Special Interview – Koji Kondo

Posted By at 2:56 PM on Tuesday October 26, 2010

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Translator’s Note: This is an interview from The Legend of Zelda: Super Best Collection, the latest Zelda piano songbook to be released. Koji Kondo talks Mario, Zelda, and the composition process!

Source: ZeldaPower

・Article & Photography: Ukee

And now for our special preface interview, featuring the mastermind behind the music of Mario and Zelda, a man who continues to fascinate game fans around the world, Nintendo’s Koji Kondo. The interviewer, the person in charge of bringing together this sheet music arrangement, Shinobu Amayake.

Koji Kondo

Profile: Born in Aichi Prefecture – Data Development Head Office, Nintendo Ltd. Manufacturing Department – Sound Development Group Manager Famous for composing the music of Mario and Zelda.

Mr. Kondo, please tell us about yourself.

-Mr. Kondo, you’re currently leading the way in the game music world, but please tell us your childhood dream.

Kondo: When I was an elementary school student, I wanted to be a teacher. I admired my teacher in grade 4 or 5. He wasn’t very good at music, so he’d always tell me “Kondo, play something,” and I’d always be the accompanist instead of him.

-So, you were musically gifted since a young age. When did you begin your musical education?

Kondo: I went to music class starting at 5. I first played the organ for 2 years, and then when I entered elementary school I was told to choose between the electronic organ and the piano, so I started playing the electronic organ. I continued going to music class until high school.

-That’s the first time I’ve heard you were an electronic organ kid! Are you still putting that experience to good use today?

Kondo: In the Famicom era, the system could only produce 3 sounds, similar to the right hand, left hand, and foot pedal of the electronic organ. I’d also studied chords in music class, so that all turned out to be very useful to me. These days my kids play the electronic organ, so I do too. I’ve written pieces and channels for the electronic organ for their recitals. *laughs*

-That’s amazing! So, what sort of pieces did you play in those days?

Kondo: The music class used a variety of materials to teach the electronic organ and the piano, so since the latter years of elementary school I’d played jazz quite a bit. In middle school, I lost interest in the electronic organ class I was taking and started a band. I played organ there, too, but I connected a small amp to it to make it produce a hard rock sound. In high school I gained an interest in fusion and folk songs and began performing those.

-That’s a lot of genres. So, out of those, were there any songs in particular that influenced you?

Kondo: I think I’m influenced by pretty much everything, but in terms of creating game music I’ve wanted to create music like Sadao Watanabe’s since the beginning. I admired his melodies were easy to remember, that his music was jazz-like without containing difficult chords, and that his songs simple but cool, so that’s what I aimed for.

-Your inspiration, Sadao Wantanabe, did a cover of Mario songs, didn’t he?

Kondo: That’s right. I was incredibly happy. I treasure that CD to this day. It makes me think how happy I am that I got into this line of work. *laughs*

Shinobu Amayake

Profile: Born in Kyoto Prefecture. Formerly of Nintendo Data Development. Presently a representative of AMK music, jazz vocalist, and the person behind this sheet music arrangement collection. Also worked on the music of Pokemon, etc.

-So, what got you into the game industry?

Kondo: I’d been a game fan since long ago, playing business purpose games and LCD games. In university, cafe tables with game screens embedded in them began to appear and I got into Donkey Kong and Mario Brothers.

-The Mario games you weren’t involved with, right?

Kondo: That’s right, just regular Mario, not Super. *laughs*

-And that’s why you found employment in the game industry.

Kondo: I also liked the synthesizer and wanted to make music myself. But I didn’t want to be a composer or a player, I wanted to do work that involved mixing behind the scenes. At that time, my friend discovered that Nintendo was coming to my university to do employee recruitment, and told me that it had good things. If that friend hadn’t been there, I might’ve ended up doing something completely different.

-When was the music for Mario created?

Kondo: It was 1985, so, the second year since I started at the company. I was 23. 25 years have passed since then, so now my children that were born at the time the game came out are entering the workforce. *laughs*

-I’m surprised it was your second year at the company. But it’s amazing that the songs you created at the time aren’t nostalgic melodies, they’re still playing an active role today. Seems that even Paul McCartney’s a fan!

Kondo: When McCartney came to Japan, I went backstage with Miyamoto and a few others, and when Miyamoto was kind enough to introduce me as the composer of Mario, Paul started singing the overworld BGM from the original game. It had been many years since its debut, so I was surprised he knew it, and really happy.

-Maybe it was your destiny to make game music! Please give us a message for the fans who are striving to make game music.

