Monday, January 19, 2009

Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts

As I alluded to in the Banjo Kazooie review, I preordered this game for the kids when they announced that preorders would be rewarded with the original Banjo Kazooie game. Having never played a Banjo Kazooie game, I didn't know what to expect.

My kids weren't too impressed with the Banjo Kazooie arcade title (insert rant about kids these days not appreciating their roots here), so as Christmas approached, I started to worry if they would have any fun with Nuts & Bolts.

The games are very different. Although they do share some common themes (collecting "jiggies" and notes), the mechanics are extremely different. Instead of platforming, the bulk of the game is played in vehicles. You start the game (after an introduction sequence that re-introduces the characters, unfortunately picking up the story after Banjo Tooie which I also haven't played) in "Showdown Town" with a trolley that is little more than a tray on wheels. You drive this tray around town, finding boxes that contain vehicle parts and shuttling them back to the garage.

You unlock worlds as doorways out of Showdown Town, and in these worlds are other challenges that must be completed with vehicles. In some cases, the vehicle will be predefined; whereas in others, you have the option of building your own (or choosing from a number of predefined) vehicle for the task, whether that task is racing, escort, battle, defense, or other miscellaneous tasks. You are then awarded notes (the game's currency) and/or jiggies based on how quickly you complete the task, or how many goals are accomplished, or how much/little damage is inflicted, etc. (A nice feature is that, upon completing a challenge, you can immediately see the leaderboard and see how you did compared to your friends. Unfortunately, the last night I tried this, attempting to apply the "friends" filter locked up the Xbox, every time. Although I used it a lot before that night, I've been scared to use it since, for fear of Something Bad Happening.) Improving your score may come from finding a better path, or it may come from building a better vehicle.

Building a vehicle is remarkably simple. In Chromehounds, I often found it very difficult to build a mech that had the correct balance of attack and defense, maintained proper weight-to-power ratios, and a whole host of parameters I couldn't even begin to understand, let alone try to name off the top of my head. Nuts & Bolts makes building a vehicle remarkably simple. Parts can almost be added anywhere on the vehicle. Certainly, if you build one too tall, it will be prone to tipping, and if you build too wide or have pieces sticking out, stuff is likely to break off the sides in narrow tunnels or making tight turns. But if you keep things reasonably balanced, the vehicle will work. If you have a pair of wings on it, it will fly; and even an unbalanced plane won't be terribly difficult to control in the air. If your vehicle looks like a boat and has a couple flotation devices on it, it'll make a decent boat.

It's so simple, both my 8- and 6-year-old boys can build vehicles and race them around the test track, and have a lot of fun doing it.

In fact, that's what they do, most of the time. My 8-year-old will spend more time in the other worlds accomplishing tasks than his younger brother, but both boys will spend considerable time in the garage putting together mammoth vehicles that would crush a Hum-Vee. And despite their size and unwieldy shapes, they will fly, drive, or float just fine.

The game itself is full of self-referential humor. There are nods to other games in the series (Banjoland appears to be a museum based on the Banjo Kazooie game; there are other signposts that reference events in Banjo Tooie that I unfortunately won't recognize until that game hits the Marketplace) as well as other games produced by Rare (a level that takes place inside a "next-next-gen" video game system sees you walking over spinning CDs of Grabbed by the Ghoulies and Viva Piñata — "The Best Game That No One Played" it says on the CD — and one jinjo has Banjo retrieving a scary book that happens to be the WotNot book from Kameo). While I'm sure there are a lot of references I'm missing (especially having only played Banjo Kazooie, Kameo, and the Viva Piñata games personally), I still find it highly amusing.

I thought that maybe Banjo Kazooie would be required to play this game. After spending time with it, I feel that it does help get an appreciation for the series as a whole, and the self-referential humor in particular, but the game mechanics are so different that from strictly a gameplay perspective, it's not necessary.

My son is much farther in this game than I am (since most of my time is spent killing zombies these days), and he's starting to find there are some challenges that are a little frustrating for him; but he is still spending a lot of time with this game. Perhaps it's because he spends more time building and testing new vehicles than actually playing the storyline. But that's ok. He's having a lot of fun with it, and that's what matters.

There is a multiplayer option. Unfortunately, I haven't yet experienced this, as most of the Geezer Gamer family is either shooting zombies (yay) or locusts (boo). Hopefully we'll get around to trying this. Someday. :)

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