Mickey’s Speedway USA Soundtrack (N64), Ben Cullum, 2000
For a few years, it felt like Rare just couldn’t help producing outstanding games for the Nintendo 64, titles that were bound to be classics – Blast Corps, GoldenEye 007, Diddy Kong Racing, Banjo-Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini, Perfect Dark… it seemed that Rare couldn’t go wrong. That winning streak came to an end in late 2000 with Mickey’s Speedway USA. The verdict from reviewers was almost universally that yes, this was a decent enough game, with the usual depth and amount of content one had come to expect from a Rare title. But compared to its spiritual predecessor Diddy Kong Racing, Mickey’s Speedway USA fell decidedly short – unlike GoldenEye 007, this was not a game that transcended its origins as a licensed title.
In other words, this wasn’t the kind of game one would expect to produce outstanding music to rival Rare’s best scores. To make the Mickey’s Speedway USA soundtrack an even less likely success, it was the first – and so far only – game score written entirely by Ben Cullum. Outside of Mickey’s Speedway USA, Cullum mainly provided character voices for several Rare titles (including Falco in Star Fox Adventures, for which he also wrote additional music). His career continued outside of the game industry, writing his own songs and some for his brother Jamie Cullum, as well as creating TV show themes and producing records. As such, Mickey’s Speedway USA remains a one-off in Cullum’s body of work – but he no doubt makes the most of this opportunity.
There’s an intriguing parallel between the Mickey’s Speedway USA soundtrack and an earlier Rare classic – David Wise’s Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll. Both scores have no other ambition but to please and entertain listeners. There are no hidden depths to be explored on either work – all they want to do is provide breezy fun, and that’s what they’re delivering. Of course, Mickey’s Speedway USA needs to maintain its upbeat facade for much longer than Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll had to. Far too often, game soundtracks that are required to sound cheery throughout their run time use this as an excuse to churn out superficial, flimsy compositions. What’s so impressive about Cullum’s work here is just how much musical substance he pours into his relentlessly playful template – surpassing even Wise’s work on Diddy Kong Racing. Cullum’s mission is simple, but his music is anything but.
Given the cartoony license, there was no way for Mickey’s Speedway USA to not sound cute, but in Cullum’s capable hands, that consistently adorable character never turns cloying. The meat of the Mickey’s Speedway USA soundtrack are its racing cues and here Cullum uses a mix of jazz and 70s funk to energise the music, give it a nice touch of class and create a constantly swinging, celebratory mood that doesn’t grate.
First racing track “Indianapolis” establishes the soundtrack’s stylistic hallmarks. For its melody leads, the track swings back and forth between catchy brass fanfares and ebullient solo flute (on other tracks, hammond organ or xylophone fill this role). Cullum’s intricate arrangement of the piece turns it into a fully developed short instrumental that rarely stands still, continuously developing new quality material while never outstaying its welcome either. Rare’s technical prowess is evident in the quality of the instrument samples, providing the crucial warmth and immediacy that this music needs to make its full impact.
With 22 racing tracks, one might expect Cullum having to stretch his smooth formula beyond breaking point, but that’s not the case. Almost each cue delivers an impressive amount of inspired new melodies and rhythms, so that the never-changing mood of the score doesn’t matter much. And while Cullum doesn’t find an individual approach for each circuit (how do you identify characteristic underscoring for cart racing in Seattle or Washington, DC?), he varies his template sufficiently, imbuing it with local colours where possible.
For example, “San Francisco” mixes in disco strings that give the music a lovely swoon backing its dance energy, while its funkier than usual rhythms feature cowbell and a more pronounced bass line. “Las Vegas” goes for lush big band jazz amidst some of the soundtrack’s most detailed arrangements, while “New York” switches to more uptempo jazz to underscore racing in this bustling metropolis. “Malibu”’s smooth jazz is of course the opposite to “New York”’s urgency. Cullum even accomplishes the minor miracle of making the Christmas music leanings of “Alaska” (sleigh bells and all) digestible and less than cloying. Yes, all of this is scoring by stereotypes, but Cullum manages to elegantly integrate these clichés into his template, rather than letting them dominate his music. Only occasionally does he strain for effect – see the intrusive water sound effects that mar the otherwise charming “Chicago”.
The most obvious stylistic divide within the Mickey’s Speedway USA soundtrack is that between tracks for city races and cues that underscore rural locations. Again, Cullum colours in within with the lines, but he does so with his usual panache and dependable penchant for quality compositions. “Grand Canyon” has a subtle but effective synth backing whose sustained chords suggest the location’s wide-open spaces and majesty – without neglecting the need to still score the cart racing action. “Dakota” throws a steel guitar into the mix, backed by warm strings that add some welcome touches of idyllic Americana. Fiddle, harmonica and banjo bring wiry energy to “Everglades”, which further benefits from a spirited piano lead. Metal percussion and mouth harp make their debut on the lean, propulsive “Oregon”.
While these instruments might appear far removed from the urban sophistication of the jazzier tracks, Cullum bridges the divide with ease. No matter what stereotypes his instruments and arrangements draw upon, they all contribute to the Mickey’s Speedway USA soundtrack’s ceaselessly fun and buoyant nature. It’s an unlikely contender for the title of Rare’s last great N64 score, but Cullum’s work has far too much charm to deny it this honour.
If anything, the Mickey’s Speedway USA port for the Game Boy Colour received a warmer welcome from reviewers – arguably, there was less genre competition on the handheld than on the N64. Eveline Fischer was responsible for the substantial GBC soundtrack, using some of Cullum’s material and doing a credible job at maintaining the density of his arrangements. Unfortunately, Cullum’s compositions rely on their jazzy, colourful timbres for much of their impact – a quality that is inevitably lost on the Game Boy Colour score, which turns a bit tedious during its extended running time.
- 01 - Indianopolis Cullum, Ben 2:53
- 02 - San Francisco Cullum, Ben 3:14
- 03 - New Mexico Cullum, Ben 3:04
- 04 - Grand Canyon Cullum, Ben 2:18
- 05 - Alaska Cullum, Ben 2:55
- 06 - Las Vegas Cullum, Ben 3:12
- 07 - Philadelphia Cullum, Ben 2:58
- 08 - Dakota Cullum, Ben 3:08
- 09 - Seattle Cullum, Ben 2:40
- 10 - New York Cullum, Ben 3:11
- 11 - Yellowstone Cullum, Ben 3:05
- 12 - Washington, D.C. Cullum, Ben 3:28
- 13 - Everglades Cullum, Ben 2:57
- 14 - Malibu Cullum, Ben 2:19
- 15 - Oregon Cullum, Ben 2:27
- 16 - Texas Cullum, Ben 3:08
- 17 - New Orleans Cullum, Ben 2:37
- 18 - Results Cullum, Ben 3:04