The entire Super Mario Bros. (1985) soundtrack is just under three minutes long—and that includes internal repetitions, of which there are many. If you remove the most obvious of these from the “Overworld” theme—ba-dum-pum-ba-dum-pum-PUM—less than 90 seconds of original music remains. Think about that for a moment. Nintendo composer Koji Kondo breathed life into an entire art form with just a few well-sculpted ticks of the clock. What conditions made this remarkable feat possible? What accounts for the music’s game-changing status? And why do our hearts still dance to the “primitive” 8-bit tunes of a bygone era? These are the questions at the heart of this book.
As is to be expected from a 33⅓ title, this study is first and foremost about music. Super Mario Bros., however, is an unusual case, in that its historical context is so intimately tied to the eventual sounds that emerged from Kondo’s pen. It’s impossible, at least in my view, to fully appreciate his musical innovations without a decent grasp of the 1980s video game landscape. Without this context, we risk framing Kondo as a lone visionary who single-handedly revolutionized game sound, when in fact a large part of his success was circumstantial: not only did it hinge on Nintendo’s unprecedented decision to hire a full-time composer for their games, it also relied on a team of inspired designers who produced a video game of staggering originality, such that Kondo’s music had a stage on which to shine. To be clear, this is not meant to detract from the merit of Kondo’s score. It is intended, rather, to highlight the collaborative spirit of the Super Mario Bros. enterprise—Kondo’s music included.
In this respect, readers will notice that music creeps into the discussion gradually. The first two chapters, in addition to this introduction, focus largely on contextual questions whose relevance to the music itself becomes obvious only at a later stage. Rest assured: your patience will be rewarded.
To set up the background against which Kondo’s story unfolds, it’s worth reflecting on the history of Nintendo’s mustachioed heroes 30 years after their North American debut. Gamers need no reminder of the influence our beloved Bros. continue to wield in the video-game world. The more popular of the two, with his Nintendo-red plumber’s suit, remains at the center of a Japanese–American institution. In one of his recent incarnations, Mario takes on foes both old and new in a retro setting that hearkens back to the original NES (Nintendo Entertainment System). A perfect mixture of old-school and modern, New Super Mario Bros. U (2012) was a smashing success. Such is the power of nostalgia—a nostalgia that lies at the heart of Nintendo’s marketing strategy. With each new console, Mario is reborn. And so are we.
Because of Nintendo’s astute and constant reinvention of their 1985 success, our Bowser-busting friend never recedes into the shadows. He never leaves our side. This lasting power, a relentless ability to remain relevant, is a true marvel of video game history—one that allowed journalist David Sheff to write, a full eight years after Mario’s first success, that “Nintendo’s mascot . . . was more recognized by American children than Mickey Mouse.” But how could this be? How did a Japanese creation overtake an American icon on its own turf?
Before video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda ) pitted “Jump Man” (the early Mario) against his barrel-throwing pet gorilla, Donkey Kong, Nintendo wasn’t exactly a household name. Founded in Japan in 1889, the company started out inventing and manufacturing card games. By the mid 1960s, it had evolved into a toy company, which set the stage for its 1970s venture into the electronic games market. By the end of the decade, the arcade industry was on the brink of a massive breakout, with Taito’s Space Invaders (1979) leading the way. In May of 1980, the American release of Namco’s Pac-Man opened the flood-gates. Looking to capitalize on a healthy base of arcade dwellers, Nintendo struck gold with the release of Donkey Kong in 1981.
Despite their early success, Nintendo was not the top player in North America’s arcade-game market. That title belonged to Atari—a pioneering video-game company founded by Nolan Bushnell (also the brain behind Chuck E. Cheese) in 1972. Beginning with the release of Pong (1972), Atari produced a solid stream of popular arcade games, including Breakout (1976), Asteroids (1979), Centipede (1980), Marble Madness (1984), Gauntlet (1985), and many others. With these coin-op hits, the company’s place atop the arcade market remained virtually unchallenged. A very different battle, however, was taking place in the homes of consumers.
Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, a number of companies (e.g., Atari, Bally, Coleco, Mattel, Magnavox) vied to bring an authentic arcade experience to living rooms across the nation. This sparked the “home-console wars,” which began in earnest in 1977 when Atari released their Video Computer System (VCS), later renamed the Atari 2600. Over the next five years, as game libraries grew alongside the number of companies competing for market space, a number of complicating factors emerged that would eventually lead to the video-game crash of 1983, which temporarily quashed the North American home-console market. Scholars have proposed a number of reasons for this crash, including market saturation (Herman, 2001; Campbell-Kelly 2003), mismanagement at Atari (Cohen, 1984), poor quality games (Kent, 2001), and a shift in teen culture (Friedrich, 1983). Specific reasons aside, the crash cleared the way for Nintendo to rekindle the dying flame of the home-console market and stoke it into an unbounded fire of Japanese dominance.
So from his Donkey Kong provenance, “Jump Man” went on to bigger and better things. He became an overnight celebrity in the fall of 1985 and, unlike many who once enjoyed similar success, remains a celebrity of the highest order. In 2015, Mario stands as strong as ever, beckoning me from across a Barnes & Noble aisle to purchase a checkers set—not because I like checkers, but because marketers know that his very presence incites a wealth of warm childhood memories. This is why I am so drawn to the countless YouTube videos of talented musicians rendering their versions of Kondo’s tracks on every instrument imaginable. And this is why I nod with approval at the US Post Office’s decision to honor Mario with a commemorative 2015 stamp. Why wouldn’t we pay homage to a character who recalls the sweet innocence of youth, when our greatest worry was a fire-breathing lizard that stood between failure and a princess? And why wouldn’t we plug into Kondo’s sonic ocean every now and then to surf his 8-bit waves in search of something—perhaps a part of us—we thought was forever lost?
For many of us, a mere glimpse at the Super Mario Bros. title screen, or better yet, a few characteristic notes of a Mushroom Kingdom tune, brings forth a flood of fond memories. Despite these profound associations between graphics, music, and the past, however, I’m convinced that nostalgia is only part of the reason Mario and his music continue to enthrall our senses in the most positive of ways. There’s also something fundamentally engaging about the music itself—something divorced from all nostalgic ties. My hope is to turn that ineffable “something” into words.
Our journey through Kondo’s score divides into two broad sections (or “Worlds”). The first, “Contexts,” explores the various forces responsible for creating an environment in which Kondo’s project could thrive. The second, “Music,” probes the details of Mario’s soundscape to unearth the compositional strategies behind its success.
“Contexts” takes us first to an alien graveyard in the New Mexico desert, where memories of the video-game crash of 1983 linger some 30 years later. Like an allegory hidden beneath the sand, this graveyard encapsulates both Atari’s fateful demise and Nintendo’s meteoric growth, and sheds light on the circumstances that made Kondo’s project possible. Our story then takes us across the Pacific to Nintendo’s locus of innovation where a new era in video-game history was born—one in which Kondo’s musical imagination played a substantial role. Using the groundbreaking design of Super Mario Bros. as a launch pad, “Contexts” then migrates to Kondo’s studio where the master reveals some of his compositional secrets, thus preparing us for the second leg—or “World”—of our journey: a nuanced exploration of the music itself.
Despite their segregated presentation, these “Worlds” are just as interconnected as those in the Super Mario Bros. game itself. Common threads run through them, and familiar themes take on new roles as the scenery changes, but all contribute to the same end. All work together in the search for answers to questions posed throughout this introduction. And all seek to understand our seemingly inexhaustible fascination with a handful of well-organized sound waves.
Great music has a tendency to attract a wide range of perspectives. What follows is but one of many ways in which Kondo’s music can be analyzed, appreciated, and understood. To proceed under the illusion that my reading is somehow definitive would do little more than close doors. I prefer to leave them open. Therefore, in the spirit of collaboration, consider this first monograph on Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. score as the beginning of a conversation—an opportunity to join heads and create a richer experience for all. And so our journey begins: Mario Start!
 For a more complete breakdown of these durations, see Analyzing Musical Mario-media: Variations in the Music of Super Mario Video Games.” Master’s thesis, McGill University, 2012., “
 Mirko Ernkvist analyzes the various hypotheses put forth by scholars in “Down Many Times, but Still Playing the Game: Creative Destruction and Industry Crashes in the Early Video Game Industry 1971–1986.” In History of Insolvency and Bankruptcy from an International Perspective, eds. Karl Gratzer and Dieter Stiefel (Huddinge: Söderstörns högskola, 2008), 161–191.