Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts Review
It was only a matter of time before Rare brought its cutesy platforming series Banjo-Kazooie to the Xbox 360. At some point in the development process, however, a wise person realized the world might not need yet another cutesy platformer, so instead we've got Nuts & Bolts, an irreverent, self-aware, open-world, vehicle-based, Tinkertoy-workshop action game. That's a lot of adjectives, but I'd happily swap them all out for a single one like "stupendous." If you'd told me I would ever like a Banjo-Kazooie game so much, I would have called you crazy. But for numerous reasons I sincerely love this one.
Before I ever got into the unique mechanics that make this such a fun game to play, Nuts & Bolts grabbed me with its bold, batty, referential, self-deprecating sense of humor. The game pokes fun at itself and the Banjo series constantly, with references to the "lame" storylines in the original Banjo games and the fact "that Italian gentleman" has sold far more games in his time. The lampoon job extends to the entire video game industry, with constant jabs at Rare and its other franchises, the Xbox 360, the Frag Dolls, and a lot more. Every cutscene, exchange of dialogue, and mission description is sharper, wittier, and funnier than it has any business being in a Banjo-Kazooie game, of all things. The game can be downright hilarious.
This sort of fourth-wall-busting metahumor is personified in the game's excellent new character the Lord of Games, a self-important set of hovering purple robes with a Pong-emblazoned TV for a face who claims to be the creator of every single video game ever made. At the beginning, Banjo and Kazooie are hanging out on Spiral Mountain, fat and out of work since their last outing eight years ago. Along comes the severed head of Gruntilda, the series' witchy antagonist, looking for trouble again. But before they can square off to see who can collect the most pointless items the fastest, in comes the Lord of Games to restore Banjo's fitness, give Grunty a new mechanical body, and send them off to a hub world called Showdown Town in a race to...collect a different kind of pointless item. The game gleefully wears this sort of game-design irony right on its sleeve.
L.O.G. creates a handful of different-themed game worlds you can enter from Showdown Town, and in each of them you'll find the same roster of Banjo characters like Mumbo, Humba Wumba, Bottles, and Klungo waiting to dispense missions that each yield a jiggy (a jigsaw puzzle piece that's the Banjo equivalent of Mario's stars). This isn't your typical assortment of generic ice worlds and desert worlds, though. There's LOGBox 720, where you explore the innards of a gigantic "next-next gen" game console. The Jiggoseum is a sort of Olympic stadium full of athletic challenges. Banjoland is like a comical museum of past Banjo games and historical event all smashed into one small space. The Terrarium of Terror is a vaguely sci-fi-themed glass enclosure full of aliens and gigantic fungi. Plenty more opportunities for jokes go along with each of these worlds, and the game smartly makes the most of them. The first time you enter a world, you get a TV sitcom-style intro with all the Banjo characters playing different comical roles (Humba Wumba is "The Long-Suffering Wife" in the "Green Acres" knock-off) and expertly produced theme music that instantly calls to mind the sort of show that's being aped.
Funny writing and varied game worlds are all well and good, but it's the vehicle-building feature that really sets Banjo apart from other character-driven action games. Make no mistake: This is not a platformer, certainly not in the style of the old Banjo games. You can run and jump, climb on ledges, and walk tightropes--and there's a good number of collectible notes to jump around collecting--but almost all of your traveling and mission action will be done in vehicles.
The workshop is where you can put together all kinds of wild-looking, multifunctional vehicles from generic parts you can find and purchase as you go. The vehicle-building is really easy to get a handle on, and you can intuit how a vehicle is going to perform just based on the parts you add. If you slap a jet engine and a pair of wings on your racing car, you can expect it to fly. An airplane with a couple of inflatable floaters attached to each side can double as a boat. There are gadgets and doohickeys for pushing, carrying, sucking, blowing, and a myriad of other functions. You can get egg shooters, laser guns, homing missiles, energy shields, and a lot more to extend the functionality of your car-plane-boat. Engines and propellers need fuel tanks, and weapons need ammo holders; these things are also easy to figure out and attach. Luckily, there's no rating for aesthetics, because it's easy to make a really horrendous-looking vehicle that just happens to do all the things you need it to do. You can save these blueprints and trade them on Xbox Live with your friends, too.
Initially, I got frustrated with some of the game's vehicle controls, and I suspect most other people will too. But it's not that they're bad; it's simply a consequence of different parts being used together inappropriately. Too many engines on a light car with basic tires will make you fishtail and spin out constantly. But if you add more weight and replace those tires with the high-grip variety, the driving will get way more manageable. So it's more about getting a feel for how the vehicle systems work together and how to tweak out your various rides to get the specific sort of handling and performance you're looking for.
