Before Donkey Kong Country, David Wise Composed Wizards & Warriors

Before Donkey Kong Country, David Wise Composed Wizards & Warriors

Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s new, daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-arse sounds they make. Today composer David Wise is revered for his work on Donkey Kong Country, but he got his start composing two brief soundtracks for the very first NES games Rare ever made.

Wizards & Warriors (longplay) was Rare’s second NES creation, and what NES fans used to call an “adventure” game. You, as good knight Kuros, ran and jumped through modest-sized environments full of evil, respawning wildlife in your quest to rescue fair damsels from that serial-kidnapping sonnuva wizard Malkil. What was cool, for 1987, was Kuros could find various semi-permanent upgrades like a throwing knife and a hover potion. See? Adventure game!

A surprisingly easy one, too, given Rare’s future rep for punishing difficulty.

Perhaps the most interesting Wizards and Warriors tidbit today, though, is that it was also one of the first two video games composed by David Wise (interview), he of future Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie fame.

Let’s hear what he came up with:

I’d say the opening title track is the highlight, with a sort of classical harpsichord style reminiscent of the evocative title music from Atari’s Gauntlet II. (I really like the NES Gauntlet’s expanded arrangement.) As Wise revealed to USGamer, he actually composed this title track as a teenager. Guess he came to Rare with one in the pocket, so to speak.

The first-level forest music (0:40) is pleasant enough for jumpin’ around trees in plate armour (Kuros… is a freak) but I’m more partial to the little melody that starts when you enter an interior (2:55). An atmospheric little loop, literally just 7 seconds. Award for brevity!

About half the 11-minute soundtrack is just goofy clichéd stuff, like the “spooky” boss theme (4:28) and a real “ye olden English tymes“ take for outside the final castle (8:31). This music’s not really compelling in itself, but it suits the game fine when you’re in the thick of it. It is what it needs to be, mostly.

What I’ve found most interesting, in researching Wise, is that he wrote all of his 8- and 16-bit music in hex code. Normal enough back then, but according to an OCRemix interview, this was his process all the way up through the end of SNES. Was that… late?

There was no MIDI, instead, notes were entered data style into a PC. I typed in hex numbers for pitch and length and a few commands for looping subroutines. And this method of writing video game music continued right through to the end of the SNES development.

That got me wondering about SNES audio middleware or composition tools. I know Sega of America offered the GEMS middlewarefor better and definitely worse — but I haven’t found a 1990s SNES equivalent. I take it code savviness / programming was still a useful skill for game composers through at least 16-bit, and likely a bit later. I imagine some of y’all have insights into this, so kindly droppeth thy knowledge below.

In any case, Wizards was Wise’s second soundtrack; his first was Rare’s very first NES game, Slalom. A very simple arcade skiing contest, it had very little music, so you can hear it all — and see most of what Rare’s first NES game had to offer — just by watching a little gameplay:

It’s fine, even if Wise now describes it as sounding “more like a door-bell.” It’s just music from an old video game. I certainly like it better than Slalom’s dreadful player sprite, though maybe I’m just jealous of those supremely well-defined glutes.

To think, in just seven years he would be producing legendary work like this…

Wizards & Warriors is charming, but Wise sure came a long way by Donkey Kong Country, huh? Being a child back then, I suppose I made similarly drastic progress in those years, though child-me produced fewer beloved pop-cultural artifacts.

Thou hath discovered the ende of thy Morning’s Music. My apologies, but due to some weird Kotaku initiative (ugh) all Morning Music comments must be in fake medieval English until further notice. Seest thou on the morrow!

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