IGN Review of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts
The long-awaited return of Banjo the bear and his friend Kazooie is upon us, though this time development studio Rare didn't follow its own playbook. The platforming genre has all but disappeared from the gaming world and so Banjo has changed with the times. Elements of Nuts & Bolts will be familiar to Rare fans, but don't expect a trip down memory lane. This time it's all about designing vehicles to tackle a series of challenges. It's a unique idea that isn't for everybody, but Banjo 3 is put together well enough that most anybody willing to put the time in to learn the rules will find a lot of fun. Don't immediately write this game off just because it isn't the Banjo you remember.
Nuts & Bolts may look like the Banjo of old at first glance and a lot of the hallmarks of the franchise are here in force. Gruntilda is back and can't stop rhyming. Jiggies must be collected to open new doors. Musical notes litter the ground everywhere to be collected. There's a quiz at the end of the game. This go around, the reason for the clash between Banjo and Grunty is a series of challenges set up by LOG, the Lord of Games and purported creator of all videogames. He's tired of the incessant fighting and has cobbled together this one as the final contest. The story really only exists as a way to tie this Banjo title to past ones and still have Rare's universe make sense.
You see, things have changed a bit for Banjo. Over the years, he and Kazooie have grown fat and lazy. They've lost their powers and stamina and now LOG has appeared and introduced a new way to play the game. It relies heavily on vehicles designed by the player and is a stark departure for such a well-known franchise.
Even with a different gameplay focus, Nuts & Bolts sticks to the classic Banjo game design sense. You begin the game in a hub world, this time called Showdown Town. From there, you'll travel to other worlds for challenges to win jigsaw pieces and start collecting things so that you can unlock more doors and move through the game. This is by far the biggest Banjo game yet in terms of size, scope, and total things to do. More than 100 jiggies are up for grabs, 1900 musical notes need to be collected, massive and wonderful worlds exist to be explored. And it all follows the idea that you can play at your own pace. New doors will open before you have found everything the previous had to offer and Nuts & Bolts encourages you to skip ahead and then come back and replay old challenges for higher scores. It's a loose and freewheeling design that makes it tough to stop playing and tough to get overly frustrated with one specific obstacle.
While I did spend more time in Showdown Town than any of the individual game worlds while playing Nuts & Bolts, that's primarily because I became obsessed with finding, unlocking, and purchasing every vehicle part so I could create the perfect rides.
Nuts & Bolts features a powerful vehicle creation tool that works a lot like playing with LEGOs. Start with a seat, add some wheels, an engine, fuel and a few blocks to hold it together and you've got a basic car. Add another engine, or a larger one, and the vehicle will go faster. Put a spring on the bottom and you can make it jump. Nuts & Bolts puts the power of creativity in the hands of the player that, when you consider the hundreds of pieces spread across dozens of types, allows for a near limitless set of possibilities.
A race isn't just a race anymore; it's a test of both how well you can drive and how well you can design the car. Knocking over a set of dominoes is suddenly a test of critical thinking instead of just a hand-eye coordination challenge. Consider this example of how a little extra design work and thought can flip a challenge on its head. One challenge puts you in an arena with another squat and powerful vehicle for a sumo match. Whoever falls off the edge of the ring first loses. To win, I decided against making a vehicle designed for power and ramming. Instead, I made a simple little car with an ejector seat. When the foe came at me to knock me off the edge I was sitting near, I ejected and he barreled through my ride before momentum carried him right off the edge while I bounced down inside the ring for victory. Total time spent in that one round: seven seconds. That should stack up well on the leaderboards. I just wish there was more variety here instead of so many race and fetch quests.
Part of what makes Banjo fun might also turn some people off. The world and vehicles are all governed by a wacky set of physics. It all makes sense in the same way that Bugs Bunny makes sense. Two engines make a car go faster. Two springs make it hop higher. As easy as it is to make something move, it isn't always guaranteed to move well. You'll have to consider wheel spacing, weight distribution, total weight, fuel storage, hydrodynamics and more in your designs. Don't be surprised if you spend a good amount of time building a vehicle only to find out that it totally sucks. It certainly happened to me more than once. You might have made something that looks cool, but that doesn't mean it will corner well or be stable while driving over the numerous bumps and obstacles that litter the world. Careful planning, and going back to the shop for fine tuning, is quite often the name of the game. This isn't exactly action packed, but the end result is rewarding.
Nuts & Bolts isn't entirely lacking in platforming, but most of the platforming involves exploration and collection. That exploration takes place in the hub world where you can't just use any vehicle you want. This limitation forces you to get out of the cart and climb poles, balance on wires, and leap across small chasms. It's simple stuff and you won't ever fear for Banjo's life, but it is a nice change of pace from the rest of the game.
