How to Ruin A Video Game
1) Purchase or borrow a game disc or cartridge.
2a) Leave said game disc or cartridge in direct sunlight at a high temperature.
2b) Immerse game disc in broken glass, swirl OR immerse game cartridge in water, swirl.
You might remember Rare from its do-no-wrong years in the mid-late 90s. As a developer for Nintendo, Rare put out titles that have since become classics. There was Donkey Kong Country in 1994, along with Killer Instinct. Two years later, Rare began its impressive run of titles for the Nintendo 64 with the arcade port sequel Killer Instinct: Gold. Okay, maybe the Killer Instinct series wasn’t “classic,” but a lot of people played them, okay? Then there was 1997′s GoldenEye 007, 1998′s Banjo-Kazooie, 2000′s Perfect Dark, and 2001′s Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Rare released more than that; this is just a greatest hits of their titles that decade. Rare was killing it. I mean, how could you not be when you really hit the scene as the developer for 1991′s Battletoads? Rare generated a lot of great memories to gamers all throughout the 90s, and then just kind of stopped doing that.
It was around 2002 that Rare gave me indigestion. But the honeymoon wasn’t over for critics. Starfox Adventures, Rare‘s only title for the Nintendo GameCube, was released in 2002 to higher than average praise for the Starfox game where you’re in an Arwing for about 2 minutes total. Starfox Adventures was more like a Zelda game than Starfox, and its praise was founded in that comparison, not to mention that the game was rendered beautifully. But then there was, you know, the whole Starfox rarely flying and dogfighting thing. That’s sort of a big deal. And if you think that franchises should be able to progress without people like me taking to the Internet to complain, let’s see how you like it if Nintendo put Link in a rickety, wooden, magic airplane and had to fly around, being more Starfox than Link in a Zelda game. Yeah. That’s what I thought.
So Rare made an anomaly of a Starfox game, and it was a hit at the time but more criticized through time. So what?
This, my friends, was it: The moment where Rare went all wonky on us. It isn’t that Rare lost any kind of creativity or talent. It was that they were bought by Microsoft. The Microsoft purchase changed a lot for Rare. More GameCube titles under development stopped, like the how-great-would-that-have-been Donkey Kong Racing, and, aside from Nintendo handhelds, Rare was to focus on XBox 360 only releases.
Kameo: Elements of Power was released in 2005 for the Xbox 360, and was well-received, fun, but forgettable. Later that year, Perfect Dark Zero, one of the more notable Rare creations for XBox 360, was met with less-than-ideal reviews considering the success of its predecessor. In 2006, Rare reached into that magic bag of theirs and pulled out Viva Pinata, which racked up numerous Outstanding Achievement Awards nominations from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, who previously lauded GoldenEye 007 upon its release.
Then, in 2008, the worst thing ever happened. Ten years after Nintendo 64‘s Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts was released for Xbox 360. Initially, Nuts & Bolts was designed to be a racer, an idea held over from the Game Boy Advance game, Banjo-Pilot, itself an adjustment from the in-development Diddy Kong Racing before Rare was bought out by Microsoft and lost their rights to Nintendo characters. Abandoning the racer approach but keeping a vehicle-oriented component, Nuts & Bolts sold incredibly well and was met with more positive reviews by critics than the game would receive retroactively. But fans were not as quick to celebrate its release. And strangely, Rare often had to reassure players that Nuts & Bolts was in capable hands during its development. After its absence from 2007′s E3, and news of some anticipated Microsoft title being canceled, Rare also had to reaffirm the game’s very existence. The hand-wringing anticipation for Nuts & Bolts showed there were plenty of people still interested in the franchise, and that they were thoughtful of the unfortunate reality that the game could not be worth the wait and worry.
If the unfortunate reality was that Nuts & Bolts would be nothing like what made the original Banjo-Kazooie games so entertaining, then a whole lot of people came to hate the world. In an interview, game director for Nuts & Bolts Gregg Mayles estimated that 20% (TWENTY. PERCENT.) of the game was platforming. The remainder relied on constructing vehicles and driving or flying around. That’s 80% of “please, no,” to you and me, 80% of doing things Banjo and Kazooie never did before. “Never did before” reads like something exciting, and I was one of the several thousand who were convinced that it would be exciting. But you only needed to have played the game for a matter of minutes before you realized the horror before you. Banjo and Kazooie lost all their moves and weren’t going to get them back. WHAT.
