This September marks the 130th anniversary of Nintendo – a company that first made headlines in North America with a barrel-throwing gorilla named Donkey Kong. Shigeru Miyamoto’s eponymous arcade game kickstarted the Japanese giant’s decades-long reign over the video game market. More than just a commercial success, Donkey Kong (1981) positioned Nintendo as a true innovator in a budding industry. It was the first game to employ a visual narrative, and it set the stage for what video games could – and would – ultimately become. The company’s drive to create novel gaming experiences became undeniable, as did its dedication to a less remarked ingredient of the medium: music.
It goes without saying that Nintendo has produced a few ear worms over the years. Even younger generations who haven’t played the original Super Mario Bros. (1985) seem to know its iconic ‘Overworld’ theme. Hummable as they are, however, these nostalgic tunes also represent a deeper advancement in the development of video games; they embody compositional philosophies that forever changed the way people write music for video games. Examples of transformative soundtracks abound in the Nintendo repertoire, but two in particular have always intrigued me, not least because they introduced concepts that future generations could expand upon in endless ways.
When Koji Kondo was asked to write tracks for Super Mario Bros. in the early 1980s, music was treated as an afterthought – something to be added later on that didn’t impact a game’s design. Kondo, however, felt differently: ‘I wanted to create something that had never been heard before, where you’d think, “this isn’t like game music at all…”’, he said in a 2007 interview with Wired. In other words, musical wallpaper would not suffice. For Kondo, music had to be an integral part of video games, achieved by making a visceral connection between what players hear, see, and feel.
The most explicit example of this connection can be found in the game’s underwater levels, which feature Mario gracefully swimming through enemy-laden seas. Kondo wanted players to feel as though they were dancing in the water. And so, to achieve this effect, he composed a waltz, and synchronized some of the on-screen animations with the music’s pulse: gold coins shimmer, and Cheep-Cheep fish flap their fins, all to the beat of Kondo’s lilting melody.
If Kondo is the Mozart of early video game music, Hirokazu ‘Hip’ Tanaka is its Beethoven – a relentless innovator questioning the very underpinnings of his craft. Dissatisfied with the preponderance of cheery tunes, Tanaka set out to express a raw and primordial sound in Nintendo’s Metroid (1986) – an action game inspired by Ridley’s Scott’s haunting science-fiction film Alien (1979).
To reflect the game’s other-worldly setting, Tanaka built his score not with upbeat melodies, but with holes – salient sonic gaps that depict the emptiness of space, as well as a hollowness within us, as we confront a remote and isolated landscape. His music doesn’t just match the atmosphere; it immerses us in it. It gives room to our thoughts so that we, too, can become lost in Makoto Kano’s alien world.
To a similar end, Tanaka had an even more powerful idea – to enhance immersion by challenging the music/sound effect binary: ‘I had a concept that the music for Metroid should be created not as game music, but as music the players feel as if they were encountering a living creature. I wanted to create the sound without any distinctions between music and sound effects,’ he said in an interview with Gamasutra in 2002.
Tanaka avoids singable material in much of his work, opting instead for a palette of mechanical utterances. The ambiguous quality of the sound leaves us wondering from where it actually emanates: is it a musical accompaniment to the action? Or is it the sound made by creatures from the planet Zebes, where Metroid is set? There’s no correct answer to this question, and that is precisely the point.
Video game music has changed drastically since the mid-1980s, and has become increasingly interactive in nature. Owing to advancements in technology, developers are now able to create complex scores that adapt in real time to the choices a player makes. Despite these new frontiers, however, it remains that the most sophisticated soundtracks are built on a foundation laid out by the likes of Kondo and Tanaka in their work for Nintendo. Happy birthday! Here’s to 130 more.
Main image: Super Mario Bros, 1985, still. Courtesy: Nintendo Co.
Andrew Schartmann is a Professor of Music Theory at the New England Conservatory. He is the author of two books, including Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack (2015). His third book is forthcoming from Bloomsbury. Schartmann’s work has also appeared in Slate, Bandcamp, and Clavier Companion; and he has articles forthcoming in The Routledge Companion to Music Theory Pedagogy and Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3: The B-Sides.