Grant Kirkhope
Image: Grant Kirkhope

Last week, in celebration of Banjo-Kazooie's 25th anniversary, we published the first part of our career-spanning interview with Mr. Grant Kirkhope, composer extraordinaire and the man responsible for some of our favourite music ever, video game or otherwise.

Part One covered his journey from the cornet in the school band through music college, a career as a successful jobbing band member rubbing shoulders with the likes of Van Halen, Billy Idol, and Bon Jovi before trying his hand at composing video game tunes on the recommendation of his friend and fellow legendary Rareware composer, Robin Beanland.

Having discussed the 'golden age' of Rare where he composed for such top-tier titles as GoldenEye (with Graeme Norgate), Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark (with Norgate and David Clynick), Banjo-Tooie, Grabbed by the Ghoulies (an underrated gem, that), and Viva Piñata, we pick up Grant's story in 2008 when he departed Rare in search of big huge adventures with Big Huge Games in the ol' US of A and onwards to his time as a gun for hire, and ultimately to his composing for Nintendo royalty when Mario + Rabbids came a-calling, plus which Nintendo IP he'd most love to get his hands on.

But first, let's delve into the Big Huge Games story. As you may be aware, things didn't exactly go according to plan...

Grant Kirkhope: I was a bit fed up with Rare and we loved the US, so we got a chance to come and we did it. We moved across to Baltimore, got the kids in school – that was it, off we went. Got an O-1 visa for that. It was THQ who owned Big Huge Games. We moved out in August 2008.

Just after Christmas, THQ sent a letter around. It was like a shareholders’ meeting that we all read and it said they were experiencing financial difficulties. They’d just bought Big Huge Games. It was like, ‘alright’. Then almost immediately, ‘We’re going to sell Big Huge Games because we can’t afford to keep it on.’

I was s****ing myself at that point because I was on a visa. I would be out of the country in 10 days if they shut it down. We were lucky because in America the rule is if you’ve got more than 50 people, it’s called the Warn Notice, where they have to give 60 days’ notice before closing the company. If it’s less than [50 people], then they shut you [down] on the day and you’re out of the door.

So, we had 60 days. I was mailing Gregg Mayles back at Rare saying, ‘Can I come back? It’s gone disastrously wrong!’ We still had the house in the UK, we hadn’t flogged the house, we could have moved back to Ashby. Then Valve came to look at [Big Huge Games]. They came for a whole day, looked at us because Brian Reynolds did all the Civilization stuff, early stuff, and they loved him. They wanted him as part of Valve, so they were prepared to buy Big Huge Games and make it part of their empire. That didn’t come off, so we were stuffed.

Right at the last minute, Curt Schilling stepped in. He had 38 Studios up in Maynard near Boston and they were making that big massive... I’ve forgotten what the game was called now, it was just a World of Warcraft clone really [Editor’s note. It was the cancelled Project Copernicus]. He was a massive games player, so he stepped in and bought the company at the last minute.

Kingdoms of Amalur Re-Reckoning
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning came to Switch in 2021 in 'Re-Reckoning' form — Image: THQ Nordic

[Meanwhile], I interviewed in Microsoft – didn’t get that. I interviewed at Mythic in Virginia. They were doing that Warhammer [Online: Age of Reckoning] at the time. That was a massive success right when it kicked off. They had a six-floor building and I got that job, so I could have gone there. I didn’t really like the place, but I thought, ‘Well, it’s a gig’. EA owned them.

Blizzard contacted me. That didn’t go anywhere. And Valve contacted me – that didn’t go anywhere. It was Mythic, but then Curt Schilling bought the company and I stayed at Big Huge Games. Four years there, got the game out – Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Todd McFarlane and R.A. Salvatore were mixed in with it too, we had some contact with them. And Curt was boss all along.

Sort of halfway through, we came in [on] the Monday morning [and our management at Big Huge Games] had all left. It was bizarre. Tim Train [CEO and studio co-founder], Jason Coleman [CTO and co-founder] – all the people that ran [the studio] just packed their stuff and left. No one knew what had happened.

People stepped into the roles from within the company. It became a bit like a cooperative, the staff ran the company. We got Sean Dunn, the guy who worked at THQ that we knew. We liked him and offered him the head [general manager] role. It was all going great. Amalur was going great, it reviewed well. People say it sold a few hundred thousand. It didn’t. It sold millions, a good three or four million.

