Whimsical, magical, breathtaking...
It is hard to believe that nearly a decade has passed since RARE released a proper sequel to the Banjo Kazooie series. And if one thing has become apparent, it's that we've come quite far since the days of traditional Mario-influenced platforming. Originally conceptualized as an updated remake of the first game in the series (with a few modest tweaks), Banjo "3" quickly evolved into what would become an innovative shift in the way the team looked at the platform genre. And the changes, I'll have you know, are not only avant-garde, but also completely successful in implementation.
After defeating their arch nemesis Gruntilda at the end of Banjo-Tooie, Banjo the bear and his bird sidekick Kazooie retired to a cottage on Spiral Mountain, becoming copiously fat and lazy on pizza and Xbox 360. Then one day Gruntilda's disembodied head emerges from a pile of rocks. But then Banjo and his nemesis are approached by L.O.G (Lord Of Games), who is basically a floating green television. He alleges to have created all games - yes, even Grabbed by the Ghoulies. L.O.G proposes a set of time-contingent events to take place in 6 worlds of his own creation. Upon agreeing to L.O.G's proposal, Banjo is returned to his former fitness and stripped of the classic move sets found in the previous two games.
American McGee's Scrapland explored vehicle customization in a vein similar to Nuts & Bolts. Players could purchase blueprints for ships and upgrade/trick out various aspects of their craft. But where that game barely scratched the surface of vehicle customization in an open world, Nuts & Bolts gives players an unparalleled degree of control over how their vehicle looks, moves, and handles by providing hundreds of unique unlockable parts to mix and match at the player's whim. Mumbo's Garage is the place you will visit when you want to build, paint, save and load vehicles, trade with fellow players over Xbox Live, or test out your creations. The Test-O-Track lets players try out their latest modifications to see if physics are on the side of their design theory - leading inevitably to many hilarious moments. In the workshop you will find your basic frame parts that provide shape and support for vital components. Vitals include the basics, like wheels, engines, fuel tubes, propellers, wings, flotation devices, and more. As with any design modification, going into your garage and changing something means that you must weigh and balance the effects that extra (or lesser) heft will have on your vehicle.
As you progress through the game, you will unlock a variety of gadgets, weapons, and components that can be attached to your vehicles. Some things, like egg or laser guns, are of more obvious use than something like a self-destruct ball. But, if you're an inventive type, maybe you'll take that self-destructing bomb thingy and employ it strategically it to get that extra edge in some of the more absurd challenges.
The game is completely physics based, so it emphasizes the dynamics of good design, meaning you can't be sloppy or your chance at obtaining a jiggy will be in serious jeopardy. Countless times I've gone back to the drawing board on my designs, honing different aspects of the handling and performance for the perfect balance that will increase my chances of victory. As you can probably imagine, the gameplay has its moments of severe frustration as you, the architect, must study and decipher exactly why your designs just aren't banking the jiggies. I've never sworn so much at an E rated game! That is not to say that personal skill isn't involved here. On the contrary, sloppy play style will serve just as much to your detriment as any lemon blueprint. But all the same, much of the game will be spent in Mumbo's Garage, tweaking, testing, and contemplating. The upside is that, not only is it fun to tinker around, but when you finally realize the self-indulgent wonder craft of your dreams, you always feel a sense of accomplishment, as the hard work you put into the game ultimately determines the fun you will get out of it.
There are no major downsides, since you either like to tweak and customize, or you don't. And for those that don't, Banjo Team has thrown in a ton of purchasable blueprints for use in the game's various time based challenges. The design concept of Nuts & Bolts is based on the theory that there are three different types of gamers who will play this game. The first is children, who will simply use the pre-built variety until they learn the necessary skills to craft their own. The second group are the "casual" players, who will build vehicles, complete part of the game, and collect some of the parts. The third group are the "hardcore", who will unlock everything, seek trophies, and look for top rankings on the leader boards. For the most part, I think the game's design is conducive to this theory. However, Nuts & Bolts is probably less than the sum of its parts, if only for the wonderful synergy of gameplay elements. Not taking advantage of the experience as a whole seems a shame to me.
As you go about collecting and banking jiggies, numbered doors open up, allowing you to complete challenges in segmented "Acts." Once you collect enough jiggies, Mumbo rewards you with parts, and L.O.G gives you a special globe to be placed on its corresponding plinth, thus opening another of the 6 worlds. The challenges contained within each Act can vary from fetch quests, to races, sumo matches, speed challenges, and more. Many of the events are variants of each other, but you will sometimes come across some more unique ones. In one Nutty Acres challenge, I was tasked with transporting Klungo's giant egg to a volcano, dropping it in, cooking it, and then rushing it back to him as fast as possible.
