When I was small I didn’t live near an arcade, so I cobbled one together by plugging quarters in machines anywhere I could find them — laundromats and grocery stores, convenience stores and restaurants.
At the bowling alley I found the motherlode. It was near the apartment complex where I lived, and I would ride my bike there as often as I could. It’s a mythic place in my personal geography, a hidden world of smoke and noise and dim light. There were only a few game cabinets: the tried-and-true Pole Position, a lonely pinball game, and a game involving time travel pods whose name escapes me but whose action still haunts my dreams. There was also an arcade version of Super Mario Bros.
I first saw this game while standing on a electric meter and looking in the bedroom window of a friend’s house. It was summer and his parents were at work, and they forbade him from having any friends over. Watching instead of playing games was already something of a habit for me because sometimes my pockets were empty, and sometimes my quarters went in the soda machine or toward the latest issue of Mad. It wasn’t so fun when it was just flashing lights and arcade machine gun fire, but when I heard Koji Kondo’s score for Super Mario Bros., it was divine.
Of course I had no idea who Kondo was. Thirty years after the release of his most famous work, there’s likely still many who don’t. This latest installment in the 33 ⅓ series goes a long way toward correcting that.
This series gives authors a chance to explore classic albums via traditional music criticism, memoir, and even fiction. The grooves of the popular music canon run deep, and the series has so far covered albums from James Brown’s Live at the Apollo through Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Though the canonical well is hardly dry, the series has taken some unusual turns, such as Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion exploration, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, and now with Andrew Schartmann’s Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack.
Video games are at the forefront of our ever-evolving entertainment culture. They’ve changed from lures to destination spots in arcades to home-based experiences, and now they’re immersive experiences which allow players to interact with people from all over the world via the internet. It’s a long way from fighting with your sibling about who will be Mario and who will be Luigi.
Memories of playing Nintendo are only part of what keeps Mario and friends alive. The music that accompanied the game still resonates in our heads to this day.
Schartmann gives us a brief exploration of the video game industry circa the 1985 release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in America, and it’s a bleak one. Atari had collapsed, and though games were more popular than ever in Japan, the US seemed like a dead market. Nintendo was determined to change this, and its approach was strangely unorthodox: insist on quality. Not only did it make sure its games were fun, but it even hired a composer to create the music. Enter Kondo.
Prior to Nintendo’s musical gamble, music in video games was either lifted directly from existing compositions or merely a matter of a few pleasant notes strung together by software engineers. The “principal focus was on fluency was various computer languages, not composition,” Schartmann writes. The result was about as fun as that sounds.
Early in the book, Schartmann — a composer and classical pianist in his own right — says he wants capture the “ineffable” quality that makes Kondo’s music so memorable. It’s a difficult task, one that recalls the old saw, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” In that saying, though, is the thrust of Schartmann’s argument. Kondo’s music, he writes, mirrors the action on the screen by creating sounds that not only evoke the environments in which Mario inhabits, as well the movements of the character itself. Working in tandem with the game’s sound effects, Kondo’s score propels Mario — and, in essence, the player — along as he grabs mushroom, jumps on turtles, and snatches coins.
Schartmann gets in the weeds when it comes to music theory. This might not be much of a problem for a reader who can read music or play an instrument with proficiency, but the average reader might be lost when faced with a string of notes on a staff. There’s something that makes the inclusion of sheet music feel like a stab at legitimacy, as if the music is not worthy of study unless there’s proper musical notation provided, as well. Schartmann makes no such claim, of course, and his book proves the worth of Kondo’s work even without the inclusion of sheet music.
Kondo’s music has been performed by punk bands like the Advantage (it’s actually from Mario 2, but it’s still Kondo’s composition), a college marching band, and by symphony orchestras around the United States as part of the Video Games Live concert tour:
There’s even an a capella version performed by a guy in what appears to be a Mario-themed bedroom:
Using the limited tone palette of the NES’ 8-bit processor, Kondo’s music required, “a constant dialogue between restriction and possibility”. This dynamic helped Kondo create a soundtrack which, even with a running time of just under three minutes, has endured for 30 years. The character of Mario is a cultural icon some might say is on par with that of Mickey Mouse — but with a soundtrack that the Mouse lacks. When we see Mario’s mustachioed face we hear the music of Kondo, whether we realize it or not.