The Bravest Game, Mistakenly Neglected

This is the fourth in a series of posts labelled "Hindsight" that discuss games you may have thought we were done writing about. Last time: Wolfenstein. This time: Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts.

How often go gamers commend the bravery of the people who make games for them to play? A gamer might respond: How often do the games they play give them reason to?

How often, though, do gamers, myself included, have trouble distinguishing bravery from stupidity, innovation from mistake?

Bravery is a value developers seldom promote. Bigger, we hear. Better, we're told. More badass, it's hyped.

Braver? That commodity goes unsold. Yet last year I found bravery through B-word: Banjo. I found it in a game that I mistook for stupid, for which I was stupidly mistaken. This was Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, a sequel from Microsoft-owned Rare studios, a game no one thought was slavishly copying its predecessors or other games, but a game that was possibly an evolutionary error. Again, my mistake.

The early Banjo Kazooie games, made in the '90s in the shadow of Super Mario 64, were character-based platforming games. You controlled Banjo the bear, who ran around in yellow shorts and a blue backpack that contained his bird-friend, Kazooie. You jumped. You squashed enemies. You collected shiny gold things. And while that all made the game a lot like Mario, it wasn't until Banjo's fourth game, the 2008 Nuts & Bolts, a game I played in 2009, that I realised how those early Banjos weren't just similar to Mario but similar to just about every other game. To put it another way, when I played Nuts & Bolts, I realised how different this new one was.

The difference between Banjo new and Banjo old wasn't what you'd think it was, had you tried the game early like I did or seen an ad or read a preview. The new game was bigger and - here's a nice b-word - beautiful, offering players some of the most vast and gorgeously designed cartoon 3D worlds ever rendered in a video game. Vast as the game world was, it wouldn't make sense to force the player to run through Banjo's world. While the game would require the player to squash enemies and collect shiny gold things, the player would be abetted in that adventure with vehicles: Cars, planes, tanks. Just as the railroad, the automobile and the passenger plane made our great Earth small enough so that we could traverse it like 17th-century settlers in a village, Banjo's vehicles would make his great world down to the scale of his earlier ones.

Nuts & Bolts would be a platformer with vehicles - that was the innovation, yes? Or, to some, that was the ruin. Change our games for sequels, gamers chant, but the backlash sometimes betrays them: Don't change them too much. Banjo needs a floating platform on which to jump to, right? Cars don't jump onto floating platforms, not well.

Rare pitched another innovation with the new Banjo, one that easily aroused suspicion. This new game, they showed, would let gamers create their own vehicles, opening access to a garage of collectible fenders and engines and wings and egg-shooting guns. Wheels, tired, fuel tanks, springs, armour, chairs, trays, rear-view mirrors and rocket engines. Plug them all together and don't think too much about how user manipulation of content might interfere with tight, careful level design. For those of us who liked being led through a Banjo Kazooie obstacle course of a level it now seemed we'd have to do more of the work ourselves, not only going through the course, but constructing our means to do so.

Rare conceded one cheat: They'd make some vehicles for the player, make it easy. You don't need to build your own, they said. You don't need to customise your cars, trick out your rims, pretend you're playing LittleBigPlanet or do your own mash-ups. Just play with what we give you, if you must. That's how I decided to play.

So early last year, I put Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts in my Xbox 360 and started to play and started to get disappointed yet again. This was not the Banjo of old, the one I knew I liked and had recognised it wouldn't be. But it was also something that didn't feel like a good change. First impressions, thankfully, can be wrong.

I played with custom vehicles, driving my Banjo car or flying my Banjo plane across a field or through some giant innards of a computer, collecting shiny things or hauling stuff. I found some racing levels, and frowned. Rare had said that we shouldn't worry that Nuts & Bolts was a racing game, despite the addition of racing levels. But, oh, here was racing.

Then, a turn happened, both in the game and in my attitude. And it happened on a racing track. The old way you play games - the way I tried to play Nuts & Bolts - is that you try a level or a mission and, if you fail, you try it again. Maybe you gain experience points, your character levels up and it gets easier. Maybe, more often, you just try it and try it and get better, learn the intricacies of the mission or level, and finally you get it. That's how it normally works. That's how I've approached Mario games. That's how I've approached Banjo games. That's how I've approached racing games.

