Donkey Kong Country Returns (Kenji Yamamoto)

November 26, 2010

While I haven’t had a chance to play through Donkey Kong Country Returns yet (looking really forward to getting a copy though!), I did get a chance to listen to the soundtrack. My conclusion is that it’s pretty much a split: half the music is good, half is disappointing. First off, the instrument selection has greater variety than the original (which has a bass static to it due to lower bitrate) and seems to have come straight from swank jungle-themed lounges (so far straight-on) with a nice infusion of ethnic sounds (chanting, for instance).  However, the synthetic instruments just don’t seem to have the punch they did in the originals, and I think part of this comes from the synth lines and instrument library. I’ve heard some people say Nintendo’s instrument library is a little bit dated, and maybe this is an indication of that. Also, Kenji Yamamoto’s compositions are lacking in the environmental sounds that characterized the David Wise’s Donkey Kong Country soundtrack (a major sticking point in my view). Yet another disappointment is most of the soundtrack is arranges of pieces from the original Donkey Kong Country, giving the game the soundtrack of a complete reboot.

Donkey Kong Country Returns – “Jungle Groove” (Kenji Yamamoto)

It all comes down to the composition though, and this is where I’m split. Take the new rendition of “Jungle Groove”. Mr. Yamamoto’s rendition is a bit more intense and lacks the environmental sounds of the original. There are some fun additions here, such as the digeridoo, but the synth line seems a little out of place. I think the real trouble is pieces like “Jungle Groove” have a long and storied history, with plenty of other remixes and arranges to compare. In this regard, it’s difficult to outdo the best of the past 15 years, especially when the feel of the tracks has changed. Without so much comparison, they would probably stand higher as original compositions.

Still, there are some fantastic arranges here though that outdo the originals. Take “Fear Factory”, for instance:

“Fear Factory”

The original used a lot of synths and drums to give it an electronic feel, and that’s all here, complete with strings to generate a feel of gloom from technology run rampant. I wonder if it would have sounded better with trumpets rather than another synth line, though. More important, the xylophones and drums used here are spot-on, matching my memory of the original. This I think is where nostalgia comes into play: for the piece to succeed, it really has to meet the expectations of the listener, to draw on the sound of the original and replicate it with newer instruments with the same feel and a composition with energy greater than or equal in intensity.

Lastly, there are original compositions, of which there are very few. There are new works for the cliff stages which suggest picturesque vistas, dizzying heights, and antiquity (it seems there are lots of fossilized creatures on the cliff) – these go along with the many tracks that just aren’t memorable, however. Still, the most outstanding original compositions are the volcano stage themes. The best of these I think is the main volcano level theme, which I’m calling for now “Furious Fire” after the stage it premiers in (there doesn’t seem to be an official tracklist yet).

“Furious Fire”

“Furious Fire” sounds like it’s straight out of King Kong. With heavy drum action, particularly the pounding sticks, along with the mad chanting of tribesmen and echoing trumpets, I almost expect the big ape himself to come crashing out. The melody is also memorable, with repeated bars played on brass and sung by the chanting choir and enough rising and falling action to mimic lava flows. Note the piece has similarities with Mr. Yamamoto’s other work – “Norfair Ancient Ruins Area/Magmoor Caverns” from Super Metroid and Metroid Prime, with identical pounding sticks, drums, and chanting – sure to stir within longtime fans fond memories of these games. This may be my favorite piece from the game.

Ultimately though, the nostalgia found in Donkey Kong Country Returns‘ soundtrack runs a fine line between outdoing the original and following Kenji Yamamoto’s unique compositional style. the new changes might be superior in some instances, but where they pass below the bar – at least for this listener – they do so for not fully meeting or exceeding expectations set by a decade and a half of fandom as well as perhaps pushing a little too closely to the source material. It’s certainly a fine line between creating something that is original enough and providing enough arranges of older material to satisfy nostalgia. Here, I think Mr. Yamamoto should have leaned a bit more towards original. We’ll have to see if Retro Studios decides to make a sequel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: