Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds As had been the case with the Commodore 64, the barriers to music making on the NES were pretty high. Although not as sophisticated as the SID chip, Nintendo’s multichannel Audio Processing Unit provided pulse and triangle waveforms, a noise channel for effects and percussion, and a simple sample playback channel. And as a console, the NES really wasn’t set up to allow the easy development of software by the end user. In fact, for a significant portion of its lifespan, there was no official NES development kit at all. Developers had to create their own development tools and software drivers from scratch.
Skip to 0 minutes and 52 seconds Nintendo did, however, release Famicom BASIC, a software cartridge that was bundled with a computer keyboard and a textbook, and that allowed users to program their consoles and save the programs to cassette tape. The instruction manual included a section that described how to program Japanese popular music. It was written by a new recruit at Nintendo, Koji Kondo. Kondo’s first work was to create the sound effects and musical sting for the arcade boxing game Punch-Out!!! His music was good, arcade style, but infused with Western jazz. Kondo loved the music of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. It caught the attention of Shigeru Miyamoto. The pair began working on a new project, Super Mario Bros.
Skip to 1 minute and 47 seconds and pooled their expertise hewn from work on other games. The characters and the gameplay mechanic would come from Mario Bros., a game that resurrected Miyamoto’s hero from Donkey Kong and united him with his younger brother, Luigi, who had followed him into the family plumbing business. Miyamoto liked the way that Mario Bros. played, particularly the enemy attacks and the power-ups, but he wanted to include scrolling, a colourful background, and bigger characters moving around. In the mazes of Devil World, he had already managed to move characters twice as big as those in previous games, so they knew that it could be done.
Skip to 2 minutes and 31 seconds Add to that the scrolling technology and level warps from Excitebike, Donkey Kong’s sloping platforms, lifts, and conveyor belts, and Donkey Kong Jr.’s ropes, logs, and springs, and Super Mario Bros.’s heritage is clear. It was the culmination of everything that Miyamoto had done until that point. All he needed now was a narrative, and that came in the form of an epic quest. Mario the plumber, not exactly a classic hero, would be a stranger in a strange land, the Mushroom Kingdom. Littered throughout were all manner of classic archetypes – Bowser, the pantomime villain, and Princess Peach, the classic damsel in distress. Split across four stages in each of eight worlds, Super Mario Bros. was a game that had both depth and longevity.
Skip to 3 minutes and 28 seconds It was exactly what was needed to revive the US interest in video games. From the outset, Kondo knew that the score would have to be different. With its range of characters, each with their own personalities and its evolving plotline, Super Mario Bros. needed music that would work with the game on a fundamental level, not just sit alongside it. Because of the memory restrictions of the NES, Kondo could write no more than three minutes of original score, and that music plays repeatedly. His genius was in writing three minutes of music that not only functioned as music to enhance the gameplay, but which could be heard over and over again without driving the player mad. It did it and then some.
Skip to 4 minutes and 22 seconds This was perhaps the first true video game underscore. There are lots of little touches in Super Mario Bros., where the music captures the feel of the level and the gameplay.
Skip to 4 minutes and 48 seconds The tempo synchronises with some of the on-screen movement. The Cheep Cheeps flick their tails in time with the music, and the gold coin counter at the top of the screen shimmers along in time. It was that integration between the different elements of the game, perhaps more than anything else, that made the music from Super Mario Bros. different from all of the music that came before it. On the C64, game music had similar catchy melodies, but few integrated with gameplay in the way that Super Mario Bros. did. Capturing that detail and the sense of evolution of a game is no mean feat. A video game doesn’t have a fixed and linear temporal framework like a movie.
Skip to 5 minutes and 36 seconds It evolves at the pace of the player, and everyone plays the game differently. So unlike a movie composer, who can use the film as a guide around which to compose, a video game composer, at best, has to anticipate the different pace and the different ways in which the gameplay will evolve, and write music that is flexible and adaptable enough to be pieced together in different ways and at different times. To illustrate, let’s think about those gold coins. When Mario collects 100 of them, he’s rewarded with an extra life, and a little musical sting plays on top of the famous “Overworld Theme.”
