Review Summary: Kirkhope's mastery of variety, virtuosity and versatility makes the Banjo-Kazooie soundtrack a watershed of creativity in game music and one of the best gaming soundtracks ever composed.Banjo-Kazooie
’s 1998 release on the Nintendo 64 is still fondly treasured in gamers’ minds. It remains a defining 3D platformer, one that even took steps beyond the genre’s archetype of Super Mario 64
. Many people remember the titular duo, the wacky level design, and the goofy-as-all-hell humor, but any gamer whose played the game can by default hum a bar from at least one of the level themes. The Banjo-Kazooie
soundtrack was written by British composer Grant Kirkhope, whose earned a number awards for his work in gaming music (and even made a guest appearance on the popular Youtube gaming series Game Grumps
). His soundtracks are the embodiment of gaming classics of the past, but when you look at the music in a more precise light, you realize that there’s much more than catchy tunes and bouncy chords. Over the course of seventeen tracks, Grant Kirkhope rewrites the rules with how you make video game music. His use of charming composition is second only to his inventiveness; Banjo-Kazooie
is a showcase of Kirkhope’s incredible ability to create so many different atmospheres with such a small toolbox. It’s one of the finest pieces of gaming music ever to hit a cartridge, disc or digital download file.
If you’ve ever played Banjo-Kazooie
, or even just watched the opening cutscene, you’ll remember the main characters each playing distinctive instruments. Banjo’s titular strings, Kazooie’s buzzing kazoo, Tooty’s flute and Mumbo’s saxophone/xylophone/fiddle combo are just the beginning of what the game’s soundtrack has to offer. Kirkhope’s multi-faceted music background allows him to implement a tremendous range of instruments in nearly every theme. To be fair, the instruments from the “Main Title” are normally the most frequent to appear in the other tracks, but the fact that Kirkhope is able to introduce all of them into so many different environments and moods is nothing short of magical. Take one of the best tracks “Rusty Bucket Bay.” Kirkhope’s upward and downward scales on the xylophone side are complimented with slippery trombones and muddy saxophones, realizing the nastiness of a dirty harbor. Kirkhope doesn’t represent every single instrument in every single track, but his ability to use so many in so many different contexts while still sounding apropos to the theme is downright superhuman.
Each level’s background music has distinct ties to the levels themselves, and with that level diversity, the music is equally varied. “Freezeezy Peak”, with its wintery themes, has plenty of very nimble string arrangements. “Click Clock Wood” has a wonderful flute piece leading the winds section, and the crowing of birds adds in plenty of smart uses of sound effects. In fact, sound effects become a big part of many of the themes’ appeal, as heard with the dripping noises in “Clanker’s Cavern” to represent sludginess and filthiness. “Gobi’s Valley” uses traditional Egyptian influence with a “snake-charming” woodwind cue and, once again, a great use of saxophone for rhythm as opposed to melody. Kirkhope is able to vary the tempos as well, as “Gobi’s Valley” presents a faster pace compared to the somber and spooky “Mad Monster Mansion” theme. When listening to Kirkhope’s themes, you can perfectly envision the levels themselves, even if you’ve never touched a cartridge or even a controller before.
If there’s one big issue with Kirkhope’s release of Banjo-Kazooie
’s soundtrack, it’s that it doesn’t contain every single theme in the game. That’s hard to articulate, but some levels have multiple renditions of the theme. For example, the music in “Mumbo’s Mountain” changed depending on where you were in the level. The main level theme has a catchy woodwind theme, rhythmic horns, along with xylophone and banjo inclusions, but as you approached a certain area in the game, the music became tribal, with pounding drums and chants. Many levels had this dynamic musical style, but Kirkhope’s release only contains the main themes of each stage (with the exception of “Nab Nut”, which is also a short theme from an area in Click Clock Wood). This does leave out a rather large number of excellent performances in the game, but considering how much music Banjo-Kazooie
cranked out in that single cartridge, the full release would be extensive to an almost impractical degree on Kirkhope’s part.
There’s a reason that Grant Kirkhope’s music is so revered in the gaming world. He’s always been able to capture the magic of so many unique worlds in his compositions, embracing charm and never neglecting imagination. But looking at his compositions on a cognitive level, it’s clear that his multi-faceted talent in composing and astounding versatility in mood, tempo and instrument choice is something spectacular not just for game music, but any medium. Even when using identical instruments for two themes, Kirkhope is able to make each track sound fresh and completely unique. While the release itself is more a “greatest hits” than a collective anthology of all of the wonderful music in Banjo-Kazooie
, the fact that these hits are still…well…great is not worth ignoring. The steady evolution of music in video games has erupted into a web of detours that is frequently disorienting in this day and age, but Grant Kirkhope’s work on the soundtrack of Banjo-Kazooie
is a charming and wondrous accomplishment from beginning to end and one of the finest collections of video game music ever created.