"There was a time when Banjo and Kazooie were considered 3D platformer icons, probably in the same era when the term “3D platformer” could be uttered without inspiring snickers. A decade after the pair’s first outing, even the folks at Rare seem to be aware that the series is well past its prime. Recurring villain Gruntilda died at the end of the first game, and yet they’ve still managed to bring her back twice, first as a skeleton desperate to restore her gargantuan body mass, and now as a rathe..."
There was a time when Banjo and Kazooie were considered 3D platformer icons, probably in the same era when the term “3D platformer” could be uttered without inspiring snickers. A decade after the pair’s first outing, even the folks at Rare seem to be aware that the series is well past its prime. Recurring villain Gruntilda died at the end of the first game, and yet they’ve still managed to bring her back twice, first as a skeleton desperate to restore her gargantuan body mass, and now as a rather frenetic skull still hell-bent on revenge. The genre is all but dead at this point anyway unless your name is Mario, and even he is far more focused on throwing parties and playing sports than actually embracing his roots. Perhaps Rare’s new depiction of the familiar bear-and-bird duo, as a couple of fat, lazy, unemployed losers who sit around all day eating pizza, is an appropriate image.
The initial confrontation with Gruntilda’s head is so predictable and groan-inducing that it provokes an interruption by the self-proclaimed Lord of Games, whose name might as well be Self-Deprecating Humor (sorry, Humour), and who is evidently responsible for making, well, every game in existence. He suggests that Banjo and Gruntilda sort things out in a mini-game that has them racing around Spiral Mountain collecting shiny, spinning objects, an ill-conceived approach that the L.O.G. tosses after letting it run for about five seconds. His conclusion is that the archaic design of this series has forced him to intervene and present them with a new game that will hold more appeal for today’s mass audiences.
His devised game is Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, in which combat is minimal, solutions are endless, and convention is thrown into a bonfire. The collect-a-thon design this series is known for was once generally accepted by the gaming community, but we’ve happily moved on from that in the eight years that Banjo and Kazooie remained absent from consoles. If the first five minutes of Nuts & Bolts are any indication (as if the rest of the game wasn’t), Rare were well aware of how drastically the standards have changed since then. Their decision to reboot the franchise rather than rehash it was exactly the right move to make, and the result is arguably the best game the developer has produced in nearly a decade – a solid reassurance to those who feared this fallen legend’s best days were in the past. (Pay attention for a few Grabbed by the Ghoulies jokes.)
L.O.G.’s proposition is that the player be given an enormous toolbox right from the get-go, with which players can built functioning vehicles and use them to complete the missions presented to them. Banjo, Kazooie and Gruntilda are dropped into Showdown Town, a pleasant, classical seaside village inhabited by the whimsical returning cast – colorful characters who can get away with saying things like, “I used to be dead, but fortunately I got over that.” Skull-faced shaman Mumbo Jumbo apparently realized that his transformations were a part of that “archaic design” thing L.O.G. mentioned, and has instead donned a pair of overalls and opened a garage in the town square where players can use whatever parts they have at their disposal to construct vehicles, test them, and introduce them to the world. Comparisons to LEGOs are inevitable, and such parallels are not unfounded – the possibilities are literally limited only by your imagination.
The game’s tagline is “If you can dream it, you can build it!” That descriptor is pretty accurate based on my experience, and customization geeks like myself will find themselves spending a large portion of Nuts & Bolts neglecting the main game in favor of building the most far-fetched contraptions they can come up with and letting them run wild in a rather expansive test chamber, as evidenced by the hours and hours I’ve already spent doing so in the two days I’ve owned the game. My first vehicle, which I named the self-explanatory “Flying Chair of Pointiness,” was literally a chair with a propeller attached to it, and with spikes hanging down from the engine. The idea was that I could attack enemies by swooping up and dropping straight down on top of them. Alas, I never found practical use for the Chair, but boy, I sure had a lot of fun screwing around with it!
Nuts & Bolts does an excellent job pacing its mission structure so as to slowly and deliberately introduce the players to the complexities this system can offer. Your first vehicle is a trolley, and it couldn’t be simpler: A driver’s seat, a weak engine, four wheels, and a medium-sized tray for storage. It works well for many of the earlier missions, such as when Humba Wumba wants you to collect a few volcanic rocks and drop them into a water source. Missions get progressively more complicated: In the next level, which takes place inside some sort of electronic apparatus, Klungo (who gave up the ways of evil and is now a friend) needs you to get an antenna to a high place in a short amount of time, i.e. you can’t just drive there. The solution required a vehicle similar to the trolley, but it had to fly. Still pretty easy, but it gets you working.
