It's fair to say that Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle didn't have the most auspicious of starts. When the game leaked it was met with a fair degree of scepticism, but that all changed when the title was unveiled onstage at E3, complete with an appearance by Shigeru Miyamoto himself.
Since then, there's been nothing but positive news about the unlikely collaboration between Ubisoft and Nintendo, with each new gameplay segment and interview endearing players to the concept. If you're in that camp then prepare to feel even more excited, as we've been lucky enough to sit down with former Rare composer Grant Kirkhope - whose credits include GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark and more recently, Yooka-Laylee - to talk about his aural contribution to the game, what it's like to work with Nintendo and what other famous franchises he'd like to work on.
Nintendo Life: First up, are you happy that Mario + Rabbids is finally out there now?
Grant Kirkhope: I was bursting to tell everyone, it's been two years, really. I was dying to say and I just had to keep quiet for such a long time.
How did you feel when it was announced at E3, and you saw game director Davide Soliani's reaction?
Grant Kirkhope: I was sat next to Davide, trying to push him to stand up. I've known Davide for about two years, probably a bit longer, so we're good friends and have talked nearly every day in that time about the game and its music, plus the other two audio guys as well, Romain Brillaud and Isabelle Ballet.
Davide's a really emotional guy, and he's poured a lot of passion into this game. It was his original idea right from the start, he was tasked with finding something to do with Mario that was different. When he stood up it was mega exciting; I had to dash down to LA from where I live to get there in time and I was slightly late. He was at the door trying to get me in really quickly, he saved me a seat right at the front next to him. It was awesome.
Even though I knew Miyamoto was going to be there it was still ridiculously exciting seeing him come in. That was such a special moment, and I heard him say 'Davide-san' and I knew he was going to cry! It was a lovely moment, it really was.
I think it's fair to say quite a few people were hesitant about the idea of a Mario and Rabbids game. The Rabbids, in particular, can be a little bit divisive. The reveal settled a lot of that.
Grant Kirkhope: For the entire two years we weren't worried as such, but were thinking there are a lot of rumours, people might not think Rabbids is a good fit. But we knew it was a great fit; it was so fun to work on and just made us laugh all the time. We knew that once people saw it they'd 'get it', but we had to wait the entire two years. It was really frustrating for us.
The Rabbids have that Minion-esque quality, they're really wacky. It's the perfect blend when Davide had that idea. The Rabbids are really stupid and don't really understand, so when they get dropped into the Mushroom Kingdom they take everything very literally. So when they see the Boos glowing they put them on top of lightposts, because they think it's a light and should be there. That goes right through the game, with the Rabbids taking everything at face value.
It was such a great funny thing, and having Mario against that, and the Rabbid Luigi, Rabbid Peach looking up to their counterparts, it was such a great mix-up. It was hard for us that people couldn't see it the way we saw it over the last couple of years. The game's been going for three years - I've been on it two years. It was gratifying to see people get it.
Has this been a particularly intimate project for you?
Grant Kirkhope: You always try to be as involved as possible in projects. I was particularly involved with this because Davide was such a huge Banjo-Kazooie fan, that's the reason I got the game. He loved it as a kid. People keep talking about the passion in the game, and it's like that in every aspect. The dev team, myself, we've all tried our best.
Because Mario's such a sacred IP, you want to make it as good as it can be and be really respectful to Nintendo. All that stuff we've grown up with over the years. I remember working at Rare and getting our first N64s, and we all bought Super Mario 64 right away. I remember being absolutely blown away by it. For me, getting to use the Peach's Castle tune, which I rearranged for Mario Rabbids - I was in tears writing that, I really was. I was sat at the keyboard thinking 'I can't believe I'm getting to mess around with Koji Kondo's incredible music.' Hopefully he likes it.
I can't really put that into words, it's so special. I think right through the team, top to bottom, we've poured ourselves into this game to try and make it special. Nintendo kept saying you can 'break Mario', do things they can't do. But also, be respectful at the same time. It's been a real joy from start to finish. I think it shows in the game, too, the quality and the respect for it, and the passion. Everyone's in tears all the time! It's one of those things.
