It’s been a little over a decade since Rare introduced many a bright-eyed young gamer to an easy-going bear, a sharp-tongued bird and a rhyme-obsessed witch in Banjo-Kazooie. Sporting a healthy dose of irreverent charm, slick, inventive platforming and an absurd amount of shiny objects to collect, Banjo-Kazooie and its follow up, Banjo-Tooie, have a special place in more than a few gamers’ hearts – including mine. Like many other fans of the series, I found the news that the newest Banjo installment would be a vehicle-based game instead of a traditional platformer was a disappointing bait and switch. Would Rare be able to capture the spirit of what we loved about the series, even with this new focus?
If the phrase “Stop N’ Swop” means something to you, then the answer is a resounding “yes.” Sure, it’s not a traditional platformer and the gameplay is almost entirely based around the vehicles. But Nuts & Bolts isn’t trying to be Banjo-Threeie. It might not have the same gameplay, but it certainly has the same charm and wit as its predecessors, and fans of the series should enjoy it for that simple fact alone. For everyone else who might not get the in-jokes or smile at some of the references, it’s a clever and quirky title that should appeal to kids and kids-at-heart both.
Saying Banjo-Kazooie doesn’t exactly take itself seriously is like saying that Yogi Bear is partial to pic-a-nic baskets. It’s not just that the game likes to break the fourth wall – it never has one in the first place. Banjo, Kazooie and the rest of the cast are aware that they’re characters in a videogame from the outset, and the developers at Rare are more than willing to poke fun at themselves. The game’s first “mission” halts abruptly when the characters acknowledge that gamers these days don’t want “pointless collect-a-thons,” so they decide to take the feud between the good guys and Gruntilda the Witch to a different sort of battlefront.
Vehicle-based gameplay notwithstanding, the trappings of Nuts & Bolts should be familiar to people who have played the N64 titles (or most platformers, really). You have a hub area – in this case, the aptly named Showdown Town – where you open up gateways to other lands. Journey into these worlds, go on adventures, collect shiny things (in this case, the golden jigsaw puzzle pieces of the previous games), defeat the bad guys, save the world: all in a day’s work.
While traveling around Showdown Town, Banjo and Kazooie are limited to the most basic vehicle – essentially a glorified shopping cart with an engine. As you defeat Gruntilda in further challenges, you earn upgrades for the cart to access previously unreachable parts of the town (wheels with better grip to go up steep hills, flotation devices to traverse water, etc.) but for the most part it isn’t customizable. Once you’re inside the different worlds, however, there’s quite a bit more freedom in your choice of ride.
The vehicles are the core of Nuts & Bolts, and every task involves them in some way or another. Some missions put the bear and bird inside a predetermined contraption, but for the most part it’s left up to you to decide. You can discover and purchase blueprints for pre-made vehicles that you can simply select and use right away (assuming you have the proper parts), from helicopters and race-cars to motorcycles and tanks. For people who are feeling a bit more creative, though, that’s where the Workshop comes in.
As you progress through the game, you’ll acquire additional vehicle components, and the Workshop, operated by shaman-turned-mechanic Mumbo Jumbo, is where Banjo and Kazooie go to pimp their ride. This can range from relatively minor alterations, like slapping a bigger engine on a pre-made blueprint for more power, to building one’s own vehicle from scratch. There are only a few necessities when creating a brand-new transport: You need an engine, and engines need fuel. If you want to put a gun on it, you need to have ammunition. If you want it to go on the ground, it should probably have wheels; if you want it to fly or float, you need something to help it do that, and so on. Otherwise, the only major limits are the laws of physics.
If I needed to win a race, I took a small car and threw five more engines on it. If I needed to smash up some baddies, I built a squat tortoise of a vehicle and covered it in spikes. For one mission that involved transporting some items across the map, I made what was essentially a big platform and attached a bunch of balloons to it. Sure, Banjo-Kazooie doesn’t quite have the creative flexibility of LittleBigPlanet, but that’s like saying the Sears Tower isn’t as tall as the Burj Dubai.
The amount of options at your fingertips aside, the question that Banjo-Kazooie fans have been asking themselves since the announcement is still, “Well … is it fun?” Is the vehicle-based gameplay a worthy successor to the brilliant platforming of the first two games?
In a word, no. I wanted to love Nuts & Bolts the way I loved Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, and I didn’t. This isn’t to say that the game is bad. It’s certainly entertaining, and figuring out different ways to tackle some of the missions set in front of you is pretty satisfying, maybe even more than actually accomplishing the tasks themselves. The gameplay of Nuts & Bolts is good … it’s just not great.
It feels like even more of a letdown that the vehicle-based gameplay doesn’t work as well as it could have, because all the other pieces to the puzzle are easily up to the standards of the first two games. Nuts & Bolts looks great; it’s full of vibrant color which is refreshing amidst a sea of gray and brown “adult” titles, and the different worlds are smartly designed and full of references to past Rare games for long-term fans to enjoy.
The game’s biggest asset, though, from start to finish, is its charm. The writing is clever, and you can tell that the team at Rare really relished having a chance to poke fun not just at themselves but the entire videogame industry as well. One of the early worlds takes place inside a videogame console (a la Reboot) where the dimwitted Klungo laments not being able to connect to his Interwebbys, and Banjo and Kazooie must face off against a clan of hardcore female gamers called the “Hag Trolls” whose biggest assets are their “good marketing.”
As in movies like Shrek, the humor in Nuts & Bolts is aimed at children but witty enough to make older gamers and parents smile, and it’s a huge part of the reason why the game keeps being enjoyable long after one would think the vehicle gameplay ought to have grown stale.
Bottom line: Nuts & Bolts is simply charming, featuring witty writing and a willingness to make fun of itself that is truly refreshing in today’s game industry. Just don’t expect the vehicle-based gameplay to blow you out of the water.
Recommendation: Rent it – kids should love it, and older gamers certainly can as well.
John Funk is busy working on his Banjo-Kazooie version of Halo‘s Warthog.