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Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts

David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce) David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2009-04-02 02:21:01

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts - Rank A

Developer: Rare
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Date: 11/12/08

Almost a full decade had elapsed since Banjo and Kazooie last graced a console, all the way back in the venerable days of the cartridge-based Nintendo 64. This was a time when an "aw shucks" goofy bear lugging around a squawky bird in a backpack could still headline a major release, well before our contemporary era dominated by gritty, growly space marines. As the mascot platforming genre gradually fell out of vogue over the years, the odds of their return seemed to grow increasingly unlikely. Then out of nowhere, Rare announced Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, built on the completely contradistinct premise of vehicle construction gameplay.

Nuts & Bolts does definitely exhibit its Nintendo heritage. It's ostensibly bright and cheery, primary colored kiddy fare, populated by talking animals that don't actually talk, but warble in indistinct gibberish. Animal Crossing fans will instantly know what I mean. At first, I was confused as to why. There's more than enough space on DVDs for hours of high sample voice recording. Then I understood; the self-deprecating satire kicked in in earnest. Rare indulges in all of their old conventions, even while mocking them mercilessly. The game structure of collecting an ever-increasing amount of jigsaw puzzle pieces to open up more and more worlds is intact, even while acknowledging the ridiculousness of the collectathon. Rare pokes fun at their decline from the dominant Nintendo days when they could do no wrong. Grabbed by the Ghoulies and Viva Pinata can't hold a candle to the gamer share that was previously occupied by Donkey Kong Country and GoldenEye 007. They openly ridicule Nuts & Bolts' chances of achieving successful sales figures. It's all pretty damn funny, even if nominally depressing. The kicker is that Rare has developed a true gem here. Nuts & Bolts is an amazingly unique game that deserves the same attention that their older classics garnered.

There is some light platforming in the form of simple jumping and navigating tightropes, but the heart of the game is about constructing vehicles capable of accomplishing various missions. This is what the LEGO games ought to have been. You begin with a few basic pieces: blocks for the chassis, wheels, engine, fuel, and a seat - enough to slap together a simple car for the first race. As you progress through the events, you're rewarded with more and more elaborate pieces. Before you know it, you'll be building rocket cars capable of shattering land speed records, submersible speed boats, and dogfighting planes with chattering machineguns. Your imagination is the limit: you want to build a hovercraft pirate ship or a Mecha-Godzilla tank that hops around? Have at it!

The workshop is simple to use, and belies the complexity of the game's physics. You'll initially find yourself haphazardly tossing together the necessities: engine, fuel, propulsion, and somewhere to sit. Soon, as you begin to create more complex vehicles, weight distribution and logistics become greater concerns. "This upgrade makes my ride heavier; do I have enough engine power to get it up to speed?" "Do I have enough fuel to finish this marathon race?" "Where can I stash the ammunition crates without upsetting the design balance?" And as you attach more and more parts, "Good gravy, this beast is ugly - how can I streamline it for greater aesthetic value?" I suspect I spent nearly as much time in the workshop as I did actually playing through the events. You also end up with unintentional comedy, like vehicles that are too top-heavy and keel over. Once, I built a kick-ass speedboat that wouldn't budge when I tried it out. The potent rumbling engines failed to power the propellers that I'd neglected to attach to the boat. Building, tinkering, and experimenting in Nuts & Bolts is nothing short of wonderful.

The events themselves are fairly varied. Races are straightforward, but sometimes you'll need to build cargo vessels to efficiently transport objects. Or you'll have to construct a powerful vehicle capable of muscling an opponent out of a sumo wrestling ring. Or a catapult to hurl basketballs. Or a demolition vehicle to raze an igloo. On and on. And there are often multiple ways to approach an event. One is a race with hurdles, that suggests you install a spring under your automobile. Instead, I built a plane and carefully flew through the necessary checkpoints. One of the achievements asks you to reach ridiculous speeds with a vehicle consisting of five or less pieces. The obvious method would be to wait until you have the most powerful jet engine, and stick a couple wheels, a fuel tank, and a seat onto it - and Wile E. Coyote your way to gamer points. Mucking around, I inadvertently discovered that a seat + spring did the trick much earlier, and in more dramatic fashion.

To be honest, some of the events are frustrating stinkers. But since you only need 75 of the 131 possible "jiggies" in order to beat the game, you can simply pass up the ones you don't enjoy and move on to the next one. Each of the five worlds are chock full of varied events to explore and conquer. And aside from the take-it-or-leave-it kiddy aesthetics, they are absolutely gorgeous. My favorite was the second one: the innards of a gigantic videogame console. It consists of several floors featuring microchips and heat sinks, liquid cooling tanks, a GPU powered by crayons, and linked together by connecting cables that serve as ramps. The last world was my least favorite, as it felt too cramped to cut loose with the powerful vehicles you're able to assemble by then. Still, one of that world's events required a fascinating exercise in engineering: building a race-worthy submersible vehicle also capable of flight.

Nuts & Bolts also features extensive online multiplayer modes. I wish this game had gotten more attention and better sales, because it shines brilliantly when you can find online opponents. One multiplayer event is a free-for-all contest to knock each other out of a ring. I saw everything from bulldozers, to tanks bristling with weaponry, to helicopters that would snag, lift, and hurl opponents away. Testing your unique creations against those of other players is fascinating and exhilarating.

If the thought of assembling LEGO vehicles, and watching them come to life as you pilot them through a seemingly endless parade of wacky challenges interests you, pick up a copy of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. There's been a push recently in games like LittleBigPlanet to provide users with the basic building blocks to explore their own creations, but never before have I seen a title that presents these possibilities so simply and elegantly. If you are the type who can become engrossed in the process of creation, Nuts & Bolts is a budget title that will provide a more joyous and deeper game experience than the vast majority of full priced products.

[NOTE: The original Banjo-Kazooie is available for download on Xbox Live, and connectivity between the two can unlock a few extra vehicle parts in Nuts & Bolts.]

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