But then the whole Curt Schilling disaster, when 38 Studios went bust. Monday morning you wake, you’re looking for your wages in your bank. It isn’t there. ‘That’s a bit weird’. Get to work, ‘What’s going on?’ Turns out Curt has run out of money. He got that $75 million loan from Rhode Island. They were in [Maynard] Boston, [but] Providence in Rhode Island was a depressed area, so they offered [an incentive to move the company].

So, [they] moved the entire company down to Providence. Anybody with common sense would have gone, ‘Right let’s get a crappy building. Let’s just get everybody in there, the Maynard guys.’ Leave us lot in Baltimore because we were doing well, and just make do. But no, he bought a six-floor building, it was completely knackered, [he] renovated the entire thing. Wasted a s***tonne of money on that. He wanted to do it big and proper because he was a big baseball player. He made lots of money. That was a mistake.

He did this thing where the people who had already bought houses up in Maynard, 38 Studios just bought their house off them so they could move down to Providence and buy another house. But actually, what we found out at the end was, they didn’t actually buy the house at all. They just took over the mortgage payments, but the house was still in the person’s name. So, when the guys who moved down to Providence and it went bust they were getting letters from the mortgage companies up in Maynard saying, ‘Why aren’t you paying your mortgage?’ ‘What do you mean? I haven’t got a mortgage.’ ‘Oh yes, you have.’ They were absolutely shafted. Things like that, it was dreadful how it went on. One of the lad’s wife was in labour in the hospital as the company went bust and he just lost his health insurance. Dreadful things happened.

Would you ever consider going back to a large studio? Do you ever miss anything? I assume the answer is, ‘Nooooo’!

Blizzard contacted me a couple of times, I would have loved to go and work for Blizzard. As a big Warcraft player just prior to that, I would have loved to go there. I would have loved to have gone to Valve. I thought they made quirky, different games at Valve. I didn’t get in there. I did interview at Sledgehammer, actually. They had just set up. They’d not even got an office and they flew me out from Baltimore to meet with them. I interviewed, but I didn’t get that job. Yeah, I would have done that at that time.

The unfortunate thing was because Amalur had done well and EA had published it, we got a visit from Take-Two. They were really keen to buy Big Huge Games away from the Curt Schilling disaster. But the problem was that it had gone bust. And because Rhode Island had lent them all the money, [Rhode Island was] the asset holder, they owned everything. Take-Two said, ‘We'd like to buy you, but it’s such a mess we’re just walking away.’ We had a contract on the table at one point saying they were going to pay for the company, they’d get the IP, and all the rest of it, and we’d go with Amalur 2. We'd started Amalur 2.

So, it was a disaster. By that point, because I’d had a fright at the THQ thing going bust, I thought, ‘Right, I need to work [this out].’ On a visa you get kicked out of the country. I thought, ‘How do I get to be a green card holder?’ One of my son’s mate’s dad worked for the government. We were sat chatting at one of the birthday parties and he said, "Have you ever thought about getting a green card?" I said, "The queue is like six, seven years long." He said it would be easier for someone on an O-1 Visa. The O-1 Visa is for aliens of extraordinary ability. It’s the one that athletes and high-end chefs and s*** like that get. When people come to tour America from UK bands, they get the O-1 Visa. That’s what I got. Not because I was anybody special. Just, you know, I got a BAFTA nomination for Viva Piñata. I didn’t win it but I got a nomination...

You didn’t ring up old Jon Bon, then?

[laughs] I wish! I wish! Yeah, ‘Is there anyone at home?’

For the O-1 Visa, there's ten criteria. You have to fill three of them: you have to prove any kind of award you’ve won that’s prestigious; proof of earnings; bits and pieces like letters from peers about how good you are. The criteria for the O-1 is the same criteria for the green card. It’s called the EB-1A. So, I was like, ‘You know what? I reckon I could probably bodge this.’ I went to see an immigration lawyer. He said, "Look I think you’ve got a really good chance."

I could prove I got the BAFTA nomination. If I’d won it that would have been enough to get me straight in. I could prove I had decent earnings from Rare, royalty-wise. I could show game sales, 13 million games, whatever it was, that I’ve been part of. Also, I could produce tons of interviews from people like yourself who interviewed me on the web talking about what I’ve done. To some bloke in an immigration cubicle, on paper I look quite impressive even if I’m not really.


