When we lay eyes on a new video game, the first thing we invariably notice is its graphics. Whether the game is a triple-A blockbuster with photo-realistic motion capture, or a one-person indie project that emulates the simple sprites from the '80s, all that movement and color slams into our senses without delay, and we make a snap judgment. "Whoa, this game looks cool," we might say. Or, "Holy cow, those textures look like warmed-over cat puke."
It takes a little while longer to appreciate game music. When I first saw Super Mario Bros., I was instantly amazed at how complex its visuals were compared to the Atari 2600 games I was familiar with. But then I noticed Mario was accompanied by a score that changed to reflect his surroundings—another feature that was practically unheard of for home console games at the time. The sight of Mario hopping around in a defined world captured my attention, but when Koji Kondo's legendary score got its hooks into my eardrums, that's when video games became an inseparable part of my life.
I wasn't the only one whose mind lit up when they saw and heard Super Mario Bros. David Wise, a legendary game composer in his own right, started composing NES music for Rare in 1987, and is still plying his trade as a freelance video game music-maker. He recalls how it felt to have the industry's most respected pioneers observe his work.
"Miyamoto-san visited Rare whilst we were developing the first Donkey Kong Country titles," Wise tells me over email. "It was quite surreal demonstrating music I'd created whilst Miyamoto-san was in my studio, listening."
Wise's collegue, former Rare composer Grant Kirkhope has also been making game music for decades. Maybe it's a touch hyperbolic to use a term like "grizzled industry veterans," to describe the music-making duo, but there are few still-active game composers whose works reach as far back as NES chiptunes. Wise and Kirkhope are, in that sense, the living history of the medium, adapting their compositions as technology changes. After all, the evolution of game music isn't necessarily a straight line. It's gone from cartridges to CDs, and back again. Each console generation offers unique challenges for musicians, and they've risen to meet each one.
Wizards, Warriors, and Wise
Both Kirkhope and Wise made notable contributions to Rare's catalogue, but Wise's history with Rare stretches back to the British studio's earliest NES games. His first game composition was for 1987's Slalom on the NES, a single-player skiing game that impressed Nintendo and forged the beginnings of a strong relationship between the two companies. Wise admits his work for Slalom sounds "like door-bells" in retrospect, but he's humbled "people are still making remixes of those tunes."
I heard Wise's second soundtrack—several compositions for the 1987 action-adventure game Wizards and Warriors—when I went to a friend's house and watched her brothers play it. The songs, which range from foreboding to bouncy and playful, fit the game's medieval atmosphere well enough to stir another awakening in me that was similar to the one I felt when I heard Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. soundtrack for the first time.
Wise composed the main Wizards and Warriors theme in 1967, long before the NES and its delightful beeps and boops. He was 15, which illustrates his life-long love for music.
I never got my own copy of Wizards and Warriors, but I did finish its 1989 sequel, Ironsword, which also boasts a solid score composed by Wise. Wise's growth as a game composer from the first Wizards and Warriors to Ironsword is clear; Ironsword's soundtrack is richer, makes better use of the NES' sound channels, and Wise's range has clearly expanded. I've long been curious how Wise made his NES soundtracks seem so effortless despite the hardware's limitations.
Despite his experience, the process for coding music on the NES wasn't as seamless as the final product made it seem. "When I started working at Rare, sound was created by typing HEX numbers into a text editor, assembling the code and waiting until it had executed until I could hear it," Wise says. "It took me a lot of time and persistence—and ultimately it was around three years before I started to get the sound chip to sound musical."
Wise had plenty of opportunities to practice wrangling a diverse selection of songs out of the primitive MIDI sequencers he worked with. After he gave Wizards and Warriors its medieval tunes, he moved on to composing scores that suited the wide range of environments in subsequent Rare games. Among them was the soundtrack for Cobra Triangle, a game that's practically a movie action set come to life. Players pilot a motorboat through a variety of hazards, including enemy ships, whirlpools, and giant sea monsters. Wise's tunes for Cobra Triangle are distinctly '80's action movie stuff, a notable step away from the music he made to accompany the hero Kuros' romp through a fantasy forest.
Wise says his soundtrack for Cobra Triangle came primarily from "messing around on my DX7 [Yamaha synthesizer]," something he did when he needed a quick turnaround for the games he worked on. It's not surprising to learn Wise had to compose some of his retro tracks by messing around; he composed dozens of soundtracks for Rare in the NES' heyday, with a particularly heavy deluge from 1989 through 1991.
