Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts Extended Hands-on
UK, September 11, 2008 – It might seems superfluous referring back to Banjo-Kazooie’s N64 debut ten years ago, what with it being almost two generations in console terms. However, given how long its been since Rare’s much-loved platform franchise has put in an appearance, expectations are unsurprisingly high for Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. The problem is, judging by our hands-on time with the Xbox 360 game at least, this new iteration has strayed so far from Banjo’s original template, there are going to be some pretty disappointed purchasers come the game’s release if those expectations aren’t significantly realigned.
Superficially, at least, Nuts & Bolts fits snugly in the Banjo-Kazooie canon, packed full of humour, expressive characters, impeccable presentation and old-skool charm. Its first 10 minutes are likely to delight long-time fans with its familiar setting and self-deprecating witticisms. With an opening cinematic regaling the dynamic duo’s past glories in delightfully low-polygon black and white flashbacks, our first encounter with the bird and bear takes place in an incredibly familiar turnip field. Fat through years of inactivity, you get to spend a few minutes stomping an obese Banjo around before the storyline kicks in.
It’s all very self-referential, with the Lord of Games touching down to reanimate Gruntilda the Witch and whisk everyone away to his gaming cliché paradise to fight it out for ownership of Spiral Mountain. Cue lots of jokes about broadening the demographic and gamers today just wanting to shoot things, which would be funnier if it wasn’t for the nagging doubt that, somewhere along the way, Rare’s completely lost the plot when re-envisioning this classic franchise for a new generation of console owners. More on that in a bit though, as Nuts & Bolts takes a while to show its new hand.
As is now customary for the Banjo series, Nuts & Bolts has its very own central hub world which you’ll revisit frequently over the course of the game. Known as Showdown Town, it’s a mix of classic European architecture, a splodge of medieval fantasy and that by-now-familiar, just-shy-of-saccharine Rare cartoon aesthetic. Whatever you feel about the latter, Showdown Town is a graphical marvel, with its richly detailed environments and massive draw distances — and demonstrates that Rare is still at the forefront of game development from a technical perspective.
It’s a massive area with all sorts of enticing, if initially inaccessible areas, like distant lighthouses and hilltop haunted mansions. It’s also packed with reassuringly unreachable Jiggies requiring some perfunctory gymnastics to pocket. As before, the various portals around the hub world require a specific number of Jiggies to open and access the stages beyond. Jiggies earned within levels must be collected via the Jig-o-Vend in Showdown Town and deposited within the hub-based Jiggy Bank before new portals are accessible. It’s an unashamedly old-fashioned approach to game progression but should warm the cockles of any self-proclaimed Banjo fan.
Before you’re let lose on the game properly though, Nuts & Bolts walks you through its most significant gameplay differentiator — vehicle construction. As you work through the game, you’ll encounter Mumbo Crates, packed with new parts for your vehicular creations — pay a visit to series stalwart Mumbo in his new garage and you can start building for real. Building is mix of bewildering, cascading text-based menus and a reassuringly robust, intuitive construction interface.
It’s a slightly curious way of doing things and we can’t help feel it might alienate the younger end of Nuts & Bolts’ obviously intended family audience. With hundreds of different parts at your disposal, each with largely unhelpful names, hidden in myriad categories, it’s all a bit overwhelming at first. Thankfully, the early tutorial does a good job of explaining the basics you’ll need to engineer an operational vehicle — body, wheels, driver seat, gas tank and engine being the barest minimum — and the game also features a selection of instructive reference videos for advanced techniques.
Once you’ve ploughed through the menu system and found everything, actual construction is a doddle. Adjusting and rotating vehicle parts uses a sensible mix of analogue stick and face buttons, while hopping up and down a layer is simply a matter of tapping a shoulder button. It’s all based around a grid system and parts that fit will snap together appropriately while warning signs clearly indicate when you’ve made a mess of things. It’s tough to gauge how the vehicle editor holds up for more complex creations, but it’s clear that Rare’s made a good fist from a base perspective.
