Version tested: Xbox 360
Cars, as a rule, don't hop up and down. It's not very good for them or the people inside them. Given the option though, we obviously would put springs on the bottom of ours, so when we stumbled into Banjo-Kazooie's Jiggoseum for the umpteenth time and were asked to join a three-lap checkpoint race of the arena, we were pleased to discover there would be hurdles. Made of bricks. But, alas, our satisfaction was only fleeting, as we turned out to be rubbish at car hurdles, because we only had two springs available at Mumbo Jumbo's garage, and it's rather difficult to balance the up-thrust of a pair of ACME Tigger-tails against the delicate immediacy of jet propulsion. Still, we weren't stumped for long. New solution: snow plough. Bye bye bricks.
This isn't a platform game, then. You can eke out hidden extras on-foot in the hub world, Showdown Town, but this is a driving, flying and boating game, with almost no player death or hairy jumps to worry about. You are collecting 131 jigsaw pieces (jiggies) - in much the same framework as Mario gathering stars - but every task begins by asking you to select or build a vehicle to fit the brief. You're never let loose on foot and then given the choice, and if you were, you wouldn't enjoy it, because the vast, ornately detailed openworld level environments would take several minutes to cross, and their thick bridges, riverbeds, hills, pathways, iceflows and buildings are impractical for platforming. They're either there to absorb your rubber, or look sexy as you deliver coconuts to a supply ship, barge Mr. Patch into a cactus with a biplane, or launch yourself off a ski-jump in a homemade toboggan.
Amidst all this detail, which the game happily displays without trickery or obfuscation - even directing a nod to Crackdown's Agency tower at one point - the frame-rate will dip below the stock 30 from time to time, and some of the load-times are appalling, but the overall effect is decent recompense. The first world, for example, is a charmingly fake and beautiful island of patchwork hills and fields with a tumbledown farm in the middle (it only takes a nudge), Playmobil flora and square cows in the meadows, a smouldering volcano to one side, and massive whirring mechanical gizmos off-shore operating a system of rotating metal rods in the sky, from which stitch-covered clouds are suspended by string. The whole level is surrounded by flickering, scan-line-covered panels of deep blue pretend. It's a very pretty place.
Obviously, it's all marionettes and Nanna's quilts for a reason. In Nuts & Bolts, a plump, latter-day Banjo is plucked out of retirement to take on a rejuvenated Gruntilda by the Lord of Games, who claims to have created all videogames, and who has built each of the game's levels to test your reflexes and showcase antics. So we get Banjo Land, which references every platform trope imaginable in a deliberately congested museum of deserts, snowdrifts and football pitches, with winding walkways and knowingly arbitrary and half-hearted traps like rotating saw-blades in a meaningless tunnel. The old Rusty Bucket tanker is icelocked to one side, and each of the game's visual recollections comes with a description of its place in Banjo history. Prior to Banjo Land, you visit the Logbox 720, the inside of the Lord of Games' own console, where every ramp is an interface cable, every obstacle is a circuit, chip or capacitor, the indigenous enemy is a knee-high, green Darwinia reject (a bug, see), and half the missions involve fixing the console's broken cooling system. (Oh no they diiiiidn't).
Whatever you think of the developer's decision to reject platforming, it's harder to argue with the humour and fan service, with some good game-related jokes (Humba's manufactured girl game clan, for instance - the "Hag Trolls"), pre-level video riffs on TV-show title sequences, and gratuitous self-deprecation, as Kazooie bemoans Klungo's ineptitude by noting that there's almost no point doing this level because he'll just break something in the next. Actually, special mention has to go to Grunty's erstwhile henchman, who seems to be doing very well in Showdown Town, running the pier and even hosting his own 2D platformer, Klungo Savesss Teh World, in which players time jumps to avoid getting caught by the forced scrolling.
