Koji Kondo: Our Beethoven?
Da, Da, Da. Da Dada Da. Dada dada dada da dadada. While that may sound like nonsense, if I told you it's my best attempt to spell out the Super Mario Bros. tune, it becomes immediately recognizable. If you were born after 1970, chances are you can hum the theme from the first board of that game (and probably the underground second board) like it's the most natural thing in the world. In fact, even novice gamers can probably hum the tunes from all the major Mario titles of the last twenty years, thanks to that franchise's enduring popularity. And you might be surprised to find out that every major Mario game (with the exception of Super Mario Bros. 2, the black sheep of the family thanks to it not really being a Mario game*) was scored by the same man "“ the inexhaustible Koji Kondo.
Koji Kondo (born 1960) was just your average Japanese composer when he stumbled into a gig at a playing card company called Nintendo in 1984. The company, in business since 1889, had decided to venture into the emerging world of videogames. These games needed music and Kondo was the man who would give it to them. While there he composed a ton of music for a ton of games, but it was his work on a strange game featuring a plumber trapped in a fungus kingdom ruled by an evil dragon (and you thought Tamagotchis were weird) that really solidified his legacy. Speaking to Wired about the game's music, he said, "I wanted to create something that had never been heard before, something not like game music at all."
Style and Restrictions
To any composer, working in the videogame world was restrictive at best. Instead of commanding a symphony, Kondo had to work with only four tracks. Not only that, he had to turn those four tracks into tunes that were enjoyable on first listen but also on second, on third, on fourth "¦ on three hundred and forty-fourth listen. A thorough Wikipedia page cites his three main influences as Latin, Jazz and Classical—but to me at least, his music transcends categorization and instead becomes the template for what videogame music should sound like. Of course, as technology advanced so did the instruments at Kondo's hands. Anyone who has played Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii will testify that the score is at least comparable to any John Williams tune out there.
It's hard to put an exact number on how many people have listened to Kondo's music, but if you add up the sales of all the major Mario games he scored you get a figure around 100 million. So, at a minimum, 100 million people have listened to Kondo's music. That's 1/3 of the American population—and that's the bare minimum. It's also the 3rd most popular ringtone right now. Not bad for a song more than twenty years old.
For comparison's sake, Google Trends shows Beethoven to be only 40% as popular as Super Mario. Google also shows Mario beating Bach by about 132,000,000 results. Like it or not, Mario is as much a part of our collective culture as the classical greats. And if Google numbers don't convince you that Kondo should be considered one of the great composers of our time, Paul and Linda McCartney apparently knew the tune by heart and hummed it to Kondo when the three met. I mean, he's a Knight of the Realm, you have to listen to him.
The original Mario song has been re-recorded on just about every instrument you can imagine.
We've heard it on steel drums...
...on a ridiculous bass guitar...
...on a ridiculous double-guitar...
...on, oddly, drums...
...on the various instruments of the Notre Dame marching band...
...and on the power of human voice alone. It's even been covered live by Phish.
But what if you didn't like Super Mario Bros.? Why would you care about Kondo's music if you hate the game? Well, when I was a wee lad there were two kinds of people: people who like Mario and people who liked Zelda. Good news, Zelda fans, Kondo did the score for that, too.
*Super Mario Bros. 2 started life as a game called Doki Doki Panic, released for Japanese audiences. Looking for a quick way to capitalize on the success of Super Mario Bros., Nintendo inserted the Mario characters into the game and released it in the US as Super Mario Bros. 2.
Streeter Seidell is the front page editor of CollegeHumor.com and a mental_floss contributor.