Last week, Nintendo sponsored a limited-engagement concert series to celebrate the anniversary of Super Mario Bros., which as you may have heard turned 30 earlier this month. When I say "limited engagement," I mean it: The series consisted of a single show in Osaka followed by one in Tokyo the following evening.
The scarcity and inaccessibility of these performances may well have been the concert series' single flaw. I was fortunate enough to have some generous friends who were willing to sell me an extra ticket (advance tickets were available strictly through a lottery system), or else I'd have completely missed out on it myself. As it stands, I was one of only a few thousand people who had the opportunity to attend an absolutely stunning performance of musical arrangements spanning the full range of the Super Mario franchise, from 1985's Super Mario Bros. to 2013's Super Mario 3D World. Yet this was a show every Mario fan deserves to see, or at least hear.
The evening's performances came courtesy of the Super Mario Special Band, a mid-sized ensemble similar to what you'd see on a show like Saturday Night Live: A rock ’n roll band backbone complemented by a full jazz horn section and a violinist. The resulting swing vibe fit the material perfectly, given the propensity for big-band sound adopted by some of the more recent Mario games. Not unlike Super Mario Maker's revisionist 8-bit sprite and graphical sets, the set's classic Mario tunes retrofit perfectly into the modern style — and in any case, the group played fast and loose with genre as needed, frequently taking side excursions into alternate styles, such as a throbbing heavy metal sound for the Koopa (Bowser) Medley. It was all very true to the spirit of Mario, as evinced by the fact that the support guitarist spent half the night strumming a banjo.
The concert began — of course! — with the main overworld theme to Super Mario Bros. Much like the first stage the piece accompanied in-game, World 1-1, it's one of the most familiar, references, and homaged pieces of video game music ever composed. Nevertheless, the Special Band managed to make it fresh and exciting again, spinning the familiar tune into various musical explorations alternately featuring each of the individual performers, then returning to the original theme before striking out again for the next interpretation.
The biggest games in the Mario franchise generally received medley treatment, including a rousing mashup of Super Mario Bros. 3 themes and a Super Mario World arrangement that focused heavily on the game's little-played ending credits overture. Unexpectedly, I found some of the most moving and atmospheric passages of the concert came from N64 games — Mario Kart 64's Rainbow Road was the standout of the Mario Kart medley, and the Dry Dry Docks melody from Super Mario 64 surprised me with its evocative power. But by and large I found the performances dedicated to smaller and lesser-known tunes even more compelling. That's probably due, at least in part, to those performances' emphasis on vocals, performed by the supporting keyboardist. She chanted wordless la-la-lahs during "Pakkun Flower's Lullabye" (the tune that plays in Super Mario 64 as you creep past sleeping Piranha Plants) and, in the show's most truly obscure section, sang an extended version of the "Mario Drawing Song." She also provided the vocal interjections during the New Super Mario Bros. theme performance, which was a joy to watch; her entire role for that piece consisted of standing in place belting out "WAH! WAH!" ever few measures. The true star of the show, however, was drummer Senri Kawaguchi, already considered one of the world's top drummers at age 18. She's an impossibly tiny teenager whose incongruous appearance made her virtuosic performance behind the kit all the more incredible.
The other star of the show, of course, was Super Mario Bros. composer Koji Kondo, who — along with Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka — made the trip from Kyoto to Tokyo in order to share anecdotes with the audience for the one-night performance. While I had hoped the trio would perform together in a reprise of their musical noodling in this year's E3 Direct video, it was hard to complain when Kondo took the stage before the final encore to perform a ragtime piano medley of Super Mario Bros. 2 (the American version, that is). OK, one complaint: The audience decided to clap along to his solo performance and completely failed to hit the same beat as Kondo. Turns out Nintendo geeks have no rhythm at all; no wonder Elite Beat Agents flopped.
The Mario makers shared a handful of anecdotes throughout the evening (though nothing surprising for long-time fans; did you know the cloud and bush in World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. were the same tile in different colors!?) and opened the second half of the set with a lengthy presentation that was part tribute, part Super Mario Maker ad: They invited a random kid up to the stage to play through a custom Mario Maker stage while Kondo accompanied his performance live on piano.
Unfortunately, outside of the Mario Maker demo, the venue enforced a strict no-photos policy (a fairly standard practice in Japan), so I don't have any images or videos of the band to show off. I'm holding out hope that Nintendo recorded the concert, or the previous evening's Osaka performance, for release as a tribute CD. The company has distributed live recordings before (generally through the late, lamented Club Nintendo), so it's not out of the question — and given what this performance represented for Nintendo and its history, it merits archiving. On top of that, the Super Mario Special Band absolutely sizzled; even if you don't care about the history of a video game series, it's hard not to get excited about two hours of excellent live music.
And finally, the best improvisational moment of the concert actually wasn't musical in nature at all. As the band and other talent departed from the stage following the curtain call, Miyamoto jokingly pantomimed departing the theatre by climbing into the large green warp pipe at stage left, to appreciative laughter. No matter how old he gets, he'll clearly always be a kid at heart.