There’s little doubt in Jimi Fletcher’s mind that Donkey Kong Country is an utter masterpiece, though one song in particular keeps him coming back for more.
What was the first piece of music in a video game that you thought was beautiful? As in, stop-you-in-your-tracks gorgeous?
In the 8- and 16-bit eras that coincided with me growing up, music in video games was many things – bright and inviting, spooky and sinister, exciting and catchy, or intense and suspenseful. You can find examples of all of these kinds of themes in the first Super Mario Bros. game alone, for example. The closest thing to beautiful the game’s soundtrack had was the light, pretty theme that accompanied the underwater levels, where a gentler, more harmonic tone proved more appropriate for the more graceful character action.
Mostly, though, it seemed as though gentler music was reserved for a game’s final credits sequence, when battle was over and respite had finally been earned. Take the end credits theme for Super Mario Land, an absolutely lovely piece which, despite featuring an upbeat rhythm, felt airy, radiant and expansive, perfect for winding everything down in time for a well-earned “Thank You for Playing” closing screen.
However, the one track that made me stop and pay attention, the one that made me realise just how unbelievably beautiful video game music could be, was Aquatic Ambience. It was the theme used for the underwater levels in the Super Nintendo classic Donkey Kong Country – a phenomenal game with an exceptional soundtrack.
When it was released in 1994, praise for Rare’s literal game-changer was ecstatic. There were those who genuinely believed it was a title for Nintendo’s rumoured (but never-to-be-released) 32-bit console. It looked and sounded that good. When it was revealed that this was actually a SNES release, jaws dropped even further – hit the floor, practically. It elevated developers Rare to the top of the heap – after all, it had everything.
Offering variety, scope, spectacle, humour, plenty of challenges, it was a must-buy, or at my age, a must-want. I mean, I couldn’t afford this sort of thing out of my own pocket, and I was rubbish at saving money. I was given the game as a present in Christmas 1995, a full year after its release date, but I believe that games that double as Christmas presents have that extra-special something about them.
As a child, Christmas Day comes in the middle(ish) of the end-of-year break from school, and as such you can really got lost in whatever presents you’re given. There were no worries about having to go to bed early or going to school the next day, while I maybe just had family commitments, eating and sleeping to make allowances for. Games like Donkey Kong Country (or earlier examples like Super Mario Bros. 3 and the Master System version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2) remain special to me because I could truly immerse myself in them for hours at this time of year, and especially because it was Christmas, my mum generously let me spend more time than I would normally be allowed with these games.
I guess from her point of view, it cost enough to buy, so I might as well get my (well, her) money’s worth from it. My routine around this time would be: wake up, have breakfast, watch some telly, play Donkey Kong Country, watch more telly (maybe a Christmas movie premiere), go back to the game, have dinner, go back to the game, go to bed, wake up, repeat. And DKC truly was a great game to get lost in, anytime of the year.
Building on strong foundations
Like the later Banjo-Kazooie for the N64, Donkey Kong Country was, on one level, an instance of Rare taking an existing classic and broadening it – in this case, Super Mario World. Critics may very well bemoan that Nintendo did it all first, and Rare merely refined the details, but just look at those refinements! Donkey Kong Country arrived pretty late in the SNES lifecycle, but that meant it had years of awareness on how to best utilise the console’s potential.
The result was one of the most sophisticated titles ever released. Adopting the same world-by-world and map screen layout as Super Mario World, not to mention the plethora of secret levels that made a second or third run-through irresistible, it felt instantly comfortable and reassuringly familiar. Yet compared to SMW, it was an astonishing leap forward in sound and vision.
Graphically the levels were (and still are) stunning – look at how detailed, varied and colourful the opening level is for a start, listen to the ambient effects on the soundtrack like the buzzing of crickets or monkey wails, and how they integrate with the music.
It’s not realistic – this is a cartoon jungle, after all – but it feels totally convincing, and full of dazzling little touches, like the lovely moment as you approach the exit cave and the sun begins to set. We’re not just talking about a clunky (if charming) sudden palette change like in Out Run – this is a swift but seamless transition from day to dusk, and it’s wonderful.
Compared to the static or rudimentary animation of previous game environments, this was breathtaking stuff, and the great thing is that it still looks terrific. Some games, with their revolutionary advancement of technology and graphics, blew collective minds at the time but can’t help but look pretty dated years later.
In the case of the SNES, the games that utilised the Super FX chip, for instance, have now suffered somewhat, be it just a little (Starwing) or quite a lot (Stunt Race FX). Donkey Kong Country didn’t use the FX Chip, but whatever secret ingredient it did use instead has stood the test of time very, very nicely.
