Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Bleeps and Bloops No More – 33 1/3: Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack

Andrew Schartmann’s extensive, thoughtful treatise on Japanese composer Koji Kondo and his work on the soundtrack to the original Super Mario Bros game is probably the most unusual entry in the 33 1/3 music chapbook series. Most commonly, a passionate critic will defend an album of their choosing, as our own Kevin Courrier has in his 33 1/3 entry on Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. But the soundtrack to a 1985 Nintendo Entertainment System game, even one so popular that it spawned an entire home console empire, can’t really be called an “album” – it’s more a collection of simple 8-bit melodies and sound effects. This also marks the first time the book series has considered video games as a medium with music worth exploring and celebrating. As Schartmann demonstrates, Kondo’s work on this seminal game – and the legacy of industry influence that followed – is much more than the primitive bleeps and bloops we all remember.

Remembrance, as it happens, is a big part of why the book is so enjoyable to read. Without an interactive medium through which to isolate and present the pockets of melody and rhythm he describes (Kondo’s entire score for Super Mario Bros contains less than 90 seconds of original non-repeating music, after all), he must ask his reader to recall the catchy tunes that helped put Nintendo on the map, and even for the layperson, it’s a breeze – a simple phonetic “ba-dum-pum-ba-dum-pum-PUM” is more than enough to help conjure the indelible “Overworld” theme that is synonymous with Nintendo’s red-hatted plumber. The ease with which anyone, even those who have never played a Super Mario Bros game, can recall this tune proves that such an exploration of Kondo’s music is a worthy exercise, and also speaks to the power of the music itself in its ability to endure for decades beyond the boundaries of an old television screen, readily hopping to the humming lips of people across the world to this day.

Schartmann divides his book into two sections: “Context” and “Music”. In his own words, he finds it “impossible … to fully appreciate [Kondo’s] musical innovations without a decent grasp of the 1980s video game landscape,” and that without this context, “we risk framing Kondo as a lone visionary who single-handedly revolutionized game sound, when in fact a large part of his success was circumstantial.” This is not to say Kondo was lucky, although perhaps he was (Nintendo’s decision to hire a full-time composer rather than defer to the game’s sound programmers was an unprecedented move, one which launched Kondo’s career) – it’s more a point about the collaborative spirit of the Super Mario Bros project, and that its remarkable design philosophies gave Kondo’s music “a stage on which to shine.” Schartmann touches on the famous Video Game Crash of 1983, and how Nintendo seized that opportunity to rise from the ashes. Their console, the NES, was poised to dominate the home console market, but it lacked a crucial element: a show-stopping game that would shoot systems off shelves not only in their native Japan, but in the all-important overseas market as well. That game turned out to be the brainchild of a young man named Shigeru Miyamoto, and the strange, quirky, wonderful product that followed was the perfect testing ground for Kondo’s radical approach to game music – an abandonment of the functional and formless sound elements of the arcade era, and a marriage between a game’s music and the physical experience of the player. This, Schartmann assures us, is the nucleus of Kondo’s genius. He was able to connect the sounds you heard to the buttons you pressed – a seemingly simple concept, but one that changed the landscape of gaming forever.

Composer Koji Kondo.

The “Music” section is where Schartmann flexes his theory muscles and dives into Kondo’s compositional technique. While some of the specific breakdowns are daunting to my relatively-untrained eye, he’s quick to summarize the jargon so that even the layreader can share in his admiration of Kondo’s deceptively simple style. He notes that creating catchy, memorable tunes wasn’t enough – Kondo also had to become proficient at understanding and making the most of a very limited set of tools. The NES sound chip was only capable of producing 4 channels of 8-bit sound, and only 3 of them simultaneously, meaning that Kondo had to invent new ways to communicate the atmosphere and setting of Mario’s adventure (a prime example being his “Underworld” theme – “ba-dum-ba-dum-ba-dum [long pause] ba-dum-ba-dum-ba-dum,” which uses that distinctive pause to suggest the echoing caverns of the game setting, without actually needing to echo the individual notes). Schartmann also explores the way the game’s design, which would shift between bright, cheerful outdoor sections and dark, foreboding subterranean ones, informed the binary shift between light and dark moods that Kondo uses in the soundtrack. His “Underwater” theme is even broken down for its similarities to the compositions of Beethoven, and the way it encapsulates Kondo’s “music-as-movement” philosophy – again, connecting the player to the onscreen action through a swaying, pleasant waltz that naturally sets your fingers tapping. This, Schartmann claims, also introduced the possibility of classical music becoming a template for new compositional works in games, rather than simply a source of prefab tunes (which was a common practice at the time).

Kondo would go on to compose soundtracks for many of Nintendo’s games in the years after 1985, which brought new technology and ever-widening options for musical expression through gameplay. He still contributes to the Super Mario series, which is approaching its 20th entry and celebrating its 30th birthday this year. In that time, it’s no surprise that his work has touched the hearts of millions of gamers, Schartmann and myself among them. Koji Kondo was the composer who recognized that games were more than mindless diversions – they were grand adventures that captured the imagination, and the ideal place to foster wonderful, enduring music that was intimately connected to the experience, in a way no other medium can match.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.  


  1. I never played games much, but this essay is excellent reading even for a non-player. Good stuff.

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