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History Lesson: Koji Kondo - the maestro who brought Mario's music to life

By Matthew Castle on Saturday 25th Jan 2014 at 10:00 AM UTC

"Koji Kondo is not the Mozart of videogame music. Mozart was the Koji Kondo of classical music."

YouTube users are hardly known for understatement, but commenter KenobiM11 might just have a point. Hum any of your favourite Nintendo themes from the past quarter-century and there's a pretty good chance Kondo was at least partly responsible.

In fact, it could easily be argued that Koji Kondo has played as influential a role in Nintendo's recent history as Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi.

Were it not for Kondo, would we even have been celebrating Zelda's 25th anniversary in 2011, let alone marking it with a set of orchestral concerts? Would Super Mario Bros have been such a planet-conquering hit without that theme tune?

Kondo's signature theme became so famous that Paul McCartney was able to sing it back to him after they met at a concert. "Miyamoto actually brought me along to that so he could introduce me as the 'Mario music guy'," Kondo once recalled.

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"Paul and his [ex] wife Linda responded by singing the melody to me... I'd always been a fan of The Beatles, so the fact that they immediately recalled the melody was a really proud moment for me."

Kondo's story begins at age five, when he started playing the electric organ. His love of music continued into high school as he discovered the joys of Deep Purple and prog-rockers Emerson, Lake & Palmer. At Osaka University, he began to create sounds and music using a BASIC program he'd written on his computer, with arcade games like Donkey Kong a growing influence.

A friend then spotted that Nintendo was looking for graduates with an interest in sound and music. It was a no-brainer for Kondo: so keen was he on the role that he didn't bother applying elsewhere.

Kondo's first game as composer was arcade title Vs. Golf, but it wasn't long before that Italian plumber entered his life. But his most famous work wasn't his first Mario composition: "The first song I did for [Super Mario Bros] was the underwater theme, because that was easy to visualise."

He soon learned the value of playing games as key to his work, after noting his first go at the Mario theme matched the visuals but not the gameplay. "My gut response after completing it was: 'Ahh, I guess that's all right'," he modestly claims. "I definitely didn't think it'd be so widely appreciated!"

Zelda came next, and with it Kondo's second indelible main theme, as he perfectly captured what he describes as the "brave or courageous feeling" of adventuring. Hyrule required quite a different approach to the Mushroom Kingdom, but it was a test Kondo relished.

"If you're going to make music appropriate to a totally unknown town and unknown cities, you've got to come up with totally unusual music as well," he once said.

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Super Mario Jazz, an official Japanese album containing Kondo's Super Mario World music performed by a jazz band

Kondo's Zelda score was also responsible for two of the most instantly recognisable video game jingles - those eight notes that sound when a secret is discovered and the fanfare on finding an item are forever etched in gaming lexicon.

Over the years, Mario and Zelda became Kondo's staples, though he also contributed sound effects to Pilotwings and Star Fox.

The N64 era arguably saw him at his creative peak. Despite working with a more restrictive toolset than his peers who had the additional space optical media afforded on PSOne, the most memorable themes of the sixth console generation emerged from Nintendo's 64-bit system.

Ocarina Of Time in particular presented a unique challenge, with Kondo required to compose themes using just five tones, to tie in with the eponymous instrument. "Then, as soon as I was finished with those Ocarina songs, I had to create even more for Majora's Mask," he recalls. "I got a lot of mileage out of just five tones!"

Since then, Kondo's role at Nintendo has changed somewhat, becoming a mentor to younger composers. Nervous about scoring his first Mario title, Kondo minion Mahito Yokota discovered his mentor was hard to impress.

Unveiling his first composition, Yokota asked: "This is how Mario music should be, right?" Kondo's reply: "This is no good."

Classic Kondo

Fortunately, Kondo's star pupil was a fast learner, picking up tips from the master, such as the importance of hurrying the player to the next stage. EAD Tokyo's Ryo Nagamatsu recalls Kondo insisting, upon hearing a melody designed to accompany the map screen for Mario Galaxy 2: "This won't work, we can't have a good tune here." Apparently sometimes a simple loop is all that's required.

Kondo's mantra remains, as it always did, "to make the best, most appropriate music for the game itself." Excitingly, this has meant the introduction of orchestral compositions in the likes of Super Mario Galaxy, Zelda: Skyward Sword and Super Mario 3D World.

With another Zelda game on the way for Wii U, expect more goosebumps in the future courtesy of Kondo-san.

Koji Kondo has been responsible for hundreds of much-loved Nintendo tracks over the past 30 years, many of which are the sort of catchy ditties that game composers wish they were able to claim as their own.

There are some Kondo songs, however, that can be considered the most famous of the bunch. If you're new to Koji Kondo's work and want to have his entire career compressed down to just nine tracks, these are the definitive ones you need to know. The Kondo-minimum, if you will (sorry).

Slideshow: Kondo selected works

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