Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, A Ten Year Reunion
I grew up hating Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. How deeply teenage me despised that game. Both Banjo-Kazooie and especially Banjo-Tooie were integral parts of my childhood, as they helped solidify the 3D platformer genre as one of the main genres of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Back when I first played Nuts & Bolts, the game felt like an insult to my memories and the legacy the bear and the bird. It ditches everything that made the original two games special in favor of a modern and intrusive gimmick: bulding Lego-ish cars. It’s been ten years since the game got released and I figured it was about time to tackle it once again. I’m older, slightly wiser, and more open to different gaming experiences. Maybe it was just angsty highschool me that hated it? Let’s find out.
Upon replaying Nuts & Bolts for the first time in years, one thing impressed me the most: I did have a bit of fun with it. There are some great ideas in this game. Maybe even groundbreaking. Creating vehicles is a delightful experience, and looking for extra pieces in order to come up with even crazier crap is actually pretty fun. The game still looks good to this day as well. Nuts & Bolts could have become an instant classic if Rare (and especially Microsoft) had decided to turn this into a brand new IP. Hell, they could have even given Diddy Kong Racing‘s Timber the Tiger a starring role in this game, as there’s a tiger character that looks exactly like an older version of that little guy in here. But no, they had to go with Banjo-Kazooie, and that’s where the problems begin.
Upon starting a new game, you’re greeted with a much older Banjo and a much older Kazooie. Both are now fat, lazy, spending their days eating pizza and playing on Xbox Live. It doesn’t take long for Gruntilda’s severed head to show up, and before you can beat the living heck out of her skull, the most hateful character in the whole game shows up. I’m talking about the Lord of Games, or LOG for short. This despicable representation of modern AAA gaming publishers starts criticizing the duo, as well as the core principles of their older collect-a-thon games, until he forces you to partake in his brand new vision for the series. “Gamers don’t like platformers anymore, they just want to shoot things! We need to broaden the demographic”. That’s why you’re forced to create vehicles throughout the entire game, some random schmuck with a PC monitor for a head told you so.
You’re instantly teleported to Showdown Town, this game’s hub world. Let me be honest: Showdown Town might actually be the greatest world in Banjo-Kazooie history. I’m being dead serious: the map is immense, it’s fun to explore with or without a vehicle, the freedom of exploration Rare gives you from the get-go is impressive, there are lots of hidden items to discover, it is vastly populated with a lot of different NPCs, and so on. You’ll quickly meet Mumbo, Humba Wumba, Bottles, Klungo, King Jingaling, the Saucer of Peril, Captain Blubber and Jolly Roger, as well as Thomas, who’s clearly the grown up version of DKR‘s Timber. I was having a lot of fun exploring the town, but I couldn’t find any Jiggies here. I had to enter Nutty Acres, the game’s first real world, and oh boy that’s when the problems started to show up in masses.
Showdown Town is basically the only well-designed world in Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. The other main worlds are the true definition of lazy and uninspired design. Nutty Acres is a huge tropical island full of puns involving nuts, but devoid of enemies, memorable NPCs and secrets to unveil. The maps are so big that you feel forced to move around with a vehicle. Instead of introducing players to new and fun characters, Rare has decided to recycle half a dozen NPCs in every single level over and over again. You need to talk to those characters in order to unlock vehicle-centered challenges, be it a race, a taxi minigame, a time trial, and so on. There’s not a lot of variety in those minigames, and they’re the only way for you to get Jiggies inside the main worlds.
Nutty Acres feels insipid, but there are worse levels. Banjoland is supposed to look and feel like a museum paying homage to the previous Banjo games, but it ended up feeling like a level assembled in 20 minutes by shoving older assets into a big level with absolutely no cohesion whatsoever. Logbox 720, on the other, takes place inside a gaming console, full of cables and chips that were copied and pasted to an exhaustive degree into the relatively small map. There are also a few Rare game discs scattered around the level, with the Banjo-Kazooie disc featuring a line written on it saying “will people remember of Nuts & Bolts in ten years time? Come back in 2018 and find out!” Talk about a backfire…
The challenges were a terrible design choice. Back in Banjo-Kazooie and Tooie, Jiggies felt like a well-earned reward. You had to explore every nook and cranny of each level in order to find a way to earn those rare and important items. In Nuts & Bolts, all you have to do is talk to a character, read an unfunny joke usually involving testicles, create a vehicle and beat a stupidly easy challenge. With the exception of a few Jiggies you can collect by collecting trophies, as well as five pieces you can buy directly from Jolly Roger, that’s all you have to do until the end of the game.
The level design and game mechanics aren’t the only thing that felt uninspired in this game. While the graphics, for the most part, look pretty good even for today’s standards, the character design looks terrible. Everyone looks angular and made out of fabric, as if they were dolls, not funny animals. Mumbo, for instance, is full of patches as if he was actually a rag doll, not a lizard. Rare’s trademark googly eyes are nowhere to be seen in this game. Everything feels like a sick precursor to how Conker would end up looking like in Project Spark a few years later.
The soundtrack is also a massive disappointment. While Grant Kirkhope is back, it really feels like he wasn’t having a lot of fun coming up with new compositions for this game as there aren’t a lot of new tracks here. The vast majority of tunes are just medleys of older Kazooie and Tooie tracks. You’ll notice that in pretty much every single level, especially on Banjoland, in which you’ll hear Freezeezy Peak’s main theme being played right after Mayahem Temple, for instance. It makes no sense and it doesn’t feel cohesive at all. The only truly standout track this time around, in my opinion, is the pop punk remix of Mumbo Jumbo’s main theme which is played whenever you’re testing a new vehicle in his garage. Besides this one new tune, everything is super forgettable, and that’s borderline sinful coming from a game that had Kirkhope and Robin Beenland as composers.
You can say whatever you want about Yooka-Laylee. I know not everyone liked Playtonic’s truest Banjo-Kazooie revival, but that game had great graphics, fantastic character design, a memorable and truly inspired soundtrack, and most importantly, a funny sense of humor. Yooka-Laylee felt like a passion project. Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts feels like it was created out of force, not creative freedom.
Playing Nuts & Bolts once again made me realize how technically successful it actually is. It still looks good to this day, its building mechanics are tight and it brought some new mechanics to the table, some of which would influence games to this day. It’s just not a good Banjo-Kazooie game. There was no reason to add Banjo to this. It feels forced, it feels like an idea brought by higher-ups, a tremendous spit on the face of fans, especially in the way the game constantly disrespects the duo’s previous adventures. It also feels lifeless, uninspired, completely devoid of charm. Nuts & Bolts, ten years later, still shines as the poster child of Rare’s fall.