It's impressive to learn Wise composed some of our childhood-defining game soundtracks on instinct. When Rare slowed its NES production in the early '90s, Wise came out the other end as a better composer. "The experience gained from one [project] is useful to the next. Some work well, others not so well, but they all help to shape subsequent works," he told VGMOnline in a 2010 interview. "The challenge on the NES was trying to coax different musical styles from what some may consider a rather limited sound palette."
When Monkeys Swim, They Make Beautiful Sounds
When Nintendo released the SNES in 1990, Rare was still deep in the throes of NES game development. Upon making the jump to the newer hardware with 1993's Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, Wise was ready to put the SNES's sound unit to work. Ironically, the SNES' sound chip was engineered by Ken Kutaragi, who was just a few years away from becoming the chairman and CEO of Nintendo's fiercest rival, Sony Computer Entertainment.
Wise's team-up with the grey box eventually produced the soundtracks for Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 2, two titles that still qualify for most SNES fans' "Best Sounding SNES Games" shortlists. That's an extremely exclusive club: The soundtracks for Castlevania 4, Actraiser, Final Fantasy 6, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and Mega Man X demonstrate the SNES isn't hurting for epic playlists.
Wise's triumph over the SNES isn't surprising at first glance. By the '90s, he'd become a master of the NES' five sound channels, and the SNES' sound chips offered eight channels in addition to the ability to add instrument samples. But even though the SNES contained lots more toys for sound designers to play with compared to the NES, they had to stick within the boundaries of a small playground. The SNES banked a mere 64 kilobytes of audio RAM—by comparison, an average three-minute MP3 is about five or six megabytes. The game cartridge could store additional sound information, but cartridge memory was expensive. Samples for the SNES needed to be quite compressed to save as much valuable space as possible, which could result in a mushy-sounding song that was incapable of making an impact.
Wise didn't just work within the SNES' limitations, however. He let them inspire the creative process behind some of his most famous pieces of game music, Donkey Kong Country's "Aquatic Ambiance." The Nerdwriter video essay channel has a breakdown of how Wise, inspired by the "wave sequencing" feature on the Korg Wavestation synthesizer, wove a number of tiny samples and bound them together with code to make "Aquatic Ambiance." The song's ethereal opening chords are a result of those samples coming together.
Nerdwriter states Wise arranged his samples and "boiled his music down to numbers" with the aid of a music tracker program, but Wise issues a correction in the video's comments. "Sadly, there was no tracker. It was a text editor called Brief and the code was then assembled and sent to the host PC," Wise writes. "No luxury of real-time editing. Fortunately, things have moved on with audio technology."
Moved on, they have. Interestingly, improved music-making technology has made re-visiting older work a bit complicated for Wise. He remixed "Aquatic Ambiance" and another fan favorite, "Fear Factory," for 2014's Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on the Wii U. Doing so offered a unique set of challenges.
"When we hear music today, we expect a certain level of production and polish," he says. "Although the architecture of the SNES only had eight voices and 64 KB of sample memory, it took a whole lot of processing and mixing to get the Tropical Freeze covers to sound reminiscent of the SNES sound chip."
Caged by Cartridges?
In some ways, video game development is unstuck in time. Even as console generations move forward, game designers sometimes take a step back to make or adapt games for less-powerful systems that still command large audiences.
Rare has its own good examples with the three Donkey Kong Land games for the Game Boy, released in 1995, 1996, and 1997 respectively. These games aren't direct ports of the Donkey Kong Country titles for the SNES, but many of the same ideas have carried over, including Country's pre-rendered graphics and soundtrack.
Adapting Wise's sweeping Donkey Kong Country 2 soundtrack for the tinny Game Boy sound chip fell to musician Grant Kirkhope in his first full project for Rare. While Kirkhope obviously couldn't, say, crush the kettle drums in Wise's "Flight of the Zinger" onto a Game Boy cartridge, his adaptation successfully preserves the sense of foreboding you'd probably feel if you went scrambling around a hive filled with gigantic hornets.
When I ask Kirkhope what it was like to be responsible for whittling Wise's score into something Game Boy-sized, he admits it was initially so complicated and intimidating that he almost resigned. "I'd been used to MIDI files and Cubase and synths, and then I had to write using HEX. On my first day at Rare, Dave came to show me how it all worked, and he was so good at it. I think I just glazed over as he was showing me, as it was so complicated," he says.
When Wise showed Kirkhope the process again, Kirkhope wrote it down and it stuck. He quickly loosened up and started to enjoy himself. "Dave's score to Donkey Kong Country 2 is really good, so I had fun trying to squeeze what he had written into the Game Boy."
