NHK published an interview with Koji Kondo, who has been composing music for the Super Mario Bros. games since the very first entry on the NES. The discussion delved into various topics including his work on the first title, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and more.
Given how rare it is to see Kondo involved with such an in-depth interview, we went ahead and translated the full talk. You can read it below.
Super Mario Bros BGM Archived in America’s Library of Congress
How do you feel about the movie’s success?
I’m happy that the movie performed far beyond expectations. The composer, Brian Tyler, has been a fan of Super Mario Bros since childhood, so it seems he was very happy to be responsible for the soundtrack. A lot of pieces were incorporated into the movie, and from start to finish, it really drove home the feeling of listening to Mario music, so I thought it was a fun movie.
Did you speak with Brian Tyler-san about the movie’s music?
For me, I felt that to fit the story of the movie, it would be good to have a variety of arranged versions of tracks to be used in different situations, so I asked him to be careful that the pieces were removed from the story of the games, so that they don’t make people think of the games and unable to concentrate on the movie. To that end, I think Brian-san did well at creating arrangements that fit the movie.
In April 2023, the Ground Theme composed by Kondo-san was the first video game music to be entered into America’s Library of Congress. It has become part of the global history of sound.
The Ground Theme was entered into the Library of Congress in America in April this year. What are your honest thoughts about that?
I was very surprised at first. I never knew that America’s Library of Congress had been choosing records to archive. 25 records are added every year, and among them are famous songs that everyone knows like John Lennon’s “Imagine”, Lead Zeppelin, Madonna, Mariah Carey and so forth, so to be chosen as one among these was a great honor.
Though, unlike those other songs, I think the soundtrack of Super Mario Bros. was chosen for its symbolism as the early music and sounds of home consoles games, so I think this is all thanks to the staff who created the game, the people who designed the NES’ mechanism for producing sound, as well as the people around the world who played the game over and over, and I’m grateful to all of them.
The tune you created has spread around the world so much that people hum “tata-ta-tata-ta” all the time. What do you think about that objectively, Kondo-san?
I didn’t compose it expecting people to sing it like that, and just wanted to help make the game more enjoyable, but of course one would hear it so much they’d get sick of it as they play over and over, so I guess it got stuck in people’s heads (laughs), but I’m happy with that.
Untold Stories of Super Mario Bros Ground Theme’s Creation
What was your first impression of Super Mario Bros.?
At first, I saw the game when the graphics were finished to an extent and it was playable, then I was asked to provide a soundtrack and sound effects for it. Before that, games only had tiny characters moving around on a dark screen, so seeing a character that was larger than in most games at the time move around, with a blue sky and green plains that left a strong impression, I thought it seemed really fun.
How did you expand upon this impression?
The blue sky and green plains left the strongest impression, so I composed a track that felt like a gentle, relaxing stroll under the sun, but then I saw Mario run and jump around, so the rhythm of that song didn’t really match. The first track was scrapped, and the next one I composed was the one we have now.
Who decided to scrap it, you or another staff member?
Other staff members told me that the track felt weird for some reason. Indeed, the track might have matched the feel of the game’s background, but didn’t quite go with the gameplay.
Since that was no good, what direction did you take when you started working on the Ground Theme?
There’s a certain rhythm that perfectly matches the physical feeling of running or jumping, so I tried to capture that and turn it into a melody.
Was there a trial and error process that led to you finding that “rhythm”?
Of course, I had to play the game many times. While trying to find that rhythm, I gave thought to what it was while changing the tempo and basic pattern.
Did you keep doing that even when new consoles came out?
Yes. The movement of the enemies would change for every game, of course, which led to a shift in the overall rhythm, so for every game I would play it myself again and again, find the proper rhythm from that and start composing.
How long had you been involved with Super Mario Bros?
It was my second year.
Were you under pressure? How did you feel?
Before working on Mario, I was mostly responsible for creating sound effects, and hadn’t created BGM before, but when I started to work on Super Mario, I went in wanting to create music that hadn’t existed before. It might have been a lot of pressure, but I wanted to somehow create enjoyable music never seen before using only three notes.
Once you finished it, what did the other staff think?
After listening to the Ground Theme, a lot of people said “This sounds nice, what genre is it?”, but I didn’t make it with any genre in mind. A lot of people said it sounds like latin, or like jazz, but I said, “No, it’s game music”, not fitting into any genre, created to match a game.
At the time, how were you composing?
Back when I joined the company there was no such thing as “desktop music”, and since there was no such environment for it, all I had was a mini keyboard that a 5 or 6 year old kid would play, which I played. Since everything was already done using computers at the time, the main task of composing was to input data in computer language into a computer using the keyboard.