Kondo: Well, I can’t say anything really inspiring… but you have to make game music using a variety of genres, so don’t just go according to your tastes, listen to music from around the world. And you don’t absorb it just by listening, you also have to try playing yourself. Then, score it if you can. When you’ve absorbed that music inside of you and you’re composing it will become your own and spill out onto the paper, I think.

Please teach us about game music.

-Next, please tell us a few things about game music. This is the Super Best music collection, so it boasts songs from a variety of systems, from the Famicom of 25 years ago to the brand new Wii. What sort of transformations and history occurred in this time?

Kondo: I’m still keeping in mind the philosophy of using music to make games more fun while I compose, but due to the differing capabilities of game systems, the way I make music has changed. The Famicom could only produce 3 tones and didn’t have a large variety of sounds, so I had to do a lot of scheming. There wasn’t a lot of memory, either, so I had songs where I couldn’t fit everything in, and I made songs with a limited number of sounds. When the Super Famicom came along, it had 8 tracks to work with.

-It was groundbreaking, wasn’t it. That’s when PCM was introduced, which could produce sounds that were close to reality.

Kondo: That’s right. Even when the Super Famicom arrived on the scene, I didn’t have a special sequencing tool, so I used to break down data the same way I did for the Famicom, but after awhile I got MIDI and composed using commercial sequencing software.

-Right, right. But nowadays you’re pretty much able to make music free of restraints, are you not?

Kondo: Even now I compose with the amount of memory in mind, so I can’t say the process is entirely without limitations. On Mario Galaxy, for example, I didn’t use a live orchestra, I made the music to match up with the game, so by synchronizing with the on-screen action the songs changed interactively. For the boss battles, you power up and become stronger when you take damage, right? At that point, the orchestra grows fuller, the chorus comes in… that’s game music for you.

-The songs you’re making aren’t music for the sake of music, they’re based on the idea of making music for games, isn’t that right? How does one compose music like that?

Kondo: I set the sequencer to record and play my heart out. Then I listen to it afterwards, and I pick out the parts that I think sound good. Even though there aren’t many. *laughs* I scribble out some notation, but it’s so sloppy only I can read it.

-Is all Nintendo music created within the company? The way game music is created differs by company, right?

Kondo: Some of it is created outside of Nintendo. When the sound’s done within the company, it’s created close to where the game is being developed, so I get to look at what’s going on over there and complete the music at the same time as the game. I compose by putting my songs to the actual game, playing it, and asking myself “Do they fit?”

-That’s certainly a company-specific method. Is it comparatively unrestrictive?

Kondo: Mostly. Sometimes I’ll receive a request for a certain type of music for a particular game, but in that situation I usually try to compose something that goes beyond the limits.

-If it’s that intricate, aren’t there a considerable number of sound staff within the company? How many people are in charge of creating the music for one game?

Kondo: Nintendo’s sound team has about 40 people. The number varies by game, but mostly 2 or 3 for a regular title and 4 or 5 for a major release.

-40 people is quite a big group. What sort of environment do they have you working in? You don’t necessarily work like regular employees would with everyone facing towards their desks, right?

Kondo: Our arrangement is quite different than company desks, so to speak. *laughing* We have soundproof rooms, each containing keyboards, computers, televisions, and audio equipment. You hear game audio from a television, so that’s why we have the sound coming from a television. From LCD TVs and surround sound, large televisions to small, I compose while keeping all possible playing environments in mind.

-What sort of things do you consider important or try to keep in mind when composing game music?

Kondo: The thing I consider to be most important is making the game more fun. There are three things I keep in mind. First of all, each game has a unique rhythm or tempo, so I try to capture that and compose music that fits the game’s rhythm. Second of all, the balance. For games, it isn’t just the music, one also has to consider sound effects, the balance of the volume, the balance between left and right channels, and make sure the sound effects more prominent. Third, putting in variations in the music to fit with the interactivity of the game. For example, speeding up the tempo when time is running out or changing the music that plays depending on the player’s location.

Please tell us about Mario and Zelda.

-This collection going on sale contains songs gathered from the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda series of games, but could you start by telling us about the history and characteristics of Mario’s music?

Kondo: In the past, game backgrounds were pitch black. In Super Mario Brothers, the background became a blue sky, and for the first time, the world felt bright. At first I wrote songs without putting a lot of thought into them, but they didn’t match Mario’s running speed, so I discarded them. I decided to try making more rhythmical music, and what resulted was the Overworld BGM.

-So, that’s where the history of Mario’s music began…

Kondo: Actually, the first song I completed for Super Mario Brothers was the Underwater BGM. I worried about not being able to find a theme for the overworld, but as the Underwater BGM was a flowing piece, I completed it quickly with a 3/4 time signature in mind.

