Its 3D platforming action may have been suspiciously reminiscent of Mario 64, but the original Banjo Kazooie‘s eccentric sense of humour and solid gameplay made it one of the most endearing games of 1998. Ten years on from the original, Rare’s bear-and-bird comedy duo return for their first appearance on the Xbox 360, and it’s immediately clear that much has changed since their last outing.
Controversially, Nuts and Bolts has shelved the platform game format of previous BK entries; while there are still moments when Banjo can jump on awnings to collect shiny objects, the bulk of the game is spent driving around in a rickety vehicle completing missions. It’s a kind of Scrapheap Challenge crossed with Wallace and Grommit; vehicles can be modified or built from scratch, with new and improved mechanical parts made available as you progress. The vehicle construction element is actually the most successful and rewarding aspect of the game; I spent ages in the garage building and refining an amphibious car that could fire eggs from a cannon. While the interface is a little fiddly at first (and far too confusing for very young players, I’d argue), the range of vehicles that can be created is surprisingly large, and thanks to some detailed physics, the placement of a propeller or a wheel can make a huge difference to the handling of your craft.
It’s when you leave the garage and begin Nuts and Bolts‘ missions that things begin to become unstuck. These generally involve running errands for non-player characters, tidying up objects, delivering things, Crazy Taxi-style chauffer missions, the occasional race. While these are initially fun, they quickly become repetitive, and it isn’t long before frustration sets in – the game’s physics engine turning out to be as much of a curse as a blessing. Vehicle building and modifying may be fun, but it’s difficult to know how useful your construction will be until you embark on a mission; more often than not, you’ll find that your flying car is either too light, too heavy or too delicate to complete the task at hand, requiring repeated return trips to the garage to make improvements. One mission, which required me to shove a stone statue up a steep hill, was truly Sisyphean.
The occasional irritation of the missions is frequently relieved by its beautifully realised hub world. It’s here that you first appreciate just how good the game looks; Showdown Town is a huge place, bustling with activity and full of areas to explore, with new ones opening up as Jiggies are collected. Driving around and collecting musical notes is a relaxing alternative to the physics hell of the missions, with little arcade games to play and vehicle upgrades to collect.
There are minor annoyances even here, however. Crates, which contain new vehicle parts, aren’t just collected – they have to be physically driven back to Mumbo the mechanic and placed on a purple square outside his garage. Similarly, jigsaw puzzle pieces (which open new worlds containing new missions) aren’t automatically added to your total – they have to be taken back to the town square and entered into a machine operated by a ridiculous combination of button presses and thumbstick twirlings. This obsession with pointless interactivity may have sounded like fun in a development meeting, but in practise only serves to slow your progress down.
Nuts and Bolts often feels like a game stuffed so full of ideas and that it’s collapsing under the weight of them. Every aspect of it takes ages to achieve – simply triggering a new mission can often involve a ten minute drive – and matters aren’t helped by some truly hideous loading times. Leaving a mission to modify a vehicle in your garage can take aeons. And for technical reasons which are unclear (though I suspect it’s due to the sheer size of the levels), disc access is incessant and unbelievably noisy – the 360’s drive moaning and vibrating through every moment of the game like it’s haunted. Hardly Rare’s fault, but distracting nonetheless.
It may seem (now that I’ve spent six hundred or so words complaining) that I didn’t particularly like Nuts and Bolts, but this isn’t the case: I enjoyed the vehicle construction, the huge environments, the hidden bonuses, the streak of self-deprecating humour. The graphics and sound are excellent, and there’s an enormous amount of game to play through – for those with the patience, Nuts and Bolts would provide weeks of entertainment.
Ultimately, Nuts and Bolts is likely to annoy and delight in equal measure – long serving fans will bemoan the loss of the traditional platform gameplay and maybe grumble about Banjo’s relegation of Kazooie to little more than a bit-player. Meanwhile, others will appreciate what Rare have attempted to achieve – a traditional arcade collectathon with enough depth to hold the interest of the core gamer. And while they may not have quite reached that goal – ironically, by making things too complicated – there’s still much to love about Banjo’s new adventure.
5 January 2009