I heard that there were some limitations at the time?
Of the NES’ sound generators’ scales, only three channels could be used, and it took a lot of work to make melody and rhythm apparent with just three.
That must have been challenging.
On top of that, the sound effects had to come out of those three channels as well, so when sound effects were happening, some channels had to be muted, silencing the music, and allowing the sound effect to play.
If that has to be incorporated into the rhythm as well, it’s hard to imagine succeeding with only three sound channels. Did you do anything special?
For the rhythm, on top of the three sound channels, there’s also a channel for noise and white noise, and making that channel go “ti-tiki-ti-tiki” sounds like a hi-hat (cymbals), so the rhythm was done with just that hi-hat-esque sound.
So the rhythm we feel when listening to the track is done with noise?
The noise is doing it. That’s right.
For Kondo-san, was production under limitations troublesome or fun? What are your memories of it?
It was a lot of work, but embedding the track into a small number of channels felt like a puzzle, so that part was fun.
As the series continued, did you think about completely reversing previous impressions? How did things develop?
It’s something I worry about every time. Should I make something similar to last time, or completely change things up? I think about it every time, and change this and that about how I do things between games, but I stick to “fun music that makes playing the game even more fun”, and I always want to make music that sounds fresh.
“Mario is cool” – What Mario is to Kondo-san
You interact with the Mario series from the perspective of music; what kind of existence is Mario?
I don’t know if this is correct or not, but when my juniors join the company to make music, it seems everyone’s initial impressions of Mario are that he’s cute, and that Latin music fits him, but I always tell them that’s not quite true. I tell them, “Mario isn’t cute”, “He’s cool”, “Please make cool music” and such.
To Kondo-san, Mario isn’t cute, but…
Cool. That’s what I think.
Did you have that impression of him from the beginning?
I wonder. At first, I might not have had such an impression. Cool… (pondering) Well, since Mario was an 8-bit character that moved stiffly, I didn’t think he was cool, but after seeing an opposite viewpoint–that he’s cute, maybe I started saying otherwise.
Of the songs you’ve composed, have any of them left a particularly strong impression?
I think the first Ground Theme is of course memorable, but trying to pick a favorite among all of them is difficult. Since I always like to challenge myself to create something new, tracks I made recently end up becoming my new favorites.
Kondo-san’s Roots in Game Music
Were you interested in creating game music for Nintendo from the beginning?
I first learnt about Nintendo while job hunting, when they were recruiting at universities. A friend told me about a sign about recruiting for sound production, and they said something like, “Wouldn’t this suit you, Kon-chan?”, and it seemed interesting. At that time, I was making music with synthesizers, and playing tabletop games with Mario and others with my friends; I thought, ‘I wish I could have a job like this’, so it was the only job I applied for.
No other company was recruiting for game sound production, and that was the first time Nintendo had recruited for sound design as well. Up till then, the music was done with hardware by either people who used to play for bands, or people who loved games but had no formal education of music.
I heard that you were asked to create sound effects in university. What sparked your interest in sound effect production?
For sound effects in particular, PCs had started to become common when I was in university, and while they were too expensive for me to buy one, there was one in the laboratory on campus, so I played around with it, and tried many different things to see what sounds would come out.
Did you learn how to compose a song from scratch in university?
I studied many fields of art broadly and shallowly in university, drawing pictures, learning about art production, and I took a subject about mixing, where I learnt a bit about music.
Art–so drawing as well?
Yes. I liked art as a whole, as well as drawing, and learning about various types of art was lots of fun.
Before you saw the recruitment papers, did you know there were jobs in game sound production?
I didn’t know about that. While in university, I was hoping I could get a job in a technical music-related field, such as recording engineer or PA engineer for concerts.
Did you want to work in music since childhood?
I learnt how to play Electone (electronic organs) as a kid, so I liked music, but I thought it would be hard to become a performer.
Why was that?
From what other people told me, I thought it might be pretty hard to earn money. I worked with synthesizers, and playing with knobs or adjusting the volume was pretty fun, so I thought it could be interesting to be involved with sound production this way.
You studied music as a child?
From when I was 5 years old up until my first year in high school, I went to a music center in Nagoya.
What types of music did you come in contact with in your Nagoya days?
With the Electone as teaching material, I learnt about all sorts of popular music, and practiced with a lot of songs in genres such as Latin, pop or jazz.
From what I’ve heard, you used to be in a band in middle school. Did you listen to rock and such as well?
