Music Mondays: Banjo-Kazooie,
In general, a game’s soundtrack should have a certain amount of cohesion between the different songs in order to tie all the various situations together. While other aspects of a game obviously work to achieve the same result and have an important role in doing so, music’s constant presence throughout an ever-changing game environment provides the perfect anchor for conveying emotions and ideas. There are many ways to take advantage of that fact to establish the connection, from having different tracks evoke similar emotions to using the same genre of music throughout. However, in my opinion, the most effective method is to build a multitude of tracks based on the same basic theme. There are a good amount of games that successfully fulfill that idea, but I find one of the best examples, if not the best, to be Banjo-Kazooie.
Banjo-Kazooie is heralded by many as one of the best platformers on the N64 and it deserves such accolades. While nearly all aspects of the game work very well, I don’t often hear people mention the soundtrack when the game is brought up unless I specifically mention it; a fact that surprises me greatly. Especially because, before a single button is even pressed, the game shows off its wonderful audio with the appropriately-titled “Main Theme.” Presented as the main characters play the song on their own instruments, the track is simply happy, fun, and extremely energetic. Despite that simple nature, the song also manages to come across as quite diverse due to the multiple instruments used, such as the flute, xylophone, banjo, and fiddle.
However, this song isn’t just good in its own right. It also is at the core of the music theming for Banjo-Kazooie. More or less every level theme in the game is built around this central track, but that’s not to say that the soundtrack isn’t varied. Each song uses different instrumentation to fit the individual level, such as the desert-based Gobi’s Valley having clear Arabic influences, and it would be nearly impossible to mistake one song for another. Despite that, the main theme can be heard as the base tune for all the songs, tying the stages together regardless of the major differences present.
For example, for the winter wonderland of Freezeezy Peak, the main theme is given an even more positive lilt, intermixed with sleigh bells and light horns. The track almost has a crystalline quality to it that really conveys the icy feel of the level while still managing to keep the song extremely upbeat. I’ve always felt the best way to describe this track is “Christmas in song form,” and it’s definitely one of my favorites.
Even with the prevalence of the main theme in the level music, the usage of core tracks throughout doesn’t stop there. The song manages to worm its way into nearly all aspects of the soundtrack, from the invincibility music being a sped-up version to the short jingles played for important item collection taking a small piece of the overall track. Of course, the main theme isn’t the only one used in this way.
The majority of Banjo-Kazooie takes place in the massive lair of the evil witch Gruntilda as the titular duo try to save Banjo’s sister from her clutches. As such, the “Gruntilda’s Lair” theme is almost guaranteed to be heard more than any other. However, it won’t always be exactly the same. In a genius move, the theme actually changes slightly when Banjo and Kazooie get close to a level entrance, shifting closer to the instrumentation of the level itself. Not only does this give the nexus a closer tie to every single level, but it also keeps the overall theme fresh no matter how long it takes to get through the lair. These tiny touches grant a strong dynamic to what would otherwise be a very static, although still enjoyable, theme.
The cleverness present in both actual music and the audio design itself is evident everywhere and it would simply take too long to cover all those instances. As such, I’ll merely touch on one of the best examples, that being the multiple themes for the level Click Clock Wood. The level is designed around visiting the same area in each of the four different seasons and dealing with their respective obstacles. Naturally, four different, yet similar themes play in the level, each fitting a particular season to a tee. Again, the similarity ties the four versions together tightly while still managing to have each evoke a separate feeling. This core idea is fully showcased in something as relatively small as a singular level, and it shows how every aspect was built around a single keyword: connections.
Banjo-Kazooie was released back in Rareware’s heyday on the N64, with a myriad of other successes surrounding it. For a good amount of these classics, Banjo-Kazooie included, the soundtracks were composed by a man named Grant Kirkhope. As nearly all of his works evidence, Kirkhope really seems to understand how important musical theming can be and I find him to be a master at incorporating central themes throughout a soundtrack, making him one of my all-time favorite video game composers. Although my personal favorite of his works is the soundtrack for the sequel, that is the topic for another article. For now, it’s enough to say that Banjo-Kazooie stands tall as the best example of central music theming in gaming.
Music Mondays is a weekly column by Austin Yorski and Robert Heck dedicated to discussing the most interesting audio experiences in electronic interactive media. Tune in every week for more original game soundtracks that you need to hear. Feel free to disagree with, add to, or question everything. I welcome your feedback.