Yooka-Laylee composer Grant Kirkhope on Playtonic Games making the 'Rare-vival' a reality

Chris Kerr
Grant Kirkhope Yooka Laylee

"I'd thought for a while that the time was right for another platformer," begins veteran composer Grant Kirkhope, the musical maestro behind classics like Donkey Kong 64, GoldenEye, and Perfect Dark.

IBTimes UK caught up with Kirkhope to talk about his role in upcoming 3D platformer Yooka-Layee, a game pitched as a spiritual successor to Rare-developed N64 classic Banjo-Kazooie.

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The game is being made by Playtonic, a British indie studio founded and largely comprised of developers that once worked at Rare on beloved games like Donkey Kong Country and Viva Pinata.

After Yooka-Laylee's successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015 (a record-breaker at the time), it was clear a lot of platforming fans were ready for a revival of the genre – but not everyone was convinced.

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"People were saying it's an old, has-been format," recalls Kirkhope. "They told me to forget it. In fact, I got told that a million times. But despite that, myself and three or four lads from Rare had a meeting and thought we'd have a go."

Only a few years ago, Rare was in dire straits. The Twycross-based studio, at one point a beacon of creative prosperity under Nintendo, had fallen on hard times after commercial failures and misuse at the hands of current owner Microsoft. The solution, as is often the case, was to make cuts and downsize.

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Around 15 people lost their jobs as layoffs hit the firm. But as the optimists of the world will tell you, when one door closes, another opens. In this instance, they were right. "It was a fortunate set of disasters in a way," Kirkhope continues. "Rare started laying people off, and there were lads who I knew getting laid off, and so at that time it became a viable thing. [Ex-Rare designer] Gavin Price in particular.

"Gavin was one of our original team members, and when he was at Rare he and his wife bought a cake shop business. We thought he was nuts, but it worked out really well. So he had that business experience. He knew how to get business loans and how to navigate that world. If it was up to us, it would never have happened."

Out of the frying pan...

Although the growing team had some capital behind them, they needed more to create the title they dreamed of. Buoyed by the crowdfunding successes of other studios, Playtonic turned to Kickstarter to ask fans for help in making its vision a reality. They obliged, clearly keen to make the "Rare-vival" happen, and by the end of the campaign the fledgling studio had raked in £2.1m (€2.4m, $2.6m).

It meant the team could kick on immediately, but it also left them dealing with the unique pressures that come with spending the money of your most fervent followers.

"I think you feel that responsibility, because all the people have put that on your shoulders. They really want the game," says Kirkhope. "But we've been used to pressure over the years, particularly during the Nintendo days. I remember Howard Lincoln putting the fear of God into us on a number of occasions, especially with Banjo-Kazooie.

"So yeah, we're used to it, but I was constantly saying to Gav 'for god's sake don't over-scope it. Don't over-scope it.' Being freelance for a while I've had the benefit of working with a few different people, and I've seen that kill so many games a million times over."

Yooka-Laylee

"It was carefully planned, although we still went past the deadline. We still delayed. I think we could've got a game out in September, but it wouldn't have been as good. It was worth the delay. The fans have been waiting for, what, 18 years? So we really wanted to do it justice."

Creating the best game possible doesn't just mean having the guts to push things back. It means having the ability to learn from your mistakes. To grow by being mature enough to admit when you slipped up. Looking back, Kirkhope says the Playtonic team had its fair share of regrets, and wanted to take the chance to right some of those wrongs.

"Banjo-Tooie especially was just too big. When we did that game I think we thought that twice the size equalled twice as good, when it didn't. Even I get lost in it because it's such a massive map. I think we learned that lesson, so if we were to do Yooka-Laylee 2 I'd say keep everything the same size, just fill it up with more stuff.

"Donkey Kong 64 taught us another lesson or two. There are thousands of things to collect in that game. Too many, really. So we learnt to scale that back and keep it more focused. Hopefully we're a bit better at that now."

Less is more

Kirkhope is glad to be back where it all began, alongside former co-workers and friends on Yooka-Laylee's breezy and fun soundtrack, but there's a danger in fixating on the past and becoming blinded by nostalgia.

"What I was most conscious of was not just going back into autopilot. I've done this a lot of times, so I tried super hard to make it better that it was before, because hopefully I'm a better composer now. I can't guarantee that, but hopefully I am," he explains.

"I think the whole team were conscious about that. Not just going through the motions, but really striving to make it special again.

"I'll give you an example. I did a little ice-level tune for the Kickstarter page without even seeing the level itself. But when that level came around it was obvious that the tune just wasn't right for it, so I reworked it. And I'm glad I did because that song, Glitter Glacier, is probably my favourite track in the game."

At the same time, the team were keen to avoid adding content for content's sake. There's a balance to be struck between the old and the new, and sometimes you have to step back and say 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'

For instance, Kirkhope was given the chance to work with an orchestra to "soup up" the game's main theme. The original demo was played on a ukulele, but the team thought it'd be best to go all-out for the main event.

As it turns out, they were wrong. There was a charm in the simplicity of the original piece, so Playtonic and Kirkhope went back to basics and used the demo. You might stumble upon the orchestral version in some specific scenarios, but the theme you'll hear on the title screen is the stripped back jam: just Kirkhope, a uke and one good ol' fashioned kazoo.

Taking nothing for granted

Hearing him speak, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Kirkhope has all the confidence in the world. And while he doesn't doubt his own abilities, what's apparent is that the composer is hugely grateful for the chances he's been given.

There's a sense of humility about the maestro, who is keen to heap praise on his colleagues past and present. "I've been lucky," he says, when I ask how he knows he's stumbled upon a hit. His answer, as you might've guessed, is that you never know. There is no secret sauce, just trial and error.

"I think I'm only ever 75% happy with what I write," he admits. "I think with Banjo Kazooie, I just tried to write something that I thought was a bit different at the time. I couldn't have gone with that Mario style, that sort of semi-jazz that Nintendo does really well."

Yooka-Laylee

"I stumbled upon that oddbally sound. That oompah thing used by Danny Elfman in things like Beetlejuice. I just fell that way, and I'm not claiming that it's original because plenty of people have used that style, but I just happened to pull it out of the bag at the right time."

In a games industry dominated by buzzwords like "gritty" and "grounded," perhaps "oddball" is the best way to describe Playtonic's effervescent platformer. Or maybe it just seems that way because we've forgotten what it's like to see a studio set out to deliver a game with joy at its very core – something that's as fun to play as it was to make. That was their mission back in the '90s, and two decades later nothing has changed. Well, almost nothing.

"I think what made Banjo the game it was," muses Kirkhope, "is that it was fun for us. That meant it was fun for the audience. It just sort of bleeds through in that way. And you know, things really haven't changed in 18 years. It's like Banjo-Kazooie was yesterday and Yooka-Laylee was today. We've all just got mortgages and kids and partners now."

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