I quite liked hard rock in middle school, and I joined cover bands of hard rock bands like DEEP PURPLE, then I joined fusion cover bands when I was in high school.
Where did you learn about all these types of music at the time?
It started from the jazz book used as teaching material for the Electone, so I started listening to jazz from when I was in sixth grade, and when I heard that famous musicians from overseas were coming to Nagoya I went to concerts. In sixth grade, I went to, I think Art Blakey (his concert)? And the other people there like the middle-aged men talked to me, asking why a grade schooler was listening to this kind of music.
Were there a lot of places to listen to jazz in Nagoya at the time?
There were a lot of concerts.
Back then, when you found out about jazz concerts in Nagoya, did you go and gather information about them on your own?
Yes. There were all kinds of concerts in huge venues that felt like festivals, and so I went to a lot of them with many Japanese musicians and bands taking part.
Since you’ve been listening to jazz since sixth grade, is there anything from your experiences back then that still affects your composing now?
I think I still have memories of most of those things from back then, and it shows in my work. Largely, the way I compose is based on those Electone lessons. The grade exams had a part on composing too, so I think the way I compose is still the same.
So your methods existed already when you were in sixth grade?
Yes. In one of the questions on the grade exams for the Electone, there was a part where two bars of notes were written, and I was given five to ten minutes to create a song.
So you had to look at the two bars and expand on them?
Yes, I had to consider the rhythm and harmony, then create a song about two minutes long, and then also play it. I think that has led to how I compose now.
–When you’re composing, you look at the game that’s being made, then expand on whatever melody comes to you?
During your middle and high school years, you were devoted to jazz. What did you like about it?
Really, I listened to a lot of different things, but I really liked hard bop and bebop, which had all sorts of improvisation, and you had to improvise while coordinating chords, swing was like that too. It’s definitely the chords. The mood of the chords, probably. Something normal pop doesn’t have, a sort of resonance, was what I found really cool, and also, with a lot of people’s solos, I found the fast, technical playing and rhythmic feel to be really cool when I listened to them.
Which artists had your attention at the time?
Watanabe Sadao-san was in the Electone teaching materials, and I thought his songs were fun, easy to remember and great, like California Shower and such. There was also Art Blakely, Miles Davis, MJQ (Modern Jazz Quartet) and others. I listened to all kinds of jazz.
During middle and high school, did you actually practice and perform jazz?
I was in amateur bands that held concerts in high school, and I played the piano.
So you listened to Miles Davis-san and Watanabe Sadao-san back then, did they influence your composing?
In Watanabe Sadao-san’s songs, the melodies always feel like they’re “singing”, as they’re gentle and easy to listen to, while the rhythms and harmonies are playing chords that sound amazing, and that makes something complicated easy to hear, easy to listen to, and I’ve use that as my goal. I may be trying to do something complicated, but of course, as it should be in video games, I keep the melodies simple, which is how that’s influenced me.
“Making complicated things easy to hear” sounds difficult. So Watanabe-san’s songs give off that kind of impression?
The harmonies and the jazz are high level, and some chords make you think “what note was that?”, but the melodies aren’t crazy, instead easy to listen to. It’s my goal to have such extravagant yet beautiful harmonies.
After working with Mario for six years, Kondo-san’s songs were played by the Watanabe Sadao-san he admired, while having production handled by Sugiyama Kouichi-san.
You said you were influenced by Watanabe-san, so do you think Watanabe’s folk-sounding, African and South American sounds influenced you as well?
I think Watanabe-san’s influence is what made me like the rhythms of Africa and South America.
Do you try not to adhere too much to a country’s style when composing?
I don’t really make much music that has an African feel, since I just focus on making fun songs, not thinking about music I’ve listened to much, and I think that probably shows in my work.
Things Kondo-san Wants to Say to His Juniors?
Your juniors have been working on the Super Mario series, but I wonder what Kondo-san holds important, and wants your juniors to hold important?
A lot of people more talented than myself have joined, so I don’t think I have much to say, but I do believe that making the game more enjoyable to play is the most important role of game BGM. Also, as technology improves, it’s become possible to change sounds in many ways in programming or digitally, and sound effects can change in real time as well, so I’d like if people would keep creating more music and sounds that take advantage of the medium that is video games.
In terms of “fun”, when someone like me plays Mario, I fail and go, “damn it”, but then the sounds make me pick myself back up and turn the game on again, it feels like I’m being helped by the sounds, but do you think that’s connected to “fun”?