In Nuts & Bolts, however, in one mission, I kept failing. I couldn't win a race. The other racers passed me every time. I messed up the same turns. And I probably could have overcome all that by trying and trying and trying again. But the lightbulb went on. I went into the Nuts & Bolts garage. I started rebuilding my vehicle. You construct these vehicles as if you're making Lego builds, bolting on cubes and cones, latching one part to the next. I was having trouble making a turn? I'd reshape the fender. A guy was passing me on the sides? I'd add a gun on the side to shoot him away. I was falling behind? I added an extra engine, some extra fuel and then lightened the chassis so I was still swift enough.

I didn't get better at the game. I made myself better at the game - by making something better for me.

That's where I discovered the bravery. This wasn't a game designed for me to sit back and play it, nor was it a game that allowed me to make some simple tweaks. This was a game that presented some problems and, in a manner of speaking, gave me the ability to break it, to hack it, to re-set the rules by re-setting what my character could do. It would be like allowing a player to give Mario a gun or offer Lara Croft a jetpack. Or, it would be like allowing Master Chief to suddenly be a foot shorter if there was a level in Halo where he needed to be harder to hit or if, in Madden, I could change the shape of the football to match my technique and get the bounce I wanted.

My Banjo discovery changed the way I played the game. It also changed my view of the kinds of problems we face in games and the ways with which we might be given the opportunity to address them.

What I thought was a mistake of design revealed itself to me as bravery, as a developer willing to concede control to its player, willing to let its player mess with its game. This wasn't classic Banjo. This wasn't classing anything. This was new. This was bold. This was brave and maybe the best thing about 2008 gaming I experienced in 2009 or any other year.


    I may appear like quite the purist here, but while I did greatly enjoy the creativity and innovation in the game, it wasn't a Banjo Kazooie game. It was set in a completely different plane of reality from the first, only weakly linked back to Spiral Mountain in the story, it was almost a different genre from the original games, and it didn't really add anything to the story which had been unfolding in the previous games.

    It was almost as though Rare had a random, non-franchise game, thought "Damn, this is quite good, but it'd sell better if we could make it a part of a series" and then re-skinned it with Banjo Kazooie themes.

    Granted, it is fun, but something about it doesn't feel right.

      I agree, and wished this idea was incorporated as a totally new IP. However who knows if the game would get any attention unless it was connected to an existing IP that gamers would recognise.

      Alas, it is the cruel world of business that once again ruins another classic franchise. We need another proper banjo game. But not another clone of the classics, as platformers are hard to make popular these days unless you are Mario.

    I bought this on day one, played it for half an hour or so and turned it off. This new vehicle building thing just didn't sit well with me. Where was my classic Banjo game? What had Rare done with it?

    After a while I thought I'd give it another chance, but I wanted to finish the original two games first. I downloaded Banjo-Kazooie on day one and breezed through it, as I had played it a few times on my N64 and was one of my favourite games for the console. I only just downloaded Banjo-Tooie so as soon as I finish that I'll be getting stuck into Nuts & Bolts (If I can tear myself away from Borderlands, if not I'll just wait till I've finished that.) with a more open mind and see how it goes.

    Reading this article though just made we want to whack it in my 360 and start playing it.

    Ahh bugger it, why not. I'm off to play Nuts & Bolts Gya huk.

    I really enjoyed Nuts and Bolts. The vehicle idea was pretty good, but all throughout, I did miss the nostalgic feeling of jumping around with Banjo. Ah well, Nuts and Bolts deserves most of the praise it gets.

    Great minds think alike, now that I have some time off I've been playing N&B again. Nothing feels more awesome than making a plane that is TOO powerful for the application. like, this plane was so powerful I could reverse and it would fly backwards, shame for me that the course was flying around logbox 360, (Against the 'Hag Trolls', an all girl gamer FPS group that changed to flying games because too many people on FPS games ask them for pictures)

    The game is fun, that's all it takes.

    For me anyway... but I liked Bionic Commando and Brutal Legend so I don't really get an opinion ;p

    Great article! I love the hindsight series!

    N&bs Sounds really good!

    I often buy games based on innovation and bravery and attempts to do something differnt. Which is why my game shelf is littered with titles like Chromehounds, Shadowrun and Stormrise. All games that tried something new and interesting but got shot down for lacking in other areas.

