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Koji Kondo Week – Day 1: That Unmistakable Mario Sound

To celebrate the upcoming release of our 106th 33 1/3 on  Super Mario Bros., we’re pleased to bring you the first installment of Koji Kondo week by author Andrew Schartmann

Mario fans the world over know that Super Mario Bros. games have a particular sound—a musical style that screams “Mario!” This owes, in part, to the many tunes that reappear in different guises throughout the series. The most ubiquitous of these is the “Star Theme,” which, no matter how much it’s transformed, is immediately recognizable. Other recycled tunes, however, are more difficult to spot, especially if the context changes from game to game.

In general, composer Koji Kondo doesn’t repurpose his tunes. In other words, you won’t hear an aboveground theme reused as an underwater melody. But from time to time, Kondo uses a familiar ditty (albeit in varied form) in an unfamiliar context. Take, for instance, the title screen from Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988).

Super Mario Bros. 2, Title Screen

Sound familiar? I’ll give you a hint: cheep-cheep. For those of you unfamiliar with the precise names of Mushroom Kingdom fauna, a cheep-cheep is red fish—one with a yellow dorsal fin that looks sort of like a mohawk. The point, however, is that cheep-cheeps appear in underwater levels. And as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, the title-screen track from Super Mario Bros. 2 is a variation on the “Underwater Waltz” from Kondo’s original Super Mario Bros. score. Here’s the tune in its 1985 version. Notice the similarity? It’s quite striking when you listen to the two side-by-side.

Super Mario Bros., Underwater Waltz

So what is an underwater tune doing accompanying a title screen? As I noted earlier on, this kind of repurposing is unorthodox for Kondo. I don’t have a definitive answer to this question, but I have some ideas.

The Super Mario Bros. 2 that we know in North America wasn’t intended to be a Mario game at all, which is why it’s so unusual compared to the other games in the NES series. Part of me wonders whether the familiar music at the start was meant to orient the potentially confused gamer: “This doesn’t really look like a Mario game, but it sure sounds like one!” Of course, it’s hard to mistake the game for something else when Mario, Luigi, Princess, and Toad are staring you in the face, but the tune gives the game a familiar aura—we have Mario in our ears from the get-go.

As for the choice of music itself—the “Underwater Waltz”—I’d guess that this arose from practical concerns. There are no underwater levels in Super Mario Bros. 2, so Kondo didn’t have an in-game use for one of the two most familiar Super Mario Bros. tunes. (He recast the other one—the “Overworld Theme”—as the “Dark World” tune.) And for this reason, the “Underwater Waltz” was an obvious candidate to send a pre-game message to North American gamers: “Despite the unfamiliar landscape, this is indeed a sequel to our 1985 hit.” Such is the powerful link between music and memory.

– Andrew Schartmann

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