To true fans of Nintendo
video games, the name Koji Kondo is comparable to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
, Johann Sebastian Bach
and Ludwig van Beethoven
. He is the man responsible for nearly every great musical composition ever heard in a Nintendo
Koji Kondo was born in August 1960 in the town of Osaka, Japan. Kondo took to music at an early age, writing and performing songs for fun on the simple instruments he had at the time. At age seventeen, Kondo realized he loved nothing in life better than music, and undertook classical training with his eventual goal to gain employment as a professional musician.
In the early 80s, when Kondo was in his early twenties, he came to the conclusion that he had trained enough, and that he should seek work in the field of classical music. Yet the best offer he could find was something he certainly didn't expect. A company named Nintendo was seeking musicians to compose music for games to be released on their first console system, named The Famicom (better known as the Nintendo Entertainment System outside of the far east). Although this wasn't what he was looking for, it was work doing what he loved. In 1983, Nintendo hired Kondo.
He fast realized that his work with the Famicom may be quite limited. He could only use various "bleeps" and "bloops" and the systems sound chip only allowed him to program using three channels: melody, harmony, and percussion. Eventually, Kondo and Nintendo technicians figured out that they could add a fourth channel, that had previously been used for sound effects.
In 1985, Nintendo released four games with Kondo's music. Soccer, Family BASIC, Kung Fu and the one game that would solidify his place in music history, Super Mario Brothers.
The score to the original Super Mario Brothers is absolutely unparalleled in its worldwide recognition for a video game score. The game's fanfare-esque tunes when one died, beat a castle, beat a level or received a 1 up, the haunting themes of the “Bowser's Castle Theme” or the “Underground Theme”, the carousel like “Underwater Theme”, and of course...the “Overworld Theme” that has been sampled by countless DJs and could easily be recognized by millions worldwide.
Yet Kondo had another masterpiece score for yet another Nintendo masterpiece game. In 1986, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda, containing a musical score that Kondo would also go down in history for. Mostly for the beautiful theme that played as the sun rose over Hyrule on the games title screen. That image paired with Kondo's music still holds a place in hardcore gamers hearts. Just as hearing the “Labyrinth Theme” reminds them of hours of frustration and the "Secret Discovery Sound" reminds them of the payoff for those hours of frustration.
In 1988 Kondo's jazz heavy soundtrack oddly fit the action that occurred in Ice Hockey, one of the system's best selling sports games. Also that year Kondo returned to score sequels to his two biggest franchises, Super Mario Brothers 2 and The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. His Mario sequel score was very different from the first, yet quite memorable nonetheless. While the first Mario score seemed to hint at Kondo's latin music influence, the sequel hinted at a stronger jazz and ragtime influence with each song having a very snappy beat.
The Zelda sequel picked up where the original left off. Continuing to add a cinematic feel to the game, slightly reworking the Overworld and Title Screen themes and adding fantastic tracks such as “The Palace Theme”, “The Town Theme,” and the "Princess Zelda Awakes" track.
In 1989, the Super Mario Bros. Super Show! began airing on American television. Kondo's music was used, but he was not credited. This would mark the first time that Kondo's music was heard in a venue outside of video games and his name was not listed. This also occurred on the 1991 show Captain N & the Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, and the 1993 film adaptation of Super Mario Brothers.
In 1990, Kondo reached even more notability with his Super Mario Brothers 3 musical score. The tunes in Super Mario Brothers 3 were both a throwback to the original game's music, the games sequel and his Zelda work. The reworked “Underground Theme”, reworked “Underwater Theme” and the new “Overworld Theme” are more throwbacks to the first game while “The King Theme”, “The Fortress Theme” and “Bowser's Theme” all sounded like the cinematic flair he was used to doing in the Zelda games. The game contained eight "worlds," and Kondo was allowed to do a versatile theme for each one. Super Mario Brothers 3 still is the highest selling video game of all time that was never attached to hardware, having over 30 million copies sold worldwide.