Anyway, would you believe it, we got our green card. When it went bust, I knew at least I could stay in America, I wasn’t going to get kicked out. That was May 2012.

It was all over, so I had to find something to do. My wife [said], "We’re moving to LA," because I was really serious to do movies. I said, "Look, you can’t just shift yourself to LA. It’s super expensive. You’re daft." "No, we’re doing it. We’ve got a bit of money in the bank. We’re off." And I was like, ‘It’s not going to work.’ There was this company called Spark Unlimited, who were pretty terrible. They were looking for an audio director. They were doing a game called Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. I interviewed with them over Zoom and got the job. They offered to pay [for our move] across to LA. And that was it, here we are.

Spark lasted about a year and went bust. But in that year I always fancied being a freelancer, but I never thought I’d be able to manage it. Prior to this, my mate, Jeremy Taylor, who I knew from Harrogate and Knaresborough years ago, was working at Sega Australia. He said to me, ‘Give me a call, I’ve got something for you.’ They were doing Mickey Mouse Castle of Illusion remake on the iPad. They said, ‘We need a composer. Do you want to do it?’ ‘Great!’

Then the bosses from Big Huge Games who had left turned up as Zynga East in Baltimore. They set that up in the meantime while Big Huge Games was making Amalur. ‘Why don’t you write some music for us?’ So, I was working with Zynga as freelance and I was working with Sega Australia freelance as well as working with Spark Unlimited in the daytime. It was hell. I was working all day at Spark, all night on this private stuff.

You said that before you started it you didn’t think you could handle freelance. What about it couldn’t you handle? The workload? The paperwork?

I just thought nobody wanted to employ me. I thought, ‘Nobody is ever going to hire me. Who am I?’ So, nice to get those two gigs. We moved to LA on August 1st, 2012, something like that. I’m in a hotel for five weeks because we bought a house on the second day we were here, thinking about our kids going to school. I was trying to work on the computer in the hotel room in the night-time writing music. I don’t know how we did it, I can’t believe we did it! I was getting money from Zynga, from Sega, and I was still working at Spark, but I knew that was going to go bust and it did. It kind of worked out because it gave me a kick-start.

Then I got contacted by Firaxis in Baltimore, who were making the Civilization games. They were making Civilization: Beyond Earth. Sometimes when companies go bust it’s quite good because you all go to different places and you all recommend each other for jobs! One of the guys, Will Miller, who was at Big Huge Games and had gone to work at Firaxis, became lead designer on Beyond Earth said, ‘I want Grant to write the music’, along with Geoff Knorr and Michael Curran. ‘Great!’ Started working for them.

That Christmas... I got an e-mail from Gian Marco Zanna through LinkedIn, from Ubisoft Milan saying, ‘Dear Mr. Kirkhope, we’ve got a game we think you might be great for. Are you interested?’ I had no idea what it was. Time went on, I signed the NDA and it’s called Rabbids Kingdom Battle. I knew the Rabbids because my kids watch the cartoons and things, they were funny characters. I feel like they’re like the minions, they're just crazy. I thought, 'That’ll be a fun game to do it'. They said, ‘We’re going to fly you out to Paris to meet the Milan guys’. I flew out to Paris, we met there. It was Davide Soliani, Romain Brillaud, the audio director, Xavier Manzanares, the executive producer. They led me through the building to the back room where the team was, it was all through security doors. I was like, ‘This is a bit full on for a bloody Rabbids battle game’.

Were you contracted at this stage? Were you definitely doing the game before they showed you?

I think I had signed the contract, so I was going to do it. We got to the back room, they took me to one side. There was me, Davide and Romain in the room. He turns the telly on and Mario's stood there. I was thinking, ‘Oh, they’re probably playing a Mario game, got bored', it was a bit late. And Davide goes, "I’ll show you the game then". It starts with Mario on. "What’s this?" "It’s a Mario game. Did no one tell you that?" "What?" Like, instantly s*** myself.

[laughs] It sounds like a scene from a film, doesn’t it?

It is!

They’ve flown you out there and you still don’t actually know.

