When it comes to video game music, there are a couple of names that everyone is acquainted with. For every Uematsu and Kondo, however, there are dozens of equally talented musicians who don’t get as much limelight. One of the things that I like most about our High Notes articles is that, in addition to sharing some great music, they allow us to talk about composers that, while you might recognize their tunes, might not be as familiar with their names or the rest of their body of work. This week, I’d like to talk about David Wise, who has been a composer in the industry for over twenty-five years. A major contributor on the NES and the original Gameboy, Wise worked on everything from the Wizards & Warriors franchise to The Nightmare on Elm Street. Without a doubt, though, his most well know work can be summed up in three short words: Donkey Kong Country. As the man behind some of the most well-regarded soundtracks in our medium’s history, there’s no shortage of great music to talk about. That’s why, to celebrate his return as the composer for Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, I’d like to go over just a few of his memorable tunes.
Battletoads – Speeder Bike
Battletoads is known and feared all over as one of the most difficult games ever made, and anyone who’s ever played the NES game can probably pinpoint the exact moment they figured out exactly what they were in for. An exercise in memorization, twitch reflexes, and humility, the first speeder bike stage laughed in the face of players and created a stumbling block that many people, myself included, never made it past at all. Luckily for all those players who spent hours retrying this level, the background music is well done and catchy. The thumping beat helps players get into the zen state necessary to make it to the end. If you still can’t make it to the end, don’t worry; as the Angry Video Game Nerd demonstrates, you can always just pause the game and rock out to the equally catchy pause music.
Donkey Kong Country – Stickerbush Symphony
When it comes to the DKC trilogy for the Super Nintendo, it’s hard to pick just a single favorite song. The songs in Donkey Kong Country tend to come in two varieties: the more relaxing, ethereal pieces and the jazzier, energetic songs. Both of these types of songs aren’t something you often see in game soundtracks, but for the sake of this article, I decided to go with the former. Wise has an amazing talent for making a song simultaneously compelling and mellow, and Stickerbush Symphony is a perfect example of this. Between the synthesizer and the soft piano, the quiet build up in the beginning of the song is beautiful, and the bass line coming in partway through just put more emphasis on the overarching melody. What’s really amazing about the song is how perfectly it fits into the stages it is used on. Even though it seems like it has nothing to do with the vine-covered setting, for some reason it just works so well. It’s this fusion of melody and gameplay that makes the Donkey Kong Country games memorable to this day.
Diddy Kong Racing – Walrus Cove
Since the release of Mario Kart 64, there have been plenty of attempts to topple the king of the “wacky racing” genre. One of the more successful attempts at cashing in on this craze was Diddy Kong Racing, which added in planes and hovercraft to the standard kart formula. As the resident expert on what a game with Diddy Kong should sound like, Wise managed to create some tracks that compete with the best of the Rainbow Roads and Mario Circuits out there. For example, Walrus Cove is a high tempo, energetic piece that is the perfect thing to get players ready to race. With the sleigh bells in the background, this song is almost sickeningly sweet. Even without knowing the name or context of this song, you can’t help but think of winter and snowfall after listening to it.
Starfox Adventures – Dark Ice Mines (Night) or Thorntail Hollow
Well this is certainly a little different, isn’t it? This song seems like it would be more at place in The Lion King, but its actually the theme from the hub area in Rareware’s last Nintendo title, Starfox Adventures for the Gamecube. The vocals do bring to mind visions of the African plains, but the underlying melody is definitely channeling Wise’s DKC roots. Overall, it makes for pleasant, low-key accompaniment while the player first gets their bearings on the Dinosaur Planet and as they explore every nook and cranny. Adventures was a very controversial game for a number of reasons, but no one can deny that Wise brought his usual high level of quality to the table.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze – Aquatic Ambiance
Okay, I honestly and truthfully tried to not mention this song again, since we featured the original version in a previous article. However, I can’t help it; Aquatic Ambiance is, without a doubt, one of my favorite pieces of music of all time. Peaceful and serene, this song perfectly captures the feeling of being underwater, to the point where I wish that this is actually what being in the water sounded like. The transition to the Wii U only makes the track better, as better sound quality and composition provide a much richer atmosphere. It is a testament to this piece of music and its connection with the swimming levels that, despite the great success of Donkey Kong Country Returns, gamers begged Retro so much that they reinstated the combination for their new game.
It’s been over a decade since David Wise last composed for a game on a home console, which makes his return with Tropical Freeze all the more exciting. He truly has a very unique sound to his work, and the gaming landscape would be a much different place without his work. Are there any other games or tunes of Wise’s that you find particularly memorable? Please share them with us in the comments below.