The rhythmic world of Koji Kondo, gaming’s maestro

LAS VEGAS — Koji Kondo didn’t know what to expect when looking down a list of music added into the National Recording Registry. The 62-year-old Nagoya, Japan native didn’t know what kind of music drew the attention of the Library of Congress. Then he saw the names.

Billie Holiday. Woody Guthrie. Miles Davis. Aretha Franklin. John Lennon. “Imagine.” “The Girl from Ipanema.”

“I was just like, ‘That’s a famous song, that’s a more famous song, that’s an even more famous song,’” Kondo told The Washington Post in an interview through an interpreter. “The more I looked, the more I realized all of these are incredibly well-known songs.”

Kondo stands out on the list of luminaries. His work is the only video game composition selected for the Library of Congress, added last year in a collection of sound recordings that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” to life in the United States. It is, after all, the theme to “Super Mario Bros.,” the video game that laid the foundation of the medium and industry. The first six notes are embedded into the DNA of generations. You hear them in your head right now, with that snappy syncopated rhythm.

Those six notes were an earworm well before their decades of repeat playthroughs. “Super Mario Bros.” released in 1985, and just one year later, Paul McCartney was humming the tune. The Beatle was on tour in Japan when he learned that Kondo and Mario’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, were in attendance. He asked to bring the two game creators backstage. He and wife Linda McCartney approached the gentlemen, and the first noises that escaped their lips were those same six notes. Kondo recalls it as an “incredible moment.”

End of carousel

Earlier this month, Kondo was inducted as the first video game composer into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, at the industry’s DICE Summit in Las Vegas. The event gathers many gaming executives and creatives to discuss the state of the industry and medium. More than music, Kondo sculpted the soundscape for video games as audio director and engineer for Mario, from the bling of collecting coins (as ubiquitous a sound for cash as ka-ching) to the elastic boing of a jump. He quickly turned to composing songs for “The Legend of Zelda,” another Nintendo title that in 1986 transformed the medium.

Kondo and other sound engineers in the industry laid the groundwork for chiptune music today. And for years, Kondo’s melodies have evolved past primitive sound chips to be performed worldwide. In Rio de Janeiro, the Carnival holiday inspires parades that only play Mario music. Kondo’s melodies are now performed by symphonies worldwide, including the orchestrated score for last year’s blockbuster “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” composed by Brian Tyler with Kondo’s collaboration.

“Atonal beeps and bloops were evolving into synthesized waveforms and eventually fully orchestrated scores,” said Tyler, also composer of the Fast and Furious franchise, while presenting the Hall of Fame award to Kondo. “Many composers across a breadth of genres, from film soundtracks to popular rock acts, now count Kondo-san’s work as among their greatest inspirations, including myself.”

Despite such a legacy, 62-year-old Koji Kondo is a humble man. When asked what he hopes people will think of his legacy, he wasted no time answering.

“The thing I would be most happy with is if they weren’t looking at the music in and of itself,” Kondo said. “Rather, focus on the music and how it enhances the gameplay. If they come away with the music making their gaming experiences more fun, that would make me more happy than anything.”

Kondo does not see his music as separate from the video game: For him, listening and playing are one. He is, after all, the pioneer of the art form, of melodies and notes written in service to an audience he will never see, with whom he must connect.

“He saw music and visual information as intertwined and understood how these elements can be combined to express things in a totally different art form,” Tyler said.

With hundreds of millions games sold, Mario is history’s best-selling video game franchise — effectively making Kondo one of history’s most popular interpreters of several international genres including American ragtime and Big Band sounds, Brazilian bossa nova, and Romani and Latin jazz. The music of Mario packaged jumping jazz and world music into a rudimentary Nintendo Entertainment System sound chip. Kondo would work out a melody in advance, then program the notes for each channel to produce a similar sound, a confluence of music theory and computer code.

One life, one job

At 5 years old, Kondo’s parents gave him a Yamaha Electone organ, and he began 12 years of lessons in music composition and arrangement. He learned the marimba, a recurring instrument in many Mario games, for his elementary school band. As a teen in the 1970s, he saved up enough allowance to buy the hot new instrument: the synthesizer. Kondo rode the early wave of the electronic music revolution, taking up the keys for a band during high school and college. And like many in Japan, he loved video games.

