Origin: Donkey Kong Country (SNES, 1994)
Composer: David Wise
Plays in: Donkey Kong Country's four water levels: Coral Capers, Clam City, Croctopus Chase, and Poison Pond.
Status: Original Composition/Beloved Masterpiece
Analysis: I've said before that video games were once "just another toy" to me, which held true many years back. By this, I mean that my five-year old self wasn't in a rush to reach the Forest of Illusion in Super Mario World; rather, I'd tinker around with the first couple of levels or so--maybe dive for a bit into Mario's Fun with Letters and Street Fighter II--and then be on my way to force-feed peanuts into my Sesame Street stuffed animals. Having once dwelled in the playroom, the Super Nintendo was distinguished as being no different than the stack of cardboard blocks in the corner or my collection of Berenstain Bear books.
Donkey Kong Country wasn't any special exception. Sure, my imagination with it went as wild as the child's mind could take it ("Mommy, does Donkey Kong live near Mario?" "Yes, dear."), and the lure of platforming monkeys isn't something so easily ignored, but was it what elevated my status to nerdom? No, that would be the N64's job. Donkey Kong and his family were just another host of cartoonish figures to be toyed around with for the day, not meant to spawn any actual meaning for me. Just a plaything, nothing more and nothing less.
Then you had the water music.
A vague memory still lingers of me, maybe five or seven, playing through the Coral Capers level and--save for the thumbs rested on the buttons--being rendered utterly still. I'm playing the game, but there's also that music. It's different, maybe a little haunting, yet kinda...beautiful? Whatever it was, it was something that entranced me. Like with every other game, I wasn't in a rush to reach the level, but it instilled an emotion I never felt before in a game.
Aquatic Ambiance still has that effect on me today. From a more adult perspective, it's inclusion is absurd. It has no purpose being in a game about two stupid primates beating up a gang of crocodiles just to get some bananas back, and yet Donkey Kong Country is all the better for it. When applied to the actual context of the game, what with being constructed with pre-rendered 3D graphics meant to capture a realistic jungle setting, the song successfully mingles with its atmospheric siblings DK Island Swing, Cave Dweller Concert, Northern Hemispheres, and the like.
Ah, but Aquatic Ambiance! That it's constantly singled out as being the best of the bunch is no secret. It was the first song David Wise composed for the game and holds the title of his favorite tune. It's the most popular song for fans to remix and publish for the world to see on OCRemix and Youtube. Shigeru Miyamoto demanded that the game's soundtrack be brought back for the Wii revival Donkey Kong Country Returns, but we all knew deep down he was just referring to Aquatic Ambiance. Orchestras, freaking orchestras, always focus on the piece in their Donkey Kong Country segments. It's beloved by game music fans the world over. But why?
At the end of the day, taste is taste, but the hypnotic beauty of Aquatic Ambiance makes it stand out from the rest. While its brethren take their time in setting up the stage, this one immediately embraces the player into a watery rapture and doesn't let go, sinking them into its euphoric depths. The other songs induce moments of danger, triumph, and isolation, yet Aquatic Ambiance is meditative throughout. A melancholic meditation, perhaps, but a calming one, too, nonetheless (push aside the thought that, again, we're discussing a game starring a gorilla. He's not the one meditating underwater. Actually, wait, scratch that, that's pretty fucking amazing).
And that's what's part of the secret (the calming effect, I mean). What's amazing is how the level design compliments the song: Donkey Kong's adventures above ground are cutthroat and precise, but the water levels bring the intensity down a notch and relax the player with dreamy music and calm direction. Sure, there's danger afoot, what with the pearl-spewing clams and crazy stalker octopuses hanging around, but the music makes it so they don't matter. It holds you tighter, saying "It'll be alright. And even if it won't, you'll get another shot if you die." Think about it this way: Whoever died in one of the water levels? It's always the mine-cart/ice mountain/factory crap that makes players scream in rage, yet no one pins the blame on the water levels. The funny thing is they're not even that great; I mean, remember how pissed off everybody was when the Donkey Kong Country Returns staff said they didn't want any underwater levels in the game because they'd distract from its exciting atmosphere? I guarantee you that no one actually gave a damn about whether or not Donkey Kong wanted to go for a swim; everyone was just secretly worried that this meant Aquatic Ambiance wasn't going to come back. I mean, don't gamers usually hate water levels or something? Donkey Kong Country fans are a feisty bunch (then again, when you're fed stuff like Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast, I don't really blame them).
