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Knack: Building on the Legacy of Banjo-Kazooie

The PlayStation 4's family-friend centerpiece title uses next-generation technology to breathe new life into hoary old game concepts.

Knack seems like the kind of game that Rare might have wanted to have made on the Nintendo 64, which is a blessing (and possibly a curse) if played straight. Knack doesn't play it straight, though, which may be the most endearing element of Sony's platform brawler.

The old Rare platformers like Banjo Kazooie are often held up as the gold standard of their generation for the way that they built on the legacy of Mario 64 while adding in superb production values. But lest we all forget, they also gave us some truly atrocious collect-a-thons, mostly notably in Donkey Kong Country 64, which was built around obtaining roughly seven billion bananas. Luckily, in Rare's case, the good outweighed the bad, but that didn't make the bad any less noticeable.

I mention those old Rare platformers not to suggest that Knack reaches the high bar set by classics like Banjo, but to point out one way in which it builds upon part of their legacy. In addition to looking a lot like a Rare game (the full-grown version of Knack doesn't look too different from Banjo), it makes use of a particular retro mechanic with a decidedly "next-gen" twist. That would be the aforementioned collect-a-thon, which has evolved from pixel hunt to an interesting opportunity to interact with friends using the PlayStation 4's social functionality.

Not pictured: A Kazooie made entirely of chicken bones and discarded ice cream tubs.

The idea is simple. When discovering a treasure chest, you don't just get whatever happens to be in the box. Instead, a list of what your friends chose pops up, and you get to choose what you need in turn. As you can imagine, this comes in quite handy when you need, say, one more ruby relic to unlock Vampire Knack, who uses supercharged attacks to feast on his opponent's life force (yes, this is a real thing). It retains the pleasure of finding items and unlocking things, but also removes some of the tedium that tends to come part and parcel with the genre, making for a solid improvement all around.

The feature stems from Mark Cerny, who in addition to directing Knack has served as the PlayStation 4's lead architect. Knack benefits from Cerny's desire to emphasize what he calls "five key words" for the PlayStation 4 experience: Simple, immediate, social, integrated, and personalized.

"I was part of the working group that put together the [PS4 experience], and as I was sitting in the room, I kept on thinking, 'Well, okay, can we use that in Knack?' In this specific case, we really grabbed hold of the social," Cerny says. "So there is a friends network, we're moving to real-world profile pictures and names. In this case, the hope is to create the feeling you are on an adventure side by side with a hundred other friends, even though they aren't in the room with you."

This approach has become more common in single-player games as online play has grown more important. Dark Souls, for example, has had great success leveraging the idea of "an adventure with hundreds of people," using elements like messages, player shadows, and invasions to communicate the idea that you are not alone on your quest. Knack doesn't appear to go quite that far, but the end goal is similar, and it could serve as an indication of where games are headed.

One way in which Knack differs from Banjo-Kazooie: Its textures aren't smeary blurs that make your eyeballs scream in despair.

Cerny is succinct in describing the system's appeal: "So much of what we talk about [like the PS4's Share button] is built into the system and supported automatically. Beyond the system functionality though, we're focusing on the collection aspects, and being assisted by your friends in that way. It's much quicker, and much more fun, to assemble the gadgets and get your special abilities if you have friends who are playing at the same time."

Leveraged in this way, Knack gives a relatively old concept new life. In that way, the progress of your friends becomes as important as your own, while also reducing some of the repetition and boredom inherent to the traditional collect-a-thon. Simple as it is on the face of it, it turns out to be a rather significant addition that helps to elevate a substantial part of the Knack experience.

That a new development like the PS4's social functionality should elevate a relatively retro feature feels appropriate here. Knack definitely aims to be a "next-generation" game, but it also draws much of its inspiration from the classics in its medium, which manifests itself in many different ways. As mentioned earlier, Knack himself looks a lot like a 32 (or 64)-bit mascot, and Cerny has made a deliberate effort to slim down the controls to the point that it matches a retro platformer. But also like those games, Knack is very much in the "simple to learn, hard to master" mold.

Ultimately, the best thing about retro games is that they are universal. Being so simple and family-friendly, they have no trouble drawing in relatively young kids. But being as challenging as they are -- and Knack requires some fast reflexes at times -- they also appeal to a more hardcore gaming niche.

Ogres are like onions, and Knack's on a mission to peel 'em.

Cerny also makes the interesting point that many kids come from a background of playing tablet games now, making a simplified control scheme even more imperative.

"To go from [tablets and smartphones] to a 16-button controller -- and a AAA game will use almost all of the buttons -- is very difficult. So what we're doing with Knack is trying to create an on-ramp to the world of gaming for people who have never tried to seriously play console games before," he says.

"That could be children with tablet games, adults who plays games on tablets, and the key is keeping the complexity of the control scheme down. Also, for children, the key is not to use those shoulder buttons, since they're too far for their hands to reach. At the same time, to keep the interest of the core game, we need to take that control scheme and make a game where you have to make a game in-depth to the point where you really have to know it. So yes, we don't use many buttons, but much like a Crash Bandicoot or Sonic the Hedgehog, you'd better use all of them pretty well."

But as with the marriage of the collect-a-thon and the PS4's social functionality, Knack isn't merely content to ape past games. Rather, it draws inspiration from the likes of Katamari Damacy and God of War, then mashes them together in new and interesting combinations. Thus, we get a 30-foot tall Knack brawling with tanks and airplanes, which is also combined with the satisfying feeling of "building" found in Minecraft and the LEGO games. It's a game that seems keenly aware of gaming tradition, both the old and the relatively new. But its core principles are solidly retro, making it an interesting addition to the PS4's lineup.

Clint Barton really let himself go.

I'll say that I have no idea whether it will ultimately resonate with the sort of core gamer who ends up buying a PS4. It purports to be built on nostalgia ("There are many people who enjoyed mascot games back in the day and would enjoy playing them again," Cerny says), but the character of Knack -- who is built entirely around the idea of picking up relics and growing -- doesn't have the immediate appeal of a Mario, a Sonic, or even a Banjo. In essence, you're playing as a literal hunk of junk.

That said, it is an interesting curiosity. I like that it's aware of its roots, that it's family-friendly, and that it's willing to play around with long established tropes like the collect-a-thon. If Knack doesn't catch on, I kind of hope that another retro platformer comes along and takes some of its ideas even further.

Regardless, it's one more affirmation, if any is needed, of the enduring appeal and flexibility of concepts established back in the '80s and '90s. There are few constants in the volatile video game business, but I can take comfort in knowing that its foundation is as firm as ever.

Tags: knack PlayStation4 Preview sony

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