Let’s have a look at one of those 16-bit scores that broke new ground with sounds, pushed us beyond the standard chiptune tones we were used to hearing in the 8-bit era. In Donkey Kong Country by David Wise, Eveline Fisher, and Robin Beanland, the first thing playing on the menu screen is what you’d come to expect in video games during those times. Then right after that, it quickly breaks into fully developed MIDI tones, including a sampled ape sound effect playing in rhythm. This blew my mind as a kid, as I was able to hear a new evolution in games music to go along with the top of the line graphics that Rare was delivering on the Super Nintendo.
Here is the YouTube link for the album, so you can follow along with the sounds of Donkey Kong Country’s whacky antics.
After that signature title piece, the next one kicks in, called DK Island Swing. The drums actually sounded like REAL drums, which was unheard of at the time. Then some brass accompanies the next section. During this amazing new adventure with Donkey Kong and pals, the drum sounds put me right in the mood for bouncing off tires and hopping into explosive barrels.
Enter the chilly atmosphere of Cave Dweller Concert. You have a bunch of slap delay on percussive sounds that emulate raindrops echoing off the walls of the cave tunnels. The occasional synth melody kicks in, and carries on the foreboding tone of this underground lair of evildoers.
I want to zero in on my absolute favorite of this whole soundtrack, Aquatic Ambiance. Its multiple layers of atmospheric pads and synth strings helped establish the immersive environment for my first actual enjoyable underwater level. I still revel in its sheer beauty. I remember playing this level of DKC in my room when I was a kid, but here I am in my thirties, realizing what a masterpiece this is. The pulsing bass line is subtle enough to not walk on top of the slowly building synth textures, allowing the melody to freely flow on top of all its hypnotic excellence.
Life in the Mines keeps this adventure rolling with some widely panned synth drum sounds for the first section, then that memorable flute melody kicks in. Pure brilliance. I can visualize my friend’s living room that we played this game in. I’m definitely going to have to search the Internet and find out if this one has ever had an update, as it could translate into something big and epic like you might hear in Mass Effect.
The bad guys abound in the temple levels, and this really great glockenspiel-esque counter-melody to the flute was a fantastic atmosphere in Voices of The Temple. Add the brilliant level design to the mix and you have one of the most memorable scenes in this game.
The next track I want to point out is a delightfully creepy atmospheric piece called Misty Menace. The intro section is drones and clicks, setting a nice contrast to upbeat jungle hijinks music we’ve heard up to this point. You’ll get a bit of synth strings in the background, but they’re surrounded by this unsettling, metallic soundscape.
Ice Cave Chant is an adventurous, melodic tune that uses tuned percussion and harp sounding MIDI to create a very fun and upbeat sound. It brings in the icy aesthetic of the level this song is associated with, but ties in the flavor of the rest of the game for a well-executed combo.
And last but certainly not least, in fact one of my top favorites: Fear Factory. I revel in its electronic awesomeness. Arpeggiated, robotic tones pan from left to right throughout, and the same tuned percussion from the rest of the score tie it all in. This is usually my first one to show anyone who hasn’t heard this soundtrack as it holds up so well.
Donkey Kong Country is one of those scores that is immediately recognizable, and holds up as something you would enjoy in today’s times due to its infectious melodies, synth pads and percussion that work perfectly with the pacing of the action. Its masterful jungle hijinks sound is timeless. I find myself firing this one up at least once a year.