Donkey Kong Country, Gaming's Biggest Bluff

20 years ago, Nintendo faced the threat of obsolescence with sheer bravado—and won.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

Originally published Nov. 2014

Ever since Mattel chose to sell the Intellivision platform by proclaiming its incredible graphical realism relative to Atari's 2600 -- our stick figures are better! -- technology has been the gaming business' preferred battleground.

But technology marches ever onward, and while this year's system may trump the competition with its jaw-dropping power, next year it'll be nothing more than a dusty relic. So it went for Nintendo, whose Super NES offered the slickest graphics and most convincing audio of the 16-bit era... right up until the point at which it didn't. By 1994, a mere three years after the console's American debut, the Super NES had grown long in the tooth, and enthusiasm began to wane.

All throughout the 16-bit era, Nintendo had managed to fend off threats to the monopoly it built in the '80s with great software and some ruthless business decisions. Sega made headway with its Genesis, but even that juggernaut couldn't quite dethrone Nintendo as the industry's big player. The looming specter of Sony's PlayStation, however, painted a different picture. Its awe-inspiring 3D capabilities were a far cry from the clunky visuals produced by limp also-rans Atari Jaguar and 3DO, and even early glimpses of the likes of Ridge Racer absolutely shamed the meager polygons Nintendo's FX chip produced.

While it doesn't look quite as impressive in hindsight, the dusky diorama graphical stylings of Donkey Kong Country didn't just make it look better than its 16-bit competition -- it trounced most early 32-bit software as well.

Unfortunately, Nintendo's own Super NES successor, the Ultra 64, was still a year away from prime time (actually, as it turned out, two years). All the company had to combat the promise of PlayStation and Sega Saturn was an aging console and increasingly expensive add-on chips that couldn't begin to measure up to what the competition had in store. So Nintendo, a company that got its start as a playing card manufacturer, did what any card player would do with a losing hand: It bluffed.

Nintendo's bluff came in the form of Donkey Kong Country, a total reimagining of the franchise that had catapulted the company to the big leagues in the first place. It was a game a long time coming; outside of that summer's largely overlooked remake of the original arcade title for Game Boy, Donkey Kong hadn't featured in a new game since Donkey Kong 3 a decade prior. In fact, besides the occasional cameo in unrelated works and the mysterious Return of Donkey Kong for NES (announced but never shown), the former arcade superstar had all but vanished. Kong's disappearance was quite an ignominious twist for a character who had once been one of the medium's most recognizable faces.

Perhaps Nintendo was simply holding him back for the right moment. Certainly DKC had profound impact. It brought back an '80s arcade staple in true '90s style: As the furry hero of a snarky platform action game. DKC was no mere Sonic clone, though. Not only did Kong have a valid claim on the genre despite his lengthy absence -- the original Donkey Kong being one of the format's seminal works -- the game was nothing short of astonishing from a visual perspective. Somehow, developer Rare managed to squeeze graphical fidelity from the wheezing Super NES that put the game's visuals on par with anything yet seen on more advanced hardware... and all without the use of one of those fancy add-on processors Nintendo was so fond of.

Clever use of shadows and darkness weren't just an artsy chiaroscuro effect. The deep pools of black hid the seams between graphical elements and heightened the sense of depth.

Of course, it was simply an illusion, a trick of clever graphical design. But what a trick! Rare fostered the perception that DKC was a game running on an advanced, 3D-capable system, despite the fact that under the hood DKC was arguably a step behind launch titles like Super Mario World and Super Castlevania IV. It eschewed the Super NES's built-in graphical modes, foregoing the platform's standard bag of gimmicks (rotation, transparencies, etc.) in favor of a game that impressed strictly with its basic visual design.

But that design really was impressive. Quibbles about the main character's radical '90s redesign aside, DKC banked on the public's general inexperience with 3D graphics to wow the masses with a game whose technological advancements happened entirely on the development side. There was nothing special under the hood of the DKC cart or the Super NES. Instead, Rare put cutting-edge computer techniques to use in the crafting of the game.

Never mind that DKC was, at heart, a fairly standard platformer. Kong and his sidekick Diddy could run and jump per usual, attack with an open-palmed ground slap, roll into foes like Sonic, and ride around on a variety of animal pals. There was really nothing about DKC that hadn't been done dozens of times before by dozens of other platformers, often in a much more fashion. But it didn't matter. DKC wasn't about revolutionizing the way games played; it was about convincing gamers not to trade in their Super Nintendo systems for something better. And it worked.

