Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is a conundrum. Here is a game with colorful but not exactly majestic visuals, missions that are more often yawn-inducing than frantically fun, and gameplay that entirely involves driving junkyard vehicles around huge but mostly unexciting levels. Sounds awesome, right? Actually, thanks to one important feature, it is: You get to build your own junkyard vehicles.
Here’s how it works: You play as Banjo the bear (with his bird sidekick Kazooie in his backpack), and you compete in tons of challenges across five big levels to arbitrarily collect golden jigsaw pieces. The more you collect, the more challenges open up. But every challenge requires more than bear-power to solve, which is where Nuts & Bolts’ centerpiece comes in: a robust vehicle builder where you assemble hundreds of different parts into all kinds of automotive contraptions (cars, boats, hovercrafts, planes, etc), which you then use to complete the missions. And if, like me, you’re the type of person who still has buckets of Lego blocks in their garage (I’m, uh, keeping them for my kids some day…), then the fun you’ll have with the builder alone makes Nuts & Bolts well worth its $40 price tag.
The genius of the builder is that it’s simple to use, and as deep as you want it to be. Getting started is easy, since each vehicle follows a few common-sense rules: It needs a seat for Banjo to ride in, wheels to move, an engine to power it, and fuel for the engine. If any two pieces touch each other, they automatically connect. So put together those four elements in some reasonable way, and you have a working creation in minutes.
But the more you advance in the game, the more advanced parts you unlock: from jet engines and retractable wings to springs, propellers, water squirters, and dozens of other goofy parts that serve no other purpose than to test your creativity. You can use pre-made vehicles if you want, but that’s missing the point entirely. Nuts & Bolts is all about what you make with it. No other game I’ve played has better captured the pure thrill of uninhibited imagination that a bucket full of interconnecting blocks offered when I was a kid.
What you go on to do with your vehicles, on the other hand, is far less thrilling. The majority of the missions fall in a few generic and endlessly repeated types: racing through checkpoints, collecting a certain amount of [insert item here], pushing one thing or another through or to a specific location — a lot of mindless, repetitive tasks, basically. There’s also a multiplayer option where you can play against other people over Xbox Live, but here too the modes are sadly generic; the real fun comes from getting to show off your absurd vehicular monstrosities for all the world to see (and, in a nice feature, you can also trade vehicles online with your friends).
This, then, makes Nuts & Bolts an odd game to recommend, because all the fun you’ll get out of it depends entirely on you. Deep into the game, once I had unlocked a number of advanced parts, I made my masterpiece: the “Tumbler” Batmobile from Christopher Nolan’s Batman flicks. Not only can it jump gaps just like in the movies, but it even separates into the Batpod like it does in The Dark Knight. And it was at this point that I knew I was playing my favorite game of 2008.
Will it be yours? Well, that depends. How many Legos are sitting in your closet right now?
(Note: Originally published on IGN’s Green Pixels, which has since been taken offline.)