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.

Preview by Kat Bailey, .

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.

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Comments 8

  • Avatar for grumba #1 grumba 4 years ago
    This all has me very excited, I'd love to play a new Banjo-esque game.

    But I looked at a video and it looked more like God of War... lots of square rooms full of guys you have to punch. I pray that what you played indeed had lots more platforming and collecting! If the game is as you say, it may push me to get a PS4.
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  • Avatar for GaijinD #2 GaijinD 4 years ago
    I'm not really sure what to think, here. I know I'm in the minority here, but I think Rare complicated Mario 64's formula in Banjo Kazooie without succeeding in making it more fun. In fact, I don't like playing it at all. Of course, I also think Donkey Kong Country is an empty Super Mario World pastiche. Battletoads isn't bad, but I hate those damn speeder bikes.

    Anyhow, what I'm saying is that hearing this compared to BK makes me want to play it less. However, you also say they tried to keep the controls simple, and the social features sound like they could be interesting. So, I guess my question would be, is this something that someone who thinks Rare took 3D platformers in the wrong direction could enjoy?
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  • Avatar for orient #3 orient 4 years ago
    I think the comparison to Banjo falls a bit far from the tree. The obvious comparison is with previous PlayStation mascot games -- games that Cerny had a hand in. I've seen direct nods to Crash Bandicoot in the camera angles etc. I don't think it's a system-seller or anything, but it looks fun.
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  • Avatar for jimboton #4 jimboton 4 years ago
    It's a linear brawler with little platforming and even less exploration so I fail to see the connection to the Banjo games. I also fail to see the appeal. Maybe I need to play more f2p tablet games?
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  • Avatar for Bla1ne #5 Bla1ne 4 years ago
    I try and compare Knack to Crash and Spyro, and he just doesn't stack up as a mascot in my mind. He looks alien to me. But I realize that's simply because I didn't grow up with Knack. The game is built around nostalgia, but I can't be nostalgic for a brand new character.

    That's why I'm not worried at all about whether or not this game will be a success or not, whether Knack will be adopted as a mascot or not. I'm fairly confident that a new generation will willingly accept him as their gaming mascot just like we accepted Crash and Spyro and Ratchet and Sly and Jak, etc.

    The gamble is that they're trying to sell Knack on the idea of nostalgia to gamers who are too old to adopt him now, but the backbone to this strategy is that, if parents do buy Knack for their kids, the kids will absolutely love and adopt him.
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #6 Funny_Colour_Blue 4 years ago
    This is a great feature but...10 years from now will people still be playing Knack? 20 years from now will this "social functionality" somehow remain intact?

    ...Does anyone else see how problematic this feature is?

    Once everyone has played through Knack and have since moved on to "the next best thing" is there going to be a way - years from now - to somehow preserve this “social functionality” for future players?

    Is there going be something beyond the PS4s social functionality that will make Knack memorable?

    There is so much more you could do with a 3D platformer than simply slapping social functionality onto a game that simply retreads the past.Edited 2 times. Last edited September 2013 by Funny_Colour_Blue
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  • Avatar for Karisu #7 Karisu 4 years ago
    Glad I read this. I don't believe I have any friends picking this up, which means now I won't.

    I thank the article for making it clear to me that the game is worthless without friends of yours also playing it!
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  • Avatar for ericsellers #8 ericsellers 4 years ago
    Yeah, I don't think this is going to live up to the long lasting appeal of a platforming adventure like Banjo-Kazooie.
    Especially not when its tied so closely to depending on others through its social features just to fully enjoy the game.
    That's a skip for me, unfortunately.
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