Don't think the vehicle-building is a throwaway feature only die-hard gearheads will get into. It's as integral to the mission-based action as it is easy to get into. There's an enormous variety of mission types available here, all designed around the things you can accomplish with a properly designed vehicle. Various missions will task you with moving cargo, getting into different kinds of combat, running checkpoint races (on land, sea, and/or air), playing soccer, demolishing an igloo, watering some giant seeds, winning a vehicular long-jump contest, knocking down dominoes, running an aerial taxi service... The point is, there's a huge number of different mission objectives. I had around 85 jiggies when I went to finish the game, and didn't feel like I'd ever really done the exact same mission twice.
All that variety is due to how flexible and extensive the vehicle options are. I can't count the number of times I had a problem beating a particular mission, only to go back into the editor and build a better vehicle more suited to the current task that made finishing the mission much easier. That even happened with the game's final boss, which I thought was unreasonably difficult after I failed to beat it over and over. Half an hour in the workshop and I emerged with a new bruiser of a combat vehicle that I used to trounce the boss on my first try. You feel like your ingenuity is really being rewarded when you dig deep into the vehicle possibilities and find more effective (and in some cases, entirely new) ways to approach a particular task. In fact, you'll have to make use of the workshop, as the missions get harder and harder and you'll soon hit a wall you simply can't pass with the stock vehicles. If you truly don't want to build your own, you can purchase blueprints for new pre-made vehicles that become available as you get more and more jiggies. But that would be missing out on half of the fun. I personally enjoyed starting with the stock blueprints and tweaking different vehicles out to meet my current needs.
You need 75 jiggies out of the total of 131 to access L.O.G.'s video game factory for the final showdown with Gruntilda. Each of the game worlds is divided into six acts, and each act unlocks based on the total number of jiggies you have, so even when you've opened up all the game worlds, you'll still be opening up new things to do in the old ones. This lets the designers offer harder missions in subsequent acts of each world, so you're given plenty of reasons to visit and revisit all of the game worlds repeatedly as you bank more jiggies in the town square.
Even after you hit 75 jiggies and go fight the last boss, you can keep tooling around to get the remaining 60 or so jiggies from the missions you haven't finished. You can also earn a special trophy for meeting more stringent requirements in each mission than it takes to simply earn a jiggy. Amassing enough trophies will give you even more jiggies, as well as some other achievements, so there's a lot of incentive to go back and replay old missions once you have better vehicles. There are also a good number of ingenious one-off achievements that make you use specialized vehicles to interact with the game worlds' environments in unique ways. ("BBQ Beef" wants you to ferry a cow into the volcano in Nutty Acres, for instance.) Showdown Town also offers lots of side activities and hidden items, including an amusing 8-bit-style side-scrolling arcade game developed by Klungo. In short, there's a lot to do in between missions and after you've beaten the final boss.
The game makes it easy to replay finished missions from a simple menu. Actually, the game makes it easy to access everything. You can change vehicles or enter the workshop at any time from the pause menu. If you ever get separated from your vehicle, you can hold down a button to warp right back to it. These shortcuts are just, well, pleasant. They could have made you return to Showdown Town and visit the physical location of Mumbo's Motors every time you wanted to build, but what would be the point? The game tests your skill when it needs to, but not your patience when it doesn't.
Outside the main game, there's a full online multiplayer mode that takes some of the mission activities from the single-player game and turns them into sports- and racing-themed minigames. This multiplayer mode has full support for ranked matches, Halo-style parties, custom game rules, and so on. I didn't find these quite as compelling as the in-game missions without the carrot-on-a-stick goal of more jiggies, or the ability to tweak vehicles on the fly (though you can use your own designs in some of the minigames if the host sets that option). But the multiplayer is still well-constructed and entertaining for when you're done with the core game.
Your appreciation for Rare's trademark art style is an entirely subjective issue, but I feel comfortable asserting Nuts & Bolts is at least a technically beautiful game. There are a lot of enormous, well-rendered environments that you can drive, sail, and fly around, and each one contains plenty of little touches that go along with the video-game-within-a-video-game theme. If you fly too close to the edges in the verdant outdoor zone Nutty Acres, for instance, you'll see little scan lines behind the sky reminding you that none of it is real. All the characters have silly, exaggerated animations that give them a lot of character in the absence of voice acting, too. The frame rate can get a little jerky from time to time, mostly when you're driving a boat around in the water, but that's rare and not a very big deal. Rare's talented composers are also in full effect here, including Viva Pinata maestro Grant Kirkhope in his Rare swan song performance. There are some classic Banjo themes, as well as plenty of jaunty new melodies that underscore all the game's goofy, irreverent goings on.
Funny, inventive, gorgeous--and cheap. Microsoft decided to charge a mere $40 for Nuts & Bolts, but I got more laughs and more satisfying gameplay out of this one than most of the $60 games I've played this year. And even after spending nearly 20 hours amassing enough jiggies to take down the final boss, I'm compelled to get back in there and keep playing new missions, unlocking new vehicle parts, and exploring more of the game's beautiful world. I had no affection whatsoever for the Banjo-Kazooie franchise or characters going into Nuts & Bolts, but its list of great qualities quietly won me over to make it one of my favorite Xbox 360 games of the year.