Skip to 6 minutes and 30 seconds But when in the game does that moment come? Well, that will depend on the player. Some players might go all out to collect as many coins as they can as quickly as possible. Others might want to blitz through the level, ignoring those magic blocks that spit out booty repeatedly as Mario headbutts them from below. That sting, then, can happen at any point in the game and at any point in the music, and yet it works. Kondo was able to write a catchy piece of music and a little counter melody that would work together regardless of when that counter melody was triggered. Periodically, Mario is presented with a Super Star, a power-up the bestows a short period of invincibility.
Skip to 7 minutes and 24 seconds At that point, the music switches, changing in tempo and in style to a double-time two-chord stomp. That shift in tempo, coupled with an arpeggiated, almost Latin-style bass, matches a finely balanced shift in gameplay. But again, it’s an effect that poses a real creative challenge. As with that 100th gold coin, the collection of a Super Star can happen at virtually any point in the soundtrack. When it happens, the music transitions immediately to the new theme, a technique known as horizontal resequencing. Imagine the timeline of a game as a horizontal line and the underscore being resequenced along that line as different gameplay events occur.
Skip to 8 minutes and 13 seconds It’s a far from straightforward task to write two contrasting pieces of music that can be interchanged at any point without creating abrupt disjoints. But that’s exactly what Kondo achieves. His light, open arrangements were as much a function of the need to create a score that tightly integrated with the gameplay as they were of his love of jazz fusion or the technical constraints of the hardware. Kondo’s real innovation, then, wasn’t so much with the form or the timbre; it was in defining the formal grammar and style of a new form of media music, the interactive game underscore.
Skip to 8 minutes and 56 seconds Like the music of the SID, it was dynamic and tuneful, although the more restrictive NES Audio Processing Unit meant that the arrangements were more limited. This, in turn, meant that composers like Kondo couldn’t rely on creating standalone tracks that aped the sound of Jarre or Yellow Magic Orchestra. Instead it forced them to think about how the music could function within the constraints of the hardware yet still support the gameplay elements and how these could work together to add new dimensions to the gameplay. Now below I’ve provided links to Koji Kondo’s music from Super Mario Bros., both as a complete mix and as individual component tracks in isolation. What I’d like you to do is download these and listen.
Skip to 9 minutes and 50 seconds There are several things that I’d like you to consider. How does the music work as music? How does it work outside of the context of the game? You’ll notice that there’s not really very much music, no more than three minutes in total. Does it seem to become repetitive or, worse still, irritating? What does that tell you about how effectively Kondo worked musically, and what tricks did he use to get the most out of limited musical space that he had to play with? Finally, how does the music integrate with the game, and what does that tell you about Kondo’s understanding of gaming as a medium?
Skip to 10 minutes and 33 seconds I’d like you to post responses to some or to all of these questions on the discussion board and I’ll see you again in the next activity.
Super Mario: A New Type of Game Music
Super Mario Bros. was the game that defined the NES. It looked great, it was fun to play, and it had a catchy soundtrack that managed to capture the qualities of the gameplay.
In this video, we’ll examine Koji Kondo’s soundtrack and discuss how it defined a new form of video game music.
Kondo’s real innovation was in defining the formal grammar and style of a new form of media music, the interactive game underscore. Below, I’ve provided links to Koji Kondo’s music from Super Mario Bros, both as a complete mix, and as individual component tracks in isolation. What I’d like you to do is download these and listen.
There are several things that I’d like you to consider. How does the music work as music? Does it work outside of the context of the game? You’ll notice that there’s not really very much music, no more than 3 minutes in total. Does it seem to become repetitive or worse still, irritating? What does that tell you about how effectively Kondo worked musically? What tricks did he use to get the most out of the limited musical space that he had to play with? Finally, how does the music integrate with the game, and what does that tell you about Kondo’s understanding of gaming as a medium?
I’d like you to post responses to some or all of these questions to the comments section.
Super Mario Soundtrack
You can download all of Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. soundtrack here.
© 2017, Kenny McAlpine