To celebrate the upcoming release of our 106th 33 1/3 on Super Mario Bros., we’re pleased to bring you the third installment of Koji Kondo week by author Andrew Schartmann!
Most game music enthusiasts would agree that Koji Kondo has a knack for composing memorable tunes. Driven by this consensus, countless articles focus on the melodic aspect of Kondo’s art. Few, however, note his skill when it comes to writing ambient music—those colorful washes of sound that enhance the on-screen atmosphere without the help of a memorable tune.
Bowser’s Castle Music is the first example of what I would call ambient music in Kondo’s oeuvre. It’s not especially pleasant to listen to—in fact, its downright jarring—but it gets the job done. It makes us uneasy as we approach that treacherous bridge guarded by an oversized lizard-dragon.
Super Mario Bros., Bowser’s Castle Music
I’ll admit that Bowser’s Castle Music is a touch grating on the ears, but it marks the beginning of an important feature of Kondo’s art: the association between ambient music and “dark” spaces. In my book, I propose that Kondo uses ambient music as part of a bright/dark binary that pervades the original Super Mario Bros. (1985) game. In short, Kondo paints dark enclosed spaces with a different kind of music than bright open spaces: ambient music is typically reserved for the former, whereas memorable tunes are given to the latter.
Kondo maintains this association in subsequent games, thus allowing him to develop a series-wide Mario sound—one that draws on expectations that are built up through multiple Mario adventures. This is one of the great advantages of composing music for an entire series: you can develop a complex dialogue with the players themselves. For those who have played a wide variety of Mario games, the music alone is enough to tell the gamer where he or she is, because each environment has a particular “flavor” to it. In fact, even Kondo’s ambient music has subcategories.
Take, for example, the Ghost House environment. Every time Mario stumbles upon a rickety house filled with Boos, we’re given a particular kind of ambient music—one that features long drawn-out notes that sound more like sound effects than parts of a melody. In many cases, these drawn-out notes are adorned with a vibrato effect to make them sound distorted. The opening of the Ghost House theme from Super Mario World (1991) is exemplary.
Super Mario World, Ghost House Music
Compare this to the Ghost House music from New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009), composed some 19 years later. Although Kondo himself didn’t compose the track (he acted as sound advisor), his influence is unmistakable.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Ghost House Music
With this music-to-environment technique in mind, listen through some of the Mario soundtracks and try to identify the various “sound families” that define the series as a whole. This trip down memory lane can teach you a lot about Kondo’s approach to composition, and as a bonus, you’ll get to hear some pretty great tunes in the process.
– Andrew Schartmann