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The Mario Maestro speaks: Koji Kondo on composing classics

The composer behind the iconic Mario and Zelda soundtracks speaks to Gamasutra in a rare new interview, touching on both his classic work and advice for game composers.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

December 10, 2014

14 Min Read

Koji Kondo became an immutable part of the fabric of the game industry itself when Super Mario Bros. was released in 1985. His tunes, which served as the unforgettable accompaniment to one of the most important games in history, are still cherished today. Kondo continued to be the sole composer for the Mario games through 1996's Super Mario 64, as well as the mainline Zelda franchise through Ocarina of Time. Gamasutra got a rare chance to interview the composer prior to his appearance this past weekend at The Game Awards, where he played classic Mario themes on piano and appeared alongside the band Imagine Dragons. In this rare (and remarkably humble) interview, he looks back on his oeuvre (he's currently hard at work on 2015's 30th anniversary franchise title Mario Maker for the Wii U) and shares his advice to other game composers. You're supervising the music for Mario Maker. That means you're looking back at your career, essentially. What does it mean to be looking back at your older work, and how does it feel? Koji Kondo: Well, on Mario Maker I'm actually the sound director and the main composer, so I'm having a really, really good time looking back at the themes from the older games and working with those, and creating some new revisions and new remakes for this title. When you look back at your old work, how do you see it now, after all these years? KK: I look back, and I really think that each song has its own specific set of memories for me. While I'm working on music that is based on some of those original songs, I kind of hearken back to the days when I was working on that, and revisit the things that I wanted to do at the time I was creating each piece of music. We had a limited sound palette at that time -- the tools that we had definitely had a limited selection of sounds and notes that we could work with. There were maybe some things that we couldn't express to the full degree that we wanted to. I think we left some stuff on the table. It's really nice, using the new tools incorporated in the Wii U and our new hardware to recreate and rearrange some of that stuff. It's just a heck of a lot of fun. I get to both remember the time that I was creating that music originally, but again, then work with the new tools to flesh it out in some ways, and reimagine it. It's a lot of fun for me. The underground music, first heard in level 1-2. Can you think of any specific memories that you have encountered about those classic games while working on this project? KK: Yeah. I think each one has its own memories, as I mentioned before, but maybe one that I can recall off the top of my head is the underground music that I created for the original NES. It was really concentrated on the space between the notes, and using a few notes to create that feeling of being underground -- that sort of creepy atmosphere is something I really focused on. Trying to create a sparse sound environment that would enhance what we see on the game screen. And I think it's nice to now use the tools that I have to edit that, and hopefully enhance that even further. The tools you had at the time were so limited that creating a sparse piece of music was to your advantage. Now you can flesh it out. You talked about the sparseness as being a positive, but now you're not restricted. How do you approach that? KK: I think if we look back at the NES version of the music, from the imagining of what sort of music I wanted to create to the act of creation, there wasn't a large time gap between those, because of what we were working with -- whereas now, we're able to create sound in such detail. The tools that we have allow us to recreate -- say, for example, the bassline, the bass part. We really can and need to make it sound like an actual bass, not a computer sound, but an actual bass. But we're using a computer to do it. With all of those small details, we're not making the music any more complex; we're not using the tools just because they're there to make the music too overpowering, or whatnot, but we do have a lot of detail that we can flesh out using today's tools. So it takes quite a bit more time, actually, to create the music than it did back in the day, so to speak. When you go back to the old music, do you find yourself using ideas that you had at the time that you couldn't implement for technical reasons, or when you approach them now do you have new ideas that are spurred by this new opportunity? KK: I think, actually, it's both. There are some where we'll take the same themes and I want to try it, maybe, in a different genre, or try it with different instrumentation. Because now I have a different palette to work from, so I'll take some of those themes and rework them using new instrumentation. There are obviously some that are obviously just completely original ideas, but there are others that are taking that original music, the same feeling I had when writing those, then using the technology I have today to make variations on that theme. Some are completely brand new and original, and some are reimaginings of those themes, but just using today's technology. For this question, you don't have to stick to Mario. What soundtrack stands out as your favorite that you've worked on, and why? KK: Tough question! I guess I'm going to have to go back to the original Super Mario Bros. theme. It's just very gratifying for me to see the enduring popularity of the song and that it's a worldwide phenomenon, it looks like. If I go onto YouTube I can see so many different people using such different instrumentation to create different versions of this song. I'm just seeing that these people would think of this music as something that they wanted to put their own spin on, and go to all the trouble to reimagine it with their own instrumentation or whatnot, is very gratifying for me. So I think that's the one I'd have to single out. Kondo performing the theme on piano at The Game Awards. It's such a catchy song, and it's not easy to write catchy music. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about writing that music. KK: I have to say that when I was, of course, working on the music, I wasn't thinking to myself, "Now, I've got to create something that will be very popular with people." I was really just trying to do create something that I thought would enhance the gameplay. And the fact that the song is now, some 30 years later, has taken this lasting popularity with people around the world is very pleasing to me and not something that I ever thought. I've been very happy to see that's the way it's turned out. From them until now, how collaborative is the music creation process with the game design process at Nintendo? How closely do you work with Mr. Miyamoto or other game designers and creators to match the soundtrack to the games? KK: As far as my relationship with Mr. Miyamoto, he has final approval on everything, including the music. He works with the game director and the leads of the separate parts, and is in close communication with them. That's the relationship we have with him. He helps them out and gives them advice, and talks to them about what they're doing. We really have a large stable of directors, and each one has his or her own personality. So we have some directors who are, "Here's the game we're working