You can see how passionate the team is, and the reaction's been really strong.
Grant Kirkhope: People seem to like it, and we're so happy with that. It's not often that Nintendo lets anyone touch Mario, so we were honoured that they let us get stuck into it. We all love Mario to death and have tried so hard, and the Rabbids are such a good juxtaposition against Mario. It's been so fun, and there's a lot of great stuff that people haven't seen yet, that you'll all smile at.
How does this project compare to other iconic soundtracks you've worked on in your career? Is it another level up, because it's Mario, or more like going back to the Rare days?
Grant Kirkhope: A lot of people view this as a step up for me, because Mario's the biggest game character in the world. He's like Mickey Mouse, he's the guy. I can speak about games I've worked on in the past and some people might not have heard of them, but you say Mario and everyone's heard of it. Immediately there's that sense of 'oh wow, you worked on a Mario game.'
And I wrote a lot of music for this. It's well over two hours, a lot of tunes. I've written something for this game every day for two years, even weekends. There's not a time gone by I haven't written something for this game. I had Yooka-Laylee, Ghostbusters, Dropzone, all last year. I've worked on this every day though.
You really feel invested in it, and it's weird now to not be doing it. I feel strange that I'm not writing music for it. It's nice to touch a character like Mario while being respectful, and it's also super scary. Koji Kondo is the master, so to follow him in some capacity is scary. I think it was November 2014 I first had an email from Ubisoft, just saying we've got a game for you. I signed the NDA and they said it's a Rabbids game, so I thought 'alright, should be fun.' They wanted to fly me out to meet the guys in Paris, so I flew out in early 2015 to meet with the team. The guys from Milan also came to Paris.
It was a bit strange because I got ushered through to the back part of the studio that was locked away. I thought 'this is a bit heavy security for a Rabbids game.' I went through a security door then got ushered to a room at the side, just me, Davide and the audio people. Davide said 'I'll show you the game', turned the TV on and Mario was there, and I thought he must have been playing that before I arrived for a bit of fun. He starts playing and didn't realise that I was unaware it was a Mario game. I just thought 'oh my God.'
I went to the hotel and it dawned on me that I'd have to write for Mario after Koji Kondo, the best videogame composer in the world. I started to get scared, and on the plane home I was nervous. They wanted something for the first part and I got an idea in my head on the flight home, got in and wrote it straight away. They liked it thankfully, but it was real pressure, and I think I felt that for the entire two years. You've got to step up to that high grade that Kondo-san sets.
What was your process in producing all this content? Is there a lot of remixed Mario content, or is it all new compositions? When tackling those themes what kind of things do you try to do?
Grant Kirkhope: There's not a ton of Mario stuff in the game, there's bits here and there. I wanted to try and take a bit of Nintendo, Ubisoft and me and smash it all together. I like to think it's not that typical Grant Kirkhope sound; there's bits of that, obviously, but I like to think I've got it slightly different to that. Also, the game gets pretty epic towards the end, so the music gets pretty big and it's surprising. I kept thinking 'I have to hold back', but they wanted bigger all the time.
We recorded about 45 minutes with live orchestra, and the rest is my midi stuff. We liked that blend of something like Super Mario Galaxy, where some is orchestrated and some isn't. We picked out pieces we thought would benefit from live orchestra, so you'll hear that throughout the game. I've tried to mix together crazy Rabbids, the classic Mario we all recognise and myself, together.
We've not let anything get past, either. Davide would sometimes say 'that's not quite right' or 'I like this but want more of that', and because we're good friends no-one gets offended. I don't mind rewriting things, either. I got to touch some classic Mario moments, and we wanted some of the classic ditties replicated with an orchestra. So I had to work it out by ear, would send it off and they'd have to run it past Nintendo. One of the parts went up rather than down, it was a minor thing, and I got a very polite message from Nintendo saying 'this is great, but can you change this part?' They actually sent me the sheet music for the little theme. That was a moment for me, a bit of sheet music for a Mario jingle sent to me by Nintendo. A little tear rolled down my cheek at the time, I couldn't believe it. I made the correction, of course! It was so special to me to get that little thing, the real sheet music. There's been a number of moments like that.
