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Interview with video game composer Grant Kirkhope

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If you were a gamer growing up in the 90s, the name Rare is guaranteed to evoke warm memories of hours spent hunched over a controller, pounding on brightly coloured buttons.

For a long period of time, the game developer – originally established in 1985 by brothers Chris and Tim Stamper – were one of the most well respected companies in gaming, with many of their releases becoming instant classics upon release.

Grant Kirkhope was an in-house composer for Rare during this period, working on such games as Goldeneye 007, Banjo Kazooie, Banjo Tooie, and Perfect Dark, to name only a few. During his time with the company he helped to contribute to the vivid and lively worlds that Rare created, producing spectacular scores to complement each game’s unique world design.

Despite leaving Rare in 2008, he is still creating and producing memorable soundtracks for new releases, such as Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Civilization: Beyond Earth and Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse. However, originally, he had reservations about becoming a videogame composer at all.

Grant states: “Being a composer was probably the furthest thing from my mind [when I was studying]. I had no intentions of being a composer at all. I hated harmony, because I thought I was terrible at it. Instead, I wanted to be in a metal band.”

Whilst, initially, he may have showed very little enthusiasm for becoming a composer, he was an avid gamer in his spare time, growing up around the arcade scene in the late 1980s and early 90s.

“I was part of a North Yorkshire county school symphony orchestra when I was in Knaresborough, in North Yorkshire. We used to have a 2-week course, so we spent a week in summer every year in Scarborough – all the kids staying away from home and playing great music. I used to get lunchtime off, and I used to spend the entire 5 hours playing video games. Everyone just thought I was mad.”

Later on, his opinion on the matter started to change when he invested in his first home gaming console – the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Around this time, he developed an interest in videogame music, citing the Legend of Zelda as a new influence for his music, alongside his favourite metal bands: Van Halen, Iron Maiden, and Queensrÿche.

Though despite his love for videogames and videogame music, he had still not heard of the company where he would first make his name.

“I had never heard of Rare at the time – that’s really bizarre. I must have started playing before Donkey Kong Country came out. I never played Donkey Kong Country and I didn’t know the company, but my friend Robin Beanland – we used to play in rock bands together in Yorkshire – one day said he had a job there. So he was the one with his foot in the door; the rest of us in the band weren’t.

“Literally right at that time Nintendo had bought around about 49% of the company. It was on the news at 10. It was a massive deal, because it was the first time Nintendo had ever bought a company outside of Japan. He worked there, so I called him and said, “what are you doing?” He told me he was working on a game called Killer Instinct – an arcade fighting game – writing awesome music. I was like “that sounds like a fantastic job.

Through his friend Robin, Grant was recruited to play guitar on Killer Instinct 2 for the SNES. This had come as a result of David Wise, then head of music at Rare, putting a call out for talented guitarists to perform on a range of videogame projects. This would be Grant’s first credit for Rare, though he would have some trouble securing a full time job at the company, sending a total of 5 cassettes to Rare, before receiving a reply and the subsequent interview that would lead to his employment. In 1995, after considerable effort, he became a full time employee at Rare.

“Without Robin this wouldn’t be my job. He was the guy who suggested that I do it. He recommended the gear that I bought, and told me what to do with it. Then I got on with it.”

For his first job David Wise tasked Grant with converting the Donkey Kong Country 2 soundtrack to the original Gameboy for the release of Donkey Kong Land 2.

“I got the lowest job, which was the Gameboy job. Dave had just completed the music for Donkey Kong Country 2 on the SNES and my first job was to convert those tunes from that to work on a Gameboy. I did that up until Christmas, I think. Dave said to me, “if you do this, you might get a crack on the Virtual Boy next.” I was thinking, “oh, this isn’t very exciting, and it’s hard” because it was in hex and I didn’t understand it.

“I did quite enjoy it at the start, but then it became difficult, and I felt like I was too stupid to grasp it. It was just numbers on a black screen. There was no notes, no midi-files, nothing. It was like programming really, which is very alien to me.”

At the same time Robin Beanland suggested that Grant produce some songs in order to pitch to Martin Hollis, who was head of the team developing Goldeneye 007. Without a Nintendo 64 development kit, Grant immediately began working on 6 tracks for the Bond license, with the intention of offering them to the team.

As he began to work on these tracks, Graeme Norgate, the current composer on the project, asked for some assistance with the game, because of his hectic schedule scoring both Blast Corps and the Bond licensed title. Without hesitation, Grant accepted the offer.

“I bit his hand off. It was fantastic. The deal was that I was supposed to do Gameboy in the morning, Goldeneye in the afternoon. I probably finished the Gameboy round about November, then I was working full time on Goldeneye after that.”

The finished result surprised everyone. Released nearly two years after the film, and built by a relatively inexperienced team, Goldeneye 007 revolutionized the first person shooter genre, with its atmospheric soundtrack and its fun local multiplayer modes.

