Remember Banjo-Kazooie, Rare Ltd.’s Little Series That Could from the N64 era? No? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. There wasn’t anything wrong with the series, mind you, but despite a few decent games and Next Big Thing expectations from Rare’s work on the Donkey Kong Country titles, the Banjo-Kazooies have always been more Spyros than Sonics, garnering respectable sales and a modest cult following but never blossoming their namesakes into serious cultural icons.
Finally discontent enough to do something about the second-fiddle status of the closest thing it has to a flagship original property (discounting Conker the Squirrel, which we’ll do since those games set the idea of “serious adult gaming” back decades), Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is Rare’s attempt to kick half-measures in the head and branch out into new territory. Abandoning the boilerplate platforming gameplay of its prequels, Nuts & Bolts instead challenges the incremental changes common to long-lived series by lashing together platforming and racing gameplay and pushing the result off a proverbial cliff to see if it can fly.
Imagine Nuts & Bolts as the Prius of the gaming world. It eschews the pedestrian platforming roots of its predecessors, which made the series into a sort of second-rate Mario Lite, as though they are the toxic remains of titans long past, but it cannot divorce itself from them completely. Instead, Nuts & Bolts hybridizes its gameplay, becoming at one turn a platformer on wheels (or wings, or balloons, or weird pogo-stick contraptions) and at another a racing game in which it might be better to get out of the car (or plane, or boat, or gyrocopter) and beat your opponents senseless with a wrench.
At first glance, Nuts & Bolts’ makeover might seem cosmetic. Bird and bear? Check. Steadily decomposing witch? Check. Cartoonish, anthropomorphic… everything? Check. A few thousand bite-sized challenges through which players accumulate trinkets to open doors to new levels of challenges to complete and trinkets to collect? Check.
The sameness of its first coat of paint belies the true breadth of Nuts & Bolts’ newness, which is borne by the extensive changes under the game’s hood. To take the metaphor further, imagine that same Prius being made (both in form and function) completely of LEGOs. Introduced early in the game’s tutorial, Nuts & Bolts’ workshop is the secret cornerstone of the game.
Don’t be fooled—while there is a plot in there somewhere about Banjo and his newly vestigial pal facing off against Gruntilda the Witch and some sort of all-powerful video game incarnate entity, the workshop, where players will inevitably return time and time again to tweak old vehicles and create new ones, is where the real action is.
Nuts & Bolts is a master of the ancient arts of Making Players Think They’re Cheating the System and Getting Players to Suffer Through Trinket-Collecting, and mastery of these would be impossible if this was simply Banjo-Threeie. A fully-functional workshop containing an impressive array of parts serves to out-LEGO the LEGO games, and its implementation is the key to Nuts & Bolts’ success. Winning the game’s challenges requires better vehicles, which require better parts, which are largely earned by winning challenges.
It’s a vicious cycle, but Nuts & Bolts makes it a fun one by having an almost unfair amount of ways to solve any given challenge. Not fast enough to outrun your opponents? Hot-swap a few extra weapons onto your vehicle and get your Dick Dastardly on. Boat races not your thing? Cobble together a seaplane and take to the skies instead. Bored with defensive missions? Build a wall on wheels and protect the homeland the easy way.
With the exception of a few missions, nothing has to be done in any certain way, and that’s the real triumph of Nuts & Bolts. It isn’t broken down so easily into races and fetch quests and fights; most challenges, depending on the creativity of the challenged, can be a combination of all three. That kind of open-endedness is something that’s rarely approached, even by the standards of modern gaming.
You’ll build Jed Clampett’s car before you build Michael Knight’s, but lamenting the hokey single-mindedness of the workshop’s motif falls by the wayside when you remember that KITT didn’t have a giant fist for a front fender and skulls that spit bombs for headlights. You heard it here first: Magic wrenches and LEGO-inspired rattletrap vehicles are the new backpack-dwelling birds and inexplicable powerups of the gaming world. Through Nuts & Bolts, Rare has let it be written. So let it be done.