Gaming Reviews, News, Tips and More.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

I Love How Banjo-Kazooie’s Music Changes As I Play

Image: Rare / Kotaku
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-ass sounds they make. Today we’re hopping into a blue backpack that is…being carried by a bear?

Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie (playlist / longplay / VGMdb), released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64, faced the near-impossible challenge of measuring up to another N64 3D jumping game released two years earlier, Super Mario 64. After Nintendo’s revolutionary transformation of Super Mario Bros. into three dimensions, how could any other 3D platformer ever compare? How could any look as good as Nintendo’s polygonal marvel? Could they even sound as good? Had you heard “Dire, Dire Docks?”

The past two decades have proven that Mario 64 wasn’t quite The Best Game Of All Time, but it sure seemed that way to a lot of us back in the late ‘90s. And then Banjo-Kazooie showed up, featuring the bickering odd couple of Banjo the bear and the backpack-borne breegull Kazooie, hailing from the studio that just stunned N64 owners with a brilliant James Bond game.

Banjo-Kazooie played great, looked great, and did you hear that soundtrack? Composer Grant Kirkhope delivered a virtuoso performance for Rare’s game. Banjo-Kazooie’s soundtrack is energetic and frequently silly, a splendid accompaniment to the game’s colorful, comedic style.

Here’s the raucous and very silly main theme that establishes the game’s comical tone:

Rare / GilvaSunner (YouTube)

Here’s the summer theme for the game’s seasons-based level Click Clock Wood. I’m ready to sit in the shade and sip lemonade just listening to it:

Rare / GilvaSunner (YouTube)

The soundtrack’s most impressive theme may well be the one you hear the most while playing: “Witch’s Lair.” It plays as you explore Banjo-Kazooie’s massive hub area, which is itself a complex 3D platforming level that connects to each of the game’s themed levels. The “Lair” theme doesn’t just sound great, it sounds different depending on where you are in the hub.

If you’ve just entered Gruntilda’s Lair, it sounds like this:

Rare / GilvaSunner (YouTube)

That’s wonderful enough, but the point of the hub is for you to explore its nooks and crannies and find entry points to the game’s nine levels. All of the levels have themes. Treasure Trove Cove is all about pirate ships, beaches, and buried treasure. Gobi’s Valley involves pyramids and desert sands. And so on.

If you poke around and find your way to Treasure Trove Cove’s entrance, the lair theme starts to sound like this:

Rare / GilvaSunner (YouTube)

Once you discover the entrance to the game’s haunted house level, it sounds like this:

Rare / GilvaSunner (YouTube)

There are variations for each level, with appropriate instrumentation for each. Hop through the lair and listen to the music change:

Rare / MoldyPond (YouTube)

How clever, right? I love it when a video game does something that isn’t possible in another medium.

“I’d loved to take credit for that idea, but I stole it from The Secret of Monkey Island!” composer Grant Kirkhope told me over Twitter DM when I asked how the system came about. (He’s specifically referring to the second Monkey Island game, LeChuck’s Revenge, which debuted LucasArts’ iMUSE technology.) “When I first got to Rare, they loved those games and got me to play them. They wanted to have the music do the same thing, so I came up with a way to do it.”

He explained that the Banjo-Kazooie is programmed to turn the volume up and down on various music channels as Banjo crosses invisible thresholds in Gruntilda’s Lair. “I’d allocate certain channels to certain areas, give a list to the programmers and they’d implement it in code,” he said. “There are only 16 channels in a MIDI file, so that was all the instruments I could use per level.”

The concept at play is called variable mix. It may not have started with Banjo-Kazooie and it also didn’t end there. TV Tropes lists dozens of games that include their own variable themes. I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, every time I hear it.

To wit: Back in 2011, Nintendo sent me an early copy of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and as Nintendo tends to do, it issued strict guidelines on what I could share with readers prior to the game’s release. For example, I could only show 30-second clips of the game. That limitation was sufficient for showcasing what I heard when I made Skyward Sword’s protagonist, Link, walk through the game’s main shopping bazaar. Wouldn’t you know it, but the developers included a terrific variable mix: one melody plays throughout the game’s main bazaar, but with different instrumentation depending on where Link stands.

I love a theme that dynamically changes itself up like this, it never gets old. And it was never done better than in Banjo-Kazooie, a great game that shined bright from beneath a very big shadow.

By the way, Kirkhope says it’s hard to pick his favorite version of “Witch’s Lair,” but he’d probably go with this one:

Rare / GilvaSunner (YouTube)

That’s it for today’s Morning Music! Let me hear about some of your favorite gaming theme variations in the comments. Or just chat about why this is going to be a completely chill week and how there’s no need to be on edge about anything. See you tomorrow!