No, they never told me it was a Mario game. They said to me, "You sat there quiet for the first hour, we thought you didn’t like the game." Because I was white as a sheet. Jet-lagged, for one, white as a sheet going, ‘How the f*** am I going to write music for a Mario game? Koji Kondo is the Jedi master. I’m just a Padawan. It’s not possible, I can’t do this game.’ I just thought, ‘I’m going to have to say, "I’m sorry lads, I just can’t do it. It’s not doable for me."’

So, they showed it to me. It’s a great idea. I was equal parts sh***ing myself, equal parts excited. On the way back on the plane I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to do [this]?’ So, I just wrote the first tune that I thought would be [right] and they liked it. And it just kind of went from there. And the rest is history. [laughs]

Did you have any dictates on what you could use or couldn’t use?

No. We got halfway through the game and there was that starting area, Peach’s Castle, and said ‘We think it could be great if we could use the Mario 64 castle theme.’ I loved that game because when we were at Rare we all got N64s. That was the first game we all got, we all adored it and we were trying to make Banjo as good as that. I couldn’t believe I was going to get the chance to play with that melody. But at the same point I was sh***ing myself, ‘I can’t make a mess of this or it will be a disaster. They’re going to hate me, my kids will never speak to me again!’ I thought I had to make it my own, I had put a bit of me in there, a bit of Koji Kondo, so, I kind of split it into little bits and wove it all together. Nintendo loved it, so that’s fantastic.

I had to do a couple of the ditty things from Mario — I did the [sings] Game Over Mario tune — for orchestra. I did it and I had to send it off to Koji, he needed to okay it. I'd got some of the harmony mixed up. Not wrong notes, just like the wrong octave or something like that. This is one of the moments that I’ll remember forever. They sent me an e-mail through Ubisoft to say, ‘Dear Mr. Kirkhope,’ super polite. ‘Love your arrangement of the Game Over tune. Could you just alter some of the notes?’ And they sent me a little bit of sheet music off the actual game. I just thought, ‘God almighty! I’ve sat here looking at the Game Over tune in music notation from...’ You just pinch yourself, ‘How am I doing this? It’s unbelievable.’ You know? How did I get to be the first Western composer, I think, to work with Mario? Just unbelievable.

I got to re-arrange Rosalina’s theme for the [Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope] trailer, so I had to pass that to Mr. Koji Kondo again. I'd got a couple of wrong notes again, so he had to tell me to change a couple of notes.

You’re doing it on purpose now so you get to have another little chat.

[laughs] I know, right!

I’ve got one last question. You’ve spoken about your rock career and obviously all the games. You’ve done so much, all these huge things – Mario and the Rare work, Civilization, everything. Is there anything else that you feel like, ‘Yeah, I’d really like a crack at that’?

I guess I would have said World of Warcraft, but I did work with World of Warcraft last year – Shadowlands. That was amazing. I’m a massive World of Warcraft player, so for me to get to do that was really ridiculous. When I first played World of Warcraft, my son was two or three. Now he’s 18, so we’re playing it together now. We can both play online with his mates on Discord and I’m the old guy who can’t quite keep up. To wander around Shadowlands and hear my music in the background. Because there are lots of composers on that game – Neal Acree, David Arkenstone, and Jake Lefkowitz – who are all fantastic composers. To hear my little bits pop up now and then, it’s just unbelievable.

I’d love a crack at Zelda. I feel like Zelda: A Link to the Past is still my favourite game of all time. I still think it’s just a brilliant, brilliant game. I’ve played it loads of times. That was one of the first games that I played on SNES and I couldn’t believe how good it was. And the music is fantastic. That theme, the main [sings]. Oh my god! What an unbelievably fantastic melody. That game is just perfect. I’m never going to get to touch it, I know I’m not. But it would be amazing.

Hey, you might sign up for a game, it says it’s got minions in it, and...


Thanks to Grant for taking the time to speak to us. As you've read, you can find his work everywhere, but most recently on Switch in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope. He's going to be talking at EGX in October, and can be found on Twitter... if Twitter still exists by the time this goes live.

We'd also recommend checking out his album, Banjo Kazooie Re-Jiggyed, on Spotify, Deezer, Apple Music and anywhere else you might listen to your tunes. It's a delightful selection of remixed classics that had a tough gestation ("It’s absolutely been like pulling teeth trying to remix those tunes") but was worth it for the final result. The ska version of Freezeezy Peak, in particular, is chef's-kiss stuff.