kowbrainz's Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts (Xbox 360) review

A unique, yet ultimately disappointing return

Fans who had gone to the trouble of beating Banjo-Tooie back when it was released in 2000/2001 may understand how I felt prior to Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. After being promised a direct sequel to your favourite franchise and not seeing anything for the next five years, you tend to get a little worried. Naturally, when it was announced that Banjo was finally back in 2006, there was a lot of hype within the Banjo community about the next Banjo game. When the screenshots and video trailers unveiled what the new Banjo game was really about in early 2008, there were mixed opinions. The gameplay and focus of the games, despite what the Rare designers were trying to tell fans, had changed dramatically. Some fans hated the change from the very beginning and wanted the old Banjo back, whereas others, including myself, were staying optimistic, and just happy that their bear was back at last.

So what’s the story? Well, after eight years the lack of adventuring and staying fit has really taken its toll on Banjo and Kazooie’s health, who do nothing but laze around outside their ramshackle Spiral Mountain home eating pizzas and playing videogames all day. Soon enough, Grunty shows up again, just how the pair left her in the previous game, but before a fight can break out a new character known as the Lord of Games, or LOG appears. Sick and tired of their constant feuding, LOG decides to hold one final contest between the archenemies, where the winner will receive the deed to Spiral Mountain and the loser will toil within his videogame factory for the rest of eternity. After a basic collect-a-thon challenge goes sour, LOG decides to change the gameplay up a bit and restores the rivals to a more-mobile form before requesting them to follow him to his newly created hubworld called Showdown Town. While the stories for Banjo-Kazooie and Tooie may not have been truly exceptional in the past, this was without a doubt the poorest for me, but I was willing to let it slide in favour of some decent gameplay; something which has always been the Banjo franchise’s selling point in the past.

Now that I’ve taken the time to go through it world by world, jiggy by jiggy, I can tell you that Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is a mixed bag. After looking past all of the gameplay changes, there are still quite a few holes in the design. Even take Banjo out of the picture and you’ll find a really neat concept which is basically held up by the player’s imagination rather than the challenges it’s been applied to within the game. For those who haven’t seen enough of the gameplay to be sure of what exactly I’m talking about, the main focus of the game is on vehicles - contraptions you can build yourself with bricks in a fashion not too different from using Lego, before taking your contraption into the game to see how exactly it works. The idea behind this, as you’ll soon realise during the game, is to allow players to approach tasks from a number of different directions and to encourage players to think outside the box. Hence the games aren’t always based on how good of a player you are, but how good your imagination is. Take a hurdles race against a few other speedy characters for example: why bother using a fast car with a spring or two on the bottom when you can just use a plane instead? Let’s suck up some coconuts for Mr Fit in time for the harvest: why make the lengthy process of flying out to the coconuts and bringing them back to the coconut vacuum when you can build something to bring the vacuum to the coconuts? It’s times like these when the gameplay and concept of Nuts & Bolts really start to shine, and you’ll really get a warm feeling inside yourself after you manage to find your own way of tackling a challenge. After all, you built the vehicle and had the idea, so it very much feels like it’s all your own work.

The vehicle editor itself is fantastic. You’ll start off with a handful of parts for you to work with, but as you progress through the game you’ll gradually earn more and more which will allow you to create bigger and better things. There are almost no bounds to the imagination you’re able to use, as the editor includes a large variety of parts to use to build the body of your vehicle, to use as weapons, gadgets to help you in certain tasks, or even the right equipment to help you fly or go underwater. You can also paint your vehicle and the amount of freedom given allows those with a bit of artistic flair and imagination to go ahead and design anything to their heart’s content, even replicas of vehicles from other movies and games, often with stunning results. Once you finish off your vehicle, you’ll be able to take it for a spin in the Test-O-Track where you’ll be able to see just how it fairs. Here you’ll find that the physics engine for Nuts & Bolts has been designed rather well in that you don’t need to have a major in aerodynamics or engineering to build something that works. Build a huge, heavy cube and add a couple of propellers and you’ll have something that flies. It might fly slowly, but it will fly. Sometimes you’ll be able to design things with better maneuverability depending on how you space wheels or how many engines you add, but generally the game gives a little bit of leeway for the contraptions you may think up, no matter how wacky they might be. It’s a great thing for players of all ages to be able to build something on their own then see it spring to life within the game, I’ll say that.

