spiral Mountain. Banjo and Kazooie have gained quite a bit of weight over the ensuing years. With Grunty gone, there was very little for our heroes to do, aside from sit and play the Xbox 360. Alas, Kazooie's gameplay session is interrupted by Grunty's skull, which reappears and threatens to eliminate the bear and the bird. While the bickering commences, L.O.G. (the Lord of Games) appears and zaps the trio to Showdown Town, a video game world of his creation. It is here that Banjo and Kazooie will battle it out with Grunty for control of Spiral Mountain.
It may not be the deepest plot ever, but it provides a convenient way to drop Banjo and Kazooie into a series of brand new environments, with little worry about continuity issues. Because each game world that is linked off Showdown Town is themed, it's also a good excuse to reuse the same characters in similar roles. For example, in Showdown Town, Humba is a merchant who sells vehicle parts and blueprints. In one of the game worlds, she's a farmer's wife, and in yet another, she takes on the role of a sexy gamer grrl. It's no different than an actor starring in multiple movies.
Much like prior Banjo games, you'll start out with access to one level and be tasked with a series of challenges. Complete each challenge to earn a jiggy. Collect the jiggys and deposit them in the jiggy bank in order to unlock new levels. Nuts and Bolts preserves the non-linear nature of its predecessors, so once you've passed the first two or three levels, how you proceed is up to you. It's possible to play challenges in a very direct order or skip around and avoid the ones you don't like, returning to play them later. Where Nuts and Bolts differs from the prior games is in how it approaches all of the challenges. Before, winning a challenge required a bunch of hopping and jumping. Here, it requires skill with a vehicle ? not only driving, but building.
As a core component of Nuts and Bolts, the vehicle creator takes the platform-centric gameplay mechanic and gives it a big twist. No longer are you going into challenges bare, with nothing more than the skills you've managed to unlock. Instead, when you start a challenge, you can choose from any vehicle in your list of blueprints, assuming you have all the necessary parts to build said vehicle. If you don't have an appropriate blueprint, simply hop into the vehicle creator and start building a new one.
An extremely flexible editor, the vehicle creator works a lot like a Lego editor. You take parts, click them together and you're good to go. You have to worry about the basics, such as including an engine and fuel tanks, but boring specifics like connecting the engine to the wheels isn't really needed. You can stick an engine on the roof, and it'll still work just fine. What do affect vehicle performance are things like weight and balance. If you frontload your vehicle, don't be surprised if the back end lifts up as soon as you start driving. This does mean that you'll make a few mis-steps, but by and large, most vehicles that you create will be usable, and designing the perfect vehicle is part of the fun.
Nuts and Bolts is kind enough to start you off with a basic set of blueprints and parts, so you're not thrown to the wolves immediately, but soon enough, learning how to pimp your parts becomes a necessary staple of gameplay. New vehicle parts can be found hidden throughout Showdown Town, and you can also buy parts and blueprints from Humba's shop. Certain challenges in the game require you to use a special vehicle provided by L.O.G. If you master one of these challenges, you are awarded the blueprint. Blueprints can also be mailed to other players via Live, so if you create something awesome, you can give it to a friend. They'll still need the correct parts to build it before they can use it, though.
Like we mentioned in the Nuts and Bolts preview, getting creative with the vehicles is part of the game. Yes, you can go by the numbers, but the most obvious solution is not always the best solution. For example, in one of the later levels, we had to partake in a boat race that weaved around a few islands. Rather than race with the pack, we added wheels to the bottom of our boat. Now, instead of racing around the islands, we simply drove over them. This makeshift shortcut made it a breeze to win the challenge.
Even though the vehicles are the major part of play, the Banjo spirit is still here. Nearly all of the Banjo characters make an appearance in some form or another, Kazooie's still a smartass and Grunty just can't seem to give up the incessant rhyming. The script is loaded with humor and sarcasm, with Rare sparing no one. The jokes are aimed at popular culture ("Save the coconuts, save the world.") as well as at Rare itself. If there is an option for humor, the script jumps on it.
Classic platforming play is also available, as no custom vehicles are allowed in Showdown Town, so if you want to collect all of the cool vehicle parts, you have to do it the old-fashioned way. Banjo will be jumping, climbing, diving, tightrope-walking and more, all in the name of exploring more of the city.
From a technical perspective, Nuts and Bolts is no slouch. The game is loaded with detail among the brightly colored visuals and fantastic worlds that you'll be exploring. Textures look good even when inspected up close, and Rare has made liberal use of lighting effects all while keeping a generally solid 30 frames per second. We noticed a few occasional dips, but they were the exception rather than the rule.
Sadly, not everything in Banjo's world is super slick, as there are a few annoying issues that crop up, and they do so in a nasty way. When everything works as it should, the Nuts and Bolts experience is top flight, but when it hits a snag, the game quickly goes from "fun" to "frustrating" in a flash. The biggest problem is the way in which you pick up items. Instead of simply picking them up, you use a tether to move them around the world. The tether is extremely imprecise, making it nearly impossible to place an item exactly where you want it. If there is a group of items, it also has a habit of moving from one to the next with just the slightest movement. As a result, it's not uncommon to attempt to grab one item and grab the item next to it instead.
Another big problem has to do with the vehicle controls. Even with the pre-built vehicle blueprints, we noticed that vehicles would occasionally spin out of control for no discernible reason. In a time-based challenge, this would often force a restart. A similar issue has to do with the way collisions work. If you collide with an AI character for any reason, the AI character will be the one who survives the collision with minimal impact and drives off, while you're spun off in the wrong direction. Ultimately, it just feels cheap when it happens. Thankfully, these incidents don't happen enough to ruin the game, but they will have you cursing from time to time.
In addition to the single-player mode, Nuts and Bolts also features a varied online mode. With 27 different game modes, there is plenty of variety here, not to mention opportunity to show off your custom rides. Being able to use your custom creations online is very cool if you've gotten a decent bit into the game and created some nifty vehicles, but it has the unfortunate side effect of creating an artificial barrier to entry.
Anyone who is new to the game is only going to have access to basic vehicles, which means they'll be at a disadvantage online. Sure, a new player can copy vehicle blueprints by snapping a photo of another player's ride, but having the blueprint doesn't do you any good if you don't have the parts. Don't plan on going online until you've built up your stash.
Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts may be different than prior Banjo games, but that doesn't make it bad. Rare has done a great job of revamping the gameplay in order to provide a fresh experience while still preserving the core elements that made Banjo and Kazooie a hit in the first place. The rough spots in the game are disappointing, but they don't destroy an otherwise fun adventure game, and with a retail price of only $40, there's plenty of value here.
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