One of the things that constantly impressed me about Nuts & Bolts is the vast number of things there are to do outside of the jiggie challenges you have to play to progress through the game. Side quests and distractions are here in mass quantity. Jingoes offer a little challenge inside game worlds. There are tons of crates to find filled with vehicles parts. Klungo's Arcade offers pure, old-school platforming (all you do is jump while the 8-bit world scrolls by). These examples are just a taste of what there is to find.
There's a lot of depth here, so much that it begs the same question Rare's other 360 franchise, Viva Piñata did: Who is this game targeted at? Banjo might be a bit overwhelming for the young kids that will be most drawn to the vibrant, colorful graphics. Sure, they'll likely have fun making simple cars and boats and driving them around, but Nuts & Bolts has a lot of text and absolutely no voiceovers. That's a throwback to the Banjo of yesterday…and a design idea that might leave some youngsters missing the finer points.
There are plenty of tutorials, half-built cars, and pre-made blueprints to unlock that will ease you into the game. There's also a nice ramp up from simple challenges that lock you to one vehicle to complex ones where you're free to use any vehicle you please. Still, this isn't the kind of game that you can show someone, explain in a few seconds and then hand off the controller to watch them have fun.
Hardcore gamers that can look past the bubbly look and goofy sound effects will enjoy Banjo. That is if they can also get past the deliberate planning needed to succeed. You'll often spend more time designing a vehicle for a challenge than you will actually playing the challenge. That's fine by me; I'm the kind of person that gets great satisfaction from watching my creativity and work pay off. Now, if you're the kind of gamer that prefers constant action with a good flow, this might not be the game for you.
But please, don't let the bright colors turn you off. A game doesn't have to exist in a world of muted grays to offer something exciting. And hey, everyone can appreciate the excellent design of the worlds, textures and general artistic sensibility Banjo offers. The game may have occasional trouble maintaining a stable framerate -- a reflection of the ambitious, physics-based gameplay -- and a bit of pop-in of textures that get drawn in late, but overall it is a game that looks quite good.
The music is quite well done, lighthearted, and a great fit. However, out of all of the things Rare decided to change and update in Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, it decided to stay true to the sound effects. That means lots of goofy noises, a chuckling bear, a squawking bird, and no voiceovers. This often isn't a problem, but it certainly does make cycling through the options in the multiplayer lobbies ridiculously annoying.
Speaking of the multiplayer game, Nuts & Bolts has a fully-featured one. However, in my experience it is an idea that was better on paper than in practice. All of the options you'd want are here: a party system, offline play, team games, a good variety of match types, a lobby to test your vehicles and more. None of it is arranged in a streamlined or attractive way, but it's there for you to discover.
There is one big problem here.
The whole fun of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts builds from the vehicle creation tools and that is a big component of multiplayer. A beginner's playset locks you to stock cars, planes and boats. As you might imagine, competing in events where everyone is using the same generic vehicle doesn't offer much excitement. To get to the meat of the multiplayer game, you need to enter the playlists that allow you to bring your own vehicles in. And when you do, you'll find that this is not a friendly game for those looking to quickly pick it up and give it a try. Without blueprints and designs saved, you won't have much to go on. It's hard to get hooked on the multiplayer game when you can't just hop in and have fun. It takes planning and advance work before you'll get to the fun part. It's a design that is unwelcoming to new players which is never good for an online game's longevity.
The other Xbox Live options are more exciting. Nuts & Bolts puts a big emphasis on being creative and sharing your work. After completing any challenge, you can save the video and upload it to the leaderboards or share it with friends. If you really stink at Banjo, you can go on the leaderboards and download a video of the best player to see how he or she beat a challenge. You can even snag their blueprint for yourself if they've uploaded it. This will help poor players make it through the game, but I have to say downloading someone else's plans does take out some of the fun and the rewarding feeling that Nuts & Bolts offers when you really nail a design.
You can also snap pictures and upload them to Banjo-Kazooie.com. This picture sharing is much more smoothly integrated into the game itself than what you usually get. When you upload the picture, you can add tags from a list and give it a unique name. Other players can download these pictures from their Xbox 360 by searching through the tags you assign and then rate your design.
I don't usually spend much time in reviews talking about achievements, but Nuts & Bolts has a set that is fun enough to make them worth mentioning. There are the standard set for progressing through the game, but also a good number just dedicated to messing around with Nuts & Bolts. Go over a set speed in a vehicle made with just five parts to win one. Reach the highest point in Showdown Town for another. The achievements add even more challenges and side quests to an already packed game.
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