I quickly grew tired of the trolley as a means of default transportation and wanted to design an all-purpose vehicle I could use for exploration and such. My first attempt was a car/helicopter hybrid with both wheels and propellers. I discovered an odd issue, though: Since the engine powered both, I found I couldn’t simply drive without taking off into the sky. This project, which I dubbed Origin of Flight, quickly faded to the bottom of my blueprint archives. Back in the workshop, I moved the propellers to the back end for a speed boost and installed several balloons that I could pump at will whenever I wanted to go airborne. This aptly titled Flight Thing II became my default vehicle, and in all of the designs that followed, I have yet to top its practical efficiency.
The element of straight-up action is toned down so much that I never died in Nuts & Bolts, but then again I don’t think I was supposed to. Even the “bosses” are incorporated into the vehicle-based mission structure. An encounter with Gruntilda, for example, might have you racing after her car and snagging a rather valuable item that’s stored in its bin. This objective can be approached in a number of ways. You may decide to install a weapon onto the front of your car and attack her, or you could simply elect to build the heaviest vehicle you can manage and attempt to tip her ride over. I chose the latter route, but looking back, I probably could have gone so far as to whip out my Flying Chair of Pointiness, drop into straight into her car, and manually remove the object. In fact, why didn’t I do that? I think I’m gonna go try that when I’m done here.
There are, as you’d predict, plenty of racing challenges, and with those you’ve simply got to design a vehicle that’s not only fast, but easy to maneuver when taking into consideration the rather impressive physics engine Rare have implemented. But most of the objectives are far more creative, and appropriately inspire a lot of imagination on the player’s part. There are a couple of missions in which he player must use a pre-constructed vehicle, and these usually defeat the purpose of the game, which is to force us to let our creative minds run wild. At one point, I had to transport a rather large, heavy block of ice to the top of a Freezeezy Peak replica – which is harder than it sounds until you realize that the game provides a special device designed specifically for this task. It’s a neat contraption, and probably similar to what I would have come up with on my own, but taking away the options kind of removes the point of Nuts & Bolts.
You can imagine that with all this driving and piloting, the platformer aspects have been toned down to level things out. The whole reason Kazooie tagged along in the first place was to contribute to Banjo’s limited platforming abilities – flying, firing eggs, using her talons to climb steep slopes, etc. In Nuts & Bolts, her role is reduced to attacking (which you won’t be doing much of) and using a kind of tractor beam to manipulate objects – both tasks that Banjo could probably puzzle out on his own, but god bless Rare for giving the poor gal something to do.
Where the old-fashioned stuff comes into play is in expanding your inventory, and thus increasing the already infinite possibilities presented by Mumbo’s shop. Showdown Town is packed with these crates that contain special accessories, but only Mumbo can open them, and they’re usually hidden in places that require Banjo to tap into his platformer roots – jumping up to high places, climbing pipes, tiptoeing over wires, that sort of thing. It’s these elements that will turn off a lot of gamers, and I must admit how weird it is that Rare would go through such lengths to denounce the gaming of yesteryear, only to embrace it in the game itself. But I’m happy Rare could at least remind gamers of how this series started without getting overbearing, and since this kind of exploration really isn’t necessary anyway, I doubt many will complain.
It’s this mix of the old and the new that I find particularly impressive about Nuts & Bolts: Despite introducing a brilliant new mechanic that could easily have been the start of a completely new series, this is unquestionably a Banjo-Kazooie game. The opening titles have Banjo riding in on a car shaped like the Rareware “R,” and I silently thought to myself, “Hey! That’s the jingle from Click Clock Wood! The SPRING VERSION!” The soundtrack in particular is something anyone will enjoy, but especially series fans who recognize all of the classic themes re-orchestrated to perfection. Rare have thankfully preserved the look and feel of the original titles as well without sinking back to that sickening googly-eyed visual style they used to be famous for. The wonderful Nutty Acres has an intentionally manufactured look to it: Metal clouds are suspended by strings in the sky, fake set piece trees tumble over when you so much as nudge them, and even the grass isn’t so much “grass” as it is a quilt-like grass pattern.
The whole thing is just bursting with the kind of creativity and visual flair that used to be the trademark of a Rare experience, and I feel the company may have made up for a generation’s worth of disappointments and near-misses with this one title. Maybe an eight-year hiatus was exactly what the bear and bird needed. Hey, it worked for Samus.
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