The 'Donkey Kong Country' Soundtrack Is Better Than Xanax

If you can't get a hold of a Super Nintendo, the next best thing you can do is to listen to the smooth grooves of "Aquatic Ambience" over and over.
July 17, 2020, 8:42pm
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Image courtesy of Nintendo
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Back in the mid-70s, longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen coined the word 'nostalcoholic,' meaning someone who is so fixated on—perhaps addicted to—a glorifying view of the past that they're unable to recognize that it was as wrought with imperfections and troubles as the present, or the future for that matter. (Caen himself was criticized for his overly sentimental and frequently problematic ruminations about how the city was much better in the old days.) "A tricky business, nostalgia," he wrote in one piece from August of 1976. "A decade from now, what will we look back on in awe and wonderment, asking where did it all go?"

Back in 1994, when I was seven years old and obsessively playing Donkey Kong Country on a Super Nintendo, I didn't think that a quarter of a century later I'd be wistfully writing about its backing instrumental music. But here we are.

Donkey Kong Country was positively gushed over upon its release, for both its "striking three-dimensional graphics" (per The New York Times) and its engaging gameplay, full of barrel-throwing and ostrich-riding and seemingly endless secret levels. As kids, my brother and I rented it from Blockbuster and played it for hours; so did everyone else. It was the third-bestselling game ever for the SNES, with more than 9.3 million copies sold worldwide, according to VGChartz. One of the most memorable aspects of the game was its eclectic and masterful soundtrack, the popularity of and acclaim for which catapulted composer David Wise to a cult legend.

At the time of Donkey Kong Country's release, I was mostly listening to Dookie or something and had no concept of what constituted good or bad video game music. But since my boyfriend recently lent me one of those modernized, pre-loaded SNES consoles that Nintendo rereleased in 2017, I've been sucked back into hours of adventure with Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong (yes, I'm an adult, it's quarantine, leave me alone), and with that, I cannot stop being obsessed with the game's soundtrack.

From the groovy, tribal "DK Island Swing" to the sexy, New Age song "Aquatic Ambience" found in the underwater world, each track remains firmly tied to certain levels (and their affiliated frustrations) in my mind and that of many others, but also stands alone as an impressive piece of 16-bit history. "Fear Factory," found in the Kremkroc Industries levels, sounds ahead of its time, but also weaves several strands of burgeoning music of the early 90s—industrial, Eurodance, and trance. On several parts of the soundtrack, Wise mixes in 'field recording'-like sound effects of crickets, chirping, dripping, atmospheric reverb, and whooshing wind.

"People just thought it was an odd job—making the bleeps and boops that went along with video games," Wise said in a 2014 interview. "In those days it wasn’t really thought of as music. It certainly doesn’t carry the kudos it carries today." Wise certainly gets kudos today; The Independent once described him as "an English cross between Mozart and Steve Wozniak."

To say that there's a collective nostalgia for the video games we play in our childhood would be both a no-brainer and a vast understatement; this is where my "nostalcoholism" really starts feeling both oppressively potent and largely futile. But we all deserve a bit of escapism now and always, and falling down a YouTube hole, I've found a wide, highly dedicated fan base that not only loves this soundtrack, but is intent on keeping it alive in new ways. I can make no excuses for the weird orchestral-choir covers of various DKC songs, but I do feel strangely moved by an inventive pairing of "Aquatic Ambience" with an overlay of thunderstorm white noise. (There are roughly 500 remixes of "Aquatic Ambience" on Soundcloud.)

Over the years, emotionally charged YouTube comments have accumulated on videos of various parts of the soundtrack, exemplifying the most wistful side of that online community. Commenters recall playing the game with their parents and describe crying at the very sound of its music; the sense of saudade brought on by certain bass drops or keyboard twinkles; and even one guy saying that the soundtrack represents "mankind at its zenith."

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I'm not quite on that level with it, but I am here to say that this soundtrack does unequivocally slap, and I recommend revisiting it with or without a Super Nintendo. The game isn't half bad, but "Snow Barrel Blast" is even harder when you're in your 30s.


The Donkey Kong Country soundtrack is on YouTube, or you can pick up an SNES classic from eBay or other resale sites.