Donkey Kong Country Soundtrack (SNES), Robin Beanland / Eveline Fischer / David Wise, 1994
It’s probably safe to say that Donkey Kong Country was always destined to be a blockbuster. What set the game on course for domination of the 1994 Christmas season were its ground-breaking graphics. More than nine million sold copies later, Donkey Kong Country had become a milestone in gaming history.
While it was the game’s quasi-3D graphics that made waves back in 1994, what has arguably aged better is the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack. For the first time in Rare’s history, David Wise was joined by co-composers: Eveline Fischer (now Novakovic) and Robin Beanland. The latter’s contribution only extended to one track (“Funky’s Fugue”) that Wise converted to run on the SNES. Fischer – recently graduated from college – on the other hand contributed seven compositions. The soundtrack was one of the very first Western game scores to receive a commercial release – on both sides of the Pacific.
Considering the lavish, intricate nature of the game’s graphics, as well as its (initial) jungle setting, where would Wise and Fischer take the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack? Occasionally, they play to genre expectations. Mostly though, Donkey Kong Country plays almost like an antithesis to the typically bouncy sound of 16-bit platformers.
Where the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack sticks closest to conventions is in its use of vivacious swing jazz to underscore its jungle environment. The most memorable and best developed incarnation of this influence is “DK Island Swing”, presenting what has become the unofficial Donkey Kong Country theme, reprised on future franchise titles. It’s interesting to note that this lively melody – although now so closely associated with the franchise – really only makes one brief appearance on the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack. The same goes for the soundtrack’s jazz component as a whole. While fondly remembered by many gamers, it only makes up a relatively small part of the score.
While Wise and Fischer integrate jazz (and some rock’n’roll) influences seamlessly, the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack shines brightest elsewhere. More often than not, Wise and Fischer react to the game’s immensely detailed, colourful graphics with ascetic music that suggests a very different aesthetic. Be it to avoid sensory overload or not, most of the time the music subtly establishes a particular mood, rather than underscoring the on-screen action. For a 16-bit platformer score, Donkey Kong Country is at times exceedingly minimalist. Wise and Fischer’s work suggests a world rather than spelling it out, leaving gaps for the listener to fill in.
The effects of this restrained approach are stunning, thanks to Wise and Fischer’s compositional care. Listen to “Cave Dweller Concert”, running at nearly six minutes when looped. Sounds of dropping water mix with wooden xylophone strikes and other percussion, echoing in the depths to hint at a vast, dimly lit space. This is music that tantalisingly suggests, rather than reveals. The utterly spell-binding “Misty Menace” pairs back its instrumentation even further. Initially, it’s little more than white noise and echoing metal strikes, before a single swelling string chord and more metallic percussion fragments join in. At this stage, the world of Donkey Kong Country turns elusive and borderline sublime, appropriately captured only with the most understated of gestures.
None of this means though that the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack is a heady, cold affair. True, it’s not as outwardly melodic as its successor. However, the score still manages to be richly emotional, without having to rely on overt emoting. “Aquatic Ambience” is a perfect example of Wise’s slowly morphing soundscapes, evoking 80s synth film scores rather than SNES music. Softly oscillating synth layers gently waver through the ether, creating an otherworldly mood quite unlike anything else on the SNES. Finally, after 85 seconds have passed, a dreamy, yet wistful melody that is impossible to forget appears. Quietly moving, “Aquatic Ambience” works its magic with stunning effortlessness.
That the music can work its spell so potently is the result of painstaking technical work by Wise. To work around the SNES’ sample size limitation of 64kb, Wise worked with single-cycle, custom created wave samples. His efforts pay off in spades. Many of the synth-driven tracks on the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack suggest a 32- rather than a 16-bit platform.
While Wise receives most kudos for the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack’s success, Fischer’s contributions are just as strong. In fact, considering that this was Fischer’s first game score, the quality of her work here is stunning. Take “Ice Cave Chant”, which adds a welcome dose of catchy, shimmering pop melodicism to what is otherwise a fairly hushed score. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest would proceed further down that avenue, putting greater focus on melodies. However, the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack remains a singularly engrossing experiment as far as SNES music goes, appearing in the unlikely disguise of a blockbuster game score.
As you would expect, porting a soundtrack that relies so heavily on soundscaping to other platforms is no easy task – at least if those platforms are technologically less advanced than the SNES.
Predictably, Donkey Kong Country’s Game Boy port excises a fair amount of material from the SNES score and shortens several other compositions that it does include. What’s left is at times a valiant attempt to approximate the subtlety of the SNES compositions, on a platform that really wasn’t built for this kind of texturally-focused, mood-driven music. At other times, the compositions end up significantly rearranged, with far heavier, stomping rhythms and bungled attempts to introduce new contrapuntal melodies.
Released nearly ten years after the SNES original, the game’s Game Boy Advance port faithfully renders the soundtrack on significantly less powerful sound hardware – like so many GBA ports of SNES games, just stick with the original.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the soundtrack album.
- 01 - Theme David Wise 2:00
- 02 - Simian Segue Eveline Fischer 2:32
- 03 - DK Island Swing David Wise 5:15
- 04 - Cranky's Theme David Wise 1:54
- 05 - Cave Dweller Concert David Wise 5:56
- 06 - Bonus Room Blitz David Wise 1:04
- 07 - Aquatic Ambiance David Wise 3:24
- 08 - Candy's Love Song Eveline Fischer 2:14
- 09 - Mine Cart Madness David Wise 3:11
- 10 - Life in the Mines David Wise 4:29
- 11 - Voices in the Temple Eveline Fischer 3:03
- 12 - Forest Frenzy Eveline Fischer 2:06
- 13 - Treetop Rock Eveline Fischer 2:57
- 14 - Misty Menace David Wise 4:23
- 15 - Northern Hemispheres Eveline Fischer 4:06
- 16 - Ice Cave Chant Eveline Fischer 3:24
- 17 - Fear Factory David Wise 3:56