For everyone who ever wondered what Myst would be like as an action platformer starring monkeys, Donkey Kong Country held the answers.

It worked because Nintendo and Rare's hunch was right. Most people didn't have real experience with true 3D game worlds in 1994, so DKC's fixed perspective didn't betray it as a relic of 16-bit hardware. When people thought of advanced computer graphics, they thought of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or the previews they'd seen of the upcoming Disney cartoon Toy Story. DKC looked much more like Buzz Lightyear than the boxy dominatrices of Toshinden did; in many ways, DKC's 3D fakery was better than actual 3D. Certainly it was more satisfying to look at.

DKC's design and legacy have left it open to considerable criticism over the years. The flimflammery of its visuals and the relative mundanity of its actual game design make it easy for critics to paint it as a classic case of style over substance. There's also the (seemingly apocryphal) claim that Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto found DKC lackluster and amateurish, leading to the creation of the elaborately lo-fi Yoshi's Island as a reactionary piece.

But while those criticisms have some merit, they're not entirely fair, either. Sometimes, style is substance, and DKC is a masterful example of that axiom in action. This was no slapdash half-effort; Rare's designers didn't simply punch some numbers into a supercomputer and wait for the game to emerge fully formed from a slot on the side. On the contrary, DKC exudes craftsmanship. Rare went to great pains to create a consistent, seamless world that managed to convey trompe-l'oeil immersion despite being made of the same flat bitmap tiles that every other 2D platformer on the market used. This was no trivial matter, as countless games that attempted to borrow DKC's production techniques would prove: Few looked as clean or consistent as Rare's work, which committed to the illusion and pulled it off impeccably.

Before too long, actual 3D games would become commonplace, and "2.5D" platformers like Crystal Dynamics' Pandemonium! would expose the illusion upon which DKC was built. But in 1994, it didn't matter. Nintendo stood at the brink of obsolescence and made the biggest bluff in its century of existence. Incredibly, it worked. As Sony and Sega ushered in the 32-bit era, the creaky old Super NES enjoyed its strongest sales ever. Perhaps even more amazingly, people cared about Donkey Kong again for the first time in a decade. Not bad for a crazy handful of nothing.

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Comments 34

  • Avatar for docexe #1 docexe 4 years ago
    I remember how marveled I was at this game and its pre-rendered graphics when I first saw it as a kid in a magazine. It certainly looked way better than most of those early 3D games. Of course, like with Killer Instinct, it was all a trick, yet it paid off.

    It’s interesting as well because, to a certain degree, Nintendo continues to use this kind of “tricks” to keep their software visually appealing despite running in limited hardware (just look at Mario Galaxy and Skyward Sword).
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  • Avatar for davidbabb52 #2 davidbabb52 4 years ago
    Fantastic! I remember drooling over DKC when Nintendo Power first started touting the game. Looking back, it's not aged as well as other SNES games, but it still brings back a nice wave of nostalgia.
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  • Avatar for whitestreak #3 whitestreak 4 years ago
    I never liked that game and didn't think it anything special, except of course for the Silicon Graphics

    Yoshi's Island, on the other hand, is probably the only 16 bit platformer to match Mega Man 2, Duck Tales and SMB 3 in my eyes.
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  • Avatar for ob1 #4 ob1 4 years ago
    Brad says it better than me : DK is overrated !
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #5 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @ob1 Lots of people say DKC is overrated -- it's not exactly a novel opinion. As someone who has loudly criticized the game over the past 15 years or so, I thought it might be worth discussing its strengths for once.
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  • Avatar for jmroo #6 jmroo 4 years ago
    Those look like hotdogs just hanging onto the bananas
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  • Avatar for jmroo #7 jmroo 4 years ago
    My favorite thing about the original dk trilogy is the mood in the setting. The music is usually slow and quiet. Levels are muted and darker but not in a scary sense. Unfortunately for my tastes, the DKC Returns games lean more toward the brighter upbeat mood like mario games.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #8 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @jmroo It's true, Rare's version of Donkey Kong is 90% rendered meat product by volume.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #9 LBD_Nytetrayn 4 years ago
    Funny, this reminds me of a piece I've been planning, but haven't gotten around to. Takes a different approach, but comes across a similar point. I'll be sure to reference this one in mine. =)

    That said, I just love DKC for what it is. I loved it as a reboot of Donkey Kong, and it really helped me get behind the character. As@jmroo pointed out, the atmosphere was great, too.