on," and they'll give us some working prototype or some working version of the game for us to play through and look at, and we'll, on our own, create music that we think is appropriate for that game. And we have some directors who are more hands-on in the creation of music, who will come to us and say, "Hey, I'm looking for music that will perform this function" -- the genre, or the tempo, or whatever they had in mind. They'll come to us and say, "This is what I'm looking for," being a little more specific with their instructions. This is a very broad question -- but what's the most important thing in your mind when composing music for a game? What's paramount? KK: That the game is fun to play -- that the music enhances the fun factor in the game. It makes the game more fun. It's not that simple, right? You talked about the second level music in Super Mario Bros., which is more tense. So is it about underpinning the emotions of the gameplay? KK: It enhances whatever is inherent in the gameplay. If I put in something that was super upbeat and peppy in the underground, it would ruin the game by not matching what is going on. So that's not what our goal is, of course. There's something about the old music, which is that it was so limited that it forced you to write these amazing melodies. So in a way, was there an advantage to doing it in the old days? KK: I don't think so. I don't feel like my approach has changed at all. I think maybe one thing that makes people feel like maybe some of the older music is catchier or more memorable, is that an older game really has less music, so you'd hear that music more often, I think -- or variations on it. That music was played more, so it was in your mind more. It was in your ears more, for sure, when you were playing. Perhaps it just became easier to remember. I think now, with the increased toolset that we have and the more expansive sound landscapes that we're able to create, and there's so much more music in games -- maybe that will keep one refrain or melody line from standing out as much as it used to. As far as myself, my approach to creation of game music hasn't changed at all, that fundamental goal of making that supports and enhances gameplay hasn't changed. The Super Mario Bros. 3 soundtrack, with distinctive drum sound. One thing that really stands out to me when I think about Super Mario Bros. 3 and the music of that game is the drums -- it has a really specific drum sound. Adding that one thing to the soundtrack defined the sound of the game. Do you agree? I guess at that time, maybe getting one new sound was a victory. KK: I think, really, for Super Mario Bros. 3, I'd just been researching and researching the abilities of the NES hardware, and at the time that Super Mario Bros. 3 was under development, we were able to increase the size of the game ROM itself. We were able to add percussion as a result of that. While the sound quality I don't feel was all that great, we had the three notes from the NES that we were able to use, plus the noise [channel] -- which we used for the hi-hat sound. [Kondo mimics the hi-hat drums from the NES.] We were able to add percussion on top of that. I think relative to what we'd been hearing before, it sounded much fuller, much richer. I don't know that there was any specific, "this drum is the thing" -- it was, "Hey, now we can have percussion. Let's add percussion!" It's not just that; I felt that it worked well with the music. I'm happy that it's something that makes it distinctive for you. That's the background story of the drums. It just sticks with me all these years later. I've had conversations about the drums in Super Mario Bros. 3 even as recently as this year. It doesn't just stick with me; it sticks with people. KK: Thank you! I'm glad that it's something that is a good memory for you. When I was preparing for this interview I was thinking about a bunch of different soundtracks that you've worked on, and the one that really sticks out to me is Yoshi's Island for the SNES. It has really its own mood and its own style. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on what went into that. KK: In regards to Yoshi's Island, while obviously it's a Mario-related game, it's not Mario, and so I really wanted to have a different feeling to the music. And as I was thinking about the game, I know that it's this tropical island, and it's hot, and again, it's not Mario, so I really started wanting to incorporate an African vibe, so I did a lot of studying of African music and how African music was composed, and looked into a lot of different African instruments, and that was the basis for the music of Yoshi's Island. A track from the Yoshi's Island soundtrack. It's got an interesting atmosphere because it's a bit relaxed and even at times a bit melancholy, especially for a platformer. That's what stands out to me. KK: [laughs] That's the first time that anyone's ever said that. Really? It's no so strong that it's really different, but there's something about it. Maybe "nostalgic" is the word? KK: Maybe because Baby Mario gets kidnapped? I don't know! I think I'll leave that alone. KK: Okay. No worries. [laughs] Do you have any advice that you give to people at Nintendo about how to create music for games? KK: I think that maybe one conversation that we would have is something along the lines of that game music is different from other genres that you would maybe purchase on a CD to listen to and enjoy yourself, from different genres of popular music, in that game music needs to be interactive. It needs to change with the gameplay. It needs to enhance what the player's experiencing on-screen and really just make the game more than it is without the music. It needs to be an addition to what they're seeing. What mindset do you use when you approach it, then? How do you insure that the music is additive, rather than music that just happens to be playing? KK: One thing that I think is different in the approach is that you have to consider that game music is something that you're going to hear again and again, over a long period of time, throughout the entire time you're playing the game. That's something that's different from pop music or something you'd hear in a movie -- because you are in control of what's going on on-screen. You're cueing up the music again and again to replay things, so the music has to be something that's not going to get on your nerves. You're not going to get tired of hearing something, but it's also not just going to make you irritated. You're not going to get sick of the music because you happen to play a stage over and over, or anything like that. It really needs to have a catchy melody, it needs to have a lot of variety, and it needs to really enhance and match what's going on on-screen. That's one way I think the thinking process is different from what you had mentioned -- something that's just background music. You mentioned how great it is that we have all these new tools, but if you look at what a lot of independent developers are doing these days, a lot of them are making NES-style games, complete with limitations on the music. I was wondering if you had any advice for people who wanted to make old-style music. KK: [laughs] Go ahead. You can do whatever it is you want to do -- do what you like. That's great. The important thing is just to use whatever is at your disposal to create new ideas and come up with stuff that's fresh and new. That's just the important thing. Rather than trying to recreate something, or go over the same old ground, create new things. That's the advice I would give.

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