This past week, I finished my first play-through of the original Donkey Kong Country on Nintendo Switch Online’s SNES application. I had played both Donkey Kong Country Returns and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze because I am very cool, so it was refreshing to see from where these modernized iterations sprung forth. It was free to play because I pay $20 annually for Nintendo Online (don’t think about that too hard), so I booted up the SNES app and hit start on Donkey Kong Country.
Allow me to preface this by saying that I had initially planned on playing Paper Mario: The Origami King, and despite my Twitter poll where an overwhelming majority of you (54%) told me to play it, I’ve ultimately decided not to. This is because of two reasons. The first is that I refuse to pay $60 for a game that I was never really that excited about to begin with, and the second is that the Paper Mario series desperately needs a return-to-form á la the original game on N64 or its masterful successor, The Thousand Year Door, so I’m refusing to give my dollar-vote to a game that largely ignores what made the series great to begin with. Anyway, I should probably get into the topic of this post.
So, out of my individually directed, spiteful defiance to Nintendo of America President Doug Bowser, I played the classic Nintendo game Donkey Kong Country (don’t think about that too hard, either). I already knew that the game’s composer, David Wise, is an expert in his field, but that was further ingrained into my skull when I played the first underwater level and heard “Aquatic Ambiance” again. Making music on the SNES was already incredibly limiting, and Wise had created this gorgeous, ambient composition for a game centered on a large ape and his nephew reclaiming a horde of bananas from an anthropomorphic, pirate crocodile, and that was an impressive feat in and of itself.
This led me to think about some other music in video games that had the same effect on me. Before I received my first iPod as a present on my 12th birthday, I often resorted to video game OSTs to satisfy that musical hunger that’s always been present in my life. When I was 10, I was introduced to Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), indisputably one of the worst games ever made. It’s glitchy, there’s high-key bestiality, the level design is godawful, and the game is holistically an affront to all that is sacred. But the music is a different story. There’s an option in the menu that allows you to select a track and listen to it on an infinite loop. I distinctly remember listening to “Wave Ocean” when my dad came downstairs, and I asked him something to the likes of, “Doesn’t this go hard?” And he responded with something to the likes of, “Yeah, this slaps, dude.” The breakbeats, modulated guitar melody, and swift tempo coalesced to make my 4th-grade self feel like the coolest kid with asthma in my neighborhood.
Another game that had this “track selection” feature was Super Paper Mario on the Wii, and after defeating the final boss, I kept wishing I could listen to that theme on repeat. Luckily, I could. This was my first iPod-esque experience, and I listened to that theme for approximately an hour because I had yet to truly have a music library to call my own. This would have to suffice. My tiny 10-year-old brain thought this perfectly encapsulated what made Dimentio such a captivating, mysterious villain. “Wow, this is so thematically coherent in the grand scheme of Mario’s monumental journey through myriad dimensions, and it expertly conveys Dimentio’s ineffable sense of malignancy and iniquity,” I probably thought to myself in 4th grade.
If you know me well, then you probably know that I’m a hopeless Kingdom Hearts nerd and have been since I experienced the first game on the PlayStation 2. I even tipsily explained its notoriously convoluted plot, without a single mistake, to a couple of friends at a party who both did an immaculate job of pretending to care. They sat there for 30 whole minutes (I’m sorry, guys) while I passionately pontificated on villains such as Xehanort, Ansem Seeker of Darkness, Xigbar, and Donald Duck.
What I didn’t talk about in that half-hour, though, was that Yoko Shimomura is by and large my favorite video game composer. Her music ranges from devastatingly emotional, to invigoratingly triumphant, to touchingly nostalgic. She excels at knowing how to soundtrack an intense battle or a reunion with a lost friend. Her music is a significant portion of why I’ve loved the series for so long. I’m not even sure what composition of hers to include here, simply because there are so many that left an impact on me as a child and still have an impact on me as an adult. But I have to include “Dearly Beloved,” a track that you hear every time you start up almost any game in the series. Its reverberating piano notes complement the hand-drawn artwork of Sora gazing pensively at the ocean, and as cloying as it sounds, I still love it to death.
On a more recent note, I finished the long-winded, 100-hour campaign of Persona 5 last fall, and I still think it may be one of the best games I’ve ever played. As a result, I heard plenty of excellent music during my play-through. This JRPG is filled to the brim with acid-jazz, a genre that suits the remarkably stylistic, creative art direction. “Tokyo Daylight” probably isn’t a favorite among many, but I think this track sums up the OST with its rhythmic pocket, slap bass, and groovy (yes, groovy) electric keyboards.
This barely scrapes the surface of video-game music I adore. I could go on forever about the OSTs of games such as Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing, Celeste, and even Undertale, and it’s honestly bizarre that, as both a music journalist and video-game fan, I’ve scarcely written about the intersection of these two forms of media. I admit that I don’t go out of my way to listen to video-game music in my spare time, so whenever I do listen to it, it’s typically within the context of that game itself. Although I did purchase Lena Raine’s Celeste soundtrack on vinyl for May’s Bandcamp Day. Who knows, maybe I’ll do another iteration of this post somewhere down the road. I still have quite a bit to say about music in video games, but for now, I’m done being a nerd.