Home > Reviews > MARIO + RABBIDS: KINGDOM BATTLE – Grant Kirkhope



Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

I have a confession to make, and I’m not sure how well it’s going to go over. It may be OK, or it may cause me to lose some respect in the eyes of my readers, but it’s something I have to get off my chest. OK… here goes. My name is Jon Broxton and I have never played Donkey Kong. Or Super Mario Bros., or The Legend of Zelda, or any of those classic Nintendo games that are such a staple of contemporary popular culture. Growing up, I wasn’t a gamer at all, and while I was of course aware of all the various characters, I never had the experience of actually playing them, which meant that for most of my life they didn’t mean a whole lot to me. I have since become much more aware of their impact and legacy, which is how I know that Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is one of the most important game titles to be released in 2017.

The game is a crossover between two popular franchises: Super Mario Bros. and Rayman. The story sees players controlling the Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and Yoshi characters from Super Mario Bros., plus a group of Rabbids (large rabbit-like creatures from the Rayman universe who like to cause havoc and mischief) dressed as them, and having to deal with the aftermath of a sudden invasion by a second group of Rabbids, who have accidentally misused a powerful invention that has brought chaos to the Mushroom Kingdom where Mario and his friends live.

The score for Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is by English composer Grant Kirkhope. Kirkhope is already something of a legend in gaming circles, having written music for such classic titles as GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark, Viva Piñata, and, more recently, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and several entries in the Civilization: Beyond Earth series. However, with Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, Kirkhope has broken new ground by being the first non-Japanese composer ever to write music for a Mario game. The significance of this can’t be overstated; Mario, Luigi, and the rest of the gang are massively important parts of Japanese culture, and so for the music for his latest game to be entrusted to someone from outside the main family of Nintendo composers was quite a risk for them to take.

Thankfully, Kirkhope’s hands are about as safe as any composer’s can be, and the resulting score is quite outstanding. One of the things that makes Kirkhope’s music so refreshing is its unashamed, almost defiant, insistence on and adherence to themes. At a time when mainstream film music is so lacking in memorable melodic, thematic content, listening to something like Mario + Rabbids is like opening the curtains and letting the light stream in. Everything is tonal, consonant, thematically strong, full of melody and life, and teeming with interesting orchestral content. As Kirkhope himself likes to say, he “likes a good tune,” and this score has a ton of them. I’m not familiar enough with the music of either Super Mario Bros. or Rayman to know whether any of the pre-existing themes from those universes appear in cameos here, and I haven’t played the game in order to know which themes relate to which characters, but even without that level of detail there is still plenty to admire here.

One of the other great things about Mario + Rabbids is the fact that it’s plain, old fashioned fun. There’s a sense of carefree playfulness, un-pretentious enjoyment, running through the entire score. This is music that sounds and feels happy, and that feeling is infectious. But that’s not to say that the score is one-note or unsophisticated; on the contrary, the level of compositional depth and technique Kirkhope shows is outstanding, especially in the action writing that emerges as the dominant force in the score’s second half.

Yet another thing I found impressive about the score is the sonic differentiation between the synth elements and the orchestral elements, and how they are applied in context. I don’t know whether Kirkhope intended this or not, but there is a clever split in tone between the ‘boss fights’ and the rest of the score which makes those aforementioned boss fights seem especially large and grandiose. When Mario, Luigi, and the Rabbids are wandering around within levels the music has a light, clearly electronic tone, similar in style to Koji Kondo’s classic early Nintendo game music; however, when the boss battles kick in, you’re suddenly confronted with a wall of fully-orchestral power and bombast that is as surprising as it is wonderful. It’s an intelligent blending of classic game music with contemporary symphonic scoring that works really, really well, and the performances by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra are plainly on-point.

Several cues are notable from a musical point of view, and many of them feature a recurring main theme that weaves its way through the score. The opening “The Adventure Begins” is a heroic theme clearly modeled after John Williams, enlivened by the effervescent woodwind flutters that often feature in his work. “At the Tower’s Feet” is dainty and pretty, with whimsical harps and woodwinds. “Hoppers!” is a playful theme for the Rabbids, which is passed from woodwinds to brass, and features a great deal of the elegant and charming Vaughn Williams-style flute writing that Kirkhope used so well in Viva Piñata. The subsequent “Tower Teeter” revisits the lush, pastoral woodwind writing with equally successful results.

“Mid Boss Mayhem” is the first of those bold action pieces, a flamboyant brouhaha of swirling, circus-like orchestral writing with a strong brass-and-snare rhythmic base, overlaid with all manner of strident orchestral layers led by xylophones and trumpets. Later, the two “Rabbid Kong” cues feel inspired by Jerry Goldsmith’s action scores like The Mummy, and feature an especially epic, searching, majestic sound, again underpinned by Kirkhope’s familiar brass-and-snare core.

“Hot Start, Cold Finish” is the longest cue on the album, an epic exploration of several of the score’s main themes accompanied by some especially vivacious rhythmic writing that moves through different tempi and different percussion patterns. This leads into the brilliant “Icicle Golem” boss sequence, where Kirkhope augments his grand, swirling orchestral tones with the first use of a choir. The writing in the “Icicle Golem Finale” is especially magnificent – listen to the sequence beginning at 0:42 of that cue where different parts of the brass section play contrapuntal rhythmic and thematic ideas while a ridiculously complicated flute line swoops and dives between them.