    I love the sequels, but the original holds a special place for me in the early series-- partly because you could actually play as the title character in this one!
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  • Avatar for raymondfernandes09 #10 raymondfernandes09 4 years ago
    I feel like this game gets a lot of retroactive hate from people. Is it as good as Yoshi's Island, SMW, or the 16-bit Sonic games? No, but few platformers are. The game is plenty fun with lots of secrets, fantastic music, and great sound design. It's rendered graphics have age far, far better than any of its contemparies have. When I went back to it a couple of years ago, I was trepidatious to see how they held up after playing Super Mario RPG before it and I ended quite pleased with the visuals. Very good game in 94 and still a very good game 20 years later.Edited January 2014 by raymondfernandes09
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  • Avatar for metalangel #11 metalangel 4 years ago
    At the time I didn't see what all the fuss was about - 3D graphics with filled polygons were everywhere: arcade games like Hard Drivin', PC games, and the 16-bit consoles themselves had quite a few games of varying quality and performance from good stuff like Virtua Racing, Starfox and Faceball 2000 (the SNES version!) to the much creakier or choppy stuff like Race Drivin' or LHX Attack Chopper.

    DKC just used grainy sprites of models that had been rendered on a very expensive workstation, that couldn't do anything a normal sprite couldn't do. Fortunately the game was decent too or it'd have been another 'WOW LOOK AT THE WIKKED GRAFIX' fiasco like Rise of the Robots.
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #12 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    I still love to go back to Donkey Kong Country from time to time, if for no other reason to experience the music. What's also lost in a lot of DKC retrospectives is that the sequels actually did a lot of interesting things. DKC2 in particular adds a lot of new elements to make it stick out from the heard some more and even manages to have a better soundtrack somehow.
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  • Avatar for Wellman #13 Wellman 4 years ago
    Honestly for a long while it was my favorite side scrolling platformer ever. Then I played Kirby Super Star years later just as the GC was first coming out and it was dethroned. Still one of the great games on the system even if the graphics haven't aged well, if only for the presentation.
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  • Avatar for alexb #14 alexb 4 years ago
    I feel like this piece is intended, at least partially, as a defense of Nintendo's present direction. Some validation of their continued tactic of selling the consumer a "crazy handful of nothing." Perhaps that wasn't the intent. But in any case, I don't think things are going to go as well for them in 2014 as they did in 1994.

    It's interesting to look back and see how much the world has changed.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #15 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @alexb Not a defense, just perspective. As have all the Nintendo retrospectives I've published this week. Which I've stated in explicit terms.
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  • Avatar for Sturat #16 Sturat 4 years ago
    I'd never paid $70 for a game until I saved up to buy this on launch date, and man was I disappointed! The level designs were boring and the controls were too loose. It taught me a valuable lesson not to trust an outsourced game even if the publisher is hyping it like their greatest game ever.
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  • Avatar for Windwhale #17 Windwhale 4 years ago
    The funny thing is, that its relatively low resolution actually prevents the game from looking too dated: Just looking at the header of this article makes me wonder, what kind of metal-plastic-alloy gorilla fur is actually made of..
    It still is a pretty solid game though.
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  • Avatar for waynestainrook29 #18 waynestainrook29 4 years ago
    I have to admit, when I first saw the rainstorm transition in as you swung across the vines in the first stage, my jaw dropped. Love these retrospectives!
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  • Avatar for jeffcorry #19 jeffcorry 4 years ago
    I bought into the hype on this one. Big time. I loved it and enjoyed it. I still enjoy it. The graphics, at the time, blew my mind. Especially from my humble SNES. A friend received the promotional video in the mail, and I watched that thing over and over.
    Yes, in hindsight, I can see the magic of illusion present in the game, but I still marvel at what was pulled off. Nostalgia colored glasses have me on this one.
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  • Avatar for TPoppaPuff #20 TPoppaPuff 4 years ago
    It's asinine how much retroactive hate this game gets. Probably more so than any other game in history. It's like once the magic trick is explained, nobody cares. And that attitude has turned into dismissive and hateful against a game that still plays better than most any other platformer. No, it may not be Super Mario World, which itself is more or less SMB3, but it also was never nearly as frustrating either. There's also a cohesiveness to the levels that doesn't exist in SMW. For as much as the pallets were identical in certain areas in SMW, there was a clear distinction between levels as if different people created the levels independently of one another and then just threw up Mario graphics all over it. In DKC there's a much logical move from one level to the next. The endpoints of the levels bleed into the next without literally needing to do so.

