Koji Kondo has made some of the most iconic music in all of pop culture, let alone all of video game history.
You can probably hum many of his most popular songs, like, say, anything in Super Mario bros. or The Legend of Zelda. He composed the soundtracks for each of those games and their respective series until and including Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. His work has appeared in modern classics like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Super Mario 3D World. "Illustrious" doesn't even begin to cover Kondo's career in game music.
The renowned composer told us by phone that most of his best ideas come from the most unexpected places.
"When I'm thinking of the main theme — the melody and the main theme of any game, I don't really come up with those at work," said Kondo. "For some reason, they don't come to me when i'm in the office!"
Usually, I'll be in the bathtub, I'm it's like 'oh, there it is!' Or i'll be sleeping, and the melody is in my head. Or even, you know, I'll be walking down the hallway in my house, suddenly the music pops into my head. It really doesn't happen at work, it's always somewhere outside of the office."
No matter where inspiration strikes, Kondo revealed that the process for making music for a Nintendo game is intensely collaborative. Kondo meets with a game's designers and director long before he starts putting notes together.
"It's all about playing again and again... to fit what it feels to play the game"
"The director will walk me through the game they're thinking of putting together," said Kondo. "And we'll talk a little bit about about overall music direction. Until we have a prototype ready for me to play, what I'll do is I'll take that conversation and listen to different kinds of music and try to come up with what I think may work.
"Then, once we have prototype ready, a version that I can play, It's all about playing again and again and again, trying to find the music that I think would fit what I'm seeing onscreen and what it feels to play the game."
Kondo is currently working on music for Mario Maker, Nintendo's upcoming Mario creativity suite wherein players can create their own 2D Mario stages, and he's supervising the music composition for upcoming Wii U squad shooter Splatoon.
He's approaching Mario Maker with a balance of nostalgia and creativity that has characterized the best games in the series in the last decade. Kondo told us that the stages in the game will have remixed versions of iconic tracks from the Mario series, which he went out of his way to preserve the atmosphere and tone of. The music in the editing mode — where players will actually design their own stages — is all new.
"I really tried to keep in my thought process [the fact] that some people are going to take a long time making their courses," said Kondo, on the brand new tracks. "So, it was really important that they don't get tired of the music.
"the melody has to be catchy but not irritating or cloying"
"In order to keep the music fresh, of course the melody line has to be something that's catchy but not irritating or cloying. I also worked with individual tracks, the bass track, the piano track and whatnot. I would bring those in and phase those out, you know, layer them, suppress them, just do things to keep the music sounding fresh, in the event that the player is in the editing mode for quite a long time."
One cool feature he pointed out, when the player selects an object, say, a pipe or question block, those are voiced. So the melody line in the background track interacts with the objects you select, creating a "singing track."
The Zelda question
As a huge fan of the Zelda series, I had to end my conversation with Kondo with a question that spanned his entire career. Over the nearly three decades of making music for Legend of Zelda games, what was his favorite version of the main theme?
"That's a tough question," he laughed. "Looking back, I think the version that we used in Ocarina of Time," he said, quickly clarifying "this is the overworld theme that we're talking about here."
"For Ocarina, we wanted something that didn't play so often that players got tired of listening to it. So I broke it into 8-bar sections and there was some random phrasing that was implemented so that the melody would be changed up. Again, these are 8-bar sections that I created to all work together, but when combined, they change, and there's some random stuff going on there. I really like the way that worked out."
Mario Maker is slated for release in 2015, for the Wii U.