VGM Entry 09: Nintendo’s turn
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
If a bit humbled by less apparent contemporaries, Koji Kondo’s work in Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985) nevertheless stands as the most recognized video game music in the world. Your average Joe on the street is more likely to identify it than a Beatles or Dylan song. A lot of this has to do with successful marketing. Super Mario Bros. is not the most distributed game of all time. In fact, it barely sneaks into the top 10, at roughly 40 million copies sold. A lot of this has to do with dirt cheap mobile phone distribution. (Apparently that Angry Birds game has broken 1 billion. I still have no interest in checking it out, and anyway it’s pretty easy to exploit a free download to your heart’s content to get into the world record book. Does one seventh of the world’s population even own smartphones?) Of games that actually require you spend a little, the 2006 title Wii Sports is leading the records at 79 million. It must be that economic depression…
But really, if you asked people what they thought was the all-time best seller I’m pretty sure most would mention Nintendo’s 1985 classic, and that is an indication of the company’s groundbreaking marketing strategy. If you owned a Nintendo, you knew Mario and his music. And if you played video games in the late 80s, you probably owned a Nintendo. The company has moreover been persistently re-releasing the game ever since its conception, not to mention incorporating features of its classic soundtrack and iconic characters into newer games. The only prior game that really offered this sort of bundle–very catchy music, memorable characters, massive distribution–was Pac-Man.
But a 5 second song that doesn’t even loop and a big yellow dot just aren’t all that satisfying. Oh the ghosts had names, and I’m sure if I was born a few years earlier I’d have gotten a kick out of pretending they were somehow relevant and imagining some sort of weird plot to it all. (Preferably a better one than the Hanna-Barbera 1982 Pac-Man tv series.) But all of the important features, while present, were just too simplistic to stand the test of time. And it wasn’t a game design you could make good sequels to.
What Super Mario Bros. really offered was a full package. The “best” music of its day? No. The most memorable characters? Not in isolation. But all of the features came together to make a game that really had no flaws. Nintendo knew it, and they ran with it.
If I tried to compare Koji Kondo’s music to other game musicians of the day, I might sound a little unfair. He certainly wasn’t revolutionary in style; his music was if anything retro, harking back to earlier carnival- esque soundtracks, whereas electronic experimentation was the cutting edge. Compared to the likes of Monty on the Run (which by the way, despite being only one song, was longer than the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack in its entirety), the game sounds a little childish. But that was, after all, the target audience, and let’s not split hairs here. Koji Kondo is brilliant. He wrote a soundtrack that was simultaneously extraordinarily catchy and quite aesthetically pleasing. It never clashes with the game. It never speaks out louder than the game. It just merges harmoniously, and keeps on playing in your head when you power off.
Maybe that should be remembered as one of his greater contributions to video game music. A lot of the Commodore 64 tracks I’ve been listening to, while feeling more progressive than Super Mario Bros., seem to disregard their games entirely. A good case in point is Roland’s Rat Race.
Another 1985 title, composed by Martin Galway, Roland’s Rat Race (Ocean Software) is a sleazy little bop, perfect for an inner-city street fighter, or perhaps, in consideration of the peculiar opening sequence, something to do with extraterrestrial pimps. It’s great stuff, way better than the vast majority of soundtracks that would ever appear on the Nintendo Entertainment System. But the problem here should become pretty obvious when you take another look at the game’s cover art.
You will find irrelevant soundtracks up to this day, and plenty of carefully coordinated ones prior to Koji Kondo, but I do have to wonder if perhaps Super Mario Bros.‘ success lead to developers demanding a little more attention to audio relativity.