    And then if you look at the unlockables like the KONG letters, the secret barrel levels, the secret buddies you could find are all handled just as deftly if not better than they were in SMW. Unlocks in SMW came from word of mouth. Unlocks in DKC came in visual cues. You didn't need prior knowledge going in to find all the secrets, you just had to pay attention. And the asymmetric characters you could swap between added more depth as a player than what SMW offered.

    The truth is if the graphics were swapped people would be saying that Donkey Kong World is a great looking but very punishing platformer that launched with the SNES. And Super Mario Country is a fun sequel that isn't quite as difficult or frustrating as SMB3.

    Besides, most people hadn't played DKC2. If you wanted a challenging platformer in the same vein as SMW, DKC2 was a much better sequel than SMW2. Yoshi's Island was mostly a breeze. It's a game that received hate when it was released yet has retroactively received a lot of love since then. Where were these people when it was released? Actually if you look at both Yoshi's Island and DKC there are similarities. Both are fun, relatively easy platformers with solid fundamental understandings of the genre and and solid level design. Yet one was cool when it came out and the other wasn't. And now because this is the hipster world we live in what was once cool is now hated and "overrated" and the other is "underrated" and receives tons of love. Both titles should be loved and the fact that either receives so much flip-flopped hate or love now is completely disingenuous.
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  • Avatar for ricklongo #21 ricklongo 3 years ago
    @TPoppaPuff Take a bow, sir.

    I have no idea what people are going on about when theycompare the DKC series negatively to other platforms of the era. Like TPoppaPuff siad above, level design is, at many times, much better than Super Mario World, especially in the way it hints at possible secrets without flat-out giving them away (or without making them impossible to find without a walkthrough).

    I see a few overall flaws in the original DKC, yes, but by the time DKC2 was released, pretty much all of them were surpassed. That is one hell of a sequel, and still my favorite platformer of all time.
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  • Avatar for baigandine #22 baigandine 2 years ago
    No trickery at all. Visually impressive is visually impressive. Games of the era resorted to countless "tricks" to look better, as there was almost no such thing as "true 3D." Whoever did the "tricks" better had the better graphics. Period. People weren't impressed by it because it was 3-D. Nintendo said in their promotional video it started out as a 3-D model and was then converted to 2-D on the Super Nintendo. It's not as if it would have exactly run on an Atari 2600.

    If you are going to call it "a bag of tricks" or "a bag of nothing", you almost have to say the same thing about Final Fantasy VII. Yes, you kind of really do. Because the graphics of Final Fantasy VII were only impressive because of two things, pre-rendered backgrounds and FMV, which is very much akin to what you say Donkey Kong Country was doing. "On the production side" as you say. Many would say the gameplay of Final Fantasy VII was inferior to some or all of its predecessors as you say about DKC compared to SMW.

    While you claim the darkness in the dark stages was intended "to hide seams in the graphics", you didn't have dark stages like that in DKC2 or 3. Moreover, you don't explain why those stages were somehow harder to run than the bright stages.

    If you thought DKC or Final Fantasy VII were "full 3D", perhaps you were duped. But if you thought they were visually impressive, well you were right.
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  • Avatar for jaredfrost49 #23 jaredfrost49 2 years ago
    I don't really see a problem. Nintendo was in a rough spot and needed something visually appealing on their outdated system. Rare delivered. I played donkey Kong country 1 and 2 around the same time as super Mario world and other snes titles. Dkc just has something other games dont for me. An incredible atmosphere. The jungle theme, to the marine levels and the minecart riding combined with the magical soundtrack, mixed with amazing colors. If I had to pick one game to play it would be dkc. I've yet to play a 3d game with the fluidity and addicting skill curve that donkey Kong had. The game gives me chills sometimes.
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  • Avatar for jaredfrost49 #24 jaredfrost49 2 years ago
    @baigandine not to mention what appears to be 3d backgrounds in the underwater levels in dkc2, go look at them again if you don't remember. Amazing stuff.
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  • Avatar for Vaporeon #25 Vaporeon A year ago
    I remember calling my dad into the room to marvel with me at the blue Crystalline level. As a '90s kid, that was the first time I was really blown away by graphics in a video game. I still have great memories of that SNES trilogy :-)
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  • Avatar for erikacampbell61 #26 erikacampbell61 A year ago
    Deleted February 4000 by Unknown
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  • Avatar for not_themilkybarkid #27 not_themilkybarkid A year ago
    It amuses me how Donkey Kong Country Returns took such a radically different approach. It eschewed motion control gimmickry (apart from the shake-to-roll move) and flashy graphics, and instead focused on rock solid platforming.
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #28 donkeyintheforest A year ago
    I never mistook this game for a 3D game and to see reviewers reference it as such was one of the first times I realized that a normal person may indeed know more than a "journalist!?"

