Video game music doesn’t come more famous than the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack. It’s so well known that it can be recognized by people of all ages and cultures, often regardless of whether they’ve played the games. And for those who have played them, it instantly evokes nostalgia. So, what makes music from the Super Mario series so memorable? It comes down to the philosophy it was built on. Music and gameplay must go hand in hand to create a one-of-a-kind experience. Super Mario Bros.’ short and joyous melodies arose from this idea, and it set the stage for how musical composition should work in the video game industry going forward. Super Mario doesn’t just have the most important music Nintendo has created, but some of the most important music in video games period, and it all sprouted from the mind of legendary composer Koji Kondo.
Hummed by everyone
The upbeat and catchy tune theme of Super Mario Bros. took root in my memory from the very first level, but that perfect melody wasn’t always the way we remember it. Koji Kondo was given complete creative freedom to create this soundtrack, and he originally crafted a much slower-paced song. However, upon seeing the game in action, he decided that the song didn’t suit the speed of the gameplay, so he sped the song up. In fact, Koji Kondo would ditch any music that couldn’t match the tempo of gameplay, and this method of composing music in tandem with gameplay changed how musicians in the games industry approached creating music forever.
Partly calypso music, part Latin rhythm, and perhaps inspired by “Sister Marian,” the Super Mario Bros. theme works as well as it does because of how well it pairs with gameplay. Players can’t help but match their jumps in sync to the music, and that same philosophy applied to the rest of the songs from the original game. Kondo used fewer notes and added spacing between them to create a creepier soundscape for the underground theme of level 1-2. He then masterfully implemented these same ideas to the jingles that play on the game over screen and victory screen, in addition to increasing the tempo of music when the level timer was running out.
Bearing in mind that Koji Kondo conveyed all of this information with the limited memory capacity of the NES, the music of Super Mario Bros. is a small miracle. With limited sound channels available, Koji Kondo had to creatively implement short and repetitive notes to achieve different effects. His efficiency at doing this resulted in him leaving 20 bytes of data to spare, enough for Shigeru Miyamoto to add a little crown icon for players that discovered the 1-Up trick. Perfectly marrying music with gameplay cemented Kondo’s future career with the series, and his work on later titles only became more creative.
When the size of the Super Mario Bros. 3 ROM was increased, Kondo used the opportunity to add percussion and drums to create a distinct and richer soundtrack. With Super Mario World, the SNES allowed him to play with eight audio channels, enabling far more instruments to be used in unusual combinations for music, such as a pan flute sound. It’s even more apparent how much fuller the Super Mario soundtracks on the SNES are when listening to the “restored” versions of songs from Super Mario World that were reassembled earlier this year.
Moving on to the Nintendo 64, the dawn of 3D graphics was also an evolution for audio. True bass, drums, and vocal noises from Mario were now available, and they changed how Kondo thought about his composition. It enabled wonderful new ditties like “Star Catch Fanfare,” the Middle Eastern inspirations of “Lethal Lava Land,” and the synthesizers used on “Dire, Dire Docks.” Then with Super Mario Sunshine, Kondo worked with Shinobu Nagata to create crisper guitar sounds in tandem with the European resort theme of the game, resulting in tracks like “Delfino Plaza.”
Keeping the themes and gameplay of the title in mind when creating music also influenced the composers he worked with in later games. Super Mario Galaxy’s orchestral music stemmed from Koji Kondo telling composer Mahito Yokota that Mario should be cool rather than cute, and as a byproduct, the epic tracks represented the expansiveness of outer space perfectly. Most recently, Kondo’s work with Naoto Kubo and Shiho Fujii on Super Mario Odyssey took yet another new direction.
Pauline enjoys jazz music according to the new lore that was created for her, and it inspired the audio team to create the first-ever Super Mario song with vocals, “Jump Up, Super Star!” The swing vibes and lyrics that reference Super Mario staples made this an instant classic, and it further reiterates that Koji Kondo and his talented Nintendo associates can still evolve the music of Super Mario in interesting ways.
What’s some of your favorite Super Mario music?