Also in 1990, Nintendo released Super Famicom (aka Super Nintendo) worldwide. The upgraded hardware allowed Kondo to explore new musical ground. That first year alone, he churned out music for the system's flagship title, Super Mario World and a new sports title, PilotWings. In the new Mario game, he explored even deeper with having different themes for different worlds. The “Forest of Illusion Theme”, “Donut Plains Theme”, the "Mario-goes-bossa-nova" “Star Road Theme” and the new Caribbean-esque “Overworld Theme” bring back most gamers to the huge impact that both Super Mario World and the Super Nintendo had on the video game world as we know it.
In 1991, Kondo did the musical score for the third Zelda game, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Which in 2003 was named by Time Magazine as the "Greatest Video Game of All Time." The game was fantastic, and the music was as well. It introduced tunes such as the heartbreaking "Fairy Theme", the “Kakariko Village Theme”, and “The Master Sword Theme” that are now old hat to Zelda fans.
In 1992, Kondo wrote his first joint project with fellow Nintendo composers Soyo Oka and Taro Bando with the all-star racer Super Mario Kart. In 1993 he achieved another first. Although Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening would be the fourth game in the Zelda series that Kondo would have scored, it would mark the first time he had ever done music for Nintendo's portable system, the Game Boy, after notoriously not doing music for the Super Mario Land series released on that system.
The music for the first Zelda title on the Game Boy had a much sweeter and playful sound than the previous games. While this made for fine music, it in turn lost some of the tone of the previous Zelda games. And while the game would be incredibly popular, and Kondo's work was masterful as always, he would never work with a Game Boy game ever again.
The same year as Link's Awakening, Kondo would begin writing music for yet another long running Nintendo series, Star Fox. The game was the first to use the Super FX-Chip, which became a video game standard. Unfortunately, the chip was mostly used to make Star Fox the first Nintendo game to use 3D polygon shapes instead of 2D sprites and not so much to expand the musical abilities of a game.
Star Fox once again tapped into Kondo's gift to give a cinematic feel to a video game. His style fit the science fiction element of the game. The “Corneria Theme” sounds like something out of a good early 90s sci-fi film while the “Fortuna Theme” sounds like Kondo wrote a song for the Mos Eisley Cantina Band.
In 1995, Kondo did the music for his fifth Mario game (six including Super Mario Kart) with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island. The game was actually a prequel, with the green dinosaur Yoshi as the lead character and a Baby Mario. The music was, like Link's Awakening, more playful and much of it had a very lullaby-like feel to it.
In 1996, Nintendo wanted to experiment and try creating a role playing game with Mario characters. The result was Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Kondo provided a couple tracks for this game, but most of the music was done by Yoko Shimomura, best known for the music to Secret of Mana.
That same year Kondo made his only official entry into one of Nintendo's great series, the Donkey Kong series. Doing the music for Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong's Double Trouble! The score was fine, yet nothing special, expect for that it would be the final Super Nintendo game Kondo would ever write music for. As well as the first music that Kondo's music would ever be released in compact disc form.
Yet Nintendo was having yet another system upgrade, this time, to the Nintendo 64.
Kondo was obviously on board. Another hardware upgrade meant more for him to work with. In 1996, Kondo did the music for Super Mario 64, the flagship game for the N64 and the template for every 3D platformer that followed it.
In the couple of years before Super Mario 64, Kondo had created great video game music, yet with his score for this game, he created history yet again. He took his two most famous compositions from the original Mario game, “The Overworld Theme” and “The Underground Theme” and put incredible spins on them with Super Mario 64’s “Title Theme” and the “Hazy Maze Cave Theme”. The “Dire, Dire Docks Theme” showed the beautiful, jazzy side of Kondo and the “Bob-Omb Battlefield Theme” showed him at his most playful. He experimented with new styles on the Western-like “Princess Secret Slide Theme” and the Irish-folkish tune for the “Cool, Cool, Mountain Theme”. The End Credits song provided a soundtrack to the bittersweet feeling that players got once finished with the epic that was Super Mario 64. Both the game, and Kondo's score were landmarks in video game history.
