Does New Xbox 360 'Banjo Kazooie' Deserve All The Hate?

'Banjo Kazooie: Nuts And BoltsI saw or played 45 new games last week in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

And if you asked me which one I heard the most negative things about, I wouldn't hesitate to reply:

"Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts."

The vehicle-based platformer for the Xbox 360 from legendary development studio Rare was getting some of the worst response. People who played it were shaking their heads.

Is its first impression a deserved one?

Early last week, screenshots were leaked online. Many franchise fans boiled at the transformation of the "BK" series from mascot platformer to apparent vehicle-based platformer.

But I hadn't played it yet and couldn't judge it for myself.

Then on Monday I went to a dinner with Microsoft Game Studio head Shane Kim, the person ultimately responsible for the game. He said the vehicle idea worked.

But I hadn't played it yet and couldn't judge it for myself.

'Banjo' In A Plane (sort of)On Tuesday morning I saw the game set up at Microsoft's San Francisco event. Salvatore Fileccia, the game's lead software engineer, talked over a demonstration of the game's vehicle-creation interface and showed some vehicle-based missions.

He and I sat down to chat, and he charmed the old "Banjo Kazooie" fan in me, offering sly "no comments" regarding whether there would be a washing machine in this game or whether Stop N Swap -- which he helped program before Nintendo nixed it -- would return in the new "BK" game.

And only after that chat did I play the game and judge it for myself.

I sat down at one of about a dozen Xbox 360s running a demo of the game. I started playing as Banjo, running through the game's hub world with Kazooie in my backpack. Kazooie can't detach from Banjo, like she could in "Banjo Tooie." She stays in the pack, popping her head out for attacks and to emit a physics ray that can grab and flip vehicles and objects. The hub town itself looked lovely but was riddled with bugs. I ran where I wasn't supposed to and Banjo clipped through the ground.

I went into the game's vehicle editor where the parts that Banjo collects or wins through vehicle-based challenges engines can be used to create custom vehicles or modify existing ones. I had an assortment of struts, wings, weapons and other parts with which to work. Most of the items were unlocked, which made construction overwhelming. Still, it was fun and arresting enough that none of the other half-dozen players also on "Banjo Kazooie" at the time wanted to leave the editor and join a multiplayer match. Multiplayer missions -- as with single-player missions, I believe -- involve things like collecting a set number of coconuts or reaching a spot of land.

After a few minutes I jumped into a session against just one other player. The other player and I chased a massive, intangible roaming crown, trying to park within it to score points.

My Banjo was driving a broad clunker of a ground vehicle with a large plow and some spring-activated pressure switches for extra shoving power. I had added tiny bat wings that allowed the car to float. My design also allowed the car to flip over into a river -- again and again.

That revealed the problem I have with the game: "Banjo Kazooie: Nuts And Bolts," as a game, has great potential for failure because it gives gamers… great potential for failure.

Banjo In The Demo Level, Sans VehicleSo often, the tools a game gives us enable predictable success. We are given virtual guns that eliminate the bad guys, fast enough race cars to speed past the rest of the field, and the right-shaped "Tetris" blocks to clear lines.

Character driven platformers have typically given players a jump, maybe a hover and a gun. The way a character would move from inch to inch was predictable, established, usually, by the specific tilt of a stick or press of a button.

Give players too many extra variables and you are likely to increase the odds they will fail at the task with which you charged them. Physics and vehicle creation are just the kind of extra variables worth worrying about.

Go back to Nintendo 64 platformer "Rocket: Robot on Wheels" to discover what happens when physics are applied to these worlds. Suddenly the predictability of moving through a platformer becomes unpredictable. The gulf widens between what you intend to make the character do and what he does.

That is the pitfall for "Nuts and Bolts": taking too much of the control of the game out of players' and designers' hands and making the actions the whim of physics-calculating math. Add to that the complexity of a process that lets you create any vehicle you can think of -- even one shaped like a giant Super Mario -- and it means the player can get it wrong so many ways.

The developers said the game will include pre-built vehicles. And surely the configurable parts will be doled out in a more manageable fashion than the everything-at-once demo. But by the end of the week I was able to get some extra perspective.

Just three days after playing "Banjo Kazooie" I was controlling the extremely customizable "Little Big Planet" for PlayStation 3 and recognizing how it leaves fewer of its variables to fate. Believe it or not, it's a safer game than "Banjo." The game only plays in 2D -- constraining movement -- and drives the players to mess with the physics of objects in a game level, not with the primary means for getting the player's character from point A to point B. Plenty can go wrong in creating "LBP" levels, but less that seems like it will keep players from achieving developer-scripted goals.

'Banjo' In A Tricky SpotShould Rare be criticized for taking a left turn with the "Banjo" series?

If the turn smacks them into a brick wall, sure. I'm not sure it absolutely will. I'm not ready to write it off.

Should fans of the franchise and those curious about the game be wary?

Absolutely.

When your game design is predicated on allowing so much to go wrong -- when you're making a game that makes "Little Big Planet" seem like a safe bet -- then you're taking a leap that any bear, bird or custom-made vehicle just might not be able to land without a stumble.