Retrospective: Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts

Does a bear drive in the woods?

The roots of my appreciation for Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts began long before Rare had created either bear or bird in an inauspicious-yet-somehow-none-too-surprising fashion that outwardly has nothing to do with video games.

Let's set the stage in the early '90s. Like many kids that spent most of their time actively engaging their imagination through books, drawing and other creative pursuits, I loved playing with Lego. I had a large bin filled with them (OK, half-filled): pirates, island natives, dragons and knights, astronauts and planetary colonists desperately trying to terraform an ice planet - they all lived in that molded plastic container together, and were subject to the whims of whatever I felt like creating on any given day.

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Ridiculous parts like monster wheels are a big part of Nuts & Bolts' fun.

Countless hours of my childhood were spent pawing and picking through the coloured fields of rectangular blocks and specialty pieces on my bedroom floor. The assembly of elaborate set-pieces and dioramic mise-en-scène was a slow process, more often than not involving experimentation with vehicles and other contraptions for my Lego citizenry to interact with. Even on days when I didn't necessarily construct anything so grandiose (not an altogether uncommon occurrence), it was enjoyable just to pull those blocks apart in one combination and push them together in another to see what I could come up with.

Before I knew it several years had passed and I had left most of my creative hobbies behind for writing. Microsoft had just announced a new Banjo game designed around making your own vehicles for the Xbox 360, which sounded like a strange and possibly unnecessary mechanic for what I hoped would be the revitalization of the series. Still, it had been ten years since Banjo-Kazooie's debut, so I was willing to give Rare the benefit of the doubt (if only because they'd been languishing since Microsoft bought them).

This is actually a running joke in Nuts & Bolts, which opens on Banjo and Kazooie wallowing in detritus and stuffing themselves with pizza in front of Banjo's rundown house on Spiral Mountain. The lethargic lifestyle they've adopted since their last outing has taken its toll - they're washed-up, lazy and far fatter than would be deemed acceptable by any corporate mascot standards in their heyday (not that this bothers either of them in the least.)

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Even four years later, the graphics are still stunning.

In typical Rare fashion, Nuts & Bolts' overarching personality is apparent in the first five minutes, even if in its silliness it's not clear that the complex vehicle building will play such an integral part. A fight between the tubby retirees and hopping skull of the series' dubious villainess Gruntilda is paused (as one would hit the start button to pause a game) by the so-called Lord of Games, a cathode king with squid-like tubing and a Pong-styled face who apparently created video games.

"Greetings, O Second-rate game characters!" L.O.G. jibes before making the fat old bear and bird waddle through the beginnings of what he refers to as a pointless, platformer-style collect-a-thon to settle the score with Grunty's head. It's too painful. After ten seconds or so, L.O.G. laments today's gaming youth "just want to shoot things," and that he'll have to come up with some other challenge for the bear, the bird and the witch.

Rare has never been one to pass up a good joke, even at its own expense. The amusing fourth-wall breaking gags and sarcastic potshots peppered throughout Nuts & Bolts only account for part of the game's overarching creative sensibilities. And here we come full circle, because - surprise! - you quickly find that building vehicles can be just as meticulous and in-depth as playing with Legos.

The creative control in Nuts & Bolts makes a mockery of the Lego games themselves. I've always found it odd that building in Lego titles (many of which are still great fun) is as simple as holding down a button. Nuts & Bolts trumps that, giving you a whole garage full of various parts to make any sort of vehicle you'd like, whether by blueprints or entirely from scratch.

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No vehicle, eh? I can tell you're not going to last long here.

This comes via Kazooie's magic wrench, which L.O.G. gives her in exchange for her outdated platformer move-set. Nuts & Bolts isn't quite a racing game, despite the insistence on vehicles, nor is it entirely a platformer, though you can hop off your ride anytime to, say, interact with objects or retrieve golden jigaws (or jiggies) that unlock new worlds to explore. Like the garage run by the goofy shaman Mumbo Jumbo, it has a little bit of everything, encouraging you to use your imagination. Getting new jiggies is a matter of completing tasks or winning competitions; seldom are you forced into using a particular vehicle to do so.

As your jiggy collection mounts, so do the available parts at your disposal. Whereas you're initially given blocks on which to put engines, fuel tanks, driver's seats and specialty parts like trays to carry items, soon you have all manner of flying and floating devices, weapons (yes, you get to shoot things) and gadgets like retractable iron balls that stick to anything they touch.

Any existing part can be manipulated in any direction and pieces all snap together automatically, with a handy color-coded guide explaining if something isn't connected properly. It's easy to spend hours poring over and adjusting the undercarriage of that flying tank you've so carefully constructed piece-by-piece, if that's your thing. It certainly was mine. It's easier to grasp, and consequently less intricate, than what you can do with Sackboy's Popit, but that also lends your satisfaction a certain immediacy.

Rare thankfully had the foresight to allow you easy access to a fast-loading test-track to try out your contraptions without leaving the garage, making structural tweaks - a necessary function of gameplay - quick and convenient. It's an interesting pairing when you consider the variety of gameplay Nuts & Bolts offers. The most fun are the zanier missions that have you doing ridiculous things with your vehicle, like playing water polo or trying to push a hefty rolled-up creature out of a ring, sumo-style.

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Yeah, you can build that.

There is no shortage of races and platform missions to do, either. Nuts & Bolts is surprisingly long, especially if you spend a lot of time tinkering in the shop and exploring the sprawl of Showdown Town, the game's hub world. Here is where Nuts & Bolts feels a little closer to its genre origins: you can, with some difficulty, climb buildings and find hidden switches to pull on foot, usually unlocking hidden crates full of parts for Mumbo's shop or other fun distractions that will earn you notes (why not screws?), the game's currency. Though it's all in service of getting as many vehicular components as possible, it's a nice nod to the original games, and there is a lot of do and see if you choose.

What makes Nuts & Bolts stand up even today is its versatility (that the visuals are still gorgeous four years later doesn't hurt). For something that looks like it's geared towards kids (to be fair, the aforementioned options to streamline building makes it accessible for all ages) it offers deep, open-ended building mechanics with its cartoonish physics.

It doesn't always work. With so much control over your creations it's not hard to make something that's wonky to navigate, particularly helicopter and seafaring types. It can certainly be a game you should play in moderation. It's sad to think we may never get another Banjo game, too.

Yet for all that, it's a joy to watch as your creations spring to life in your hands. That and, compared to those little plastic guys, clean up is a heck of a lot easier.

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