Is it 2017, or really 1997 in disguise? The colourful 3D platformers of the late 90’s and early 00’s, so full of character, are back in a big bad way. Games like Banjo-Kazooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day are the source of many fond memories for gamers, and the recently released Yooka-Laylee has explicitly been crafted in the image of such Rare classics.
Helping developer Playtonic to revive the spirit of Rare games from the 90’s and 00’s are a trio of alumni: composers Grant Kirkhope (Goldeneye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark and Viva Piñata), Steve Burke (Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts ‘n Bolts, Kameo: Elements of Power and Viva Piñata) and David Wise (Battletoads and the Donkey Kong Country series). Together they’ve created a delightful soundtrack that is old in spirit but fresh in execution.
We asked Kirkhope, Wise and Burke about their favourite tracks from the new crop and how they approached their respective compositions in the face of the intense retro vibes surrounding the project.
Kirkhope: “My favourite track is the one I wrote for the level Glitter Glaze Glacier”—entitled World 2 Theme on the soundtrack.
“I initially had a different idea for this that formed when we were preparing the Kickstarter. We had some artwork for the level, but it didn’t actually exist at that point. I wrote about 30 seconds of a piece for the Kickstarter page that I thought matched the artwork. But when I came to finish it off, I realised that it just didn’t fit the look of the level. I had been thinking along the lines of [Banjo-Kazooie level] Freezeezy Peaks but Glitter Glaze Glacier was nothing like it. [Playtonic writer and comms manager] Andy Robinson kept suggesting that I should change it—I eventually did so and I’m really pleased that I did.”
“I was trying to write something that I thought would be more floaty and delicate and that really captured how beautiful the level looked—this majestic, icy expanse. As usual, I was thinking about what John Williams might do—he has always been my number one inspiration!
“I wanted a mix of spiky instruments and majestic ones, which is why there is a ‘noble’ trombone entry in the middle of the piece [1:03] as well as the French horns at the end [1:52]. Of course, I had to include some glockenspiel and vibraphone too—I love the way they sound together, as well as pizzicato strings and celeste. Having all theses different instruments and textures helps to convey what I was seeing in the level.”
“I wasn’t really thinking about the late 90’s era of platformers at all in this case, I was just trying to write the best music I could. Things have changed so much since then and it’s been really great writing this music and trying to harness some of the techniques that I’ve learned over the past 20+ years.”
Burke: “I’d already been writing music for Yooka-Laylee for a week or so and by this time, I’d found a balance between that classic chiptune sound and something more modern. Although each track has different themes and instruments, I was more confident about the direction that the music was going in by this point (five tracks in).
“For Kartos Karting, the guys at Playtonic sent me concept art for the level and a few early gameplay video clips. For this track—and pretty much all of those for Rextro’s Arcade—the starting point was early game music from the Commodore 64 and Amiga days. I grew up with those computers, and my first ever attempts at writing music were via MOD trackers on the Amiga.
“[Creative Lead at Playtonic, Gavin Price] encouraged me to make the music fun, quirky and catchy. With this piece, I imagined myself round a friend’s house on a Saturday afternoon in the late 80’s, sitting in front of an Amiga and waiting expectantly for a new platformer game to load. We’d me chugging lots of Cherry Coke and watching something like The ‘Burbs or The Goonies at the same time!”
Kartos Karting in action:
“I set up a slow tempo in Cubase [music recording software] and tried some different ideas—it had to be slow because I’m all fingers and thumbs these days! I tried some simple bleeps and bloops, early game sounds. Once I had a tune that I could hum along to, I sped it up to a more frantic tempo and started adding glitchy percussion samples. On top of these I layered orchestral sounds to give it a bit more weight and, finally, a soaring high string line over the final third of the track.
“The [music technology of the] N64 is positively modern compared to my approach to this track! I was thinking about a time when I’d buy a game merely because people like Rob Hubbard [composer for over 75 games including Populous, Skate or Die! and Jet Set Willy] or David Whittaker [Shadow of the Beast, Obliterator and Speedball] were involved with writing the soundtrack. Many of my school friends and I would decide to buy a particular C64 or Amiga game if the theme tune was catchy enough. Anybody else remember schoolyard punch-ups debating the merits of the Amiga or the Atari ST, and which was best? …just me then.”
Rob Hubbard’s intro music for Skate or Die!:
“My time at Rare did play a part in how I approached this track—and the team at Playtonic Games as an extension of Rare. As composers, we were given a few starting points and then left to our own devices. There was very little micro-management and a lot of trust in us, that we would do our jobs and nail the tracks.”
Wise: “I don’t really have a favourite yet—tracks have to sit with me for a while before I can pick favourites—but there are a few I like. At the moment, it’s the track for the swamp boss—Trev the Tenteyecle.”
Put simply, “for inspiration, I thought about being in a swamp getting attacked by a very mean boss! It took a few attempts to get it to sound mean enough. I used a [Native Instruments music programme] Reaktor 6 instrument called RAZOR, which is great at making gritty, mean sounds.”
Armed and Dangerous wasn’t deliberately based on tracks from previous games or console eras: “With Grant and myself having worked on N64 products, gamers might possible associate our style with the N64. But I wouldn’t purposely go back and revisit existing tunes unless we were basing a soundtrack on a previous product. With Yooka-Laylee I was just enjoying writing for the intended gameplay.”
You can follow and find out more about the composers:
The Yooka-Laylee original soundtrack is available from Laced Records on 2xLP vinyl, CD, digital download: Lacedrecords.com/collections/yooka-laylee. You can also stream it via Spotify (Spoti.fi/2o9DU1e) and Apple Music (Apple.co/2mqeV7j).
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