It’s easy to see the amount of work which has gone into this vehicle creator, but once you look past this you’ll see that most other elements of the game fall short in comparison. The most obvious example of this is with the challenges, which are essentially what you’ll be using the vehicle creator for. Early on in the game you’ll be able to win jiggies easily by using the game’s vehicle blueprints, or editing said blueprints a bit to add a tray to carry things around or an additional engine for races, but later on you’ll find that you’ll need to start a lot of vehicles from scratch if you want a chance at winning all the prizes on show. The problem I had as I got further and further into the game was that there were numerous times where I had no real motivation to go into worlds to do challenges because the tasks were all the same. Race this person. Take this object here. Race these people. Take this person here. Race this person in a plane. Take this stuff here. Granted, there were a few innovative challenges here and there, but for each of these there was a pile of uninspired races and fetch quests lying just around the corner.

This leads me on to another annoyance I had with the challenges. Typically, if Rare wanted to make a game where they could measure the difference between one solution to a puzzle and another, they needed to make things timed. Practically all challenges are timed, whether it be for reaching a certain goal in under a time, or scoring as many points as possible within the allotted time limit. There’s a certain tension which mounts up inside me when I’m being rushed to do challenges like this, and it definitely isn’t the feeling I came to play a Banjo-Kazooie game for. The fact that I could count all of the racing challenges in the first games on my two hands and you surpass that amount very early in the game, a game which I was convinced into thinking was not a racing game from a very early stage by the designers themselves, mind you – it tells me something. Of course, this scoring system does give each challenge a certain replay value that might not have been present within the previous games and a certain level of competition if you’re the type who likes to protect your highscores on global leaderboards, but there are times where I’d just prefer to settle down a bit, perhaps be rewarded for taking the time to explore a level all over, and this isn’t something Nuts & Bolts caters to.

The game has also tried for additional replay value in the form of a new multiplayer mode where players can go head-to-head in a number of tasks featuring in the main game using their own creations against one another. Now, personally speaking, multiplayer has always been about being able to jump right into a match against your friends, whereas here you’re not going to get much fun out of it unless you’ve unlocked the majority of the vehicle parts in the single player game. To add to that, imagine it this way – say you lose a challenge against a friend. There’s no way you’re going to bother going into a challenge using the same ideas again if you got owned the last time, so it basically means that there’s going to be a few minutes between every match where players go back to the drawing board to try something new again. Since it takes so much longer creating vehicles than you’re going to spend actually playing against friends, I’ve had more fun messing around in the Test-O-Track sharing random creations with others, which shows me how, once again, the vehicle creator in this game is such a great thing that everything around it just fails in comparison.

If you’re wondering just how much of the classic platformer/adventure gameplay is left intact here, then I’ll just say that the 80/20 ratio of vehicles to platforming that lead designer Gregg Mayles proposed in early 2008 is about right. That isn’t to say that it’s a good or preferred ratio, but it gives you an idea of how much exploring you’ll be doing when you’re not doing challenges. Most of this exploration is centred within the game’s hubworld, known as Showdown Town, which LOG has only granted access to a basic trolley vehicle. Showdown Town, as promised by Rare, is absolutely enormous and stands out as one of the best locales I have explored in a Banjo game to date. It really shows off how pretty the game is too, and while there is the occasional bit of pop-up textures and that illusion of grass and shadows growing before your eyes at times, it doesn’t detract from the overall beauty of the place. Texturing has been done fantastically and there are some great visual effects you’ll notice when crossing over water or grass or wherever. What I do recommend players do is download the game to their hard drives, as you can encounter some nasty slowdown in larger areas like this and it can detract from the overall experience.

Anyway, as the game progresses, you’ll be able to collect numerous upgrades to your showdown town trolley including high grip wheels and springs which enable you to access new areas in the same way Kazooie’s moves would in previous games. You’ll also be able to hop out of your vehicle and search around for a plethora of notes as well as numerous crates holding new parts which you can take back to Mumbo’s garage, as well as partake in a number of nice sidequests for jiggies and notes, involving the Jinjos and Minjos scattered about town, Klungo up on the pier, and Jolly Roger, or Jolly ‘Dodger’ as he now prefers. Now, don’t get me wrong – before I went into this review I had the clear intent not to focus on how Nuts & Bolts had drifted from the franchise’s roots. However, it was only upon wandering through Showdown Town and collecting everything I could, exploring every nook and cranny and talking to all the characters I could find that I had this strong nostalgic feeling, a feeling that I was playing a true Banjo sequel at last. It’s really unfortunate, because this is exactly where this feeling ceases – once I plundered into each of the game worlds that feeling had left me again.

