It’s been 25 years since Rare released the seminal classic shooter GoldenEye. Vince Pavey sat down with composer Grant Kirkhope to talk about Rare’s license to thrill.
The GoldenEye movie was decidedly a brave new era for super-spy James Bond, promising to bring 007 belatedly into the 1990s with a new actor, a new tone, and an update in style. Meanwhile, over in the sleepy English village of Twycross, a team of developers had to work out how to turn what was going on in Hollywood into one of the biggest hits for Nintendo’s latest flagship console, the Nintendo 64.
While the other developers were trying to work out how exactly a team would develop a James Bond video game in 3D, Grant Kirkhope – a newcomer to games at the time – was part of the Rare audio team, tasked with contributing to a soundtrack that some would argue years later is better than the one that ended up in the feature film. How did the team manage that?
“I had no idea what I was doing,” admits Kirkhope, who by way of explanation offers the old Picasso adage that good artists copy and great artists steal. “I just kind of messed around to try and hopefully find something.”
Standard issue for the audio team was a double CD of classic Bond themes, containing hits from Shirley Bassey, Paul McCartney, A-ha and the like. “I was like picking bits out of here and there that I thought would be appropriate for the game,” he says. “So like for instance on the Frigate level where Bond is on a ship, I sort stole parts from Duran Duran’s View to a Kill. And I’m a metal fan, so, I took the bass drum bit from Faith No More’s We Care A Lot and I kind of stuck those together and that became that tune.”
While it seems natural to assume that Rare would have the rights to use Monty Norman’s iconic Bond theme, Kirkhope says that the composer, who died last month, was notoriously protective of its use. “We were lucky to get to use that theme, so I was just trying to think of any way that I could possibly get that theme in there with some other popular influence that I could pull out of my head.”
FOR YOUR EYES ONLY
GoldenEye was Pierce Brosnan’s Bond debut, and at the start of development, no one really knew what to expect. However, with the movie appearing in 1995 and the game following two years later, it’s fair to say the film ultimately affected the development process very little. It certainly defined the overall story, and several of the many locations that the spy would visit, but both the game design and the score were instead developed through a process of trial-and-error, focused by a keen adoration for the suave character and his ongoing adventures.
“The team did get to visit the filming of the movie” recalls Kirkhope, “but I didn’t go to that, as I joined the team a little bit later. I did get to go to see the next movie because the [GoldenEye] game was so late! I guess it was a lot of ‘Bond is Bond’, right? We were all massive Bond fans from back when we were kids. When a Bond movie came out, it was the best film of the year. Best effects, best music, best everything.
“I think what also helped was the fact that no one on the team had really made a game before. So none of us knew what we were doing. So you just stick it together best you can. I think sometimes that’s the way the best games get made, because once you seem to know what you’re doing, it’ll get out to a bunch of managers and things all go wrong.”
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN SONGS
Despite being brand new to the games industry when working on GoldenEye, Kirkhope has found that his approach to making music for games hasn’t changed too much over the last 25 years, regardless of the many advancements in technologies and tools.
“I think the way I compose music now is just the same as it was back then,” explains Kirkhope. “I might be a bit better at it these days, though I’m not a very intellectual composer. I load up samples and I mess around with the keyboard until I think I’ve found something that I like. A melody or a set of chords.”
Of course, the composer didn’t really have much of a choice when he took on the challenge of making music for an officially licensed James Bond adventure. “With the Bond game that was decided for me. It was going to be the bottom chords. Everybody knows the melody.” says Kirkhope, humming the ever-familiar notes before he continues on. “So that’s what I was going to use, and try and embellish it a little bit in-between. As a huge Bond fan, to get to use the iconic melody that everybody recognizes around the world was pretty special.”
Kirkhope does recognise the flaws of the GoldenEye soundtrack by his modern standards, though, and is keen to share an anecdote that points out just how green he was at the time. “When I first started, I asked GoldenEye’s director Martin Hollis, ‘How long should the music be?’ and he said ‘Write about a minute or two and then loop it around. So I said, ‘Oh great, I’ll just do that.’.” he laughs. “I had no idea people could be playing those levels for 20 minutes! So I think I should have made every tune a bit longer. It should have been three to five minutes long. I would do that differently now. But I think apart from that, I think it is what it is, and I think it suits the game.”
DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
GoldenEye sits alongside mega-hits like Banjo-Kaoozie and Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle within Kirkhope’s body of work, which is basically a list made up entirely of console classics. Having worked on so many popular titles, it would be hard for anyone to pick out a favorite, but the composer confirms that he does understand just how big the spy adventure was.
“I was super lucky at Rare. I got to work on some of the best titles they did, just by fluke, and I didn’t really get how big GoldenEye was, until I got over to America. GoldenEye was gigantic in college dorms. That was the game that they all played at the time. I’m known as the Banjo-Kazooie guy a lot of the time, but GoldenEye outsold it.” explains Kirkhope.
“It is spectacular to be associated with something like that, a completely world changing game. Rare just couldn’t believe the success of all of our stuff back then. It was incredible. Every game we did was a massive success, just about. Thank our lucky stars we were there at the time, really.”
When We Made GoldenEra …
Drew Roller wanted to share his love of GoldenEye with the rest of the world, so he made a documentary called GoldenEra about the shooter and its ongoing legacy.
When you set out to make your documentary, how did you pick exactly which aspects of the stories you wanted to focus on the most?
Rare grew up in Twycross and blossomed into this global juggernaut of the gaming industry. They had a profound impact in those early days of the games industry. In that little quaint English village, nine people who had never made a game before, made something that changed the industry. Nintendo put quality above everything else.
They had the space there to learn, to grow, to innovate, and to fail, ultimately, and then reinvent themselves. The film sort of shows some of that failure and aspects of learning as they’re developing. So I knew the story was there and I knew that it would just be fun to just remember and go down memory lane. I knew that story would be a no-brainer if I could just reconnect people with their joy.
So were there any Rare perspectives on GoldenEye that you’d have liked to get for the film that weren’t available?
We didn’t get all the team members. In particular, Mark Edmonds, who was the lead programmer, is known to be fairly reclusive, and doesn’t really do interviews. So, he’s not in the film. But we had plenty of anecdotes about Mark. Everyone basically pays tribute to his genius, as the core driving force of the game and why they were able to iterate so quickly to be able to have that sort of fail fast mentality and try new things and learn. The Stampers are also notoriously reclusive.
We would have loved to chat to them about GoldenEye. I think, for the Stampers, GoldenEye was a game that challenged their vision of what video games should be, because they are known for Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country, Diddy Kong Racing. Very family friendly stuff. GoldenEye, I believe to this day, is the most successful title for them. It swept up award after award. So while that game challenged them from an aesthetic point of view, it brought Rare incredible amounts of attention and praise. It would have been great to have their take on that for the documentary.
How long did the documentary take to make?
From planning to shooting to editing, we took about five years, which is a long time. We’re an indie film studio, so we didn’t focus on it 100%. We started in 2017, worked with a producer and started preliminary interviews with the development team. Two years later, after putting those interviews together, I started talking to Jim Miskell in the UK, about working with him on his film, Bringing Back GoldenEye.
Throughout 2019 and 2020 we did principal photography, particularly in the UK, Australia, and Perth, and Canada. We spent 2020 in post-production, basically putting all the finishing touches on it. 2021 was negotiations with distributors. That part of the process takes a remarkable amount of time, but we’re hoping that now being in tandem with the 25th anniversary, we can ride that wave.
If you’d like to learn more about GoldenEra and where you can watch it, you can find all the info at www.altitude.film/goldenera