‘It’s a Mario!’ Musical!
Mushroom Melodies and the Sounds that Shaped the Franchise
An analysis and introspect on the audio and musical design behind the Super Mario franchise.
Mario “Jumpman” Mario, his full name according to the now non-canonical 1993 disaster that was the Super Mario Brothers Movie, is the hero that has entered our hearts and arcade screens since 1981’s arcade classic Donkey Kong [ 1 ]. Before Mario would become the poster-child of video games and propel Nintendo into the powerhouse game company of Japan that we all know and love today, Mario, then “Jumpman,” would take his mustachioed adventures to the streets to rescue his girlfriend Pauline from the dastardly, and now equally famous Nintendo mascot, Donkey Kong [ 2 ]. Mario would engage in his survival by hurdling DK’s oncoming barrels down crumbling girders and ladders and across vats of burning oil with nothing to defend himself but his wit and the occasional hammer power-up. To discerning listeners and the fans of video games alike, audibly it was a titillating experience. Sadly, due to the limitations of sound technology of the early 1980s, Mario’s first adventure would be complimented by a soundtrack of rudimentary bleeps and bloops following his footsteps, rewarded with the occasional celebratory jingle for jumping over an obstacle or rescuing Pauline from a level.
For Mario to stay relevant, he and his underdog hero and beta-male sibling, Luigi, had to branch out into different genres for Nintendo to flex their creative muscles. After the videogame crash of 1983, consumers were reluctant to purchase new video games. Sales had plummeted due to lack of quality titles and excess inventory was being buried in landfills in the desert [ 3 ]. Things were looking grim for the video game industry. However, in Japan, Nintendo was about to change the industry and resurrect the passion and excitement for video games so many had experienced with arcades and early Atari consoles.
The Nintendo Entertainment System, or Famicom in Japan, was on the forefront for video entertainment and would pave the way for a slew of new developers releasing licensed titles for Nintendo’s new system. The Nintendo Entertainment system (NES) was released in 1985 on North American shores and gave developers a chance to test the limitations of the new hardware. That meant entering the world of 8-bit music composing. The term “8-bit” refers to the binary representation of signal to noise ratio that was a staple of the NES’s capabilities [ 4 ]. Many would refer to video games hailing from the NES era as the 8-bit era.
“The stock NES supports a total of five sound channels, two of which are pulse channels with 4 pulse width settings, one is a triangle wave generator, another is a noise generator (often used for percussion), and the 5th one plays low-quality digital samples” [ 5 ].
With a new platform for technological growth, the NES gave game developers and especially composers a chance to truly complement their games with a respectable score.
With the NES leading the video game industry throughout the mid-’80s to early ’90s, our friend Mario, created by Shigeru Miyamoto, was on the forefront of the popular rise. The highly successful Super Mario Bros. launched in 1985—an action game that pits an average plumber (and player-two brother) against a world of colorful scenery, fantastical creatures, and questionable power-ups. Mario is hurled into the world of the Mushroom Kingdom and must rescue the Princess Toadstool from the clutches of the power-hungry King Koopa [ 1 ].
An ambitious launch title for the Nintendo’s soon-to-be released home console, the game’s designers, Takashi Tezuka and Shigeru Miyamoto, were tasked with finding a composer to score the game’s soundtrack. Composer, pianist, sound designer, and sound director Koji Kondo, who would go on to compose one of Nintendo’s other most popular franchise
s, The Legend of Zelda, would establish a career composing for Nintendo and especially for the Super Mario banner [ 6 ]. With the NES’s sound capabilities, the music composer had more breathing room and artistic freedom to truly compliment a game’s elements. For Koji Kondo, composing a score for Super Mario Bros. must have been a challenging task. The music had to fit, or the game may have been too austere for audiences to stomach.
For the first level of Super Mario Bros., a song that lays permanently etched in the minds of every person that has played at least one Mario game in their lives, began as a traditional calypso melody. Calypso is a style of Afro-Caribbean music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago during the early to mid-19th century. It often incorporated such instruments as trumpets, congas, claves, and steel pans to truly encapsulate the upbeat, island sound associated with calypso. While the NES still had its limitations with 8-bit sound processing, the melodies remained the same, and for Kondo and Nintendo, it worked.
Super Mario Bros., however, has multiple stages that stretch from underground levels, to water levels, and even to boss-fortress levels. For Kondo, scoring a new song for each different stage created another challenge in the game’s development stage, but would become the formula for most video game developers and composers after the release of Super Mario Bros.
