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  Navigation: Home » Nintendo » Editorial » Inside Nintendo: Koji Kondo  
Inside Nintendo: Koji Kondo

During the middle of a game of Super Mario Bros, did you ever sit back and listen to the music? All those years after the original title was released millions worldwide woud still recognise the tune. Its composer, Koji Kondo, has composed music for many of Nintendo’s titles such as the Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Super Mario Sunshine, Pilotwings and Donkey Long 3. Despite the familiarity of gamers with his music, Kondo remains something of an enigma. Even though not much is known about him he has built up a large following, with some of his fans arguing that his work is of parallel importance to that of Shigeru Miyamoto. This editorial hopes to shed some light on one of the most popular composers in the games industry today.

Koji Kondo was born in August of 1960 in Osaka, Japan. Even at an early age it was obvious that Kondo had musical talent, as he would compose melodies as a child. His love for music never dissipated as he grew older, instead the flame in his heart for the talent burned stronger. Aged seventeen the future composer had decided that music was to be his life and choose to pursue it professionally. Kondo applied himself to his classical training, learning several instruments in the process that were to lay the foundations for his work in the future. The composer happened across Nintendo by chance, he heard that the company was looking for musicians and decided to give it a go. It turned out that the big N were looking for talented people to write the music for games they were developing for their new console, the NES. It was a medium Kondo was completely unfamiliar with, which up until this point had typically been undertaken by a games programmer. Some may argue that there was a lack of musical talent in competition with him so Kondo was bound to shine, but the musician proved highly innovative and his imagination brought him to where he is today. Despite never having composed music for such a genre before, he took the job in 1983 and has never looked back since.

The startling difference in terms of music composition that Kondo found himself confronted with was the constraints the medium imposed. Despite being talented at several instruments, he was suddenly limited to three tools to express himself: harmony, melody and percussion, due to the design of the console. It was faced with these challenges that Kondo’s genius began to shine; together with Nintendo’s technicians they were able to create a fourth tool to improve the musical potential of the console – the team used the channel that was normally used for sound effects as a fourth instrument for Kondo to work with. Despite being severly constrained Kondo began to set about comosing soundtracks for the games and over the years as the technology has improved Kondo has been able to express himself more readily. By the mid nineties the world’s ears picked up and began to pay more attention to video game music which beforehand was typically dismissed or frowned upon. As Nintendo’s consoles evolved from the NES through to the GameCube the audio capabilities of the machines led to the composer finding himself with few restriants, coming full circle from when he began working for the company.

To the lay person’s ears Kondo’s compositions consist of digital sounds from a Casio keyboard: while this is true, the fact remains that anyone can go out and buy one, but it takes a genius to compose classic melodies from it. The composer has always remained highly ambitious with his work despite the constraints that he has been faced with. Some of the more challenging tasks he has undertaken include the soundtracks to the Zelda series. The work is far more adult in nature and delivered in cinematic style; it is fitting that such music was reserved to be delivered on a grand scale for these key titles. Kondo’s influences are latin, jazz, classical and eastern music and each of these styles are highly evident in his work, espeicailly his eastern roots. His compostions tend to be melody based with little supporting harmony, which makes him stand out compared to some of his peers who cater for the western audience. There are a lot of similarties in his style to that of the most famous composition of his favourite composer Henry Mancini, the Pink Panther theme. The only valid criticism of Kondo’s work is that his style has hardly changed over the twenty years he has been composing music for games. His fans however will point out that they have grown accustomed to his work and would rather that he built upon it than experiment.

The composer has built up quite a diverse fan base over the years and has influenced genres from techo to rap. While techno remixes may be taken for granted, more urban artists like DJ Clue or Shinehead can be counted among his fans. Kondo can count Paul McCartney among his admirers; when the musician and his then wife, Linda McCartney, first met him they famously humed the tune of Mario Bros as a sign of their appreciation. Some people are confounded as to how Kondo’s video game music scores have attracted such a following over the years. For some the digital sounds of the Mario Bros franchise are little more than childish melodies, what these critics fail to understand is that Kondo has been able to create beautiful music with his hands effectively tied behind his back. Many gamers who have played any of the titles his music has been used for are slightly taken aback when they realise that most of the scores that they are listening to are played repetitively. This has been Kondo’s greatest triumph; creating melodies that remain pleasant to listen to even after being played for long periods of time. In fact he has been so successful that people still recognise scores like the main theme music to Super Mario Bros despite the fact it has been around twenty years since the piece was first composed.

The soundtrack to the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is probably Kondo’s most cited work, it was a great achievement despite the fact he was faced with severe technological constraints compared to the abilities of rival consoles at the time. Having to do without a CD soundtrack developers often neglected a game’s soundtrack resulting in stale repetitive music and sound effects, the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time changed all that and in doing so set new standards for the role of a title’s soundtrack in a video game. Every piece of the musical score was the perfect compliment for the scene the player found themselves in; take the game’s opening for example with the soft, serene score extenuating the solitary figure of Link. Each part of the score was composed so that it would drive home the emotion of the scene to the gamer, thus blending into the environment. It is this work that he will most likely be remembered for, putting the catchy tune of the Mario Bros aside the Ocarina of Time soundtrack is his most mature and expressive music to date. He may never be a household name but Kondo deserves to go down as one of the greatest music composers in video games history.

Piaras Kelly - (26 Mar 2004)
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