Super Mario's Maestro: A Q&A with Nintendo's Koji Kondo

The composer behind some of gaming's most legendary tunes reflects on the many changes he's experienced in his 30-year career at Nintendo.

Interview by Bob Mackey, .

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Longtime Nintendo composer Koji Kondo shouldn't need any introduction, but if you require a refresher, here goes: He's the man behind some of Nintendo's most memorable soundtracks (like this one), and has been the company's musical mainstay over the past 30 years.

This past weekend, Kondo took a trip to the States to perform a Zelda medley alongside indie rockers Imagine Dragons at The Game Awards, which gave me an oppotunity to speak with him for 45 minutes about his many contributions to gaming over the past three decades. And, since this interview wasn't tied to any particular release, I had the freedom to plumb the depths of Mr. Kondo's career to finally find answers to those burning, Nintendo-related questions that have been haunting me for years.

USgamer would like to thank Nintendo Treehouse's Tim O' Leary for providing translation during this interview.

USgamer: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was the last game where you served as the sole composer. Can you explain how your role at Nintendo has changed since then?

Koji Kondo: I've mainly been busy as a sound director, and I've been tasked with composing a couple of songs, here and there, for different titles. Really, the main bulk of the work that [I do] is direction for the sound team, managing their activities and output, and overseeing the work that they're doing.

USg: Do you have any compositions that are personal favorites of yours, but maybe not as well known as your most popular themes, like those from Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda?

KK: "Starship Mario" from Super Mario Galaxy 2.

USg: How do you feel about the continued popularity of 8 and 16-bit style music? Would you ever want to compose music under these limitations again?

KK: First of all, in Japan we have "8-bit tunes," as we call them—there's a group of folks who really enjoys listening to them, and I personally enjoy listening to that music as well. I think it's a bit mysterious to me that the popularity still continues. My assumption is, for the younger kids, that this is new music to them rather than a continuation of something that's been around for a while. I definitely [feel] that I would like to work with 8-bit tunes using today's technology, and maybe go back and try to do some of the things I left undone, or things that I wasn't able to do. So I definitely have some interest in going back and working with that music again.

USg: What was your favorite Nintendo sound hardware to work with?

KK: As I look back, the NES had some really interesting things about it. Within the limits that the system had, I think trying to create music with that technology, and trying to piece all of the different things together to come up with what I consider to be catchy or compelling music... It was sort of puzzle-like, and I really enjoyed that challenge.

USg: Can you talk at all about the challenges presented by the sound hardware of the Nintendo 64?

KK: When 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.

USg: What soundtrack or individual piece of music gave you the most difficulty? Why was this?

KK: The most challenging [piece] was the main theme for Super Mario Bros. 3. The [original] Super Mario theme itself was almost a little too empowering. That indelible impression it left in the user's mind with how it matched up with what Mario was doing on the screen—that was a big mountain to climb when we started working on the music to Super Mario 3. I remember creating lots of different music in different styles, trying to come up with something that would match that game and be different enough from the original Super Mario theme. It was tough. It took me a long time to come up with something I thought would work, and it was really me and Mr. Miyamoto and Mr. Tezuka—the three of us—right up until the very last stages of development, listening to all of these different music pieces that I created, before we finally settled on what we ended up using.

Any time you're working off of existing music, and you're revamping it for the next title, that's just always a tough gig. And that's true for every title, starting from the first [one]. It's tough for me, of course, but maybe even more so for the people on my staff, who are working on different arrangements of music they didn't even compose. They're working on music that I composed, and now they're having to go back and do some rearranging to match [music from] current games. So if it's tough for me, I think it's even tougher for them.

USg: I've always wondered why the original Super Mario Bros. 3 title screen had no music. Was that an intentional omission, or did you have something in the works that fell through?

KK: For us, it wasn't an omission; it was a choice. We just didn't feel there needed to be music on the title screen. I believe, if memory serves, there might have been some sound effects that occurred there, but I don't recall, off the top of my head. At that point, we thought that, until the game started, it wasn't necessary to have music on the title screen. So we just didn't have anything prepared for that.

USg: If you knew Doki Doki Panic would eventually become America's version of Super Mario Bros. 2, would your compositions for this game have been much different?

