February 19, 2009

Gladly Taking Banjo Kazooie's Nuts and Bolts

Review

Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts has some self-esteem issues. As the sequel to a couple of me-too N64 platformers, it features two washed-up mascots who are painfully aware of their pedigree. Through self-deprecating humor they break character to call out tired gameplay mechanics, their competition, and a grim sales outlook. They represent the humble voice of their creator, Rare, which may have stumbled in the past, but has certainly bounced back with one of its most creative titles to date.

Nuts & Bolts begins by teasing you with a collect-a-thon reminiscent of the previous Banjo games' endless gathering. After admitting that there's a certain Italian plumber who does traditional platforming better, our also-ran heroes are stripped of their classic moves and saddled with a wrench instead. Their goal: to best the evil Gruntilda in a variety of vehicle missions.


From there you're thrown into Showdown Town equiped with what looks like a motorized shopping cart. Doors throughout the town transport you to new worlds to complete missions. Each world has a different theme, opening with a parody of classic TV series intros, and casting Banjo regulars as characters in need of help.

These worlds each have a unique look that adds to the charm. The first world features the typical, lush island that so many games open with, but it's actually a Truman Show-esque facade. A closer look reveals that the rolling hills are made of metal. Go out to sea and you'll find large gears creating the waves. Take to the air and you'll realize you're trapped in a giant globe, complete with a phony sky and clouds attached to wires.

Completing missions in these worlds will net you golden jigsaw pieces, nicknamed jiggies. Just like the previous games, collecting enough jiggies will grant access to new worlds. It seems to follow the typical Banjo blueprint, but lighter restrictions freshen up this clich├ęd framework. Scattered throughout Showdown Town are crates full of vehicle parts - they're easy to spot, yet just out of reach. Do enough missions and you'll unlock the tools to easily reach the crates, but that's only one approach. Most of the crates are accessible early on through a little creativity. This becomes almost as fun as the vehicle missions, as you concoct unorthodox ways to reach new heights. Stacking boxes from the other side of town or using your cart as a platform feels like cheating, but it's all part of a consistent design philosophy that promotes out-of-the-box thinking.


Collect enough of these crates and you'll open up more options in the vehicle missions. Those missions range from typical races, to escort missions, vehicle combat, and mini games. The variety leads to a lot of time spent in the workshop tweaking new designs. Thankfully, Banjo features a snappy and intuitive editor. From concept to finished product, a design takes minutes.

That's not to say vehicle creation is simplistic. Designs will handle differently based on weight distribution, engines, and aerodynamics. That complexity leads to moments where the controls can be frustrating, but that's usually your own fault. A car may spin wildly out of control because it's too light, or the wheels are too close together. Because of this, missions can be approached in wildly different ways, and you'll be surprised by how simple the solutions can be.

If your creativity runs dry, online leaderboards for each mission allow you to download replays of the top players. And that's just scratching the surface as far as online functionality. Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts offers one of the most robust online feature sets on 360. Users can share photos, replays, and vehicle blueprints with friends. Matchmaking allows up to eight players to party up for events similar to the vehicle missions in the main game. Hosts can even allow for a workshop phase before a match, forcing players to quickly assemble an appropriate vehicle for the chosen event. Unfortunately, with depressingly low sales so far, it's hard to imagine an active community will be there to support these features.


At a discount price, Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is an overwhelming smorgasbord of content, brimming with charm. The result: a game so rich with quality content it demands recognition. With a lengthy single player experience and expansive multiplayer options, beautiful graphics, an orchestral score, hilarious dialogue, and unique gameplay, Banjo has it all.
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