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Synth, big band jazz and the remaking of Donkey Kong Country's amazing sound

Had Nintendo's veteran composer David Wise made his musical return to the Donkey Kong series using the chiptune technology he established for the franchise in 1994, the score for Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze would have taken up to six years to finish.

Fortunately, times have changed since Wise made a name for himself in a two-decade-long career as the house composer for Rare, the British studio that first developed the Donkey Kong Country series for Nintendo. The musician's return to his retro roots, after leaving the studio in 2009, just happens to coincide with some new sound technology.

"The old technology was hard," Wise tells us. "Everything was hand-coded. It was a lot of effort to get it to sound as good as it eventually ended up. It took a lot of time and a lot of brain power, and to do it all again that way, I'm not sure it would be possible. If we did it the old way we'd be on it five or six years."

At the time of developing the original Donkey Kong Country the team at Rare was working between 12 to 16 hours, seven days a week — albeit "quite happily," Wise says. However, where the original title featured 12 or 16 songs, Tropical Freeze includes roughly 100 individual tunes, he tells us.

"I'm not sure I could throw that amount of time on a project now," says Wise. "I don't think it's physically possible."

Wise left Rare following its takeover by Microsoft in 2009, a company-wide shift that resulted in a change in focus for the game studio.

"Rare was made famous for making games like Donkey Kong Country and many other Nintendo games we were very proud of," Wise tells us. "When Microsoft took it over they had a different direction they wanted to take Rare in. And it was evident by the time I left Rare that we probably weren't going to make games that were adventure games or the sort of games that I wanted to develop and probably many people wanted to play as well.

"They were going into the sports direction and Kinect. For me it wasn't what I wanted to do. There were many other opportunities to make adventure games."

His eventual return to the DK series came through Retro Studios' Michael Kelbaugh, the president of the Nintendo subsidiary in Austin, Texas who Wise had been in contact with since his exit from Rare.

Describing the start of development for Tropical Freeze, Nottingham-based Wise was flown to the studio's Austin headquarters to meet Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto and discuss the angle for the then-upcoming game.

"We had a meeting with Scott Peterson who's the audio manager there," he tells us. "We really fleshed out the idea of where we wanted to go, and I think for Nintendo it's probably quite important for them to have the nostalgia aspect as well."

However, recreating the sound of a particular decade is more difficult than it might seem thanks to how much the technology has evolved, says Wise.

"When we worked on the Super Nintendo, it was a case of working with the sound chip. For me I very much wanted it to be all 1940s big band jazz, but that simply wasn't possible for SNES. To get around that problem at the time, we used a lot of small samples and made it very synthesized, so it seemed to be a fusion between the two types of sounds. It really was a blend of both of those."

His earlier work featured a combination of synth and computer-generated drums and horn sections to create a jungle-meets-jazz rhythm, with an undeniably chiptune-heavy sound. To do this, Wise made use of the SNES SPC700 chip, manipulating the audio to eventually achieve a sound similar to the Korg Wavestation synthesizer; A synthesizer released in the early 1990s which made use of a method of creating a rolling, wave-like sequence of sounds. The result was a set of tunes eventually featured on a popular soundtrack released under the name DK Jams in 1995.

Comparatively, with the technology available throughout the development of Tropical Freeze, Wise was capable of creating the realistic big band sound he initially envisioned. Synthesizers, he says, have come a long way in the last 20 years. "We've actually got actual instruments playing on there, although they're quantized to fit in the style of the original music," Wise adds.

But the technology has the potential of working against Nintendo's retro soundtrack aesthetic. While modern soundtracks aim to recreate a film-like score, Nintendo's musical aims are counter to how audio technology has evolved.

"A lot of games tend to use orchestral scores but to some degree it's almost overdone," explains Wise. "I love orchestral scores but it seems like everyone is trying to be the next big orchestral score to the detriment of the product. For a Nintendo-styled game I'm not sure a big orchestral arrangement would work.

"The Nintendo style of games for me represents fun and immediacy. Some of the other games out there at the moment are a little more serious. You can't just jump in and play them. They require a lot more effort to get into. Chiptune, the immediacy of that music — If I'm playing a video game then that sound is representative of that."

Recreating that instantly recognizable and nostalgic DK sound wasn't simple, however. As a result the game's score took 21 months to finish.

"In the end we threw everything at the game," says Wise. "I use three computers, and they're not slow computers at all. They really run quite quickly. It's amazing how much technology we had to throw at this and how much processing power we had to use to recreate the types of retro sounds that represent the rest of the series.

"People nowadays expect to hear a certain amount of quality, so even though it's reminiscent of what we did on SNES, it needs to be a lot smoother and more polished. I was amazed at how much we had to delve deep into the amount of processing just to get a sound that sounded very basic 20 years ago."

Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze launched last month for Wii U. The game received an 8.5 out of 10 from Polygon, in a review that describes it as adding "intelligently to the formula, with new characters that imbue subtle nuance to the gameplay, a better-tuned challenge level and an increased emphasis on replay value. These features make Tropical Freeze consistently worth coming back to, and mark it as a high point for the series."

This marks the return of Wise to the series.

"Ultimately you have to be very excited by the content you're creating," he added. "If the game excites you then you're going to produce good content."

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