But hey, it ended up being in the original game anyway, so there!
So since Aquatic Ambiance takes on a meditative state does it mean that, upon being introduced to its sound, gamers just zen out and reflect on life and the universe? Perhaps, it depends on who you are. Me? Typically, when I get absorbed into game music like this I envision myself exploring a more visualized replica of the level's environment and bask in its glory (Kirby games work wonders for this), but the water stages in which Aquatic Ambiance is featured tend to have really bland backgrounds so this isn't the case here. Aquatic Ambiance is rich enough to enjoy on a surface level, which is how I usually first approach it when I'm in the mood for a listen.
On a deeper level, what's really nice about Aquatic Ambiance is that it's a flexible meditation. It's both beautiful and melancholic, and I'm free to choose which direction to think in. On the more positive, thought-provoking side, you have the powerful awe of the ocean floor with the mysteries lying within. On the route the majority of the internet likes to take, a nostalgic sense of loss is laced throughout. The inaccessibility of childhood's magic, the simpler days of gaming, the disappearance of what we took for granted, and people who've come and gone.
That, and Michael. Readers may recall that after my older brother passed away three years ago, I forged this tribute that happened to feature Aquatic Ambiance. Other than the main theme from Mother 3, I couldn't think of a better song to embed. I used to watch Michael play, witnessing firsthand at just how much better he was at me, and I strived to be like that. Specific related memories regarding Donkey Kong Country and Aquatic Ambiance don't really exist, but the song struck a chord to the memory of a brother who grew more distant with each passing year.
If you dig deep enough into the actual page for the embedded video, you'll discover the previous bearer of the top rated comment: Me. Two months after his death, I wrote a quick comment about how whenever I was in mourning, I'd turn on Aquatic Ambiance and let the melancholy seep away. I was flooded with replies, and I was just sitting there absorbing the fact that total strangers on freaking Youtube were granting me well wishes and condolences. Like any Youtube comment section, it wasn't unusual for my post to receive deviant replies (special props to the guy who, after noting my usage of "up there", sent me a link implying my brother was burning in hell), but the whole experience left a warm mark on me. It's nice how video game music, of all things, connects people.
Does Aquatic Ambiance serve the same purpose two and a half years later? Kinda, but I've found I've unconsciously diverted Michael from the song. It's not as if I've outworn its use as a stress reliever, but the subject of a sibling's death is one I don't really want to mesh with Donkey Kong. Michael himself isn't a subject I solely dwell upon; rather, it's the functioning memories of a time when he was still himself that render his spirit alive. If anything, I've found that Masashi Hamazu's piano arrangement of Aquatic Ambiance for the German concert Symphonic Legends works wonders for the this. Don't blame me if you shed a tear.
And, for the heck of it, I'll throw in the Orchestral Game Concert's rendition as well. Wait for the minute mark.
Aquatic Ambiance still induces that trance-like effect on me. It's always wonderful when water music goes for that calming effect in games, but I've yet to find another track that emulates its level of hypnotic effect. Only Super Mario 64's Dire, Dire Docks comes close, which takes a different path anyway so I dunno if it's fair to compare the two (now in terms of best water music? Tough call). It's weird how much I heap praise on the song, since I probably wouldn't pick select Donkey Kong Country for a Top 25 Games list or even a Top 50 (love the game, but it's rather barebones these days), but that's the wonder of retro gaming for you. I'll always remember this as the first video game song I ever loved.
You rule, David Wise.
Final Reflection: I'm still kind of pissed they chose Stickerbrush Symphony to arrange for Super Smash Bros. Brawl over this, but considering how Michiko Naruke's arrangement ended up being far superior to the original, I guess it's not a big deal. No way they can overlook this for SSB4.
And thus concludes my first installment of the music column!
See you tomorrow for a brief update.