From what I’ve experienced with friends, fans of the original SNES Donkey Kong Country trilogy will be divided on Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest. It’s an creative detour from the other two in a lot of ways; most notably, the musical tones leave a darker, occasionally grim and occasionally morose atmosphere. Whether you love it or hate it (and I personally love it), a large contribution to that thought goes to David Wise, who composed the music. And while Wise contributed to each component of the original trilogy, DKC2 is the only one that was exclusively his work.
To celebrate what I still consider twenty years later to be a job well done, I wanted to take the time to write a little about Wise, with a light focus on DKC2 in particular.
Wise has been in this business for some time, and continues to show up in other games. While the last decade he has committed to the DKC series predominantly, he was previously known for his music in Battletoads, Marble Madness, Star Fox Adventures, Scorcery!, and a handful of WWF games. He also dabbled in the music behind the NES ports of various game shows, such as Jeopardy, Double Dare, and Wheel of Fortune. For much of this time, he was a composer for the British Game Developer Rare, though as of 2009 he has been a freelance composer.
Growing up, his first musical instrument was piano, then later trumpet, followed by drums. His first game with Rare was Slalom for the NES, and his last one before resignation was Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise for the Nintendo DS. His most recent Donkey Kong Country installment was the Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the Wii U.
Although he is a brilliant composer within his own right, Wise has proven on occasion to be not afraid to admit where he draws his inspiration. Earlier this month, even, he flat out admitted over Twitter that part of the DKC2 song “Bayou Boogie” was partially inspired by Phil Collin’s “The Air In The Night,” attempting to recreate the Roland CR78 drum machine that Collins used in his hit. This is one that fans sort of suspected for some time, and there are even a few mashups that exist here and there on the internet exemplifying how well they fit together:
In a 1996 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, David Wise said in an interview that he draws inspiration from his personal traveling experiences, and he called DKC2 something that was composed during his “experimental Paris phase.”
Why Wise’s method works in DKC2
You can tell, when you compare the second game to the first and third – or even to the later Wii U games – that this was sort of the one and only time that the Donkey Kong series was allowed to have such a dark tone. The soundtrack of DKC2 inspires a sense of dread and depression that, if I had to guess, was deemed too much for the child audience of the series. This assumption is largely substantiated if you compare it to DKC3, which replaces that tone with a few more modern sounds that overall have a more lighthearted atmosphere (though DKC3 gets bonus points where the tracks like “Jungle Jitter,” which while not as menacing as DKC2 still gives the unique “This level is clearly going to screw with me” feeling).
Wise’s soundtrack, compared to the more jubilant yet jeering sounds of other DKC installments, raises the stakes. The background music of the later games has a playful tone, where the obstacles more commonly just annoy you. With DKC2, you worry for your own safety. And while I admit that DKC2 gave me a few nightmares when I was seven years old, that only strengthened my love of the game as an adult; where other games would be a return to childhood both nostaligcally and mentally, DKC2 strikes me as a game with something my adult side can appreciate as well.
Another large part of what makes Wise’s compositions so useful is that he not only knows the game for which he’s composing, but he also knows the limitations of the hardware very well. Many of the soundtracks that fall flat in the SNES era had some solid riffs, but they didn’t loop well – Wise demonstrates a clear knowledge that children are going to probably get stuck on certain levels, and will in all likelihood have to listen to the same song for a while. His tunes for DKC2, accordingly, not only loop well with each other but also have a subtlety to them that does not overpower the player as time goes on. They are, in the most apt sense of the phrase, background music.
DKC2 continues to be a game whose musical legacy lives on with veteran gamers. Even Wise himself revisits it now and again, as noted by the above linked Tweet and his contribution to the infamous Overclocked Remix album, Serious Donkey Business, where he remixed his own “Donkey Kong Rescued” from DKC2, resulting in the track “Re-Skewed” (which I’ll leave below to conclude the post). Soundtracks like DKC2’s are a large reason why a site like Retroware exists; while the gaming industry continues to move forward, there are a handful of people who have put some serious work and devotion into the games we love, giving us every reason to look back once in a while and appreciate them a bit more.