Book Review: Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack (33 1/3)

An exceptional analysis of a soundtrack that changed the video game industry!

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 02/03/2016 09:00 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
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Outstanding
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1-Up Mushroom for...
Uncanny examination of Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. score; offers insights into the man and his history that many fans might be unfamiliar with; deep dissection of Kondo's role in shaping SMB, as well as how big of an impact he had on the gaming industry, as a result; though clearly intended for music scholars, is still an accessible read
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Lots of musical technical jargon that might be distracting to some readers

Some people thought it was a joke. One critic even went so far as to derisively ask before the book’s publication, “You wouldn’t want to read 140 pages about the making of ‘Super Mario Bros.?'” Well, 142 pages later and I can attest to the fact that Andrew Schartmann’s Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Score (33 1/3) is not a joke and worth reading every word of. The book is a part of Bloomsbury Publishing’s 33 1/3 series, which is all about popular music; each volume in the series focuses on a single album by a single artist and delves into the importance of that work within the history of music. Schartmann’s book is made all the more fascinating specifically because it looks at the significance of the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack within the historical framework of both video games and music. It’s a reaffirming work that bestows Kondo’s score the respect it so rightfully deserves, while also offering insight into what makes it so special, and why it continues to inform game designers and composers to this day.

Unbelievable though it may sound, the soundtrack for Super Mario Bros., in its entirety, is under three minutes long. That’s it. Less than three minutes of music, yet within those 180 seconds of tunes, a lifetime of memories was created, and an entire industry changed forever. Schartmann’s study of Kondo’s score is a brilliant deconstruction and analysis in how it leaves seemingly no stone unturned. The book begins with a brief explanation of the history of Nintendo, as well as an overview of Kondo’s own upbringing and how he came to be a composer for the video game company in the first place. While the 33 1/3 series is devoted to discussing music first and foremost, Schartmann spends this time at the beginning of the book building up context so that any reader can understand who Kondo is, where he came from, and why his work on Super Mario Bros. was so important.

Click the image above to purchase a copy of the book.

Frankly, had Schartmann chosen to simply focus on the soundtrack and omit these historical details, the book would have suffered immensely. Indeed, several key observations that the author makes would surprise even some of the most ardent of Nintendo fans prior to reading this book, such as how Kondo was the first person specifically hired by a developer to score the soundtrack for a video game. Prior to Super Mario Bros., there had been music in games, but nothing as elaborate and deliberately designed as Kondo’s score. Video game music was for many years little more than beeps and chimes, and along with the odd jingle here and there (like the fanfare heard at the start of a new stage in Donkey Kong, for instance) was only ever really intended to lure customers passing by arcade cabinets.

As Schartmann points out, with the advent of NES, video game design experienced a dramatic shift away from focusing on enticing consumers to keep paying to play to instead making them want to engage with the software for the pure sake of playing. With Super Mario Bros., Kondo, as Schartmann puts it, had to design his soundtrack so that it not only worked within the constraints of the limited sound capabilities of NES, but also formed a synergistic relationship with the gameplay itself. It’s commonly understood today that a video game’s soundtrack is functionally different from a movie’s in how it interacts with the experience, but before Kondo’s pioneering efforts, such a thought was unheard of. As I noted above, back in the day, games barely had music, let alone an entire score!

Schartmann illustrates all of his insights about Kondo’s score with a smooth and pleasing tone. It is important to note that this is a book intended for music scholars much more than it is the average video game fan. I can’t read a lick of sheet music, so much of the terminology that Schartmann uses (meters, triads, etc.) either went right over my head or I had to look it up. However, as technical as some of the jargon is, Schartmann keeps the conversation at least approachable for a non-musician. He breaks down his points in a way that I could grasp on a basic level the intricacies of Kondo’s musical design choices. That might be a negative for some people hoping for a more casual read, but I honestly didn’t feel like I missed much despite my lack of musical knowledge. Schartmann also spends a good deal of time relating how the score impacts the actual gameplay, which any gamer should be able to follow along with easily enough.

As Nintendo demonstrated with Super Mario Bros., the key to good game design lies in a number of different elements coming together to form a pleasing whole. So for those who find game development and game history interesting, as Schartmann’s Koji Kondo in turn demonstrates, it’s necessary to analyze all of those individual elements equally in order to gain a proper appreciation and understanding of a given video game. This book delighted and surprised me; though it’s obviously meant more for those in the field of music, I found it an accessible and enjoyable read as someone whose music knowledge is limited to playing a Rock Band guitar. I encourage anyone interested in learning about a lesser-studied aspect of Super Mario Bros. history to give Koji Kondo a read.

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