The heyday of collecting oodles of shiny objects across expansive worlds may be gone, but that just means that former platforming heroes will have to evolve with the times. Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts takes the basic structure from the duo's previous adventures, strips out the oft-mocked collect-a-thon demands, and slaps an intricate vehicle-creation tool on top. The result is a unique twist on a classic formula that doesn't feel like anything else out there. With a powerful yet wonderfully simple creation tool providing the backbone of your quest, the various tasks spread out across six worlds are novel, engaging, and, most importantly, fun. Despite some control annoyances, Nuts & Bolts is an innovative return for two of gaming's forgotten stars.
Ever since Banjo last defeated Gruntilda, there hasn't been any demand for a heroic bear with a bird in his backpack. With nothing to occupy their time, the duo has gotten fat and lazy, spending their days eating pizza and playing video games. Gruntilda is in even worse shape: Her body has been destroyed, so she's little more than a hopping head with a bad attitude. This hardly sets the stage for an interesting battle. Thankfully, the Lord of Games interrupts a potentially embarrassing fight between the bear and the skull by proposing a competition: Banjo will have to traverse six worlds equipped with a vehicle-creating wrench while Grunty tries to stop him. The winner gets the deed to Spiral Mountain whereas the loser toils away in the Lord of Games' video game factory. The story is amusing, but the action is where the main draw lies.
The level progression is very similar to previous games in the series. Each of the worlds is huge, requiring a deft hand and a keen eye to explore everything that it has to offer. Jiggies are also back. These serve as the prize for completing missions and open new worlds to explore. Although this might sound familiar, there is one significant difference: Exploration has been made optional. The forced hunt for shiny goodies--the hallmark of 3D platformers--has been virtually removed in N&B, replaced with a series of easily accessed missions. Musical notes still litter the lands, but collecting these is optional as well. They serve as currency to buy more parts for your vehicles, but given that you earn parts anyway just by playing, you won't have to search for notes if you'd rather just focus on the action. The clear directive to earn more jiggies keeps the game moving at a brisk pace, letting you ponder what sort of cool vehicle to build rather than trying to figure out what you need to do next.
Seeing as how Banjo is just a slow, unathletic bear this time around, you'll have to rely on vehicles to complete your tasks. The building tool is the core of N&B, and it not only lets you create whatever bizarre contraptions you can imagine, but it is incredibly easy to work with as well. The only requirement is that everything you build needs a seat for Banjo to sit on. Everything else is up to you. You can create a heavy tank loaded with missiles, a sleek airplane with a magnet for scooping up objects, or a bipedal robot with springs for feet. The ease with which you can construct these vehicles makes it possible to breathe life into whatever idea you can come up with. The workshop lets you quickly snap pieces into place, tweak placement for best effect, and then test out your idea at the track. Within minutes, even the craziest ideas can be realized. Creating can be so fun that it's possible to lose sight of the missions and just focus on building off-the-wall vehicles that have no relevance in the game world, but are really funny to see in action.
The ease of creation ties in beautifully with the mission structure. The objectives are generally kept vague--win a race or move an object over there--so you are free to complete them however you wish. For instance, in one mission, you will have to defend a golden egg from a squadron of angry bombers. You could build a large tank and shoot missiles at would-be attackers as they attempt to destroy this opulent object. Or you could build a helicopter with a tray and shuttle the golden egg out of harm's way. Most missions are structured in this manner, letting you creatively attack any problem presented to you. Pushing objects out of a ring with a giant fork may be functional, but it's even more entertaining to attach springs to the front of your vehicle and launch them far off into the distance. There are prebuilt vehicles available if you would rather not spend your time in a workshop, but you'll soon find yourself trying to outsmart the designers with whatever oddball idea tickles your fancy.
The one downside to this unrestrained customizability is some annoying control quirks. Your vehicles will cruelly conform to real-life physics, so if your weight isn't spread out properly, you'll be stuck with a fancy-looking paperweight. This can be avoided with thoughtful construction, but bumpy roads provide a more lasting obstacle. Your vehicle is prone to spin wildly if you hit a hill the wrong way or brush against a pipe jutting out from a wall. Due to this sensitivity, navigating around the environment can be difficult until you come to grips with the handling. With a little practice, you'll learn when to let off the gas and how to avoid debris without spinning out, making on-the-ground missions fast and exciting, but be prepared to wreck often in the early goings. The air and water vehicles perform much better, letting you gracefully navigate treacherous lagoons or pull off loop-de-loops with nary a hitch. It's a shame that there aren't more water sections, because cutting through waves is really a blast.
Land and sea alike look quite impressive in Nuts & Bolts. The worlds are large and inviting, blending bright colors into a cheery tapestry. Nutty Acres is particularly noteworthy in the way it constructs a rich playground in which the grass looks like it was sewn together in the style of a patchwork quilt, the metallic clouds hang from sturdy guy-wires, and the sky is painted onto a wall. Although all of the worlds have their own unique flavor, there is one problem with all this extravagance: The frame rate is sometimes unstable. Most of the time the game moves at a steady clip, but there are brief moments when you will almost be able to count the frames of animation as they slowly peel away. This doesn't happen often, but it can be frustrating when it hits in the middle of a tight race. Additionally, when you're buying parts for your vehicles, the game sometimes slows down considerably, turning a simple trip to the store turn into a prolonged ordeal.
Thankfully, the music suffers no such issues, and players will find it delightfully immersive. Though some of the tracks have been pulled from previous games in the franchise, they have been remixed here, providing a strong soundtrack for all of the wacky vehicular fun. Each world has its own unique score, but what's interesting is how the music subtly changes while you explore. Instruments will drop in and out depending on the situation, molding the tune to your immediate surroundings. Aside from the gibberish speak which remains largely the same as it was 10 years ago, the rest of Nuts and Bolts has been boldly updated.
The multiplayer mode lets you compete in most of the activities from the single-player adventure against up to seven of your friends. Showing off your wacky wares online is a blast; you're urged to design vehicles that are not only functional, but look awesome as well. The competitions take place across the six worlds from the game, and each of them--from simple races to trying to score soccer goals--are fast and exciting. One unique twist is being able to control time. You can rewind your car by holding the back button, allowing you to erase a flubbed turn or embarrassing crash. This adds another layer of chaos to the action--you're more likely to try for a kamikaze attack if you can continue on like nothing happened. Another cool feature is being able to share your creations with friends. Blueprints can be easily sent to other players, letting you share your tips for toppling the multiterrain end boss or just flaunt your magic spring chair.
Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is a fantastically fun update to an aging formula. The easy vehicle-creation tool makes even the craziest ideas possible, and the missions let you exert your creative muscle in spectacular fashion. Aside from a few control quirks and frame-rate issues, N&B is a joy from beginning to end, providing a constant string of new parts and objectives to keep you entertained for a long time. If this is the direction that the Banjo franchise is going in, let's hope it's not another eight years between games.