The greatness of game composer Koji Kondo has been expounded upon in countless articles, books, and blogs, so–as I’ve reiterated a few times already–I don’t want to use this precious space (or your time) to simply retread ground and talk about how great the man is. But seriously: this man is GREAT. His sound work really has proven to be monumental for video games, and not just because he crafts instantly recognizable and catchy melodies, but also because of the way in which these themes interact with the player within the context of the gameplay happening at any given time.
A concept that Kondo has mentioned in numerous interviews, and which appears to be more and more prominent in the work that he both composes and oversees, is that of “interactive” sound that morphs and changes depending on what action is taking place on-screen and where; in other words, dynamic composition.
We can trace this technique in Kondo’s work all the way back to Super Mario World (1991), in which an energetic percussion beat would accompany Mario as he rode Yoshi, and stop whenever he dismounted. I suppose if we thought about dynamic composition in this way, we can trace the concept even further back, all the way to Super Mario Bros. (1985), in which the music would speed up to a frenetic pace as the in-game timer winded down, adding a sense of urgency to a level that was, up to that point, a usually cheerful and exploratory game experience. It’s a small temporal detail that has a huge impact on the gameplay, something that Kondo would expand upon in his later musical scores.
In Super Mario 64 (1996), one can really get a clear picture of what Kondo was driving at concerning fluidity in game music, especially during the “Jolly Roger Bay” level, the first in a Mario game to feature swimming in a 3-D environment (discounting the castle moat in the hub-world, of course, which serves more as a sand-box for experimentation and practice than an actual stage). At the start of Jolly Roger Bay, a lone electric piano plays the soothing main theme, unaccompanied by any other instruments. It is only upon entering the water–in essence, beginning the level proper–that a string section enters the arrangement, and as you venture further, eventually reaching an underground cave and sunken pirate ship, the rhythm section fades up and the different layers and complexities of Kondo’s piece are fully revealed. While a player could simply marvel at the expanse of the lake and the beauty of the rendered environment from the shore (well, beautiful at the time, at least), that’s not the main objective that the designers wanted to convey. The true excitement, the “meat” of the stage, was beneath the surface of the water, and having the full score swell in if and only if you actually “dive in” is the perfect way to encourage the player to do so. One of the challenges of creating a good 3-D environment is to compel the player to explore and investigate areas that they can already see in front of them (pop-in and fog, consistent visual blemishes in Nintendo 64 games, are precisely the wrong way to go about doing this, as you’re constantly breaking from the reality of the space, and who wants to explore somewhere or something that’s always undermining its own construct anyway?); achieving this goal with an appropriate and, more importantly, CONTEXTUAL music cue is a stroke of genius on Kondo’s and Shigeru Miyamoto’s part.
While Super Mario Sunshine (2002) also exhibits these kinds of traits–Yoshi, once again, has an accompanying bongo drum beat whenever Mario rides him, for example–Super Mario Galaxy (2007) takes Kondo’s concepts of dynamic sound in videogames to another level entirely. In Galaxy, specific sound effects harmonize themselves with whatever music is playing in the background. So, not only does the music shift and change elastically according to what action is taking place and its location, but the sound of grabbing a coin, for example, actually has a different pitch depending on what chord the music is on the moment Mario grabs it. A tense moment in a level, say, the Ghost Ship, results in an appropriately tense sounding score, which itself results a coin grabbing sound effect that doesn’t feel inherently positive, like a major chord, but is instead a tad dark and mysterious, like those Halloween-y sounding diminished 7th chords in music. This seems like a fairly innocuous mechanism, but it really helps to bond the player and environment together (see Flower (2009) for a recent application of this).
We can also hear this same type of aural effect at the main menu screen, where the twinkling sound of selecting your file can vary depending on the temporal position of the musical interlude occurring at that same moment. Again, this is a small and seemingly inconsequential detail at first, but it results in a videogame that has an almost anthropomorphic nature, constantly resonating with itself in an immediate and organic way so that every nuance of sound is in perfect harmony with each other…AND the player. The result that Kondo and his team is trying to achieve, I think, is one of total immersion, with every aspect of the game fitting together like a giant interlocking puzzle or sculpture. This isn’t a case of different departments coming together and simply combining their parts, but instead, much like a symphony, is a collective voice made up of many smaller components that are all performing in the same key and with the same timbre.
And this is all without even taking into consideration the actual music of Super Mario Galaxy itself, which is amazing stuff! Having lush symphonic orchestrations accompany the player from level to level gives the game a much deeper sense of space and scope, creating sonic expanses that appropriately echo the notion that Mario has moved beyond pipe mazes and Cheese Bridges and has become a full-fledged astronaut, soaring between planetary masses with dignified resolve (credit must be given to composer/arranger Mahito Yokota, who helped create most of Galaxy’s score under Kondo’s supervision). What’s more, there are wonderful judgements regarding when to use these epic arrangements. My favorite example is the Comet Observatory, which serves as a hub-world in the way that Peach’s Castle did in SM64. As the player progresses through the game, unlocking new areas by collecting stars and restoring power to the gigantic floating structure, the music shifts from a thin, mostly synthetic arrangement–save for a few recorded instruments, such as flute and harp–to a majestic, swelling live orchestra. These kinds of thoughtful touches result in a score that’s not only the best for the Mario series, but one of the best game soundtracks in the last ten years.
Throughout the Mario series, we can see (or rather, hear) Kondo’s philosophy of dynamic composition shining through, reinforcing the solid standards of gameplay that Nintendo has made their bread and butter, and actually making it more fluid, more interactive and, ultimately, more fun. While Koji Kondo is certainly not an unsung hero in game design, the work that he and his group put into Super Mario Galaxy is more than just a part of what makes the game so good, but may very well be the cornerstone for the entire Mario series and a crucial element in that mysterious formula that keeps gamers enthralled by the squat Italian-American plumber again and again and again. It seems to me that the “essence of Mario” that Kondo has spoken of is also the essence of the composer himself, and both just happen to be perfectly in tune.
Posted by Kurt Shulenberger on April 22nd, 2009 :: Posts :: Tags : Flower, Koji Kondo, Mahito Yokota, Mario, Music, Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Shigeru Miyamoto, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario World