The Brilliant Ballad of the Bear and Bird: The music of Banjo-Kazooie

Gamer Grooves

As always, a friendly reminder this post will contain spoilers.

Made by Rare in 1998, Banjo-Kazooie was an awesome platformer that created a craze in N64 games known as the ‘collectathon’ (which I will not linger on, as collectathons could inspire a whole new series of posts). The intro theme is a great look into the kind of characters and feeling that the game had. There was the main villain, Gruntilda Winkybunion, who would constantly belittle the eponymous duo, always in rhyme, and often breaking the fourth wall while doing so. People remember the characters, of course, but the shining star of the game had to be the soundtrack. Composed by Grant Kirkhope (who also did most of the voices and sound effects), the soundtrack featured songs that had continuity within the levels they were made for. What does that mean exactly? Let me try to explain…

Every time you went into a cave, entered a house, went underwater, or really just anywhere off the main map, the music would distort in various ways – slower, faster, spaced out, etc. It didn’t sound like a filter was applied, rather, it sounded like each version of the song was created for when you were in that particular section. That and the fact that there was a seamless transition between situations made everything seem so natural and built a deep sense of continuity within the game world.

Let’s get this train rolling so that we can appreciate the genius of Grant Kirkhope and his vision for the game’s OST.

Songs

Grunty’s Lair (a.k.a Gruntilda’s Lair)

The reason that I provided the compilation of all the versions of this song is because it’s where you spend most of your time in-game. Grunty’s Lair is the hub world, so you’re going to spend a lot of your time running around here. The song changes based on the entrance to the zone you’re close to. If you’re in the main part of the cave, the default music will be found 0:00 – 2:00 on the song, Mumbo’s Mountain will be 2:00 – 3:15, and so on and so forth.

We’ll take the closest look at the default theme since it’s probably heard the most. Many of my favorite video game songs are themed to the area they’re set in. Grunty’s Lair maintains that creepy sort of Halloween/Fairytale music because Gruntilda is, basically, a classic witch. No matter how the song changes, it’s established quite clearly that this is HER theme. It’s the theme of HER lair. Not the sand kingdom or the pirate cove, but her theme and her theme alone. From start to finish, you will link it to no-one else except for Grunty and her lair no matter how much it is changed by standing next to zone entrances.

Rusty Bucket Bay

Other songs in the soundtrack tend to capture the feeling of the level, but this song may take the cake for me (the gross, oily, industrial cake). Rusty Bucket Bay is the second to last level in Banjo-Kazooie. The reason I’ve skipped so far ahead is that all of the songs on the soundtrack are amazing, but I had enough time to digest this one while playing. The reason I had plenty of time was because this level was hard as hell. It takes place in a shipyard with a huge oil tanker sitting in the middle. The water is oily (of course) and takes away twice the amount of breath that normal water would without letting you recover it if you go up for air.

The level was brutal, uncaring, and disgusting. It took every opportunity it could to kill you without actually trying all that hard (the water, the sharks, the toxic waste, and the dreaded engine room). That’s why this song is great; it personifies that vision of a factory that will continue its work whether you’re there or not. The blare of horns and whistles and an upset-sounding tuba (or whatever it is) creates an environment for construction workers and coal miners. This was awesome to me, and I loved this song to death because it was the one thing stopping me from screaming at the TV whenever I died at 85 notes. Good on you, Rusty Bucket Bay. Oh! Your lunch break is over? Well alright. We’ll talk tomorrow, I guess.

Click Clock Wood

As the last level in the game, it’s pretty clear why Click Clock Wood is so tough. In Banjo-Kazooie, there are 100 notes, 5 Jinjos, 10 Jiggies, and 2 extra honeycomb pieces in each level. When you got a Jiggie or an extra honeycomb, you were okay. However, if you died, you would lose all your notes and your Jinjos. If you wanted to 100% the game, then you had to get all those notes without dying. Click Clock Wood pushed this to the limit because it took place across all 4 seasons with the 100 notes spread out across all of them. Also, because the main part of Click Clock Wood is a huge tree, you’re going to be precariously high up (and because fall damage scaled, if you were too high when you fell – then you were dead, friend).

So it’s no surprise then that the core theme of CCW (Click Clock Wood) is so thoroughly burrowed into my skull. I had to be extra careful and couldn’t leave the stage, so it took me 4-6 hours of just trying not to die to find all the notes. The theme is an upbeat and nature-centric tune, which betrays the true difficulty of CCW. Being catchy in combination with hearing it for hours on end can do a number on a guy. There are songs that many people would pick over CCW, but I know that I’ll never be able to think about Banjo-Kazooie without thinking of this.

The Final Battle

Like I mentioned before, the theme of Grunty’s Lair did a good job of making you associate the music with Gruntilda herself. So when the time comes for the final showdown, it’s no holds barred. While you heard the lighter and more humorous side to the song throughout the game, the final battle seeks to rid you of those feelings. It’s go-time, and just because Grunty talked in rhymes and broke the fourth wall doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to kill the hell out of you.

Even the main theme of BK pops in at 1:16 and 1:22 only to be repeatedly squashed by the battle theme reminding you not to think about those upbeat times and to focus instead on the task at hand. Gruntilda is not an easy fight by any stretch of the imagination and this song only reinforces that point. I feel that it’s the job of the final boss song to make you realize that this fight is far different than any other. So it’s funny that the song we’ve heard all throughout the game makes its re-appearance in the final boss theme, but only as a reminder that Grunty is who we’ve been after. It’s time to fight.

Afterthoughts

Rare would release 3 more big platformers after this one, before its acquisition by Microsoft in 2002: Donkey Kong 64, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and Banjo Tooie. Banjo Tooie (which may get its own post one day) was teased in the ending credits of Banjo-Kazooie, and when it came out it didn’t fail to live up to expectations. It took the core concepts of the game and heightened them, expanded them, and just plain added more stuff than was there before. Rare would then release a 3rd Banjo game in 2008 called Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. This game had you build vehicles and do missions in new worlds. Nobody wanted this, and while it might have been a good game in its own way, fans wanted another collectathon platformer. There would be no Banjo-Kazooie game released after this one, but people are always holding out for Banjo-Threeie, whenever it may come. Hopefully when that day arrives, Grant Kirkhope will be at the wheel, composing once again and setting us gamers up to make more memories.

See y’all tomorrow!

WAHEY!

Alex McVeigh
About Alex McVeigh 28 Articles
Alex has been a nerd for as long as he can remember. Every normal conversation he has had could be matched 1 for 1 with a conversation about why Scrooge McDuck is obviously richer than Edward Cullens' Dad and here's why. He can talk about and play video games for hours only to conclude with "anyone wanna play some magic?