There are five game worlds in all, six if you count the door to the final fight, and each have been split into a number of ‘acts’ which require differing amounts of jiggies to unlock and each have different jiggy and Jinjo tasks within. The problem I see here is that you can collect all 200 of a game world’s notes within the very first acts if you wish, and that once you have there isn’t a whole lot else to explore within the game worlds. The only real differences between acts are the tasks within – there’s been no effort to mix things up like Click Clock Wood managed to do in Banjo-Kazooie, and since the notes haven’t been spread across each of the acts separately like Click Clock Wood managed to do, once you get to the later acts everything becomes a matter of waltzing into a level and clearing out all the challenges that you can before exiting to Showdown Town once again. There were numerous occasions when I played the game where I would bank a jiggy and see a door open to a new act, only to ignore it because I just wanted to mess around in town instead.

That leads me on to another point of interest... or disinterest, really. After you receive jiggies in each level from the challenges, apparently it isn’t good enough to ‘get’ them. After you exit a level, you have to wrench the jiggies out of a sort of jiggy-vending machine before throwing them into your cart and driving them back to town square for them to be sucked up into the giant Jiggy Bank. There’s a couple of police officers who will chase you with your vehicles later in the game if they see you trying to bank jiggies, but they aren’t very hard to avoid and it all feels like a waste of time and shameless padding to me. You’re also forced to do the same with each new game world – get enough jiggies and you’ll be required to take a game ‘globe’ to a plinth somewhere in Showdown town before the level opens. At points like these I just have to ask why – it’s not adding anything to the game at all and is plain unnecessary.

There’s a weird feeling I get when playing through Nuts & Bolts at times, almost as if my heart is being pulled in two separate directions. On one hand, I’m led down this path of believing that everything around me is one hundred percent Banjo – a fantastic score with plenty of references and remixes of old tunes which you can’t help but start humming to before remembering the origins of the tune. Leigh Loveday’s script has been written magnificently with plenty of self-referential humour and generally the sorts of naughty jokes you’d expect from Rare in a Banjo game. There’s a bunch of familiar faces from the previous games that you’ll be bound to recognize right off the bat, each with their own personality to give the game that extra bit of soul. The problem here is that there’s only about ten characters who have made their return who will show up in Showdown Town and within the worlds for the challenges, and even fewer original characters – each of which feel rather uninspired. What really gets to me is how there’s so many characters from the previous games which have been referenced in a small way or turned into inanimate objects which you can’t talk to. George and Mildred ice cube return as inanimate ice blocks with googly eyes, and there’s no chance of hearing them scream in pain as you blast them with torpediles or push them around. Clanker and Mr Patch feature in some missions, but you never get to hear them talk. There are numerous others, too, as well as storefronts in town featuring names of characters I can’t meet in person. Why did Showdown Town need to be filled with so many generic pigs, penguins and rhinos uttering the same lines over and over, and not proper characters? In the end it’s all rather painful since I feel a large part of what kept the original games alive is gone. And then I wonder about all the other objects and items referencing the old Banjo; including one of the levels which is basically just a huge cluster of assorted Banjo structures put together in one heap. Is this supposed to give me a sort of nostalgic feeling? Because sometimes I feel it was all included simply to shout out at fans and reassure them that this is still a Banjo game, even when on the inside it’s clearly something very, very different.

In the end, I have to applaud Rare for trying something new, and the concept of building vehicles and using your imagination to think of different ways to tackle challenges is nothing short of pure brilliance. Where this concept falls short is its application, in that there really needs to be something imaginative on both sides of the equation for it to work – I’m not going to want to build something innovative if I’ve been doing the same races or fetch-quests over and over throughout the game. There’s also a huge question mark over the way this idea was applied to Banjo. Sure, you could argue that it may have been a marketing choice used in order to get a concept to sell, but I believe that with some attention to the actual challenges, this is an idea which would have been able to sell on its own without slapping on the face of the familiar bear and bird. It’s really disappointing, as I believe there was a lot of potential for something truly exceptional to come out of this concept, but trying to mix the two extremes of Banjo’s adventuring and Nuts & Bolts’ sandbox gameplay has resulted in something that I can’t really call a true sequel.
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