The Most Emotional Video Game Music in the Unlikeliest of Places

From the remarkable success of Snake Eater to the poignant beauty of Unshaken in Red Dead Redemption 2, the realm of video game music has transcended the boundaries set by its pioneers. However, only a few original composers have truly evolved with the medium, showcasing undeniable talent across console generations. David Wise is one such composer. Starting from humble beginnings in a music store, he eventually went on to create the iconic soundscapes for Donkey Kong Country and numerous other hit titles, crafting a journey like no other.

Out of Wise’s remarkable 36-year-long career, one composition stands out above the rest: Aquatic Ambience. Originally conceived as underwater-level music for a platformer game in the 90s, this unexpected blend of melancholy quickly captured the world’s imagination. Today, three decades later, Aquatic Ambience has taken on a life of its own. It has been sampled by superstar artists like Childish Gambino, cherished by Trent Reznor, performed in grand concerts worldwide, and remixed in every possible direction by the internet community.

But what makes Aquatic Ambience so special? How did something seemingly simple from the 90s become known as the Eleanor Rigby of video game music, striking a chord with its devoted fanbase? Wise believes that Aquatic Ambience was a turning point for him. He wasn’t merely composing for an underwater level; he was striving to create a pleasant sound. It was a light bulb moment, an unexpected departure from the norm.

Today, David Wise continues to perform his music live to adoring fans across the globe, and Aquatic Ambience always manages to captivate audiences. Despite its reflective and somber tone, the composition consistently receives overwhelming adoration. Wise himself describes it as a blend of sadness and upliftment, where even amidst the darkness, a glimmer of hope emerges. Originally composed in 1993, the emotional masterpiece still draws crowds today. However, it wasn’t always regarded as a career-defining hit.

Wise recalls, “Once you’ve worked on something for quite a long time, you get a bit bored of it really. I didn’t really have an idea of how well-received it was outside of Rare until somebody brought a CD in. Several years had passed at that point, and I realized they’d put on an orchestral concert in Japan and they’d been playing it as part of that concert.” It took until later, when the internet allowed the world to connect more closely, that he realized the impact Aquatic Ambience had on its listeners. Trent Reznor, from Nine Inch Nails, was one of the first to express his appreciation for the composition, giving Wise an inkling of its reach.

Astounded by its cultural impact, Wise couldn’t believe that Aquatic Ambience had come so far. As the years went by, fans continued to flock to watch him perform this emotional masterpiece. However, when the track was initially composed, it didn’t have such lofty expectations placed upon it. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

To understand the origins of Aquatic Ambience, we must delve into Wise’s earlier days. As a young musician, he had never imagined a career in video game composition. His journey began when he applied for a job at a music store in Leicester. Yamaha representatives approached him with a computer called CX5, eager to find someone to learn and operate it. Initially disinterested, Wise changed his mind when they offered an extra day off per week. Little did he know that this decision would shape his future.

Over the course of a few months, Wise learned to use the CX5 computer, connecting it to synthesizers and playing popular songs from the 80s. When two gentlemen arrived for a demonstration, he played them the well-known songs he had learned, apologetically adding that he had composed some original pieces as well. To his surprise, they offered him a job at Rare, where he would be writing music for their video games.

In the mid-80s, Rare was by no means the powerhouse it would become. Wise vividly recalls his first day, where he found himself in a newly purchased farmhouse with no office space. He was tasked with painting his own office, a project that took a few weeks to complete. Once settled, Wise dove headfirst into his first project: creating music for a Mario game. This is when the reality of video game development truly hit him.

For the NES system, Wise had to work with four sound chips that offered limited capabilities. Despite the challenges, he composed memorable pieces for various NES games. However, a much-anticipated upgrade came in the form of the Super Nintendo. With eight channels available and slightly more memory, Wise felt a newfound freedom. He was determined to compose music that transcended the typical video game sound.

Despite the limitations, Wise was able to utilize his knowledge of hex codes and programming to emulate the sounds he wanted to create. By visualizing the sounds in his head, he could accurately type out the hex codes without needing to play them on a keyboard. This unique skill set allowed him to bring his musical visions to life.

With a developed skill set and unwavering passion, David Wise cemented his status as a legend in the realm of video game music. Aquatic Ambience stands as a testament to his talent, captivating audiences worldwide for three decades and counting. As the industry continues to evolve, David Wise remains at the forefront, creating unforgettable compositions that push the boundaries of what video game music can achieve.



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