    Still, I think the thing that made this game stand out was the framerate of the sprite animation. The Toy Story game for SNES used a similar pre-redered technique to great effect. Clay fighter was much choppier (prob due to a combination of the larger sprites and stop motion technique), but still a cool stylistic choice at the time.

    Now we just need someone to talk about the awesome graphics of Flashback for the snes.
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  • Avatar for sobo89 #29 sobo89 A year ago
    Too much is made of DKC's graphics. Yes, they were amazing then. They were a huge selling point, but hardly anyone ever talks about the controls. The controls in DKC are very what makes the first game great and the sequel my favorite platformer ever. You have a simple arsenal of movement: walk/run/roll/jump/throw. It's easy to grasp and brilliant to execute. In contrast, Mario and every other platformer of the era just not as fun to control. I always felt that Sonic really deserves the bad rap DKC gets.

    To clarify on the controls, I have two contemporary comparisons. (1) Bloodborne: it has such a simple control scheme and rhythm, that once you get comfortable with it, you can really control the tempo and charge through the environment. It feels acrobatic and Fun, despite the usual criticisms of difficulty. (2) Destiny: At launch, Destiny had problems with its campaign, progression, and endgame content, but I stuck with it because despite these criticisms it was so fun to play. It is a great shooter with a slick aesthetic. Running and jumping, using powers, sniping, throwing knives, it all feels great to control.

    DKC might be shallow in some departments, it had more than graphics going for it. It actually captures the acrobatic controls of its mascot. Of course everything started in DKC was perfected in 2. Dixie is more fun than Donkey, the secret barrels actually amount to better secrets, and the bosses are more varied. And the music. Man, 2's soundtrack is amazing. If anyone hasn't played DKC2, I highly recommend it. No other platformer on SNES feels better.
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  • Avatar for mganai #30 mganai A year ago
    @raymondfernandes09 I think a bigger demerit would be taking away too much attention from DK '94. Not to take away with the article's points about the visual design, which I agree with, but DK '94 did something more novel yet consistent with the original's roots. (I know Jeremy also did an article on that here, so I needn't elaborate.)
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  • Avatar for greenhornet214 #31 greenhornet214 A year ago
    I will NEVER understand or agree with the criticism of this game. It is absolutely brilliant. I loved it as a kid, and I love it now.
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  • Avatar for SuperShinobi #32 SuperShinobi A year ago
    It was impressive for the time, but it really is strange that it doesn't seem to have aged well. I suspect it could be something to do with it looking somehow "off" on modern HDTVs. I don't currently have a CRT, but I'd like to check out if it looks better on those.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #33 LBD_Nytetrayn A year ago
    @not_themilkybarkid There was a little more shaking than that, for the ground pound and I think the blowing move. Just enough to possibly annoy.
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  • Avatar for WiIIyTheAntelope #34 WiIIyTheAntelope A year ago
    @SuperShinobi It definitely is one of those games that looks better on a CRT. The big chunky pixels you see in the screenshots are more or less eliminated on one. Even emulators with their CRT faking filters don't do it justice. It needs to be played on that big wooden living room monstrosity to really be appreciated.
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  • Avatar for moroboshi #35 moroboshi A year ago
    DKC is all too easily brushed off as just a tech demo, a facade, all style and no substance. I beg to differ. DKC is an excellent platformer, with plenty of depth, satisfying mechanics, and excellent level design. It's not Mario World, but few games are. It is however, better than any Sonic game, or pretty much any other 16-bit non Mario platform game.

    More should also be made of the outstanding soundtracks in these games. Dave Wise is one of the all time great game composers.
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