If Banjo-Kazooie has a star though (with the possible exception of Chester Cheatah rip-off Trophy Thomas), it's the Duplo simplicity of Mumbo's workshop, which you visit to build vehicles. It can seem overwhelming at first, and you can't always find a great camera angle with the right stick, but the system of rotating and positioning car, boat, plane and helicopter parts in three dimensions is easy to grasp - certainly compared to LittleBigPlanet's Create mode, or Guitar Hero World Tour's Recording Studio, to use a couple of recent examples of content suites. Your mistakes - like fitting propellers to thin air, or forgetting to put on a seat - are highlighted and easily remembered in future, and there's an instant-access test-track to iron out the kinks. Not that you encounter serious ones, because you really can stick things together and go. As long as there's an engine, fuel and a seat, and wheels, wings or floaters, you can take to land, air and sea without much thought. First stabs may wobble and flounder, but basics like weight distribution are quickly absorbed and implemented.
Part of that is because the plug-and-drive vehicles respond logically. Adding physics to something as make-believe as Banjo-Kazooie was always going to be a bit peculiar (witness Insomniac's piecemeal struggle in Ratchet on PS3), but Rare's utterly fake science is a thematically coherent arrangement of mass, inertia and gameplay concessions, like flying underwater. With a fast, simple-to-grasp set of engineering rules and unreal-world consequences, there's a lot more headroom for personal touches and sparks of inspiration: a barn door-fronted scooter for demolishing an igloo, a mile-wide biplane for downing dominoes, or a flying bucket for collecting coconuts. When the task design peaks, like the elaborate Jiggoseum events, Nuts & Bolts is essential.
But it can't sustain it. In fact, it's really quite a while before it even hits the first of its few peaks. Lessons haven't been learned after Viva Piņata's lengthy and muddled introduction, and Nuts & Bolts drags you through several (admittedly good) interactive jokes before bludgeoning you with instructions, tutorials and other details for half an hour, many of which could have been handled in-line with a bit of Valvish craft, or simply entrusted to observation and intuition. By the time the game recovers, it's only to settle into a rhythm of bland repetition.
The races can be fun, but are too often won by finding a few more engine parts in town so you can increase the horsepower (bearpower?), and restarting a few times to adjust for awkward spills. Just as, if not more common are fetch-and-carry missions, which involve ferrying objects or critters from one spot to another as efficiently as possible, and it wouldn't be unfair to observe that all you're doing, for large spells, is designing bigger and better wagons and trolleys. As much as you want to dive into the editor and create solutions, the problems aren't taxing enough, and only in a few special cases do you have to think beyond speed, size or capacity. As it becomes apparent just how badly the task design misfires, the deepening tedium is exacerbated by other peculiar choices, like forcing you to crank unlocked jiggies out of a vending machine, stack them on your starter cart, and drive them back to Showdown Town centre to put them in the bank. Your reward for winning is to tidy up after yourself.
It's a testament to how corrosive the weak mission design is that a good multiplayer component is scant reprieve, even though it concentrates the game's best elements, with race and sport tasks that might as well be a Greatest Hits of the single-player. Playable on Xbox Live with a party system, it arguably makes for a more compelling offline competition to try and best a time or complete an objective. Given a few minutes with the editor to make the perfect long-jumping car, or golf-club aeroplane, close proximity ensures the rivalry and collaborative ingenuity that LittleBigPlanet nurtured and we had hoped the core of Nuts & Bolts would capitalise upon. It's here where it's clearest that the game's unspoken aim - to transplant the build-to-solve gizmo-construction mentality of your Bridge Builders, Armadillo Runs and Elefunks, onto a Banjo skeleton - was worth sidetracking the last scion of Xbox platforming to attempt.
But whereas a traditional platform game could survive a sequence of poor levels, or even succeed in spite of a majority with a world as lovely as this, with characters so delightful and secrets so pleasing to uncover, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is not a platform game. The game it has become instead demands thoughtful, exciting challenges that inspire the player to pitch in and help get the most out of each level, but it fails to provide them, and even though it's worth persevering with for the occasional hurdles race, egg-and-spoon and a game-world in aptly Rare form, ultimately it's a brilliant shell with a mostly hollow centre.
7 / 10