It’s not easy to be a Polish player of my generation and have a real nostalgia for the fourth generation of consoles, to remember a childhood with sixteen and not eight beats. Entering this medium from a pirate alley, from fancy clones of NES (which wasn’t “NES” yet, just “Pegasus”), we jumped straight to the beginning of 3D, betraying the Mario Brothers with Crash Bandicoot, Castlevania with Resident, and beat ’em ups doused in fantasy with Cloud Strife.
This story is quite famous, there is no need to go into the small details, but Donkey Kong Country has experienced many revolutions.
After playing on Super Nintendo at the “cousin’s cousin” house by some strange coincidence, I took Super Mario World for another Russian patchwork, shifting sprites from one production to another unrelated to the brand. I am always amused by this memory. If only my five- or six-year-old self knew that he was checking „next-gen”, one of the best platforms of his life! Exactly – despite the ugly gaps in education, you can sincerely miss this generation. Because even if the gaming world has flourished on many levels since Sony’s intrusion, it has never been the same as it was under SNES / Mega Drive.
Especially in the platform genre. This story is quite famous, there is no need to go into the small details, but Donkey Kong Country has experienced many revolutions. Visual (“out of this world” setting), in the development (these are wonderful games to say the least), publishing (external Rare developed a hit under the Nintendo license, which Shigeru Miyamoto initially disliked). Everything I would write on this subject would only be a creative (I hope!) repetition of things that are already written down and have been repeated for decades. That there would be no SNES without the British entries with the playful Kong family – we know. Nevertheless, we will be interested in the musical revolution, i.e. the work of two beginning composers, David Wise and Eveline Fischer (now Novakovic), who in three years did more for the genre than Sega, Nintendo and others together since the 1980s revolution. And it is hardly talked about at all.
Wise, as he recalls, did not take the commission of making the sound for the first Country very seriously. He was a freelancer, he thought that an equally important IP in Nintendo’s portfolio would be taken over by Koji Kondo, and his work would be thrown in the archive. I suspect that this is why the dancing DK Island Swing is preceded by slow pace building “sticking out” from the sounds of the jungle, and after the main theme grows an emotional passage closer to mature Metroids than a game about palm tree jumping and collecting hundreds of levitating bananas.
Despite the standard melody, obligatory in a pastel platformer, the composition recorded on behalf of Rare soars far beyond the current standards of the genre. David was wrong, but a more relaxed perspective added unprecedented depth to the piece. He got employed on the spot. He perfected the idea of leitmotif of the forest levels for months (and if you take into account the successive games of the series: for years), always combining the catchy sequence of sounds with… shockingly for this generation… sadness.
I’m not kidding at all. Aquatic Ambience, Life in the Mines, Bayou Boogie, In a Snow-Bound Land – you can list Wise’s iconic themes from these games for a long time, and they all share musical nostalgia. When we add the compositions of Novakovic, driven for even calmer, ambient fragments, we get a theoretically controversial soundtrack that “no one” would combine with Nintendo’s arcade. The Treetop Tumble from “Eveline’s” Country 3 orbits around a tribal ghost story. The Cave Dweller Concert from “the first” starts with a horror ambient.
David Wise had the opportunity to cement his importance to platform games twice in the slowly ending decade.
Flight of the Zinger combines buzzing background (the levels in enormous hives) with the keyboard’s longing for times gone by. Playing Donkey Kong Country make makes us feel contradictory feelings – we have a lot of fun, but our souls sadden. If that is how it works for the generation “catching up” to 16-bit after years, imagine how this emotional retro-journey must resonate with the fortunate players who would run around these worlds in their early childhood.
Wise and Novakovic made this generation a big favor. In its youth, they instilled this belief that platform games can have many shades and stimulate the senses on various levels. They are not just a hooray-optimistic, right-turning marathon made of cool compositions, while the path taken by earlier Nintendo or Capcom (Mega Man!) is only one of the available options, not an universal pattern. This generation will grow seeing a platform, a medium, in the genre.
The three-dimensional collectathons of later consoles are more and more willing to move away from the motley nature of Super Mario (remember, for example, the dreamlike nature of 40 Winks), as arcade games are shooting (Ratchet & Clank), going all gangster (Sly Cooper) or live a hormone storm (Jak and Daxter). And when kids experiencing their first melancholy with Stickerbrush Symphony from Donkey Kong Country 2 are already creating video games, they can do basically anything with them via indie scene.
Playing through Limbo, Braid, Hollow Knight or my beloved Celeste for the first time, I saw the manifestos of people not much older than me who entered the world of video games through the same door as me. Hyper-sensitive people, addicted to sadness, brooding, with restless hearts. People convinced that the fundamental genre of this medium should also tell about death, separation, passage of time, anxiety disorders, and the struggle with problematic part of their own psyche. It can move and intrigue people.
Am I a little exaggerating to claim that there is a logical connection between that and the wildly emotional Donkey Kong soundtracks? I wouldn’t be fighting like a lion here, but quite recently I was surprised to discover what an enormous influence on my taste in art Rayman 2’s PSX port had. We consume these titles for decades, it’s normal that they connect to our DNA autonomously.
David Wise had the opportunity to cement his importance to platform games twice in the slowly ending decade. Once, at the request of Retro Studios, he returned to the big ape and translated the old emotionality to the language of modern game music in Tropical Freeze (before the frosty power of Forest Folly, only a complete madman won’t fall to their knees!). Later on, the second time, he was helping former members of Rare, already under the Playtonic, breathe life into the anachronistic Yooka Laylee project (the prototype may be debatable, but the quality of Impossible Lair is undeniable).
Those who first came into contact with the genre through SNES, I even envy a little.
Novakovic fell silent a moment after the legendary buyout of the Britons by Microsoft (her last composition is the score for Viva Piñata). Neither of them created a new landmark in the post-Rare era. I am not looking for a conspiracy here, artists do not spend their entire lives at the peak of their own talent. Moreover, there is no talking about the “gap” after the music of Donkey Kong Country, because as we mentioned above, the poetics of 16-bit arcade games has been under the industry’s skin for a long time.
I laugh in my head when I hear stereotypical “platform games are for kids” here and there. They are, of course, for children. And for others as well. The children who started with them were really lucky. Those who first came into contact with the genre through SNES, I even envy a little. I will probably repeat Donkey Kong Country on a regular basis for the rest of my days, so I cheat a bit by placing myself among them. For me, this is a historic clause – the beginning of the times when arcade games started to miss something.