And yet it wasn’t just a case of sights, sounds and little else – the levels themselves were delightful and inventive, full of humour, danger and surprises, not to mention all those brilliant secret challenges, a tremendous smattering of white-knuckle mine-cart rides (seriously, these were amazing back in the day) and full of surprisingly tough later levels.
Memories of Snow Barrel Blast and its demands on the player’s timing skills still chill me to the bone, though that may also have something to do with the blizzard-level weather conditions you had to endure. Further fun came from being able to switch between the bulkier, stronger Donkey Kong and the smaller, more agile Diddy, adding an extra touch of variety, and while reminiscent of the different characters available for play on the non-Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2, it was even better here because you could change characters in the middle of the level.
A Rare talent for amazing music
However, as much as the gameplay in Donkey Kong Country provided a wealth of entertainment, I’m here to talk about the music – music so good that early copies of the game came bundled with a CD of the soundtrack. I’m not sure if anything like this had happened before; there were many titles before Donkey Kong Country that also deserved such a multimedia package, but to the best of my knowledge, this was the first example of this kind of thing, and the reasons were obvious.
Simply put, the music in this game is stellar. Ignoring the hi-tech opening logo sting, the first proper theme we hear in the game is a rather neat joke – it’s a gentle, creaky, lo-fi ditty being played on an ancient gramophone by the elderly and grouchy Cranky Kong. Hey, I get it, it’s nice, pleasant and perfect to sit back to and maybe have a lovely cup of tea while listening to it.
But we’re not here to drink cuppas and eat crumpets, we’re here to GO APE! So it’s good that Donkey Kong arrives on the scene, proceeding to destroy the gramophone with his boombox and the letting the wonders of the new, three-dimensional and (at-the-time) modern soundtrack take over. Like, get off the stage, old man! [PS: Old man gets his own back by detonating a barrel of TNT and severely injuring Donkey Kong. Revenge is truly sweet.]
Donkey Kong Country’s music was chiefly composed by David Wise (with essential contributions from Eveline Fischer and Robin Beanland) and even today it’s a thing of wonder. Up until now, video game music felt strictly two-dimensional. Brilliant, catchy, addictive, but ultimately two-dimensional. Even the snappy, contemporary and very cool likes of Sonic the Hedgehog‘s classic themes, with their emphasis on rhythm (seriously, check those basslines from the second game!) sounded antiquated compared to the sheer immersive atmosphere of this new stuff.
Honestly, some of it even sounded as though Brian Eno had a hand in it, especially Northern Hemispheres (which IS the sound of being lost in the snow) or Voices of the Temple, which would have fitted in very neatly on Music for Films. These themes are genuinely quite eerie if you’re playing alone.
Also, there was still a lot of surprising progression in the game’s themes – instead of just repeating the same motifs every 30 or so seconds, the likes of Cave Dweller Concert last for about three minutes! And it really goes places too, starting off as eerie ambient (with what sounds like water drops as percussion) before ending with a beautiful, serene melody that I didn’t even know existed until I heard the CD soundtrack, because I’d always completed the level (or interrupted the theme to take on a bonus level) before the music got to that part.
Then there’s Gang-Plank Galleon, the final theme, which starts off like absolutely every ‘Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum’ sea shanty before swerving into a bass-heavy classic final confrontation piece. Northern Hemispheres has a late-shift into truly wonderful, ice-cold melodicism that few people are likely to have heard because of their dependence on restart points and tendency to mistime a barrel blast. There’s also one theme – Misty Menace – where the sounds of clanking metal and the hum of machinery provide the main bulk of the music – a possible Einstürzende Neubauten influence, maybe? Or maybe the third Depeche Mode album, I’m not sure.
Rare also had a sense of humour. That much is evident from the cheeky themes and funny sound effects of Donkey Kong Country, not to mention the visuals. Donkey Kong is a naturally funny, lovable character; surprising; considering he used to be the bad guy, and I guess I’m just a sucker for anthropomorphic simian characters, because that tiny animation of a miniature DK and Diddy having a quick knees-up on the map screen after they’ve just cleared a level never fails to amuse me. Even the themes which do have a more suspenseful, edgier mood like Mine Cart Madness have the occasionally slightly goofy element, like the brass (is it a trumpet?) that punctuates the exciting main theme, which is the musical equivalent of Droopy shrugging his shoulders. The thing is, it works surprisingly well!