Was it primarily Ubisoft you worked with? Were Nintendo very involved?
Grant Kirkhope: They were involved quite heavily, as anything with Mario they have to see it. In the cinematic sequences that I wrote they'd say something like 'Mario's expression says this and the music isn't matching that', so I'd make alterations. That didn't happen a lot, but anything important with Mario they'd have to see it.
I'm sure sometimes Davide would pass music to Nintendo but wouldn't tell me in case they didn't like it! Having Donkey Kong as a Rabbid in the game is also important, as well, as that's another character of theirs in the game. Davide was probably in Kyoto five or six times showing them the game, so they were heavily involved. They kept saying 'break Mario' but I guess they didn't want us to break him too much! They heard a lot of music and saw a lot of stuff, so it was important for them.
Mr Miyamoto liked the game from the start. Davide did a really small demo in Unity before working in their own engine, a proof of concept. Miyamoto-san was in from the start, and for Davide that was amazing.
Nintendo's said this game does things they can't do - guns, turn-based strategy and so on. When producing a soundtrack for such a different Mario game, were there any particular challenges?
Grant Kirkhope: It was nice to not do the straight-up Nintendo style, because they're fantastic at that and I couldn't do that as well as them. It was good to put a bit of me in it and mix things together for something different.
You're conscious about a project like this. They said there's no point in doing a running and jumping game, they've already got that, it was about doing something different. This is a different thing to play with Mario, but in a different universe with Rabbids and so on. You can shoot, do the the tactical stuff, explore - it's a mish-mash of different styles, and it's a fresh look on Mario. I think they thought it was great to have that, and for the team it's been great to do something fresh with that universe. All hats off to Davide, he's the man with the project; it was his idea from the start and he's done a fantastic job.
It seems like a big game to win more fans for the Rabbids IP, too.
Grant Kirkhope: Mr Miyamoto likes the Rabbids, he said he had them on his desk. So when it was suggested I think he thought it was a cool idea; he was keen from the start. I think sometimes people jump to conclusions before they see something, wondering whether something is going to work. That made the wait painful, but we thought 'surely everyone's going to get it'. Waiting for the unveiling was a long haul, and quite a lot of leaks got out so that made it worse. People were leaking stuff without really knowing what was going on, so you get bad reactions from that. The final reveal was such a release of emotion as a result.
Some feel game music goes underappreciated and gets overlooked. From your perspective do you think there's an issue with music getting recognised in games, and how do you think people will respond to the music you've created for this game?
Grant Kirkhope: Video game music is getting bigger all the time. My son's 14 and an avid game player, but he doesn't really listen to anything apart from game music. His playlists are all game music. At his age you're normally getting into pop music or something like that, but he isn't. He loves Undertale, thankfully some of my stuff too!
I think it's definitely changing. My generation has a lot of people that haven't really played a game, but once you go down a generation it gets less like that. Everyone you know my son's age or even into their 20s has played a game; it's seeping into culture everywhere. You get these live concert tours all the time, selling out venues all the time. It's a real big thing now; even Classic FM votes in stuff like Banjo-Kazooie! Game music is played on the radio, it's getting everywhere, so I think in some respects video games still do melodic themes very well. I think of movie music and it's not as prevalent as it used to be; I think of movies and the music can be very big and epic but not always memorable or remarkable. So it's exciting but you can't remember a note of it.
In video games you can usually remember the tunes, as you might be in a level a long time and hear it a lot. So you've got to make sure the music's not repetitive and getting on the player's nerves, and make it likeable. It's a hard task. I remember when I first worked at Rare, Tim Stamper and Gregg Mayles constantly trooped out the Mario themes and said 'these tunes can play for three hours and you don't get bored of it.' You've got to do that, and it was hammered home day after day, so we had to learn that skill or get fired!
Video game music is a wealth of diversity, and there's so much of it. People love it, too, it's everywhere. I think people still think it's a bit of an underground thing but I don't think it is. It's permeating everywhere, you hear Game Boy sounds in dance music, for example. It's completely embedded into the culture. I think it's super cool when you hear those references in pop, rap, whatever.
