In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Songs we discovered in video games.
Though not as well known as Koji Kondo’s calypso and ragtime-inspired music for the Super Mario series, the tracks composed by David Wise for Donkey Kong Country constitute some of the prettiest video game music of its era. Wise split music and sound design duties on the project with Eveline Fischer, but it’s his themes that have given the soundtrack a following that extends beyond SNES nostalgia. Like Yuzo Koshiro’s house and techno tracks for Streets Of Rage 2, Wise’s compositions made the most of limited audio hardware by looking toward electronic influences. The Donkey Kong Country sound draws on tribal ambient music, Pure Moods-era New Age, and Euro dance—never more memorably than on the theme known as “Aquatic Ambiance,” which plays through the game’s underwater fourth level.
It’s a placid piece of music that uses a sophisticated palette of synthesized instruments and futuristic sound effects to create a mood of calm that’s very different from the sped-up themes usually associated with platform games. It sounds more nocturnal and urban than submarine—video game music that brings to mind cafe closing shifts, night drives, and opening credits sequences. Which makes it a very rare thing: something written for a game soundtrack that’s best appreciated without a controller in hand. No one seems to have managed to get as much texture and ambiance out of Super Nintendo’s S-SMP sound chip as Wise did here, and the minor cult that’s grown around “Aquatic Ambiance” over the two decades since—leading to countless remixes, samples, and remakes—hasn’t diminished its luster.