Grim Fandango was the final graphic adventure from LucasArts and it remains one of the genre’s elite. It’s one of my personal favorite graphic adventures, sharing company in my heart with Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars, The Longest Journey, and Gabriel Knight. Grim Fandango was a happy blend of unique flavors including the Jack Skellington-esque character designs, the motif based around Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday, and Peter McConnell’s “big band, bebop, and bones” soundtrack. I have listened to many video game soundtracks that employed jazz styles, but have been often left disappointed. However, after taking the time to listen to this soundtrack CD, I have to say that this is easily the best jazz based video game soundtrack I’ve ever heard. I dare to say that the music here stands up better on its own two feet on this CD than it did within the game itself.
Many video game soundtracks have employed synthesized instrumentation that often sounds canned, so it’s nice to hear genuine instruments in Grim Fandango’s soundtrack. It’s the difference between a Stouffer’s lasagna and a homemade one. The way the double bass thumps in pieces such as “Casino Calavera,” “Domino’s in Charge” or “This Elevator is Slow” is wonderful. It’s one of those lovely organic sounds that cannot be effectively recreated with synthesizers. Many pieces also feature a wide variety of layered wind instruments including trumpets, saxophones, clarinets, trombones and more. Some pieces such as “Swanky Maximo” utilize trumpets and saxophones with wah-mutes, which sounds really cool. Piano and a wide variety of percussion also find their way into select pieces. There is a good variety of jazz styles such as big-band, swing, and bebop in this soundtrack. There are even some pieces like “Bone Wagon” that have a Halloween feel and others such as “The Enlightened Florist,” “Temple Gate” or “Nuevo Marrow” that feature ethnic sounds that would not be out of place in Mexican, Chinese, or Indian music. The soundtrack goes beyond its “big-band, bebop, and bones” tagline and contains a few surprises as well.
The pieces are beautifully composed, wonderfully played, and some of the high register notes the horn players hit would receive thunderous applause at an old-time smoky jazz club. One aspect I like about the composition is that the melodies are challenging and not conventional, yet they’re not too complex as to be inaccessible to more casual listeners. The pieces also convey atmosphere without forgettably fading into the background. This is music that’s fun to listen to from the first listening, yet also complex enough that I can easily pick out something new each time I listen to it.
There are plenty of reasons why Grim Fandango is considered one of the elite examples of the graphic adventure genre. Not only is it a super stylish game with killer puzzles and a great story filled with wonderful characters, but it has a stellar soundtrack with music that easily stands alone outside the context of the game. This CD was an absolute pleasure to listen to and comes highly recommended.