Then there’s the occasional jazz and swing influences, most notable in the game’s main theme and Candy’s Love Song – now this style can come across as pretty cheesy and normally sets my teeth on edge. After all, this sort of pastiche made for Madonna’s worst-ever single outside of a Bond theme when she recorded Hanky Panky back in the late 80s, but here the approach is delightfully insouciant and difficult to resist.
Same goes for the use of panpipes, still unofficially outlawed after My Heart Will Go On from Titanic, but once upon a time they were actually pretty effective in level themes like Life in the Mines or the bonus levels. There’s also outright fun, silly tracks like Treetop Music and Forest Frenzy, or sparkling, gloriously melodic ones like Ice Cave Chant, a track which genuinely sounds like it was played on ice crystals.
Some themes have a dance-element (seriously) – be it Funky’s Fugue, where the production on it is so good that it really sounds as though it’s sampling an older record (the ‘HIIIYAA!’ bit) or the house-inflected Fear Factory, which, if I ever heard it in a club, would surprise me so much that it would trump my initial shock of actually having found myself in a club.
Under the sea, into your heart
So yeah, there are many, many brilliant pieces of music in Donkey Kong Country, but the one that really, really stood out from the pack back in the day was Aquatic Ambience, or as I called it then, ‘The Underwater Music’.
You know the kind of video game music that’s so good that you end up taking the long way around a level to hear more of it? Or maybe go out of your way to kill every enemy, grab every item (in this case, a banana)? Those underwater levels were that. Saying that, the later ones were genuinely challenging, so the scenic route was not an option, but the first level of this kind in particular wasn’t that difficult. You could simply drift through the scenery, watch out for the mild obstacles, and enjoy the ride.
What was most impressive about Aquatic Ambience was its depth. The music felt three-dimensional, immersive. This felt exceptionally new for a video game back in the mid-90s. Take the introduction, the way its throbbing, pulsating bass resembles a trip inside one’s own consciousness. I’m being serious! If the Orb had linked into this from Little Fluffy Clouds on their first album, chill-out rooms would have had a three-month waiting list back in the 1990s.
Delving deeper into this Donkey Kong Country level, through beautifully animated coral reefs (the wavy effect on these still looks very neat), the music drifted further and further away from land, like a lost buoy or ice floe. Yet it soon became obvious that this is merely the ‘verse’, the build-up before the killer bit, the ‘chorus’ – the moment where gamers all around, I imagine, had to claim that there was something in their eye, or maybe that they’d just been staring at the screen too long.
I’m talking about the bit around a minute-and-a-half in, where a harmonica arrives and delivers a truly wistful, cute and sad (I think it was also possibly the first piece of videogame music I had heard that sounded sad) refrain that Stevie Wonder must have kicked himself for not coming up with before. Just before it, the tune rises with what sound like bubbles, and for this section, the DK soundtrack reaches some kind of blissful, if melancholic, state of suspended harmony. It sounds like a lullaby. It sounds like a dream, and stays there before returning to its ‘verse’ to start all over again.
The thing is, I’m not sure I was willing to admit to myself that this music was beautiful. It was after all, the soundtrack to a level where you control an animated ape swimming underwater. I felt a bit embarrassed that this music was meaning so much to me. You think of truly affecting, emotional pieces of music in popular culture and they usually soundtrack scenes of great pathos, sadness, happiness or catharsis. You know, like Adagio for Strings when Willem Dafoe dies in Platoon, or I’ve Had the Time of My Life in Dirty Dancing when Baby’s no longer stuck in that bloody corner and finally gets that tricky jump just right.
Those are culturally acceptable forms of emotional release, sound and vision perfectly aligned. Aquatic Ambience, on the other hand, is an extraordinary piece of music that’s used to score monumental moments such as riding a wide-eyed swordfish or stocking up on bananas. And yet I find it wonderful that such lovely music was specifically created for a moment in a story about a couple of pixelated simians trying to recover their life savings from a monstrous crocodile pirate. It’s proof that the makers of this game, despite the lashings of ironic humour throughout, really do care about this sort of thing. It was clearly a labour of love, and this music adds a surprisingly moving layer of emotion.
Adding extra dimensions
Yet despite being more sophisticated on the animation front than many – maybe all games before it – both DK and Diddy are one-dimensional characters with a slightly 2.5D look. Their reactions are limited to pre-programmed things like shock whenever they die or self-congratulation when they clear a level. Their faces normally remain the same, which makes them essentially emotionless aside from a few token responses – a far cry from the fully rounded characters of many of today’s games.
