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The Philosophy Behind Koji Kondo's Legendary 'Super Mario Bros.' Soundtrack

Read an excerpt from a new book devoted to one of the most recognizable pieces of music on the planet.
July 14, 2015, 2:13pm

The cover of Schartmann's book

Available for pre-order right now via publisher Bloomsbury, the latest entry in the long-running 33 1/3 series of books focusing on individual albums and collections—"probably the most remarkable regular event in rock journalism today," according to the New York Times—is a pretty special one for gamers and aficionados of all things retro. Joining thorough examinations of classic albums like Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, DJ Shadow's Endtroducing…, and Patti Smith's Horses is Andrew Schartmann's debut for the series, on Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. soundtrack of 1985.

Kondo has been at Nintendo since 1983, with his first projects including Punch-Out!! and Arm Wrestling. But when Super Mario Bros. went supernova in '85, his minor masterpiece melodies were injected into the mainstream, never to be forgotten. The game's main Overworld or "Ground Theme" has been close to ever-present in Mario games ever since, and has been performed by orchestras the world over. Kondo's work, which also includes The Legend of Zelda, has proven incredibly influential, inspiring composers like Nobuo Uematsu (several Final Fantasy games) and Tommy Tallarico (Earthworm Jim, 2000's Spider-Man).


VICE Gaming is pleased to provide readers with an exclusive excerpt of Schartmann's book, examining Kondo's compositional philosophy.

No matter the reasons for the success of Space Invaders, the game's latent embodiment-of-music aesthetic became a central pillar of Kondo's compositional philosophy. In Super Mario Bros., Kondo developed that philosophy and applied it on a much larger scale. Instead of using music to incite a particular emotional response (e.g., using faster notes to increase tension), he tried to anticipate the physical experience of the gamer based on the rhythm and movement of gameplay. This is much less abstract than it sounds.

Imagine yourself at Nintendo during the development of Super Mario Bros. You've been asked to compose music for the game, and the developers have invited you to try one of their working prototypes. As you play through the level, you get a feel for how Mario moves through his environment: Your body sways as Mario jumps, stops, runs, changes direction, and so on. You also notice the movement of other creatures: how the Goombas' feet move, how often Piranha Plants open their mouths, and so on. After a while, your body starts to beat in time with the game—you have internalized the rhythm of its movement. Having done so, you head back to your studio and translate the movement of your experience into sound.

On Motherboard: Mario Has Become Self-Aware

It is exactly this innovation that Kondo stresses in his many press appearances: "the [Super Mario Bros.] music is inspired by the game controls, and its purpose is to heighten the feeling of how the game controls." In essence, if music does not reflect the rhythm of the game, and, by extension, that of the gamer, it becomes background music. Unfortunately, it's quite difficult, if not impossible, to identify the exact mechanisms by which Kondo's music meshes with a player's movement. But that doesn't relegate his philosophy to the realm of esoteric hullaballoo by default. When I play Super Mario Bros., the music is always eerily in sync with my on-screen marionette. Individual experience aside, Kondo was convinced that game sound could lessen the gap between Mario and the hands that move him. With Kondo's visionary techniques, players do more than control a character on screen; they form an intimate bond with it—a bond forged by the motional spark at the heart of Kondo's music.

From this perspective, the curiosity that initiated our discussion becomes far less curious. Why does Kondo take the most pride in his earliest hits? Because it was in these early pieces that he first understood how he was different from those who came before him. More than just a handful of catchy tunes, Super Mario Bros. is the cradle of Kondo's lifelong contribution to video-game music. So it is only natural that he should cherish it as he does.

Andrew Schartmann's 33 1/3 book on the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack is published by Bloomsbury on the 16th of July. More information here.

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