    Stormrise in particularly was last years bravest failure IMHO.

    Just because it was brave, doesn't mean it wasn't stupid.
    I'm sorry Stephen, I have to disagree with you. I tried to like Nuts & Bolts. I really did. I tried for hours upon hours to like it. But I can't.
    It's not a Banjo Kazooie game. It has the characters, a few plot elements, but that's it. As a game, it isn't one. And so I can't like it as a Banjo Kazooie game, of which those two are some of my favourite platformers ever.
    So I have to try and ignore that to look at it as the game it is, based around vehicle construction to complete a variety of vehicle-based challenging.
    But it doesn't do that well, either. The worlds are boring, the controls are irritating, and the way the vehicles feel in my hands are just plain wrong.
    So I can't like it as a Banjo Kazooie game, and I can't like it as its own game, either.
    It feels to me like they wanted to make a new property and then chucked Banjo and Kazooie in there to make it sell.

    I think this is the most underrated game of the current generation!. The only reason it got average reviews was because the reviewers were using the default vehicles for the challenges, but there's no fun in that, certainly not for the races anyway. The real fun comes from creating your own over-the-top vehicles to complete tasks. For example, early on I was tasked with picking up 3 burning lava rocks and dumping them into a nearby river to cool them off. Now I could have easily just ran around on foot and dumped them 1-by-1, but I decided I'd go one step further and create my own snazzy custom ball-carrying machine (The Fondler...haha) which I used to load all three balls into individual cups and dump them all at once.

    Another great example is a mission where you're tasked with protecting a character as they pass through an area full of enemies; a reviewer would probably just use the default tank vehicle to shoot each enemy, whereas I and others tried things like building a giant cage attached to a helicopter and lowering that over the character to protect them for the journey. That kind of thing is all throughout the game and where much of the enjoyment and satisfaction is sourced.

    I can't say I'm much of an artistically creative person, but the vehicle creation system has just the right balance between user-friendliness and complexity without being overwhelming. Some of the possibilities are absolutely hilarious and I urge anyone who's on the fence to check out the "Let's Play" thread for the game on the Something Awful forums here:

    ...and also this stunts video, showing Let's Play creator 'Rooreelooo' jumping fan submitted blueprint vehicles off a ramp in the Jiggosseum world:

    Playing this on a big HDTV is like being inside a Pixar movie, it's just fantastic. Wonderful music, beautiful graphics, whimsical and amusing animations and some great humour, it all comes together to really take you away. I think Rare deserve a huge amount of praise for the massive effort they've put into designing this game. The artistic direction of some of the games levels, like the hub of Showdown Town and the world of Nutty Acres, will simply blow your mind.

    It's not the same as the past Banjo Kazooie games, nor is it without flaws, but it's a damn fine game nonetheless.

      I played the level where you have to dump the lava balls in the water and it sounds like you did it the hard way. I just used the blueprints I got from Humba-Wumba in Showdown town to use the race car and pushed them into the water (was pretty easy to do).

      I've been playing it for about 3 or so hours today and I'm still trying to get used to it. I'll keep plugging away at it but time will tell if I'll actually grow to like it or not.

    So does anyone want to send me along a copy of N&B then? Seems a lot of people have buyers regret on this one...

    its definately a good idea but like others, it isnt anything like other banjo kazooie games and i missed that.

    the creativity is cool, but they needed stronger limitations.

    when you can make an almost indestructible tank with a shitload of speed the game became too easy and boring.

    limiting yourself isnt as fun as a game limiting it for you.

    ok, i'll just take a couple engines off and make my tank slower.

    This and Viva PiƱata, another outrageously underrated game with deep and engrossing core to it.

    I got this earlier this year and just on my own I would've given up with it, but my kids are also Banjo fans thanks to the N64.

    My son loves nothing better than tooling around in the garage building a new vehicle and then testing it out in the worlds, it took me a while to actually appreciate why that might be fun, the only time I get a turn now is when he needs me to hunt for crates (which is the more old school style of gaming that I'm used to)

    I still wish that they'd release a proper sequel to Banjo-Tooie (which is the N64s best platformer) but I can't fault Rare for using the IP for what is an entirely new style of game, and yes - the visuals are spectacular (esp in HD)

    Most of all I think they need to be commended for making a game that kids like to play - goodness knows the xbox needs as many of them as it can get!

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