Once you’re happy with your vehicle (not that you’re given creative leeway initially), you can either give it a test drive on Mumbo’s test track or take it out into the world. Following another quick tutorial, this time explaining Banjo’s wrench — effectively a gravity gun used to pick up objects, deposit items in specific places or even right your vehicle after a nasty prang — it’s onto the first stage. Each area in the game is based around a popular videogame trope — from farm yard in ‘Nutty Acres’ to the gladiatorial Jiggaseum, even incorporating a level featuring a mish-mash of previous Banjo locales in ‘Banjo Land’ — and takes a design cue from the Truman Show. Backgrounds feature television scan lines, clouds dangle from obvious cables, look up too high and you’ll see spotlights shining down from the fake ceiling — there are even fake Dynasty-style opening credits the first time you visit a stage. It’s all visually interesting and the diverse stages look great, despite some distracting frame hits in busier areas.
Down to business though and you quickly get a feel for Nuts & Bolts’ basic structure. Check your on-screen map in a level and locate the Jiggies dotted around the vicinity, each denoting a character challenge — it’s simply a case of driving over (in the vehicle of your choosing), chatting to that character, then accepting or rejecting the challenge they present. Challenges we saw ranged from toppling dominoes to collecting then depositing smoldering boulders into water, but all had vehicles in common, with virtually no traditional platforming to be seen. Despite Rare’s assurances that Nuts & Bolts isn’t a racing game — as many feared from initial screenshots — there’s no denying it’s very firmly a driving game. Whatever the task at hand, your goal is to ride, fly and float your way to victory as fast as possible — music notes, Jiggies and TT Trophies being awarded depending on the challenge’s criteria. Aside from some some aesthetic and structural nods, Nuts & Bolts appears to be about as far removed from previous Banjo games as is possible, Rare’s attempts to claim otherwise are misleading to say the least.
There are significant concerns with the game, too. Aside from the very obvious point that a lack of substantial variety in challenges is likely to get wearisome very quickly — and truth be told, after an hour and a half with the game we weren’t exactly hoisting a trouser pole in anticipation of more thinly-veiled driving slogs — the family friendly facade and real-world driving physics are utterly at odds with each another. Conceptually, building your own vehicles to create the perfect tool to approach a specific challenge is brilliant — and very next-gen, lest we forget. Nuts & Bolts’ toy box approach is great for experimentation and creativity but resulting vehicles lean way too much toward ultra-realism where handling’s concerned, from what we’re seen. Banjo’s undulating environments really don’t suit a physics model that’s clearly more comfortable with flat surfaces and we found the driving precision the game demanded to be utterly exhausting. Climbing a mound too fast made ill-equipped vehicles topple, while reversing at anything other than a pedestrian pace caused challenge objects to fly out of our vehicles and so on. Technically, yes it’s very clever, but clever doesn’t always equate to fun, and the lack of concessions to the arcade nature of the game made for an incredibly frustrating experience.
This was exemplified further in Banjo’s party mode, featuring 28 different challenges (or mini-games, if you rather). These can be played with up to eight people and strung together in tournaments of six. Again, there’re some nice ideas evident in multiplayer, such as the ability to take photos of your opponents’ vehicles then turn them into blue prints for construction in the single-player game, but there’s no escaping the shadow of those ill-suited handling mechanics. For instance, ‘Darts’ sees you rolling down a ramp and into the air in a bid to hit the target ahead and gain points. Without fail, everyone in our game approached the ramp, grappled with the unexpected steering precision and toppled straight off again and again — nil points. Likewise, the vaguely amusingly-titled ‘G-zero’ — featuring a race to the finish line in zero-gravity — was rendered almost utterly unplayable thanks to its horribly inappropriate physics engine. Despite the variety on offer, we came away more blindingly infuriated than entertained — and that’s really not what we expected from a Rare title.
Of course, there’s the argument that practice makes perfect, and we’re still intrigued to see whether challenges later in the game can offer enough variety and creativity to counteract the inherent repetition and wonky handling in driving. We’re quite sure Rare’s claims of endless replayability will hold true too if you get into Nuts & Bolts’ admittedly excellent vehicle creation system with gusto. From recent evidence though — and assuming Rare isn’t hiding anything significant from journos at this late stage — Nuts & Bolts feels like two promising concepts shoe-horned awkwardly into a single, unsatisfying whole. Yes, we’re glad that Banjo and the bird are back — we’re just not convinced if this is quite the right, er, vehicle for their return.