A ‘Rare’ Interview with Donkey Kong Country Composer Eveline Novakovic

In 2007, video game composer Eveline Novakovic (née Fischer) faced a difficult decision. Working at Rare had been the perfect job — it was a state-of-the-art games studio nestled away in the English countryside, and a place where she could be creative alongside a team of other talented individuals. But between the commute, the long hours, and having recently become a mother, she realized staying at the studio had become untenable. After much deliberation, she came to her decision and chose to retire from the games industry later that year. 

Novakovic left behind a phenomenal body of work, but, despite her many accomplishments, her contributions to Rare’s legacy and video game audio are often unfairly overlooked. She was the first in-house musician to join Rare’s audio department in the early 90s and co-composed the soundtracks to Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble, alongside David Wise. She also later became the voice of Joanna Dark, and is credited on other Rare games such as Ken Griffey’s Jr.’s Winning Run, Conker’s Pocket Tales, and Kameo: Elements of Power, among others. 

Since retiring, Novakovic has generally avoided doing interviews, but recently she agreed to talk to me about her storied career. Our interview covered her early influences, her time at Rare, and whether she’d ever consider returning to the games industry.

A Rare Opportunity

When Novakovic starts talking about her musical education prior to joining Rare, she describes it as “essentially classical,” having studied piano, church organ, and violin. At home, though, her mom was a huge fan of theatre and ballet, while her dad was constantly introducing her to new genres and artists such as Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Oscar Peterson, and Count Basie. As a result, she developed an appreciation for all kinds of music, an appreciation that only deepened during her time at university.

“It was in my fifth and final year of studies, during a course on Electro-Acoustic Composition at Bournemouth University, that I really started to appreciate what music could bring to moving images,” Novakovic tells me. “Learning from soundtracks such as Klaus Doldinger’s powerful, sound effect-driven score for the original [1981] film Das Boot, Frances Ford Coppola’s use of music in Apocalypse Now, and Alan Silvestri’s spine-tingling score for the American thriller Shattered, I was like a kid in a sweet shop. It was a heady mix of music and technology, the perfect springboard for my job at Rare. I don’t think at the time I realised how influential that final year had been on my work. Listening back now, I recognise the thinking behind what I was trying to write.”

When Novakovic joined Rare in 1993, the company was still a small business based out of a manor house in Twycross, England and run by two brothers (Tim and Chris Stamper). It had only one composer, David Wise, who worked for the company as a freelancer. Rare had originally evolved from the brothers’ earlier company, Ultimate Play the Game, who were the creators of games like Jetpac, Atic Atac, and Sabre Wulf for various home computers. This new studio, however, was becoming better known for its productive partnership with Nintendo, having a hand in developing games like Battletoads, Slalom, R.C Pro-Am, and Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  

“As one of only two women working on the development teams at that time, and the only in-house musician, it felt daunting to begin with,” Novakovic recalls. “What I found though was a genuine camaraderie from the top down. And whilst the Stampers were very much hands on, with Tim and Chris being a central part of the creative process, Rare seemed to be as much about them as it was about their staff. Equipped with everything we needed to tap into our own creativity, they nurtured in us a strong sense of identity and a pride in what the company was trying to achieve.”

Getting into the Swing of Things

At the time Novakovic arrived at Rare, the company was making the jump from the NES to Nintendo’s next console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). While the Nintendo Entertainment System only had 5 channels in total, the SNES had room for up to eight channels, translating to eight instruments. As was typical of Rare at the time, Novakovic didn’t use any external software like Cubase to assemble her tracks, instead coding the music directly onto the SNES using a programming language called HEX. This was a string of alphanumerics that composers needed to painstakingly enter into the console in order to dictate elements such as the note, octave, volume, the sampled instruments being used, and the effects. 

“Initially I was set up in the barn with the development team,” says Novakovic. “It was early days for the Rare music department and the stable block was yet to be converted into music rooms. This gave me the chance to find my feet. Having had no previous experience of gaming, or the SNES, I had to start from scratch. I discovered early on that I was happiest writing the more atmospheric music. Learning how to code the audio in HEX was also a huge learning curve for me, but Dave Wise [who had now switched from freelance to in house] was the eternal optimist. He was great to work with and always happy to offer advice. In the end it became second nature, but it hadn’t been easy.”