That same year he provided his tunes for Mario Kart 64, an update on the Super Nintendo racing game. In 1997, he did the music for StarFox 64. The music broke no new ground for Kondo, yet provided a fine backing to a fine game.
In 1998, Kondo's fifteenth year working for Nintendo, he created what possibly might be his most controversial score ever. With the massive amount of hype around the long overdue Zelda game for Nintendo 64, mostly everybody in the video game world considered The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time to be a sure thing in every way. The game surely did live up to all the hype, selling eight million copies in the United States, being the most successful Nintendo 64 game. Yet, they were issues with Kondo's score.
People were slightly shocked when they finally got to play the game, as most of the music sounded rather "un-Zelda." Even though the title screen played a song influenced by the "Whistle Song" played in the very first Zelda game, they were some major issues. The biggest being that the “Hub World's Theme” sounded nothing like the Overworld Themes of previous Zelda games. While Kondo had experimented frequently with the Mario Overworld Themes, he had never dared to stray far from Zelda’s overworld theme. While the "Secret Discovery Noise", The “Kakariko Village Theme”, The “Master Sword Theme” and the “Fairy Theme” were still intact, his other compositions fell very far from the tunes and styles they were used to from Kondo. The score was vast and beautiful, yet it was the first time that Kondo's music was a major criticism in any game he had ever done music for.
Thus, after providing some original tunes for Super Smash Brothers, a Nintendo all-star fighting game released in 1999, he began working on the music for the fifth Zelda game, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. He brought back the original overworld music, reused most of the Ocarina of Time score and even put in The Ballad of the Wind Fish from Link's Awakening to cease complaints as well as assembling original music as always. Yet while the complaints about his work ceased, many fans found The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask an unworthy sequel and is generally regarded as the weakest in the long running series.
After composing the music for Mario Tennis in 2000, Kondo had composed his final score for a Nintendo 64 game. Yet 2001 saw yet another new generation beginning for Nintendo, as the Nintendo Gamecube was released, thus allowing Kondo's music to be heard in CD quality sound for the first time ever.
Kondo's first title for The Cube wasn't a Mario game. And while Wave Race: Bluestorm, his first work on the system, was released the same day the system came out, it marked the first time Kondo's music hadn't been heard on the flagship game of a Nintendo console system. (NOTE: Luigi's Mansion is considered the Gamecube's flagship game).
In 2002, Super Mario Sunshine was released on the Nintendo Gamecube. While Mario fans and video game critics loved the game, the video game world had changed quite a bit since Super Mario 64 and casual video game fans tragically ignored the game in favor of Grand Theft Auto 3 and the new XBox system. Kondo's score contained few highlights besides the reworking of the original Overworld Theme in the Warp Zone.
2003 came, and with Nintendo hurting in the console war, they needed a hit...bad. Thus, the much anticipated seventh installment in the Zelda series was released on the world. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker set the pre-order record for a video game with over 500,000 preorders. Its release didn't dissipoint, as it was hailed a masterpiece and sold incredibly well.
Kondo's score didn't disappoint either. From his epic song played during the introduction story, to a new Overworld Theme that worked this time, the lively Dragon Roost Island Theme and the simple yet beautiful Earth God's Lyric, Kondo had created yet another epic score for yet another Nintendo masterpiece.
Some would scoff at calling Koji Kondo a great genius just because the man composes music for video games and not for film or for symphonies. Regardless of one's opinion if the word genius applies to Kondo, it's a fact that Kondo's achievements in his field are absolutely unprecedented. Nobody has such a vast body of work that spans such an expansive amount of time as Koji Kondo, perhaps the greatest video game composer who ever lived...
...and in my opinion, a genius