-Although the Famicom could only produce 3 channels and didn’t have a large variety of sounds, the atmosphere of the music that appears in Super Mario Brothers is totally different.

Kondo: I schemed to get a different feel using the same channels. I wrote the Overworld BGM with a short, staccato feel in mind, but in order to get a quiet, dark feel for the Underground BGM, I combined square waves and triangle waves (the Famicom’s electronic channels) into one sound and made it unique to the listener. I created the Underwater BGM to have a smooth strings feel. For the Castle BGM, I used the channels differently than usual. I used the channel that served as the melody in other tracks to do the arpeggios, and the channel that served as the base in other tracks to do the melody, so the base became the melody, all in order to express a feeling of unease and tension. By changing the way I composed the 4 songs, the music had a lot of variety. It was like a puzzle for me, so it was a lot of fun.

-The Legend of Zelda had a completely different atmosphere than Mario.

Kondo: I composed the Zelda tracks while taking care to keep the feel of the world in mind. Also, Link doesn’t bounce and fly like Mario, so it was a lot of trouble to express the sense of courageously running around the field slashing your sword without it getting tiresome.

-In addition, there many well-known songs that reappear numerous times in different arrangements.

Kondo: At the time I wasn’t aware of it, but perhaps it was something about the obligato that kept things from getting tiresome. And not just the melody, by composing so the the counterpoint was audible in the phrasing, I think I managed to come up with tunes that didn’t get old.

-Up till now, you’ve given the world a lot of well-known songs. What sort of times do you find that good melodies come to mind?

Kondo: Well, I don’t know if they’re any good, but usually when I’m in the bath, taking a walk, or right before I go to sleep.

-But since you don’t necessarily have sheet music or a computer on hand at those times, don’t you forget them?

Kondo: Of course I jot down memos sometimes. But if I forget them, they’re not very good in the first place, I think the good ones are the ones I can’t forget. I often come up with theme songs that way. But the boss themes, those I compose at the company.

-As both Mario and Zelda are full of well-known songs, I think that many fans have been hoping and waiting for the release of sheet music. The chances to play at live performances and recitals are bound to increase.

Kondo: A variety of melodies are included in this sheet music, so I think fans will have fun playing them. Up till now, when I’ve gone to my kids’ recitals, there have been performances of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest music, but I couldn’t help but think that there were none of my songs. But now, finally… *laughing*

-This sheet music is special in that it doesn’t require a page-turner and doesn’t just close on its own. It’s an idea of yours that’s come to life, and it’s groundbreaking!

Kondo: One feature of Nintendo games is a user interface that allows anyone, from beginners to advanced players, to pick it up and play. For that reason, I wanted to make the sheet music for Nintendo games just as easy to use.

-It’s certainly a pain to act as a page turner while performing, holding the book open with one hand while playing to keep the pages from closing on their own.

Kondo: For recitals, with songs that span a number of pages, I’ve always thought about making a copy of the music and sticking it together with tape so it’s useful even without a page turner… I, myself, have practiced with sheet music for decades, but sheet music books aren’t like regular books where you take them in both hands and read, they’re something you put on the music stand, so shouldn’t the way they’re bound be different than regular books?

-Well, that brings us to the end of the interview. How about a message for the ones who are going to be using this sheet music to practice?

Kondo: I’d like you to play every song while remembering the enjoyment you had playing the game. I want you to pay attention to the rhythm for the Mario series, the scenery for the Zelda series, and express the feelings that exist inside the game world. There are some difficult songs as well, but it’s okay if you mess up, I’ll be happy if you have fun playing!

For more Zelda staff interviews, click here!

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11 Responses

  1. Will says:

    How would you like to write for a real blog?

  2. GlitterBerri says:

    Perhaps you’d like to phrase that a little more nicely.

  3. Anon says:

    How would you like to own a blog people care about like GlitterBerri?

  4. DFM Marlink says:

    The responses to that first comment are hilarious! A+ 😀

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  6. […] Full interview here (thanks Glitterberri!) Permalink […]

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  7. matt says:

    Great idea about binding music sheets.

  8. Melora says:

    It’s funny how people can try to ask for things with insults. Wow

    This rocks! Thanks again for all your work
    *pssst* Your blog will always be real to me XD Lurb!

  9. […] full interview can be found here. What parts did you all find interesting? What’s your opinion on the interview overall? Let […]

  10. […] more information on Koji Kondo’s background, glitterberri.com has an interview on his life and […]

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