I think the Nuts & Bolts (and even Starfox Adventures) story shows that falling in love with a game through playing it is different than sitting down to review one. Both Nuts & Bolts and Starfox Adventures received high marks upon release, but eventually earned a reputation among players for simply not being what they should have been: themselves. How players define the essence of a game is proportional to the initial gameplay experience, which ultimately becomes the lore of the game. Reviewers, in one sense, should be assessing a game in a franchise vacuum. Maybe, had I never heard of or played any previous Banjo-Kazooie game, I, like some critics, might have been a little enamored by building a jalopy and riding it around in a pretty but underutilized landscape. Still, if Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts was your first experience with the bear and the bird, Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie still existed, and there were plenty of allusions to the fact that you were playing a sequel in promotional materials and in-game. And if you had a great time playing Nuts & Bolts as your first Banjo-Kazooie experience, I am genuinely happy for you. There are few things more peaceful and memorable than digging deep into a game you enjoy playing. So I hope I don’t detract from any fond memories of Nuts & Bolts when I say it doesn’t matter if anyone enjoyed it or not. Nuts & Bolts stands as one of most outstanding examples of shifts in game development from straightforward to so tedious and repetitive that you want to disavow video games and go all Runaway Bride on everyone.
After all, N64‘s Banjo-Kazooie was firmly established as a platformer following its positive reception. If all that initial praise didn’t do it, then its two sequels certainly did (there was also the under-promoted Grunty’s Revenge for Game Boy Advance, another Rare game). I don’t know where the logical progression from ‘platformer masterpiece’ to ‘vehicle construction/action-adventure’ lies, but for developers to pluck characters from the environment and habits made for them, and plop them into some strange circumstance where their skills don’t matter anymore is so not cool. Maybe Nuts & Bolts was a cool game, but it wasn’t a cool game for the bear and bird.
And let me tell you if you haven’t already figured this out: people care about video game characters. That may be so obvious to readers that it needn’t be stated, but some have lost sight of it, if never having understood it at all. It’s the impetus for me writing this 4 years after Nuts & Bolts hit shelves. In this environment of astounding graphics and impressive features that games offer, we’re blinded by the sheen of HD and motion picture-like marketing. And anymore, to talk about video games requires a certain grasp of the technology behind them. I’m sure we can all think of players who try to meet this need, talking about pixels and frame rates and what engine is in what game. To be sure, that stuff is certainly cool, but unless you’re a developer, you’re probably most interested in what it all means for your time with your favorite console. Furthermore, you could have the most impressive gaming technology at work, but without characters doing something interesting, mechanics have no purpose. I’ll even go as far as to remove story as an important part of a game. Why Banjo has a bird in his backpack should be the most marginal concern to players. Missing why Banjo and Kazooie are out to defeat an evil witch at the beginning of the game wouldn’t stop players from doing their thing either. That there’s a witch and a bear with a bird is about all the reason you need to play the game, really. And for anyone who wants to claim that a script is the reason to play, or at least a substantial part of a game’s success, I suggest you revisit the success of the original Resident Evil, in all of its poor dialogue and fuzzy story glory, then proceed to put that in your pipe and smoke it. The fundamental drive of a game is to take fun characters, however shallow, and do fun things with them. Banjo-Kazooie. Booyah.
But let’s get one thing clear; I’m all for progressive video games. Let’s see more games that take what we fell in love with as younger players and advance those concepts. What can really help get gaming out of the rut that players all over are beginning to feel, but that developers are sort of out to lunch on (a big, expensive lunch), is to never do what Rare did with Starfox or Banjo-Kazooie. If you want to make a new Zelda-type game, sweet, but make it Zelda or make a new character. I’ve written before about mass-market gaming, that kind of developing and marketing that gives players what they want or something similar, but my gripe here has a key difference. You want a construction/exploration game with a sprinkling of platforming? Cool, but don’t make Banjo build the stupid cars. Banjo was off doing other stuff. He doesn’t know how build cars. Make up someone who does and tell me that’s cool. Leave established characters out of your sketchy games. There should be a flashing warning sign when developers approach a game and think it can’t stand on its own without tossing some well known hero in there.
In that last finger wag, I also see hope for Rare. As first-party developers for Microsoft, Rare has been a big player in the Kinect peripheral. I hope for Rare to pull a Viva Pinata, or have some regressive hypnosis therapy to remember their past successes, and really utilize the opportunities for extending a real game beyond a controller with the Kinect instead of creating novelty mini-games for that party I’ll never have.
I mean you, for the party that you’ll never have.