I think that’s an important point too, when people mess up and fail, if you make music that sounds like “you’re no good!”, I think everyone would throw their controller, so I want the Game Over music to give the feeling of “Try again!”.
When I look back, I think the Game Over music was rather cheerful.
If I made music that was like, “that’s no good!”, with that level of harshness, they wouldn’t continue playing, so it was rather difficult to match the ebb and flow of gameplay.
As game hardware kept evolving, what in particular has changed from the NES era?
In a technical sense, every time a new console comes out a new Mario game comes out, and the nature of the sounds change with every new console, and now you can directly include performances from an orchestra or a band, so Mario songs have been changing alongside that.
Have you changed your mindset about composing?
Of course, I always focus on making the game fun to play. I make sure the rhythm matches the game perfectly.
You said that you love Watanabe Sadao-san’s “singing-like jazz”, and that you try to base things off that. For the Mario series, nowadays you can directly put in vocal songs. How have you handled this?
We’ve finally reached the age when vocal songs can be added to Mario. I think it matched the game perfectly, and really feels like Mario music has evolved.
When vocal songs and orchestral music can be added, the things you mentioned as important, such as matching songs to the characters’ movements or the rhythm of the gameplay seem to be much more difficult. What was the process like?
With band performances or orchestra performances, instead of a set rhythm, the emphasis is definitely on the rising excitement, so I try not to make that part as obvious. I have the people performing do things such as play while listening to computer clicks, or have people play in a way that’s different from how they would in an orchestra at a concert hall.
Playing while listening to clicks from a computer, was that hard for the performers?
They’re studio musicians so there was no problem, they were able to play perfectly after one or two rehearsals, they’re wonderful.
Once again, what thoughts do you wish your juniors who are inheriting the Mario series to hold onto when composing?
As the games change, and so does technology, Mario music will keep evolving, so in order to make the games more fun for everyone, I hope they use all sorts of technology to take advantage of the dynamic medium of video games to create their sound.
This isn’t just limited to Mario, but for the people who want to get into video game sound production, what does Kondo-san hope they cherish when composing game music?
I’d want them to listen to many songs. There’s lots of genres, from folk songs to classical, so if they put aside their likes and dislikes, listen and get moved, it builds up those kinds of experiences within them, which will be useful when trying to compose.
Is that from your own experience, Kondo-san?
Yes. I listened to a lot of different kinds of music. For when someone asks me to create certain types of songs, in order to not say, “I don’t like this, so I’m not good at it”, I can accommodate them because I’ve listened to various kinds of songs.
Are there songs that Kondo-san wants to listen to or focus on?
In probably the last decade, I’ve been interested in Arabian music, and there’s a percussion instrument called a goblet drum that accompanies belly dancing, which I’ve been learning every week. I haven’t been going because of Covid lately, but there were concerts for Arabian music, and there was this instrument called an Oud, like the progenitor of the guitar, and its intervals are different from the normal 12 steps, instead being just slightly half a note lower, and that somehow feels really nice, so I’ve been studying that to hopefully master it.
Do you think those experiences will factor into your next work?
Indeed, I’ve included that in some games that came out a while ago, in either Mario Maker 1 or 2, where the music for the desert levels had intervals that were slightly off.
How do you differ from composers or game music producers who are founded in more standard types of inspiration?
I think game music composers fall under the banner of all composers, but I feel I am part of the game’s development team, responsible for creating some of the sounds used in the game. I may be in charge of sound design, I suggest changes to less interesting parts of the game to improve them, or actions that could be interesting, and I am part of the whole development process, so I am more of a game developer that works on various things than a composer now.
For development, do you look at the game from both a developer’s perspective and a player’s perspective?
When they’re putting everything they have into making the game every day, the programmers, directors and designers are completely focused, and can lose the ability to look at the game objectively, while for me it’s like looking from above, which allows me to point out a lot of things. In game development, many people handle each individual part of the process, and the only people who can see the big picture are usually just the producers, but for sound designers, you have to look at the full view to see how it flows to decide what the music should be. As a sound designer, I think it’s important to look at the game objectively, so I pay attention to that.
It seems finding a balance is important, but do you perform “subtraction” work in development?
I do think subtraction is important in many fields. Many people fill a part of a song with too many sounds, which makes it hard to tell what’s really important, and can cause oversaturation, so subtracting things is important in any part of game development.
Lastly, what do you think is most important for a young person trying to take on game music production?
It’s definitely trying to make the game more fun to play.
Thank you very much.
Translation provided by SatsumaFS, Philip Proctor, and Simon Griffin on behalf of Nintendo Everything.
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