Music

Meet the Man Who Scored Your Childhood

Nintendo is responsible for some of the most memorable video games of all time. And music is a big part of the reason why games from franchises like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Star Fox are so memorable. So where did these soundtracks come from? Believe it or not, it turns out that one man is responsible for those iconic bleeps and bloops that you grew up with. Meet Koji Kondo.

In At The Ground Level

Although Kondo was the third person hired by Nintendo to create music and sound effects for their games, he was Nintendo's first employee with a specialized background in music composition when he officially joined Nintendo in 1984. He spent his first year learning the basics of sound programming for the Nintendo Family Computer, or "Famicom" (known as the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America), and how to work within the home console's technical limitations.

The technology at the time would only allow a musical score to feature three channels of music at one time, designated to melody, harmony, and percussion. However, Kondo was able to disguise repetition through the employment of unforgettable melodies. Case in point: in 1985, Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. – Kondo's first major score. Today, the game's main theme song (officially called "Ground Theme") has been called one of the most famous tunes in the world.

1985 was only the beginning for Kondo. Just a year later, he scored The Legend of Zelda, cementing his place in video game history with an iconic theme for a franchise that has spawned its own touring symphonic concert series.

Since then, Kondo has spent his 30+ year career at Nintendo composing music for soundtracks of hit games like Star Fox, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Super Mario Galaxy, and has advised and supervised music and sound design for dozens of other games. His music has been featured on hundreds of albums, and Super Mario creator and Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto even performed some of Kondo's music with The Roots on "The Tonight Show" while promoting some upcoming Nintendo games.

Adapting To The Times

As video games have evolved, sound design has become simultaneously easier and more difficult. While Kondo has far fewer technical limitations than he had in the 80s, the demands of modern gaming have come with increased expectations.

"In games, you (for the most part) don't know when the player is going to do certain things, so you have to think about how it's going to be played back so it still is appropriate for the experience for the player," composer and sound designer Elliot Callighan told us on the Curiosity Podcast.

"You also have options with interactive and adaptive scores, where depending on the activities in the game – for instance, there are more enemies now, and they're trying to kill you – because of that, you have other instruments that are brought up in the mix or are now present so you can now hear them... the possibilities are ridiculous," Callighan said.

Kondo employed some of these techniques, such as adaptive scoring, in the music he composed for his most ambitious solo work: 1998's The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The theme for the vast overworld, for example, was varied according to the in-game time of day and the player's proximity to enemies; Kondo achieved interactivity by building a theme upon a series of 15-second segments featuring related chord progressions, and by allowing complex algorithms to determine the order the segments are played. Quite advanced compared to the 16 bars that comprise the original Super Mario Bros. theme!

Want to hear live music from the man himself? Then check out Koji Kondo performing a medley of music from the Super Mario Bros. series with The Big Band of Rogues on the "Mario & Zelda Big Band Live CD" from 2003. And if you just can't get enough Super Mario Bros. music, then don't worry – you can find tens of thousands of covers online, with instrumentation ranging from string quartet to Chinese shēng to finger snapping. Fair warning: you might want to stay away from the version with lyrics, which were submitted for a contest held by a Japanese radio station and released on vinyl in 1985. The Internet is a strange place sometimes.

For more on modern day video game music composing, listen to our conversation with Elliot Callighan on the Curiosity Podcast.

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Written by Cody Gough October 2, 2017