Yes, DK and Diddy are capable of action and quick-time reaction (depending of course on the player’s skills), but they don’t have any independent thought, not even the most rudimentary of AI. As such, I must admit that the utterly gorgeous, sad music and beautiful scenery only serves to enhance the robotic presence of these artificial, blindly happy-go-lucky characters who have no autonomy (you literally control their every move) and, like all video game characters, are trapped in their set course, destined to plough onwards to the only available goal: level completion.
When the music’s jolly and jaunty, like in other levels, I don’t experience this existential quandary at all, but catch me at a vulnerable moment, and I find levels like this, the way they blend sound, vision and action, bizarrely moving. Or is it just me?
Speaking of emotional reactions, my present-day love for Aquatic Ambience is not something that only I experience. Just a quick glance at the comments for the various uploads of this piece on YouTube reveal this piece in particular to possess uncanny, enduring power. If it was purely beautiful back then, now it’s seems to have a devastating impact on listeners, who now equate it with long-ago memories, echoes of innocence, glimmers of escape and mixed feelings of happiness and sadness.
I’m surprised someone hasn’t added some artificial vinyl crackle to it and sampled it for some Boards of Canada-style piece of music, with the original music sounding as though it’s faded like a childhood memory or an old Polaroid. Maybe someone has done it already; I wouldn’t be surprised. In the meantime, some uploads on YouTube simply play the version from the CD, which is made up of intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-fadeout and lasts for around three minutes, which is perfectly satisfying, but others have looped the theme so that it goes on for hours.
You can tell from this that there is a real demand from listeners to be able to prolong the beauty of this theme, to be able to lose oneself in it for as long as possible. I’m not sure if anyone has made it through these very, very long extended mixes from start to finish – it’s not ambient enough to genuinely get away with being background wallpaper music, the kind you could have scoring a museum installation for example: it’s too melodic and striking for that, and I think I would start getting numbed by it soon enough, which I would never want.
Maybe its impact is more powerful when it simply fades in and out after a few minutes, a brief, tantalising glimmer, rather than an extended act of repetition. I’ll have to give the ten-hour mix a go sometime and see how I manage.
Oddly, the theme continues to be used in later, far more challenging underwater levels, and the tension between the dreamy score and the on-screen action, be it DK avoiding spiky, rotating wheels in a toxic pond or fleeing from ravenous jellyfish, was more unnerving and less becalming. That first level, however was just easy enough for you to flow through the obstacles with almost meditative pleasure, and that’s where the absolute, bittersweet pleasures of this piece of music were best deployed.
There are many wonderful themes in Donkey Kong Country, but Aquatic Ambience is the one that seems to tap into a collective, aching nostalgia for a more innocent age, its latent sadness now clearer to hear than ever before. No-one should ever feel embarrassed for loving this.
Back then though, I wasn’t quite confident enough to openly declare my love for such things, and I’m not just talking about the music. Donkey Kong Country as a whole seemed to be regarded as something for younger children, younger than me anyway. Remember, this was the era of increasingly less cute games. Gamers were growing up, and superficially, so were their content. Take the likes of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, the latter with its parent-baiting extreme violence. This was the sort of thing that was winning over young teenage gamers who wanted something with more of an edge; this new generation of harder, meaner game was the real talk of the school playground, not childish stuff like Donkey Kong or Mario.
It felt like there was some peer pressure on me to put platform games aside in favour of the less cerebral or imaginative option of kicking the ever living shit out of your best friend, which I wasn’t so much into because a) I was rubbish at these kind of games and b) I didn’t really have anyone else to play that sort of game along with me (cue violins). After all, as exciting and fresh and addictive these games were at the time, one-player Street Fighter II is a very, very lonely experience indeed.
I was still stuck in the past in that respect – for all its spectacular bells and whistles, Donkey Kong Country is at heart a classic platformer with the kind of structure could have come from half a decade earlier, whereas the wave of beat-‘em-ups that gave kids blisters on their thumbs and made the older guard worried that their offspring were going to re-enact all this stuff in reality was very much now, now, now. I guess I loved the comfort of the old days. How about that? Nostalgic at 14 years old?
- Beautiful to look at, beautiful to listen to
- Addictive, lively gameplay
- Great sense of humour
- Arguably derivative
- Those pesky barrel levels might drive you insane
- The boss levels are a bit too easy
Donkey Kong Country is an absurdly replayable game, and the moment I turn on the SNES once more to take on King K Rool and his minions, one of the very first things I think of is the anticipation of hearing this most wonderful of music again. It never gets old.