Review Summary: Donkey Kong 64's soundtrack is a more experimental Kirkhope, but it's still a prime example of his skill at making captivating and charming game music.Banjo-Kazooie
is still a magnum opus in game music to many longtime gamers, so following up such a class act wasn’t easy, even for the superhumanly talented composer Grant Kirkhope. It was a showcase of both creativity and versatility in providing well-placed, but catchy themes for levels, remaining an unequivocal success on Kirkhope’s part. The next game soundtrack Kirkhope composed was for Rareware’s next big hit, Donkey Kong 64
. With enormous worlds and the same level of stage variety as Banjo-Kazooie
, Donkey Kong 64
was another ferocious challenge for Kirkhope, and while the latter doesn’t possess the pristine luster of the former, Donkey Kong 64
’s soundtrack is Kirkhope stepping outside that comfort zone. It’s a subtly more experimental soundtrack, but one that can still stand as one of the best of its era and beyond.
Kirkhope has been widely praised for his intricate and remarkably complex use of hooks in his level themes, as Banjo-Kazooie
taught us, and there is no shortage of examples of that skill in Donkey Kong 64
’s soundtrack. The slippery swing of “Jungle Japes” is an early highlight, with extremely varied instrument types and one of the most infectiously bouncy rhythms in a video game. It changes its mood from the booming percussion to a slick trombone rhythm to a groovy-as-hell bass, all with nice uses of animal sound effects in the background. Another amazing inclusion is “Frantic Factory”, which starts off with a wind-up key sound and continues with a creepy buzzing of a clockwork toy moving. The metronomic beat is complemented with some buzzing synths, ambient twinkling percussion, and a hauntingly mechanical vibe. Despite being the theme of one of the many “creepy” levels in Rareware’s history, “Frantic Factory” is shockingly distinctive. “Hideout Helm” will instantly make you think “spy movie”, with a low string driven rhythm and lots of low sound effects. The soundtrack even gets a bit more upbeat with a rockin’ funk theme for Funky Kong.
But remarkably, Kirkhope doesn’t put too much effort into making the songs catchy. The hooks aren’t as apparent, instead focusing on sharp, atmospheric work. “Klanky Kong” has a haunting xylophone alongside shimmering electronic and bubbling vial effects. “Gloomy Galleon” is another great inclusion. It has a respectable hook, but its strengths are the low, dark strings and higher woodwinds, giving the theme the perfect fuel for a pirate/shipwreck level. “Fungi Forest” is an upbeat theme extremely reminiscent of Banjo-Kazooie
’s “Click Clock Wood” (albeit slower and less hooky), while the main hub theme is more stage-setting than infectious. “Crystal Caves” is probably what benefits the most from this change of pace, as its ambient water drops and wavy keyboards are downright breathtaking. Kirkhope’s shift from the pure hooky goodness of Banjo-Kazooie
to the more layered and atmospheric themes of Donkey Kong 64
is rather abrupt, but the more subdued production is still an excellent way to interpret the diversity in the locales on DK 64
There are some absolute gems on the DK 64
soundtrack, but it’s very easy to have some negative opinions compared to the near-perfection of Banjo-Kazooie
. Many of the tracks sound almost too much like those of Banjo-Kazooie
. The boss themes especially (like “Dogadon” and “Puftoss”) sound like what you’d expect from a Rareware boss fight, but not too much else. “Angry Aztec” sounds like a slightly faster and lower version of “Gobi’s Valley”, while “Ice Slide” and “Mine Cart” sound far too similar to any “racing” theme from Banjo-Kazooie
. The tracks themselves are great, but they are moments where Kirkhope’s creativity tends to weather a bit. Also, very much like the Banjo-Kazooie
release, not every iconic track from the game is on the soundtrack. Some boss themes are not included (despite being some of the best themes in the game) and the level foyer themes are also noticeably absent. However, as with the previous release, the tracks themselves are excellent, and the 18 tracks all have charm and sophistication to them (even the bottomless sense of cheesiness of “DK Rap”).
Despite a looming sense of redundancy in some of the tracks on the soundtrack, Donkey Kong 64
remains an excellent example of Grant Kirkhope’s skill at music composition. It’s a steady shift from pure, classical gaming themes of Banjo-Kazooie
, one moving into more complex and multi-layered themes, the ideology that drives many AAA games today. But Donkey Kong 64
doesn’t forget Kirkhope’s roots; there are still some amazing tracks that evoke the same intelligent charm of Banjo-Kazooie
’s soundtrack. From the mechanical creepiness of “Frantic Factory” to the James Bond-ish “Hideout Helm” to the purely enjoyable swing of “Jungle Japes”, Grant Kirkhope is still firmly placed in his own defining element.
Is Donkey Kong 64
’s soundtrack Kirkhope’s best work? No, it’s not, but considering his incredible track record as a game music composer, you can’t really fault him, especially when the music he creates is still so effortlessly stellar.