Game music goes from massive orchestras to chiptunes, right from top to bottom. It's all great. My son loves Undertale and that's chiptune stuff and he adores it, and he also loves orchestral parts in Super Mario Galaxy. I feel that video game music has re-introduced people to instrumental music, because people are so used to songs with vocalists. You remove that and you've just got the melody, no hook line to catch onto, so it has to be a good tune. Parents have 10-year-old kids saying they want to see a symphony orchestra, because they're playing game tunes. For me that's fantastic.
You seem to have a love for orchestral sounds in particular. Is that the case?
Grant Kirkhope: For a composer, if you get into a room with the real people playing the music it's pretty spectacular. That's never going to get tiring. It's like a director that works on a movie for years and finally gets into a room to work with the actual actors. That's special and I love to do that.
But also doing Dropzone last year that was all synth, so that was really good fun. I hadn't done a game in that style since Perfect Dark, probably, so it was great to get back into that to mess with synths, twiddle knobs and so on for a little while. These days we like to call ourselves media composers, so we do TV, movies, games, whatever. You do tend to get a big variety of jobs, and it keeps things fresh and excited. Each thing brings its own challenges; with an orchestra you've got a finite amount of instruments, woodwind, brass, strings, so you use those. With samples though you have to try and make it sound human, if you don't have the live orchestra, so that can be a pain. If you get to do the synth score, you can put it all bang in time but then you worry about 8000 bass sounds to go through on the device, it's hard to pick what you like. There's drawbacks to every kind of music, but it's nice to have that variety.
Nintendo's evolved a lot over the last decade or so in music, with live orchestras and bands. What do you think of that evolution?
Grant Kirkhope: I think it's really cool. At Rare we would always say 'never underestimate Nintendo'; sometimes people would write them off and say they're finished, but they never are. They've always got something up their sleeves.
We used to find that, back in the day, and they always pull stuff out of the bag. Even now, the Switch is such a fantastic console, and who would have thought it? Musically, they can't go wrong with people like Koji Kondo writing music. You can never write them off.
Nintendo has a real knack of producing memorable, cohesive games. Was that a priority for the Mario + Rabbids team, to reach those standards?
Grant Kirkhope: With Mario + Rabbids the team knew what they wanted, which was great. When someone has a strong idea you know what you need to provide with music. Myself and Davide joke all the time and he takes the mickey out of me, but him and the team really knew what they wanted. I think I hit the mark most of the time, but occasionally with one of the worlds they couldn't decide which way it was going to go and that took a while to get right. But most of the time it was fine, and there weren't any major occasions where it didn't come together well.
When you've got passion for a project, too, you just try so hard to get it right. There was a set of cutscenes, the intro and outtro, they had a lot of focus to get them right. But what they've done with the animations and story is great, so it was exciting to write the music for how it starts and ends, in particular.
Where does this project rank in your career?
Grant Kirkhope: It sits pretty high. You can't get around getting to work with Mario. I was sitting in my office doing the cinematic sequences and my son would walk past and say 'my God, you're really writing music for Mario.' How did that happen? I look at it every day and it's special to me. For the team and me to get along so well has been great, and it was nice to meet more of the team at E3, and they're so switched on. It's been a pleasure from start to finish, and they all felt the same way.
Working with Mario gets me every time. Who knows, maybe people will hate what I've done and I'll never get to do another one, let's hope they like it!
Nintendo franchises on your wishlist?
Grant Kirkhope: Oh God, I'd love to have a crack at Zelda. The Zelda theme is so brilliant, you can't beat that. My favourite game of all time is Link to the Past, and I played it a million times. The music in that is fantastic, the themes are so good. I'd love to do a Zelda game but I couldn't beat what they've done, I couldn't compete with that.
I think the SNES was my first console, and that was my first game. I couldn't believe how fantastic it was, and the music. That theme in the dungeon is probably 30 seconds that loops but I could listen to it for hours.
We'd like to thank Grant for taking the time to speak with us. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle launches on Nintendo Switch on August 29th.