Back in 1994…

It’s 1994 on Christmas morning. I’m sitting in front of a “big-screen” 27 inch TV in our family room while playing Donkey Kong Country (DKC) for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). As a kid, I never asked myself “Who made this game?” or “Who composed this game’s music?”. As someone who grew up playing games like Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, and other 2D platformers, DKC was simply something I had to have as a 90s kid. While I enjoyed playing videogames because they were fun, videogame music was either something I liked, disliked or didn’t think about, there was never any analysis. Despite taking guitar lessons as a teenager (and shortly quitting because I think I wanted to play piano instead), I wouldn’t consider myself a musician. Like most casual listeners, however, I’d like to think I have a good ear for how music makes me feel and DKC soundtracks sure did a number on me.

I was 8 years old when I first played DKC and after hearing David Wise’s compositions for the first time, I knew something was different. The first few levels has the player traversing jungles with upbeat melodies and atmospheric cavern pieces, but then you arrive at an underwater level where a track titled “Aquatic Ambiance” begins to play. It might have been the first moment in any videogame where I recall putting the controller down just to listen to the game’s music. My older sister, despite receiving a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) for Christmas years prior, had already lost interest in videogames at this point. While watching my brother and I play DKC on that cold Christmas morning, however, I recall her saying something along the lines of “What is with this music? It sounds like something from General Hospital or All My Children!”.

All My Children

David Wise

As a kid who, at this point in their life, never watched a soap opera before, I thought nothing of her comments. Ignoring what she said, I blissfully hopped on the back of Enguarde and swam away, but I wouldn’t unpack her statement until many years later. She was right, though. David Wise’s music in DKC was, at times, melodramatic, but his compositions also carried a particular sentimentality that even non-videogame players could appreciate. Not long after playing DKC, I would find myself dancing to Ristar’s music, geared up in my baseball outfit, pretending I was anywhere else but the field. Years later, I would attempt to record music from NiGHTS into Dreams on the Sega Saturn from my TV speakers with a blank cassette tape and a boombox. On some random afternoon, while my brother faced the final boss in Final Fantasy VI, my dad, who was working on his plane models behind us, would say that “Dancing Mad” sounded like a Genesis song from Peter Gabriel’s era (his favorite band) or some other progressive rock band from the 70s like Gentle Giant, but these are stories for another time…

Audio/Visual Storytelling & Stage Progression

Back in 1994, both Rareware (the developers of DKC) and David Wise had already mastered audio/visual storytelling, perhaps without even knowing it! DKC was a game about a family of monkeys who had their hoard of bananas stolen from a gang of evil crocodiles. It’s mostly a whimsical romp through a variety of themed levels including jungles, caves, ruins and oceans but the further you progress, the level themes, including the music and difficulty, become much more serious and challenging, respectively. Traversing treacherous, snow-covered mountaintops while the music from “Snow Barrel Blast” plays in the background? It’s night & day tonally compared to the jolly “Jungle Hijink” you rolled through earlier. It’s this progression of musical tones (and difficulty), the “seriousness” of a track, if you will, that makes you say “This is it, we’re almost there…”. Following the snow levels, you arrive at an industrial factory with heavy machinery, oil spills and polluted waters. As an adult, I wonder if the developers had something to say about the industrialization of our world and the environmental impacts it had on the animals that inhabit the surrounding ecosystems. Although, it’s more likely the fact that factories just make cool locations for videogames.

While one could argue that these techniques are game design philosophies 101 or the “How-to’s” when it comes to implementing difficulty curves, I find it’s something that 2D platformers excel at, specifically for games that incorporate, what I like to call, “dot-to-dot” world maps. These types of maps have self-contained stages where the player moves across a dotted line with miniature representations of the levels on the map. What the player will see once they’re actually playing the stage should reflect the diorama-like piece they saw on the map (sort of like how overworld maps work in the older Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest titles, for example, a town on the map might just be a few houses but once you actually enter the “stage” it’s obviously bigger than what was represented on the overworld). It’s something I feel games like Klonoa: Door to Phantomile on the original PlayStation or even Nintendo’s very own Super Mario World on the SNES captured extremely well, but I digress.

In The Air Tonight

While the original DKC trilogy contributed some of the most memorable tunes from the SNES era, I think “Scorn ‘N’ Torch” is probably my favorite track from the entire series. I had just recently watched a YouTuber by the name of Geebz react to DKC music for the first time on his World Music Reaction & Review channel (which you should check out, by the way!). It got me reminiscing about my first time playing Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and hearing David Wise’s new music, specifically the piece composed for “Scorch ‘N’ Torch”. Besides the amazing instrumentation; the flute-playing and Phil Collins-like percussions (I can’t seem to escape talking about Genesis), layered in the background (specifically before it loops) are monkeys wailing and screaming, presumably from seeing their home consumed by flames. It is one of the few tracks (and stages) from any DKC game that made me realize that the Kong family were simply mammals. Underneath their human-like clothes and 90s era personalities, they’re just a bunch of animals trying to survive and escape from a fiery hellscape. A great 2D platformer marries its stage design & music while telling a good story, even when no words are spoken, and Tropical Freeze nails this aspect.

Just like in the original DKC, the levels leading up to “Scorch ‘N’ Torch” in the Bright Savannah world of Tropical Freeze tricks the player into thinking that everything is going to be okay. Like any good soap opera, however, there’s drama brewing in the background and it all has to surface eventually, usually in an explosive manner. Two stages prior to “Scorch ‘N’ Torch”, players traverse a level called “Grassland Groove”; a colorful savannah brimming with life, almost Disney-like in its presentation. Two levels later, a violent storm rolls in and the stage titled “Frantic Fields” has the player navigating the savannah while strong winds and lightning ravage the surrounding grasslands. One could presume that a lightning strike from “Frantic Fields” started the initial brushfire that caused the wildfires found in “Scorch ‘N’ Torch” and it’s this environmental storytelling, whether intentional or not, that sets Tropical Freeze apart from its contemporaries.

Nintendo and Retro Studios, along with support from others, recently released Metroid Prime: Remastered, but it’s still unclear what the future holds for Donkey Kong Country. I hope David Wise and company get another opportunity to tell a story like the one found in the Bright Savannah, because when done with the care, passion and attention to detail found in Tropical Freeze, there’s truly nothing else like it.

Until next time…


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