History Lesson: Koji Kondo

Celebrating Nintendo's musical maestro...

"Koji Kondo is not the Mozart of videogame music. Mozart was the Koji Kondo of classical music."


YouTube users are hardly known for understatement, but commenter KenobiM11 might just have a point. Hum any of your favourite Nintendo themes from the past quarter-century and there's a pretty good chance Kondo was at least partly responsible.

In fact, it could easily be argued that Koji Kondo has played as influential a role in Nintendo's recent history as Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi. Were it not for Kondo, would we be even celebrating Zelda's 25th anniversary, let alone with a set of orchestral concerts? Would Super Mario Bros have been such a planet-conquering hit without that theme tune?

Kondo's signature theme became so famous that Paul McCartney was able to sing it back to him after they met at a concert. "Miyamoto actually brought me along to that so he could introduce me as the 'Mario music guy'," Kondo once recalled. "Paul and his wife Linda responded by singing the melody to me... I'd always been a fan of The Beatles, so the fact that they immediately recalled the melody was a really proud moment for me."

Kondo's story begins at age five, when he started playing the electric organ. His love of music continued into high school as he discovered the joys of Deep Purple and prog-rockers Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

At Osaka University, he began to create sounds and music using a BASIC program he'd written on his computer, with arcade games like Donkey Kong a growing influence. A friend then spotted that Nintendo were looking for graduates with an interest in sound and music. It was a no-brainer for Kondo; so keen was he on the role that he didn't bother applying elsewhere.


Kondo's first game as composer was arcade title Vs. Golf, but it wasn't long before that Italian plumber entered his life. But his most famous work wasn't his first Mario composition: "The first song I did for [Super Mario Bros] was the underwater theme, because that was easy to visualise."

He soon learned the value of playing games as key to his work, after noting his first go at the Mario theme matched the visuals but not the gameplay. "My gut response after completing it was: 'Ahh, I guess that's all right'," he modestly claims. "I definitely didn't think it'd be so widely appreciated!"

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Zelda came next, and Kondo's second indelible main theme, as he perfectly captured what he describes as the "brave or courageous feeling" of adventuring. Hyrule required quite a different approach to the Mushroom Kingdom, but it was a test Kondo relished: "If you're going to make music appropriate to a totally unknown town and unknown cities, you've got to come up with totally unusual music as well."

Kondo was also responsible for two of the most instantly recognisable videogame jingles - those eight notes that sound when a secret is discovered and the fanfare on finding an item are forever etched in gaming lexicon.

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