Goldeneye Screenshot
Goldeneye 007 revolutionized the first person shooter genre, with its atmospheric soundtrack and its fun local multiplayer modes.

But, whilst the game had been nearing its completion, Grant had been moved away from the project onto another ambitious Rare title, with Graeme Norgate putting the finishing touches to the sound on the Bond first person shooter.

Grant recalls: “Tim Stamper and Gregg Mayles came to me in my poxy office, and they just said, “Play us your tunes Grant.” I didn’t even know who they were at the time. I knew Tim was my boss, but I didn’t know who Gregg was. So Tim sat on a chair, and Gregg sat on the floor. I thought, “Shit, this guy must be really important. He must be some kind of journalist. I shit myself, you know. I played them my tunes and they were very plain faced. I thought I was going to get fired.

“Then they said, “I’d like you to come work on my game “Dream.”” I said, “I’ll be able to come when I finish on Goldeneye” and they said, “No, you don’t understand – now!”

Immediately Grant moved offices. The intention was for him to work alongside David Wise on the new project Dream. However, David Wise soon left the development team that was working on the game to focus his attention on Diddy Kong Racing – another soon-to-be Rare classic.

Dream eventually lost focus and was later redesigned as Banjo Kazooie – a 3D platformer. The game, focusing on an anthropomorphic bear and bird duo, was to become one of the most well regarded platformers ever created, boasting bundles of wit, great graphics and sensational gameplay. It would also later spawn two sequels from the company, which Grant would go on to score.

He comments: “I must admit I have very fond memories of Banjo Kazooie. With that team of people we had such a fantastic laugh doing that game. I miss those guys a lot. It was a magical time for me. We really felt like we were up against the world. We were trying to create a Mario type game and beat the best.

“All that humour in the game is just all of us mucking around together. It was just a really great combination of people. I really miss that. Banjo’s got a special place in my heart.”

Following this title, Grant worked on several projects for Rare, including the synth infused soundtrack for the spiritual successor to Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark. In addition, he was tasked with producing the soundtrack for Donkey Kong 64, and the sequel to Banjo Kazooie, aptly named Banjo Tooie.

He continued to work at the company over the next decade, even after the company’s acquisition by Microsoft in 2002. He stayed at Rare up until 2008, working on games like Gregg Mayles’ Grabbed By The Ghoulies and the Viva Piñata series, before leaving to pursue new challenges.

Asked about his time at the company, he argues: “My favourite work at Rare is probably Viva Piñata, because it was the first time I got to use a live orchestra. I finally got to write that kind of Elgar/Vaughan Williams sound that I really love – that sort of English 20th Century composer thing, which I can’t really describe. It is a very English sound.

“I think, if I were writing for pleasure, I’d probably write something like that. I’m a bit of a softy at heart, and I do like writing heart-rending melodies. “Bedtime Story” is the one that I think I like best of all from the game – that’s my favourite piece from my entire time at Rare. It was a bit emotional as well, because I was leaving Rare around about the time of the second Viva Piñata.”

Viva Piñata: Trouble In Paradise
“My favourite work at Rare is probably Viva Piñata, because it was the first time I got to use a live orchestra” – Grant Kirkhope

Since leaving the company, Grant has been busy with an assortment of other projects, including the new Civilization game, Ninja Gaiden Z, and several crowd funded collectathon style titles.

On the topic of platformers, he states: “I really believe collectathons are making a comeback. The Hat in Time – I did a couple of tunes for them. Lobodestroyo was another one I guested on. Cooper Goodwin did the rest of the score for that. I wrote the baddie melody.

“I wrote a piece that was about two minutes long, full of melody, and Cooper can take it and use it as he likes. It probably won’t appear in the game as I wrote it, but I gave him some theme stuff that he could weave in.”

But whilst many are anxiously anticipating the arrival of these new releases, many gamers are left craving an official sequel to Banjo Kazooie or a new intellectual property from the original team. But Grant believes his Banjo days are now over, due to his departure from Rare.

“I do think there’s a big enough audience out there to make it profitable to do it. I don’t know why Microsoft won’t do a Banjo Kazooie platformer. I think they genuinely think it’s not a worthwhile venture. Maybe they’re right – I don’t know. But I just think that there is a place in the market for a good-old fashioned Rare platformer with the humour and the rest of it.

“As for other Rare people getting together and having a crack at it – I still think that’s a possibility. I didn’t think it was possible until very recently, but I do think it is possible now. I can’t go into any more detail than that. I think it is doable right now – not Banjo Kazooie, but something like that – with people who can make something good out of it.”

Today Grant is still captivating audiences with his diverse work. Recently, he has also acquired a cult following, as a result of his appearance on popular YouTube channel Game Grumps.

Now living in LA, Grant is hoping to apply his talents to creating soundtracks for film.

No doubt, followers of his work will be excited by the prospect of hearing his music accompanying the latest film releases in the not so distant future.

Written By: Jack Yarwood

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