Kirkhope's next full project with Rare was the soundtrack for the popular N64 shooter, GoldenEye 007, which he worked on alongside fellow Rare composers, Graeme Norgate and Robin Beanland. GoldenEye 007 was a smash hit, but by the time it came out in 1997, there was no denying the N64's cartridge format limited developers compared to the seemingly endless space available with the CD format the rest of the industry adopted. 1997 also gave us Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the PlayStation, whose soundtrack is never far away from any "All Time Best Game Music" lists. For Kirkhope and Wise, the N64's shortcomings were limiting, but their experience in small space allotments was luckily something they were used to already.
"You had to try your best to write a good melody and set of chords, as most of the time that was the best you could do," says Kirkhope. "Rare were huge Nintendo fans, so I was constantly being reminded as to how good the Nintendo OSTs were." He had only worked with the Game Boy up until GoldenEye 007, so in some ways he felt like a caged dog who'd been set free to frolic in a field.
Wise points out the N64's cartridges had unsung benefits for composers, namely how the music in its games could change on a dime according to the environment. A popular example is how the soundtrack in Super Mario 64's "Dire Dire Docks" picks up a drumbeat as soon as Mario steps out of the water.
"With the N64 having MIDI, it meant that we could have dynamic responsive scores that react to the gameplay environments," Wise says. "Even though our competitors could use a CD, it was a fixed track and had limited scope for reactive music."
When One Show Ends, Another Begins
Wise and Kirkhope wouldn't have to work with Nintendo's unorthodox hardware choices for much longer. In 2002, Microsoft surprised the industry when it bought Rare for $375 million. Whereas Nintendo gave Rare creative freedom, working under Microsoft was more structured, more corporate-to Rare's detriment, some former employees say.
Both Wise and Kirkhope eventually left Rare. Wise drifted away in 2009, when Microsoft put Rare to work making motion-controlled games for the Kinect to compete directly with the Wii. "Gradually, the style of games changed from what I'd recognize as classic Rare games," he says. "I left when Rare was working on Kinect Sports."
Kirkhope was initially hopeful about the acquisition, which happened when Mike Fries was still the head of Microsoft Game Studios. "He was a real gamer so I had total confidence in what he thought Rare could do for Microsoft," he says. However, Fries left Microsoft in 2004, and Rare never seemed to receive the direction it needed to thrive under the huge company. "Microsoft bought Rare to provide broad appeal content for the Xbox, but we were just a small studio. There was no way we would be able to put out enough games for the console," Kirkhope says.
Kirkhope still composed successfully under Microsoft for a time. His score for Viva Pinata on the Xbox 360 was nominated in the 2007 British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA). When Rare founders Tim and Chris Stamper left the company in 2007, Kirkhope found himself disheartened. "When Tim and Chris left, it really mattered to me," he says. "I had such fond memories of working with Tim in my early days at Rare, so I missed that."
Kirkhope left Rare and went freelance in 2008, but he's optimistic about the studio he made music at for so many years. "I think it's taken Rare a long time to reinvent itself but with the success of Sea of Thieves, it looks like they've done it," he says.
Despite their break from Rare, Wise and Kirkhope aren't lacking for projects. Wise is up to what he cheerfully tells me is "stuff!" though a lot of it is still under wraps. He's also workingon an upcoming album, Salamandos, which he's working on with former Rare character designer Kevin Bayliss. "Not only is Kevin a legendary character artist, responsible for the first 3D renders used for Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct, and Perfect Dark, he's also a great singer too," he tells me.
Kirkhope recently scored The Wrong Rock, an animated movie written and directed by Michael Cawood, who is also Rare alumni. He's currently at work on the score for a Hex Heroes, a real-time strategy game by Prismatic Games.
Both Wise and Kirkhope worked on the soundtracks for Playtonic's Yooka-Laylee (alongside former Rare composer Steve Burke), a spiritual successor to Rare's beloved 3D platformer for the N64, Banjo-Kazooie. They followed up with the soundtrack for 2019's Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, a 2D platformer that's very much in the vein of the modern Donkey Kong Country games engineered by Retro Studios.
Will Wise and Kirkhope pair up once again (or make a threesome with Burke) to score a symphony for Playtonic's chameleon and bat duo? Both seem to enjoy working with the Rare old guard that makes up much of Playtonic's staff, so it seems likely. Wise and Kirkhope no longer need to coax music out of 8-bit consoles or stuff game soundtracks onto cartridges, but the paths they forged in game music composition will never fade-and we appreciate that they're still traveling with gusto.