Checking the Score: Yooka-Laylee

Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.

Is it really that big a surprise that Yooka-Laylee is this month’s choice? For anyone who’s grown up playing anyone of Rareware’s 2D/3D offerings during the ’90s, you’ll know well of the melodic effectiveness the studio’s soundtracks can often stand for. You only need to take a peek at the intros to some of their past games — which inevitably turns into a longer-term stay as you admire the variety of ideas spun in such a short period of time that is a mere intro — to see how well their composers could make use of even the most minimal of notes (be they arpeggios of a given pitch or otherwise). How exaggeration of a certain instrument — with its unique timbres and given range of pitches — could be what adds personality to a surrounding in a game’s World. Joy, curiosity, peril, danger. Or in some cases: “I don’t know what this is or why it’s here…but I’m digging this.”

Of course there was a hint of quirkiness and child-like silliness in parts and as the years rolled on, Rare’s base for creation began to carve out its own identity that we could inevitably catch onto. Melody-focused tracks that often used the same kinds of motifs and dynamics in their sounds – sampled effects and unconventional sources mixed in with the more traditional of instrumentation. Well I say traditional…I don’t think many would have perceived the glockenspiel to be anything “traditional”. That is until good old Rare made good use of everyone’s eleventh/twelfth/thirteenth-favourite (obviously I have no bases for that statistic, but you get my point) instrument. Naturally it should also come as no surprise that Playtonic — whose sound and music department is comprised of the very same leads that architected Rare’s sound throughout the ’90s and beyond: David Wise, Steve Burke & Grant Kirkhope, all three stemming from different periods of Rare’s catalog more importantly — follows in much the same footsteps as the studio’s previous incarnation when it comes to the soundtrack governing Yooka-Laylee’s main sound.

Yooka-Laylee Feature Screenshot

The glockenspiel is back (whether you liked its inclusion before or not) as are the wallowing low-pitch squirms from the brass sections, not to mention the particular motifs and phrases certain environments and sections are offered up to us the player even in the early periods. You take but a few steps into Yooka-Laylee’s hub, Hivory Towers, and you could easily mistake it for Grunty’s Lair from the original Banjo-Kazooie. What with its arpeggiated notes and to-and-fro flow; it might try to disguise the similarity with some additional string instrumentation in the upper layers, but it’s hard not to catch an ear of the “one-two one-two” passage comprising the track’s first half.

Yooka-Laylee is full of these familiar references to the past, but in the early stages it’s hard to decipher whether this particular direction has its own secretive intentions…or is purely just another part of the game’s overall (and at times unfortunate) mistaking nostalgia for end product. Tribalstack Tropics’ base theme certainly harkens to that pre-established base with its legato-laced glockenspiel, but what you soon discover — as was alluded to in Hivory Towers’ theme — is an intention, at the very least, to add a sense of scale and deviation that previous Rare soundtracks didn’t hold. Yes there are of course the variations on a particular theme depending on the context of your surroundings. There’s the underwater variations (that are more nimble or not as direct) as there are the interior/cave alternatives (lighter, slightly ambient in tone). But there are also additional layers or even complete dynamic changes in a track depending on your verticality or even very location in each World’s now-expanded form.

Yooka-Laylee Feature Screenshot 2

But it’s not always left to context to alter how we may preconceive Playtonic’s sonic dictation of a given environment, as is the case with World 2, Glitterglaze Glacier. The perhaps to-be-expected ice World of the pack. It’s almost always a given that ice-centered environments — in terms of their musical theme — are usually emotively “in the moment”-focused. Isolating, ambient…but there to further emphasize a players’ possible anxiety or simply the unordinary nature snow/ice often presents. While there’s definitely more of a spaciousness and grand size to this particular theme, what’s more interesting is how Playtonic don’t let themselves be confined to these cliched themes about snow/ice being this surreal, wondrous setting. There’s more of a grandiose, inviting nature to its bellowing brass sections even with all the delicate xylophone taps and high-pitch notation alike that defines most of the track’s color.

Even if there’s a hint of peril present in the theme to Moodymaze Marsh for example, the boisterous and daring allure becomes commonplace as these tracks refuse to simply laud like former 3D platformers. To merely emphasize, exaggerate maybe, the increase in difficulty or the upscale in challenge players are likely to expect. It’s no wonder the soundtrack’s most grandiose string ensemble/section comes as part of the theme to the best World from a design side. That’s not to say all of the soundtrack’s orchestral offerings are met with the same proficiency in visuals as is clearly the case with Galleon Galaxy. A track that aims to reach the same climatic highs as the most resound of Super Mario Galaxy themes, but ends up producing an almighty conflict, tonally as well as emotively, with its bare-stricken environmental accompaniment.

Yooka-Laylee Feature Screenshot 3

And then of course you have the tracks that come by way of the assortment of mini-games on offer. More upbeat, more energetic; some taking a very direct electronic approach in their composition, others finding a way to include traditional, at times folk-like instrumentation, in what should feel like the most bizarre juxtapose. The mini-game/track Bee Bop notably which, nothing held against the World themes of course, is perhaps the best implementation of any sort of groove or hook into its lavish mix of strings, woodwind and electronic components alike. It’s moments like this that show a distinct break-away from the conventions of a Rare-like sound — music that doesn’t rely (effective as it may be) on the staying power of melody or the personality its instruments can bring.

So while Yooka-Laylee as a game may find itself stuck in the past in the wrong ways at times, its soundtrack — though may not be exerted or as quirky as those former OST’s — is an example of how Playtonic, just like us, have matured with age and learned to adapt [in parts] to a newfangled perception. Not that the presence of old friend glockenspiel and old foe trombone don’t bring a smile to one’s face, but change is inevitable and it’s good to know Yooka-Laylee’s sound doesn’t suffer from the same breadth of negatively-tinged nostalgia.