As Mario traversed the Mushroom Kingdom, he collided with enemies that, when stepped on, would make a distinct (and yet rewarding) sound effect. Almost all actions in the game, such as collecting coins and traversing pipes came with their own magical sounds. Sound choice and score composition must be made with a synergistic approach when designing sound. This was even more important for a game that was attempting to help rejuvenate a stale and decaying industry. This synergistic combination of sound design and composition would propel Mario even further as Nintendo added the plumber and characters of the Super Mario universe into new games, sequels, prequels, and spin-offs—genre-defining titles that would shape the company’s image for decades to come.
After the success of Super Mario Bros. with the NES, the North American market was hungry for more. As such, the development of an SMB sequel was already in the works. Some may see this as a happy misjudgment, but the true sequel to Super Mario Bros. came in the format of the Famicom disk system, a device for the Japanese Famicom entertainment system that would never reach American shores. Most have been led to believe that North American gamers were denied the true release of Super Mario Bros. 2 due to the ethnocentric view Japanese game developers held over Americans, who potentially considered the game to be too inherently difficult for Western audiences [ 7 ]. Hardware limitations and difficulty aside, what North Americans instead received was a rebranded and reskinned version of an earlier Japanese Nintendo title—Doki Doki Panic.
While western audiences would never experience the true sequel to Mario’s first adventure, it would eventually be released in a compilation for a later generation game consoles. Luckily for American audiences, this new rebranded version of Doki Doki Panic (now referred to as Super Mario Bros. 2) would incorporate new elements beyond the Mushroom Kingdom, with gameplay mechanics, visuals, and intrinsically new sound design and music [ 8 ]. A variety of new characters that are now widely accepted as canon in the Super Mario universe, such as Shy Guys, Snifits, Birdo, and King Wart, would build upon the SMB foundation of Goombas and Koopas. Even though it was never originally a Super Mario game, there was enough foundation for it to compliment the SMB franchise with its cast of playable heroes, warp pipes, power-up mushrooms. It was also a product of a very similar development team, which would help put it on the fast track to be another hit for Nintendo. Whether it be the dreamlike aura that surrounds the games composition when traversing warp pipes, connected doors manifested by magic potions, or the fast-tempo menacing boss music, Kondo was no slouch to the challenge of composing for the game’s soundtrack.
By the late ’80s and early ’90s, Mario had built a resume that far extended beyond plumber, his professions now including doctor, professional go-kart racer, painter, and even an Olympic athlete. As Nintendo was paving the way for the industry with kudos to multiple cherished franchises, Mario stood vigilant under the Sega banner. In 1990, Super Mario Bros. 3 landed on western shores, a sequel that blew fans’ expectations for the series out of the water [ 9 ]. It was so positively received, it became the benchmark for the action-platforming genre with its intuitive gameplay, imaginative power-ups, level and character design, and the sound and composition. Any seasoned gamer will get the nostalgic goosebumps that come with mentioning the foreboding and triumphant harmonic minor key theme of the Koopa Kids’ airships or even the enchanting interlude initiated when blowing into the magical warp whistle to wisp Mario away to far uncharted worlds.
As Mario was plunged into to distant worlds, his exploits beyond the Mushroom Kingdom and with increased competition with Sega, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) was released in 1991. That same year would also see the simultaneous bundle and launch of Mario’s new 16-bit endeavor—Super Mario World [ 10 ]. Once again, it was Kondo’s composition and sound design team that truly encapsulated the lasting effect of one the highest regarded titles in the history of the franchise. With the SNES’s new visual and audio capabilities, the bar was raised even further when the development team was tasked with a sequel—Yoshi’s Island. Yoshi’s Island, a prequel to essentially every Mario game, finds Mario in his infancy and battles him against the elements with the help of his Yoshi friends. Yoshi’s Island came with a more light-hearted nature, tone, atmosphere, and game design, with more tender melodies and scores. The music was often composed in a major key and even incorporated lullabies and softer voicing for instrumentation.
Even as Mario began to shape the face of popular and videogame culture all throughout the nineties, the plumber’s experience with spin-offs, sequels, and new genres were territory the innovators of Nintendo weren’t hesitant to explore. In some cases, simply licensing the likeness of Mario and everything associated with his franchise would see Mario in the atypical setting of a Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG). That is exactly what SquareSoft and Nintendo did in 1996 with Super Mario RPG [ 11 ]. A flawless blend of Super Mario and the Final Fantasy series with a new twist on the genre. Composer Yoko Shimomura, who would go on to work on further titles for Square-Enix, would create a soundtrack that remains to this day in the minds of dedicated retro gamers.
The foundation of Super Mario RPG’s soundtrack is more than just a compliment of the game’s overall design, feel, and atmosphere, it also extends into the game’s mechanics. When traversing Geno’s Woods, the player is tasked with following the music through a labyrinth of forest and overgrowth before discovering his new companion, Geno. It was simple additions, such as the placement of a music puzzle or changing of the music during a battle to better associate the player with the current enemy on the screen, that all helped propel SMRPG into the annals of JRPG fame. These also helped extend Mario’s reach for upcoming titles and future RPGs like the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series.