As her first project for the console, Novakovic worked on Donkey Kong Country, alongside David Wise and Robin Beanland (who contributed the track “Funky’s Fugue”). While Wise took the lead, composing most of the music, Novakovic was responsible for seven tracks, including the iconic map theme “Simian Segue,” and more atmospheric tracks like “Treetop Rock,” “Voices of the Temple” and “Northern Hemispheres.” 

Novakovic says that her goal was to give each stage a sense of place and momentum, and in doing so, she borrowed techniques from some of her earlier cinematic influences. “Voices of the Temple,” for example, is a track thick with atmosphere. Here Novakovic channels the fevered, paranoid soundscapes of Apocalypse Now, using pan pipes and sudden bursts of percussion to create the impression of a menacing threat lurking off-screen. Meanwhile, on “Northern Hemispheres” Novakovic takes cues from both Silvestri and Doldinger to compose a theme that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1980s thriller. The track begins with minimal percussion and a simple bass rhythm, but, as the player progresses through the frozen tundra and the weather transforms from a gradual snowfall to a blizzard, the music grows much more intense, layering on additional instruments like keys and plucked strings. 

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Hitting a Home Run

The critical reception to Donkey Kong Country’s soundtrack was overwhelmingly positive, but Novakovic didn’t go on to work on its sequel, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest. Instead, Wise composed the next entry alone, with Novakovic working on Ken Griffey Jr.’s Winning Run, a licensed baseball game, also for the SNES. She jumped at the chance, looking for an opportunity to branch out and try something new.

“Ken Griffey was a great project to move onto,” Novakovic tells me. “A world away from the jungles and mines of Donkey Kong, it gave me the opportunity to come up with something completely different musically. It was also a chance to think about how I could push the in-game audio on the SNES.”  

Novakovic describes Ken Griffey Jr.’s Winning Run as a game changer in regards to how she wrote music. It helped her further appreciate that game audio wasn’t just about music and composition alone, but the opportunity to immerse the player in a world where music and sound is blended seamlessly together. Despite composing a fist-pumping theme for the game, Novakovic put much more of her focus on recreating the sounds and incidental music you might hear at a ball game — the roar of the crowd, the blasting of bullhorns, and the occasional organ piped around the stadium. 

“For the sake of authenticity, the vocals and sound effects were recorded in America, as were several DATs (Digital Audio Tapes) worth of background recordings taken at various baseball games,” Novakovic recalls. “I also listened to a lot of baseball footage, picking out the characteristic elements and working these into the in-game ambience, which was then programmed to interact with the gameplay.” 

Many video game music fans consider Novakovic’s soundtrack for Ken Griffey Jr.’s Winning Run to be an underrated gem, and it’s easy to see why. The composer put a lot of time and effort into squeezing the audio experience of being at a ball game onto the SNES despite the limitations, and the results are fantastic.

Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!

While the composer was busy working on Ken Griffey Jr.’s Winning Run, Rare released the sequel to Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, to strong reviews. The studio therefore made the decision to immediately greenlight a sequel. But before work began on the third game, titled Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!, the team was split in two. 

One group went to work on Project Dream (which would later become Banjo Kazooie on the Nintendo 64), while the others stayed to develop Double Trouble!. As a result, the composer Dave Wise found himself between two large projects, so Novakovic was brought onto the third Donkey Kong Country to handle much of the soundtrack. Understandably, she found the prospect daunting. 

“I would have been very conscious of expectations following the huge success of the first two games in the series,” admits Novakovic. “I was equally aware that Dave’s musical style was not only instantly recognisable, it had also played a big part in that success. However, I knew the soundtrack for Double Trouble! could never be a carbon copy of the previous games as stylistically our writing was so different. In a way, this forced me to rethink how I approached the music.”  

On Donkey Kong Country 3, Novakovic wanted the player to feel that both the music and sound were working in tandem. She also wanted to introduce more genres into the mix. This was to reflect the change in location from the jungles and temples of DK Island to the forests and lakes of the Northern Kremisphere. Some of the tracks Novakovic composed for the soundtrack include the heavy metal “Nuts and Bolts” with its dense drums and electric guitar sample; the unique aquatic theme “Water World,” with its whirling synths, brooding bass, and sorrowful keys; and the jazzy “Mill Fever” with its toe-tappingly infectious basslines.  

Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! struggled to match the success of its predecessors when it was released back in November 1996. In part, this was because it launched two months after the release of the Nintendo 64, and players were already considering swapping out their old consoles for the latest system. As a result, it remains somewhat of a divisive entry among fans. While some consider it to be on par with the previous two games, others argue that it was a step back from Diddy’s Kong Quest, which is often held up as the high point of the series. 

“Looking back over the 25 years since the game was released, I’m surprised at the debate that still surrounds Donkey Kong Country 3,” says Novakovic, acknowledging the game’s divisive reputation. “The soundtrack may have been a step away from what had gone before but it owes its character to tracks from that very first game.”

Game Boy Conundrums 

Following Double Trouble!, Novakovic went on to do some work on the Game Boy. She arranged and implemented Robin Beanland’s score for Conker Pocket Tales for the Game Boy Color and also set about converting her own Donkey Kong Country 3 soundtrack for the Game Boy remake: Donkey Kong Land III. But, while the first two games in the Donkey Kong Land series had fairly straightforward reproductions of their counterparts’ music, Donkey Kong Country 3’s score was far too complicated to be replicated on the Game Boy in full — an issue that also plagued the later remake for the Game Boy Advance. 

While the SNES had 8-channels and 16-bit sample playback, the Game Boy only had four audio channels to work with, “including two square wave generators, an arbitrary wave channel for 4-bit samples, and a noise generator.” To squeeze as much of the original soundtrack’s character into the Game Boy version, Novakovic had to ruthlessly strip away anything that was non-essential. 

“Harmonies had to be tightly woven in with the main musical themes,” Novakovic says. “Elements of the music were doubled up and quietly offset across the two pulse channels to mimic reverb. Volume and volume envelopes were used to give a more naturalistic decay effect to the sounds, and to help bring the main themes to the fore, whilst pulling back all that was secondary. It was impossible not to lose some of the subtleties along the way, but a successful conversion was one which could stand alone.” 

The result was a masterclass conversion, cramming some of the game’s most recognizable themes onto the handheld system. 

Following her work on Game Boy, Novakovic’s increasing interest in audio and sound design started to manifest more plainly. Though Rare originally hired her as a musician, she began doing more voices and sound effects for games. A persistent online rumor states Rare offered her the chance to compose for other games, including Donkey Kong 64, but that she turned down future opportunities. She denies ever turning down a role, instead stating that she worked on Donkey Kong 64 briefly before it underwent a change in direction and she was moved onto the sound effects instead.

Instead, Novakovic simply gravitated towards whatever interested her most. She contributed voices to a number of games over the next few years, including Perfect Dark, where she took on the role of the main character Joanna Dark. She also provided memorable sound effects for other Rare games, most notably Kameo: Elements of Power for the Xbox 360.

Since retiring, Novakovic has largely stayed out of the public eye, enjoying her privacy. As a result, many fans are unaware of her contributions to the Donkey Kong Country series or mistakenly believe them to be the result of other musicians at Rare. Novakovic left behind an incredible legacy of work, however, which continues to be rearranged and reorchestrated to this day on titles like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Still, she doesn’t regret her decision to leave Rare when she did.

“Leaving the industry was a difficult decision but one I eventually needed to take,” Novakovic tells me. “Would I go back to it all? When you’ve been out of the loop for so long in such a fast-moving industry, the answer probably has to be no. I don’t believe in shutting doors though, and I hope there’s more music in me yet. Just not within the industry.”

“The irony?” Novakovic adds, “I have now come full circle. My son is obsessed with Sea of Thieves and is discovering what Rare is for himself. I hear him talk excitedly about the latest updates. I watch as he lives and breathes the fantastical world, carefully pulled together by people I have worked with in the past. I notice just how often he goes back to the game’s soundtrack, and slowly I am coming to understand the importance of what we did — through his eyes — the eyes of the gamer, the fan, the lifeblood of the industry.”

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