But in college, he turned to visual arts — a pivot that would prove useful in marrying images to music. In 1984, fresh out of college, he heard about a job that was perfect for him. He was already fascinated with the idea of what video game noises communicate to the audience, and he was so determined to get hired at Nintendo, he never bothered applying anywhere else. He got the job, and he has never applied elsewhere since.

“I was the first composer hired at Nintendo during my time, and there was one other composer,” Kondo said. “We basically just took turns making whatever was in development. They would come to us and say, ‘Hey we’ve got this game, you make it.’ It just happened to be my turn in the rotation when they were developing ‘Super Mario.’”

Unlike some more directorially involved film and game projects, Kondo was largely left alone on his work.

“When the game was in the appropriate stage, I was able to play it,” Kondo said. “I would think to myself, ‘This is a water stage. You know, I think a waltz would be nice here.’ So I was really able to create freely with what I thought would go for what was happening on the screen.”

Kondo was a huge fan of Latin jazz and music at the time, he said, and that influence is all over the Mario series. Miyamoto, the Mario director and creator, was himself an admirer of American bluegrass folk and lent Kondo some CDs. Bluegrass would later become prominent all over the score of “Super Mario World,” the first Mario game for the Super Nintendo console. For the heroic Zelda theme, Kondo looked to film, gaming’s closest art medium, for inspiration. He recalled the score to “Ben Hur” by Hungarian-born composer Miklós Rózsa as one possible inspiration.

Kondo said there is one constant step in his writing process: He must play the game first. The unified sound of “Super Mario” comes from Kondo imagining a player’s actions as a visual rhythm section — just where his visual arts education comes in handy.

“I will sit and play it over and over again to capture its rhythms, and then I think of the melody by building a chord progression that matches those rhythms. … If you’re just composing music based on a static image you see, that music could just be background music piped in from another room. In order to make it feel like it’s part of the game, it’s essential to play.”

It’s no wonder that in last year’s “Super Mario Bros. Wonder,” the background levels bounce to the beat of the score, still composed by Kondo alongside a team. It’s an audiovisual manifestation of Kondo’s mind.

An honest melody

Like many of Nintendo’s legacy creators, Kondo is still hard at work for the company. He doesn’t feel age slowing him down one bit. If anything, the passage of time has hardened his confidence.

“I don’t think about [my age] often. As I continue to expand my musical horizons or the music I listen to, the knowledge I have about those different styles increases,” Kondo said, smiling. “I only have more tools in the toolbox.”

He still oversees music and sound design for Mario and Zelda projects. He’s contributed hundreds of memorable songs to Mario and Zelda titles over the years, from the groovy brass of “Bob-omb Battlefield” in “Super Mario 64” to the lilting “Zelda’s Lullaby” of “Ocarina of Time.” His secret to finding the perfect melody is cerebral.

After the DICE Summit awards ceremony, Kondo visited the after party at Jewel Nightclub in Vegas. Outside the club, 68-year-old Kondo fan Marty O’Donnell waited in hopes of catching a glimpse of Kondo. The two met years ago and took a selfie, and O’Donnell — the composer, by the way, for the Halo and Destiny video game series, a body of work often compared to film composer John Williams — wanted a new picture. Kondo sneaked away from the nightclub: no selfie tonight.

“Koji is a master of composing wonderfully sticky melodies,” O’Donnell said in an interview. “That’s why you only need to hear a few notes from Mario or Zelda and you are instantly taken back to the first time you played the games. I like to call that emotional equity.”

O’Donnell’s assessment of those melodies actually echoes how Kondo describes his process. I asked Kondo about what makes a perfect melody, and it’s not about finding the right notes or downbeats.

“If I were to try and encapsulate it in a single world, I think it’s honesty,” he said. “A melody that feels straightforward and sounds completely natural without interference from anything else, that’s a good melody. Don’t overthink it. Have it honed down to its core as much as possible.”

These days, he spends his free time taking walks in nature, armed with an iPad and headphones. He loves to be surrounded in sound with immersive audio programs. Like the heroes of his games, he is on a journey to discover the rhythms of the world around him.

“It’s really like I’m being accompanied on my walks with a full orchestra, and that’s just a lot of fun,” Kondo said. “I think many people would want to have their individual soundtracks that accompany them as they move through life.”

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