With the end of the ’90s came even fiercer competition for Nintendo, Sega’s blue blur, Sonic, was still prevalent and Sony was on the rise with its new console, the Playstation.
Toward the end of the Super Nintendo’s life cycle, Nintendo’s answer to this competition came in the 1996 release of the Nintendo 64. In an interview Koji Kondo said:
“(W)hen we moved from the Super Nintendo to the N64, we were just able to create fuller-sounding music. We were able to create sounds that were more representative of actual instruments. And so, when I was creating the music myself, I had to think, ‘This isn’t going to sound like a computer. This is going to sound like an actual instrument.’ So, the composition and construction of the music itself—there were some slight changes because we had to think about the instruments that would be playing these sounds. We were able to recreate instruments more authentically, so that influenced how the music was composed” [ 12 ].
By this time, Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, Super Smash Bros., and the Mario Party series would keep Mario relevant through the late nineties and into the early 2000s, leading up to the eventual release of Nintendo’s next major console, the Gamecube. At that point, Nintendo had abandoned the limitations of cartridge based games in favor of a less finite format in the form of compact discs. As videogame technology was evolving faster than it ever had, game developers and composers were now able to voice compositions to their fullest desire without the limitations of hardware constraints. For Mario, in his adventures in Super Mario Sunshine, this meant being able distinguish the steel drums from the congas, alluding to the tropical island settings that Mario Sunshine is synonymous for. Now for Mario’s music,
“it’s not all coin blocks and 1-ups in the Mushroom Kingdom though. As gamers progress, they find themselves in plenty of life-threatening danger. Just like the level design, even the happiest of compositions feature mode mixtures, also called modal interchanges. A modal interchange is where a chord is borrowed from a parallel key to heighten tension without sacrificing the integrity of the theme. It challenges the listener and keeps it from becoming repetitive at the same time adding color to the composition before starting over” [ 13 ].
By this point, Mario had already appeared in hundreds of titles, including his own party games, racing and fighting with other characters of the Nintendo universe. The Gamecube’s market performance was still falling flat in comparison to the Microsoft Xbox and the Sony Playstation 2. It wasn’t until the initial release of 2006’s Wii that Nintendo, and our favorite plumber, would bounce back from the pipedream blues. In 2007, Super Mario Galaxy for the Nintendo Wii not only bolstered the great success associated with the Wii, but brought Mario back into the foreground of console games. The “Super Mario Galaxy Suite,” composed by Mahito Yokota and Koji Kondo, was not only a triumphant rejuvenation of the Super Mario franchise, but a grand, fulfilling, captivating, and classical piece that complimented Mario’s new adventures through unexplored galaxies. This new delivery of full-instrumentation with stringed orchestras and big bands would continue the trend for the Mario series and into future Nintendo releases. Not only would this type of game design help Nintendo once again stand out as innovators, but also kindle a new generation of gamers.
Musicians like Dimension, a jazz fusion band from Japan, were tasked with scoring stages—or tracks—for one of Mario’s latest releases: Mario Kart 8 [ 14 ]. What sets this soundtrack apart from many previous generations of Mario games is its unusual incorporation of medleys from Super Mario scores and classic Nintendo songs. It approached these songs of the past with an edgier sounding flare that only a band with an electric guitar and slap bass could truly emulate. With this approach of hiring a band to score an entire soundtrack for a platinum title like Mario Kart, Nintendo’s innovation with an artistic touch continued through the 2010s and beyond.
- “After significantly impressing Shigeru Miyamoto with his work on Devil World for the Famicom system, Koji Kondo got hired fully to Nintendo. His influence has been significant, as he composed the soundtrack for Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and many other franchises since. His hand is still present on those principle franchises to this day.” Source: https://nintendo.fandom.com/wiki/Koji_Kondo
(The Amazon series)
- “The very sound effects and stage music of the franchise, consistently curated across its many installments, from Mario’s leap to the ‘mushroom power up,’ have become cultural touchstones for generations of gamers.” Source: https://www.thefactsite.com/super-mario-mushrooms/ (Super Mario Bros., the 1985 NES game)
A classically trained musician, when paired with her talents in creative writing, her career as a technician and industrial electrician, and her education in journalism and the arts, Kyla’s a force to be reckoned with. Having served in SFS’ core and intermediate writing staff, she’s made her mark, both on The Living Multiverse and, of course, The Unconventional. Her series Sonata of the Screen and Grid, provides in-depth analysis of the usage and evolution of music in video games and cinema.
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