KK: It definitely would have been different. We created that without Mario in mind, and when creating sequels with the same characters, we look at the music that we used previously. And [with Doki Doki Panic] I created [the music] without any Mario influences in mind. If I had known that it would be released in the US with Mario characters implemented, it would have changed the process and the music. That being said, there are a number of songs that I either added, or rearranged, or changed dramatically... when [Doki Doki Panic] became Super Mario Bros. 2.

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Comments 17

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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #1 SigurdVolsung 3 years ago
    Really good questions and very nice thoughtful answers. Thank you for the fantastic article with one of the gaming industry's true masters.
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #2 Kadrom 3 years ago
    It's always nice to interview someone when they don't have a promotion to be making or a new product to focus on. I enjoyed the questions, you can tell in his responses that he was interested.
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  • Avatar for starride #3 starride 3 years ago
    Excellent interview, and very insightful questions you asked as well.

    What I love most about Nintendo's music is that each of their franchises has their own unique style and finesse to it. I can listen to a certain track and tell, "Ah this music sounds like a Kirby game", or, "This music sounds like it should be in Zelda." Or something to that extent.

    Nintendo's music has a special transcendent quality to it that no other company can match. Koji Kondo is a true stand-out in this industry, and I hope we see more like him in the futrue.
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  • Avatar for The-Fool #4 The-Fool 3 years ago
    Thank you for cornering Koji Kondo and asking him such great questions, Bob.

    That was a fantastic read, and interesting to boot!
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  • Avatar for alexb #5 alexb 3 years ago
    This was a high quality interview, Bob. Good questions, good answers, good choices for the music you included. This is precisely the sort of thing that keeps me coming back to USgamer.
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  • Avatar for ob1 #6 ob1 3 years ago
    Great interview, thank you.
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  • Avatar for docexe #7 docexe 3 years ago
    That was a very insightful interview, thank you. I like Kondo’s philosophy and approach of using music to enhance the game, no doubt why he is one of the industry greatest.
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  • Avatar for Mega_Matt #8 Mega_Matt 3 years ago
    Fantastic interview Bob.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #9 bobservo 3 years ago
    Nice to see so many people enjoy this—glad I didn't blow the opportunity!
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #10 Kuni-Nino 3 years ago
    @bobservo Great interview Bob! I'm surprised to know Starship Mario was composed by Kondo and even more surprised it's one of his personal favorites. It's my favorite song in the Galaxy games. I'm glad to know it was composed by him. It was also good to know that he heads up an entire staff now. For some reason I feared he wasn't composing anything anymore, but I'm glad that's not the case.

    I want to see you get 45 minutes with Miyamoto or Aonuma now.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #11 bobservo 3 years ago
    @Kuni-Nino Yep, the YouTube embeds on the second page actually feature some of his more recent work.
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  • Avatar for Toparaman #12 Toparaman 3 years ago
    What a legend. Nintendo has been knocking it out of the park with music for the past year, so Koji Kondo's legacy lives on through Nintendo's younger talents. Of course Kondo himself is still putting out great work.

    Thanks to Patrick from Giant Bomb for linking to this interview, and to Bob for asking interesting questions.
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  • Avatar for mikefarrell55 #13 mikefarrell55 3 years ago
    @bobservo Wow! Bob Mackey! This was a great interview! It can't be easy to talk with someone as influential as Koji Kondo
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  • Avatar for Active-ate #14 Active-ate 3 years ago
    Love it! Great interview, Bob!
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  • Avatar for KakiOkami #15 KakiOkami 3 years ago
    Always great to hear a few words with an industry master! This man has created some of the most endearing tunes that have stuck with us after all these years.

    Great interview!
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  • Avatar for Jinqs #16 Jinqs 3 years ago
    Great questions and really eloquent answers. It's fantastic to see one of the most accomplished people in his field stay humble and passionate about his work. Thanks for the interview!
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  • Avatar for Paulo-Luis #17 Paulo-Luis 2 years ago
    What I love most about Nintendo's music is that each of their franchises has their own unique tudo sobre tecnologia style and finesse to it. I can listen to a certain track and tell, "Ah tecnologia this music sounds like a Kirby game", or, "This music sounds like tudo sobre games it should be in Zelda." Or something to that extent.Nintendo's music has a special games transcendent quality to it that no other company can
    Sign in to Reply