If those admittedly fun, yet astonishingly uncreative, Lego “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and “Batman” games leave you longing for a truly inspired building-block game, “Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts” is for you.
“Nuts & Bolts” (rated E10+, $40 for Xbox 360) is the latest installment in a series whose heyday came on the Nintendo 64 in the late ’90s. And while you’ll still be collecting musical notes (the game’s currency) and gold jigsaw puzzle pieces (aka “jiggies”), the running and jumping take a backseat to dozens of minigame challenges centered around vehicles you design and build yourself.
At the game’s outset, Banjo the bear and Kazooie the bird have gotten fat and lazy in retirement before their old nemesis, Gruntilda the witch, returns to make trouble. Before our out-of-shape heroes embarrass themselves too much, a character called the Lord of Games appears to whisk bear, bird and witch off to Showdown Town, a world of his creation. Showdown Town acts as a hub world through which you access six different acts, each with its own theme. The Jiggoseum, for example, contains a variety of sports-related challenges, while Banjoland is a poorly attended museum dedicated to the bear’s past triumphs.
With lots of references to games past and an aversion to recorded dialogue, “Nuts & Bolts” looks backward, tongue planted firmly in cheek, as much as it tries to push the genre forward. Since the launch of the Xbox 360, Rare, formerly a Nintendo-affiliated developer that faltered after it was scooped up by Microsoft, has won back its former cachet with brightly colored, richly imagined game worlds and whimsical, wry writing.
Both are on display here, but the vehicle creation system is the true star. You’ll start off with a mere handful of vehicle parts, unlocking more as you play. As you journey through the game’s worlds, you’ll be faced with challenges you’ll need to complete, so that you can win jiggies and unlock even more challenges. It’s a simple mechanic, and there’s not much plot.
But the events vary from simple races to missions that require you to ferry passengers, kick soccer balls into a net, knock down dominoes and deliver pizzas before they get cold. To accomplish these aims, you’ll be able to build any type of vehicle imaginable, including but not limited to tow trucks, submarines, jet planes, helicopters, two-stage rockets, taxis and vacuums on wheels.
Sadly, the nuances of the game’s signature feature seem to have been lost on many adults, with some reviewers dinging “Nuts & Bolts” for having poor controls. From my vantage point, the vehicles handle just fine. If you’re tipping over every time you round a corner, it isn’t because the game is bad. It’s because you need to go back to the workshop and design a car that isn’t so darn top-heavy with wheels that are farther apart then where you have them.
To make building your own vehicles easier, a shop in Showdown Town sells blueprints, giving you a stable of vehicles to use or modify. Similarly, many of the challenges set you up with predefined vehicles, created by the Lord of Games himself. Even when you’re stuck with one of
L.O.G.’s vehicles, you can hop out and modify it. Is that four-wheeled cart too cumbersome? Toss the heaviest parts aside and turn it into a motorcycle.
Adding to the game’s shelf life, all the challenges are replayable, and each has its own leaderboard. This is dangerous in the best way for the obsessive, as you’ll constantly head back to the workshop to try to shave seconds off your times.
Once you’ve mastered the single-player challenges, you can take on other players online. Events tailored for beginners start everyone off in the same vehicle, but the game has the potential to shine in the free-for-all scenarios, as everyone unleashes his own custom creation.
Like Rare’s other must-have 360 exclusive, “Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise,” “Nuts & Bolts” will be most enjoyed by adults, teens or tweens who aren’t embarrassed to spend a couple dozen hours with a vividly colored, cartoon game that looks like it was made for 6-year-olds.
Fans of entertainment that blends childlike whimsy with humor aimed at adults like “Wallace & Gromit” or the films of Wes Anderson will be amused when encountering touches like the crayonlike graphics chip in the Logbox 720, a world set amidst the innards of a video game console.
While there’s plenty in “Nuts & Bolts” to delight younger children, they may have trouble reading all the dialogue and might not fully appreciate the vehicle workshop. If you’re active in your child’s video gaming, the budget-priced “Nuts & Bolts” is a great find. You can only play one at a time, but you can ride shotgun metaphorically, pointing out helpful vehicle tweaks to help your kid ace the game’s tougher challenges.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that, as much joy as “Nuts & Bolts” brought me, it also made me a bit sad. The game, which has thus far fared poorly at retail, is chock full of self-deprecating humor and references to how this might just be Banjo and Kazooie’s last adventure together.
While I’ve recently enjoyed playing the original “Banjo-Kazooie” on Xbox Live Arcade, “Nuts & Bolts” was my introduction to the series and is one of the most inventive, well-thought-out innovators this shooter-dominated generation of games has to offer. It’d be a pity if it was consigned to the clearance bin by May and forgotten by December. If Microsoft is serious about targeting Nintendo’s “Mario” audience, it’d pack in a copy of “Nuts & Bolts” with every 360 sold.