For all the talk of leaving its N64 roots, Banjo Nuts & Bolts sure has a lot of platforming activities. Each world is filled to the brim with little nooks and crannies. Whether walking or swimming, Banjo will find many secrets hidden, waiting to be discovered. The swimming mechanic is a bit to get used to at first (you have to hold A down and direct with the left thumbstick), but when you do, you will find all sorts of neat little easter eggs. One nice feature in the adventure portions of the gameplay is that you are given a camera with which to take and store photos (optionally uploading them to Banjo-Kazooie.com for sharing and competition). It reminded me of the camera mechanic in Michel Ancel's Beyond Good & Evil. It's a lesser, more simple implementation, but works wonderfully for storing the more notable memories of your adventures.
The game is essentially hub based, with doors opening up as you bank jiggies. However, if you're anything like me, you will spend hours in Showdown Town just collecting musical notes and walking tight ropes. The game actually gives you an incentive to explore since you can even find hidden "free" jiggies and spend your hard sought notes on vehicle parts and blueprints, which are available from Humba. Once you obtain a jiggy or group of jiggies, you will be required to visit the Jig-O-Vend units that are placed throughout Showdown Town. It's also worth noting that you can upgrade Banjo's attributes if you're willing to fork over the notes. I found the speed and strength upgrades worth the cost, considering the amount of on-foot travel I did. Useful depending upon your play style, but by no means necessary. Still, I must say that it would have been nice to see a more extensive upgrade system for our furry buddy.
The controls will take a bit of practice if you want precision, but everything feels extremely responsive and well mapped out. Instead of a traditional double tap, pressing and holding A makes Banjo jump higher. Banjo also interacts well with his environment, intuitively grabbing onto ledges to avoid a bad fall. Speaking of which, from my experience it appears impossible to actually die in the game. Your health is represented by a honeycomb on the HUD. Your honeycomb is always replenishing over time, eliminating the need for collecting the little honeycombs seen in previous entries to the series. And because of Banjo is constantly replenishing honey, suffering even a big fall won`t do much unless you`re in the middle of a challenge, in which case, you forfeit. And if you do manage to drown him or something, Kazooie will pop out of her blue pack and slap Banjo back to full honeycomb health.
I have praised Nuts & Bolts for its vehicle creator, and it deserves the credit for being easy to use, yet deep. However, my main complaint is that frame parts, the stuff that is responsible for the shape of your vehicles, are not varied. There are a lot of blocks and corners and wedges, but I would have liked to have seen more variety in the appearances and combination possibilities. While you can create any Star Wars vehicle imaginable, you are limited to a degree on the aesthetic side of things. Yes, you can add a coat of paint, mixing and matching if you wish, but I think there is a lot more to explore as far as variety and possibilities go. To Banjo Team's credit, it is a fine line to tread, considering that what players design has to stay within the confines of the art style.
While there is probably a lot more to say about the gameplay in respect to depth and details, the last dynamic that I would like to mention is the competitive side of the game. Every challenge in the game is time based, and if you're good at building vehicles and have the skill to drive them to victory, you might just end up on the leader boards. I've managed to place in the Top 40 in a few separate events, but even that modest feat takes a fair amount of time and commitment as you learn the challenge and exploit every second-shaving opportunity. If you check out the Top 20, you can even view how the best in the world did it. Watching the best excel just spurs you on to make better vehicles and become a better player. I've not played a game this addictive competitively since Halo 2. You can also play on Xbox Live, both in pre-built competitions where it's all skill based, or in the deeper custom vehicle events. But finding myself on Banjo-Kazooie.com tracking the leader boards is something I never thought I'd be doing. If you want it to, the game really involves you in the community experience, whether you're going head-to-head directly or just looking for top honors on the boards.
Overall, the gameplay in Banjo Nuts & Bolts is a refreshing mixture of elements that not only satisfies those who fancy themselves the completionist architect extraordinaire, but also forges new territory in what I hope will be a brave new world of evolved platform gaming.
Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is one of, if not the best looking game on the Xbox 360 currently. So often videogames are polarized to one side or the other. Either they're praised for their technical brilliance, or lauded for their art design. Thankfully that trend does not apply to Nuts & Bolts, as Banjo Team has crafted a ginormous world full of vibrant charm, while at the same time taking full advantage of the latest graphical bells and whistles, such as specular highlights, parallax mapping, and yes, RARE's famous fur shading. The result is a game world that you could eat like candy!
As I noted in the gameplay section of my review, the game is split up into 6 worlds (excluding Showdown Town), each with their own unique magic and splendor. As an example, Banjo Land features all sorts of clever small and large set pieces. You'll see a giant ocean liner, statues, igloos, underwater alcoves, and various other goodies. Since a significant portion of the game involves aquatic travel, it is appropriate that the water looks, moves, and reacts as you'd expect it to. There's nothing like cutting through the waves in your custom jet boat, taking in the serene qualities of the expanse.
Though there is one area of concern that I must address concerning the graphics. The slowdown can be a minor annoyance in one instance, and an all-out gameplay interruption in another. It's the most frustrating thing in the world when you're just getting into your groove on a challenge you've worked really hard on, only to have the game drop to 10fps, throwing you off your game for the few precious seconds that would have made the difference on the leader boards. That said, supreme beauty of this kind does sometimes force a developer to forgo the ideal of a locked framerate, and in this case, I do at least make some concession. While painstakingly modeling every nook and cranny in high-res glory can take a century (even with the entirety of the company working on the graphics during crunch time), RARE didn't neglect to add the cute little details that only they have executed so well over the years. Details like water splashing on the camera after a big dive or sharp turn, or the day/night cycle that adds a starry storybook charm, give the world a resonant vitality that brings all of the magic and wonderment to the fore with a distinct elegance.
The animation is top quality in every sense of the word. Banjo himself looks great in action, with every little detail imaginable being incorporated into his moveset. He walks, jogs, runs, jumps, balances, flips, and swims, all in situational context. He even has animations for the times he is idle. Sometimes he'll flex his muscles or shake after a swim.
Indeed, where some other next-gen offerings don't hold up under the scrutiny of more discerning eyes, this game is rife with small, less obvious details that serve to round out the visual experience. Once again, RARE proves that it's all in the details. A total cotton candy spectacle.
RARE is well known for its quirky and vibrant soundtracks, and Nuts & Bolts is no exception to the oddball antics of the studio's wonderfully creative music team. No, it's not Katamari crazy, but it has a care-free whimsicality to it that provides a nice contrast to the glut of sci-fi/fps cliché scores. That said, there are some darker, more menacing moments in the game that do provide opportunity for stirring, sometimes haunting musical flourishes.
Sound effects are one of the high points in the sound department. This is one of those games where, for most every surface, there is a corresponding sound. So when Banjo jumps off a hill onto a plane of grass, it sounds as though he is hitting earth, or in some cases, wet earth! It's not a big deal in of itself, but the details add up. The sound design is so committed that, if you listen carefully, you'll hear Banjo's little grunts, moans, and strains as you go about your sometimes strenuous platforming business. He even gurgles while swimming and takes deep breaths when exhausted. Yeah, some gamers might not notice these little things, but this is the difference between "rushed" and `polished down to the last.' It is the amalgam of little things that make the game shine so brightly. Vehicle noises are totally cartoony and fun, as well.
The game features no voice acting in the traditional sense. Instead, Nuts & Bolts employs all manner of gibberish to tell its story. While "proper" voice acting is so often missing in games, in Banjo it is hardly missed. In fact, I think it is a testament to the hard work and dedication of smart and funny producers at RARE that they can so effectively convey each dialogue scene by using simple intonation and inflection. This aspect of the sound design is fitting, and conducive to the style of humor Leigh Loveday and the team are going for with the series. In Banjo's case, little grunts, squeaks, and demented cackles say it all.
For RARE, it's been a long road to redemption in the eyes of seemingly many gamers. For me, it's a continuation of the enduring consistency of one of the game industry's greatest developers. And because they are so talented, and so funny, and so passionate about what they do, it manifests into magical experiences that can only be delivered by people like them. In a game like Banjo, you get the sense that there's a synergy of vital forces at play. It's a whimsical, magical, and hopefully transcendental experience that evokes nothing less than the epitome of pure wanderlust. When you get to the heart of what gaming is and what it began as, you realize that this is the culmination of every key milestone that bestowed upon us all the classic, historical experiences that would later fuel the nostalgic memories of our youth. This is one of those experiences.