The entire “Phantom of the Bwahpera” sequence is simply fabulous, a rich and hilarious parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most famous musical featuring a flamboyant opera-singing villain (performed by Augustine Chenelle), who taunts Mario and his friends with mocking lyrics that are entertainingly and knowingly meta – his line about always crashing while in the lead of Mario Kart is frustratingly accurate! The three interspersed orchestral cues – “Phantom’s Phenomena,” “Phantom’s Crescendo,” and “Phantom’s Phortissimo” – are among the most outrageously entertaining action cues Kirkhope has ever written. The “Crescendo” cue is simply stunning, – a bold, powerful piece for the orchestra which is given a ‘spooky’ atmosphere with the use of a theremin, and which builds up to a huge conclusion; the dazzling string runs which beginning at 0:46 are magnificent.

The finale which begins with “Steamed Up in the Factory,” is much more dramatic than most of the rest of the score; the stakes are higher by the time you reach this level, and Kirkhope’s music lets you know it. The twittering woodwinds have been replaced by string ostinatos and heavier brass, the percussion is more dominant, the rhythms more insistent. “Exploring the Mine” is heavy on metallic ideas, glockenspiels, harps, chimes, and string sustains, giving the score a brief sense of glittery magic, but that is all cast aside in the epic Bowser sequence that concludes the album, and is the game’s final boss battle. Kirkhope pulls out all the stops here, running the recurring main theme through a series of increasingly elaborate, fast, and imposing variations; “Bowser Begins” sees Kirkhope engaging in some epic Latin chanting to accompany his rousing orchestral action, while the multiple sequences of Elfmanesque brass triplets in “Bowser Bows Out” would be ridiculous if they weren’t so outstanding.

The only real criticism one could make of Mario + Rabbids is that, occasionally, it comes across as a little cartoony. That might be an odd observation to make, considering the nature of the game, but some of the cues due have a little bit of a Carl Stalling/Mickey Mouse quality that plays almost like an extended musical onomatopoeia than a fully through-composed idea. In addition, some of the cues could also come across as being a little too saccharine, and anyone with a low tolerance for unremittingly upbeat, bright, peppy music might find themselves starting to drift into a sugar coma, especially in the score’s first half. Finally, it’s noticeable that some of the cues simply fade out rather than building to a proper finish; this is clearly in the nature of game music which loops as you play, but some people may find this to be a slight annoyance, especially as Kirkhope did the same thing on the album for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. But these are minor, minor issues, simple matters of taste. in what is otherwise an absolutely superb score,.

I know I’ve said this before in other reviews, but it really is the case that anyone who is missing the big orchestral themes and epic action music that used to be so prevalent in film, should be turning to contemporary orchestral game music to get their fix. Composers like Grant Kirkhope, along with contemporaries like Neal Acree, Gareth Coker, Olivier Derivière, Jason Graves, James Hannigan, Jeremy Soule, Austin Wintory, Inon Zur, the Blizzard guys led by Russell Brower, the Firaxis guys led by Geoff Knorr, and many others, are writing some of the best orchestral music in the world right now. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is, for me, the best score of Grant Kirkhope’s career to date, and it will take some beating to not be the best game score of the year.

Note: this is a review of the 31-track 68-minute release of the score which came with the game; an extended version of the soundtrack also exists, featuring an additional 21 tracks and running for almost 2 hours in total, which is available to download through most standard online music platforms.

Buy the Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Adventure Begins (1:38)
  • At the Tower’s Feet (0:47)
  • Hoppers! (3:00)
  • Mystic Journey (1:40)
  • Mid Boss Mayhem (2:38)
  • Tower Teeter (2:29)
  • Rabbid Kong Rumpus (1:55)
  • Rabbid Kong Rumble (1:50)
  • A Song of Ice and Desert (2:50)
  • Hot Start, Cold Finish (4:18)
  • Icicle Golem Freeze (1:41)
  • Icicle Golem Fracas (1:42)
  • Icicle Golem Finale (1:42)
  • In the Cold of the Battle (4:14)
  • Lost in the Swamp (3:08)
  • Spooky Skirmish (2:41)
  • A Stroll in the Cemetery (2:41)
  • Combat in the Cemetery (2:47)
  • The Phantom of the Bwahpera, Act 1 (performed by Augustine Chenelle) (1:33)
  • Phantom’s Phenomena (1:03)
  • The Phantom of the Bwahpera, Act 2 (performed by Augustine Chenelle) (0:39)
  • Phantom’s Crescendo (1:05)
  • The Phantom of the Bwahpera, Act 3 (performed by Augustine Chenelle) (1:06)
  • Phantom’s Phortissimo (1:10)
  • Steamed up in the Factory (2:25)
  • The Lava Forge (3:19)
  • Exploring the Mine (2:25)
  • Bwa Enemies! (3:57)
  • Bowser Begins (2:00)
  • Bowser Returns (1:58)
  • Bowser Bows Out (2:03)

Running Time: 68 minutes 32 seconds

Ubisoft Music (2017)

Music composed by Grant Kirkhope. Conducted by Nic Raine. Performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Grant Kirkhope. Recorded and mixed by Gareth Williams. Album produced by Grant Kirkhope.

  1. Celadiel
    October 4, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    Great review! I’ve purchased the soundtrack right away after reading. Grant Kirkhope and Super Mario seem like a match made in heaven and indeed they are! Such an uplifting outing!

    But it irks me that they seem to have left his renditions of classic Mario tunes out of the commercial album, which is a shame, given that he seemed to have had a lot of fun in rearranging them and part of my reason to buy the album was to hear those. So if anyone knows if i just missed them and could tell me where they are, I’d be very grateful!

  1. February 1, 2018 at 10:00 am

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