Nintendo Sound History Series - Mario the Music :: Review by Oliver Jia
Without a doubt, the Mario series is what started to make video game music popular. Ever since Super Mario Bros., Koji Kondo's catchy tunes have stood the test of time and are now unforgettable pieces of music, video game or not. Make no mistake. Mario is a key reason why we have video game music. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System), Nintendo released Nintendo Sound History Series: Mario the Music. This album contains all the music from Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario USA (North America's Super Mario Bros. 2), Yoshi's Cookie, and Dr. Mario. This album presents the music the way it originally was: Composed on the 8-bit Famicom system. Since the Famicom was limited to only three channels of sound, don't go into this album expecting the best synth quality. Even still, how does this album fare as a standalone listening experience? Let's examine this carefully.
The album opens with the music and sound effects of the arcade classic Mario Bros., which was eventually ported to the Famicom. I'll say it plainly, this music is simplistic and forgettable. It may be amusing to hear the first time, but it can easily be skipped afterwards. The music in this section doesn't even total to one minute! "Title BGM" is simply a short, repetitive jingle. "Game Start A ~ Miss ~ Clear ~ Game Start B ~ Restart ~ Extend" contains only short sound effects and an 8-bit version of Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik."
After that dud, we move on to the meat of the album with Super Mario Bros. From those opening notes, you'll instantly recognize "Above Ground BGM." You know which one I'm talking about. Even to non-gamers, "Above Ground BGM" is recognizable. There have been thousands of remixes of this song alone. If I could name a theme that defines video game music, it would have to be this theme. The repetitive, yet catchy "Underground BGM" and the waltz-like "Underwater BGM" prove to be memorable tracks as well. For an early Famicom release, Koji Kondo used the three-channel sound limitation to his advantage with these tracks. Although these pieces may seem primitive by today's standards, they were way ahead of their time in the past. The Super Mario Bros. section will likely evoke the strongest feelings of nostalgia. What's more, the tracks here are presented in a desirable way they usually loop twice and then go into a faster tempo, signifying that the stage time limit is running at an end.
The Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 originally didn't made it to our American shores due to the intense difficulty of the game. The music was completely identical to its predecessor with the exception of "Ending BGM." This track is actually just an extended version of Super Mario Bros' ending theme with a slightly different sound. Although it's nothing really special, it is a cool bonus nonetheless.
We now move on to the largest section of the album, Super Mario Bros. 3. Arguably the greatest Famicom game ever (perhaps even of all time), this title was praised for its intricate level design, tight controls, and, of course, music. Koji Kondo returns in full form this time, using all the sound he can squeeze out from the Famicom. Being the first Mario game to utilize map worlds, Kondo composed a theme for each of the eight worlds. All the map themes follow the format of a simple melodic theme with heavy percussion in the background. Each one conveys the feeling of adventure and danger. I should also note that "Map 3 World" sounds strikingly similar to one of Kondo's later compositions "Fairy Fountain" from the The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Speaking of Zelda, "Flute Sound ~ Warp Island (Map 5 Sky World)" sounds exactly the same to the title theme from Ocarina of Time! The overworld themes "Above Ground BGM" and "Athletic BGM" are both charming and catchy, utilizing the most of the three-channel sound limit. We also have the "dungeon" themes like "Fortress BGM" and "Airship BGM" which both convey the themes of brooding evil and the upcoming boss fight. "Ending" just like the title implies, is the perfect finale to Mario's adventure. The first section is a music-box-like rendition of the Super Mario Bros. 2 ending, while the second section is a more upbeat percussion tune.
After that, we are given the entire soundtrack to Super Mario USA (our Super Mario Bros. 2, originally based on the Japanese game Doki Doki Panic). The soundtrack to this title was always my favorite of the NES games. "Title BGM" appropriately sets the tone for the rest of the game. If I could describe the style of music here, it would be "laid-back." "Overworld Theme" continues this tone with a rag-time jazz feel to it, while "Player Select" utilizes an upbeat melodic theme with steady percussion in the background. Even jingles like "Bonus Start ~ Success ~ Failure" and "Stage Clear" are a joy to hear. "Final Boss" gave me chills, though, the first time I heard it in the game. This theme perfectly captures the slimy and evil nature of the antagonist, Wart. But it turns out that the whole game was all just a dream! As we watch the credits roll we hear that climatic ending music. "Ending" starts out as a victorious march, but later moves into a soothing minuet before fading out entirely.
Now, the album could have ended here, but Nintendo decided to throw in the soundtracks to Dr. Mario and Yoshi's Cookie as well. Dr. Mario, composed by the legendary Hirokazu Tanaka, probably has some of the most addicting video game music ever in a puzzle game. "Fever ~ Fever Clear" has varying shifts in dynamic and melody, but maintains a constant tempo throughout until the bass takes over. The other game theme "Chill ~ Chill Clear," on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Instead of being fast-paced, "Chill" is more mellow. At 1:14, things take a turn for a strange as the melody changes completely. In fact, the entire music for Dr. Mario carries this feeling of strangeness. The ending theme "Level 20 HI Clear (UFO) ~ Ending," is a bittersweet melody with odd sound effects thrown in the middle, before changing back to the main melody and then fading to silence. Talk about a surreal soundtrack! The whole time I felt like I was in some kind of trance!
Contrasting drastically from Dr. Mario, Yoshi's Cookie closes off the album with some cheerful, somewhat more typical puzzle game music. All of the single player tracks provide subtle background themes while you solve those matching puzzles. The VS tracks are faster-paced in order to build upon the competitive tension of the multiplayer mode. There's not much else to say, besides that Yoshi's Cookie has some good music for a puzzle game.
If you are looking for a video game music album that has top-notch synth work, than you will be sorely disappointed. However, if you are a fan of 8-bit chiptune music then this may be the album for you. No doubt, completionists will want this album in their collection as it contains the complete scores to 8-bit Mario games. What's more, it isn't hard to find and it usually retails for around $20-$25. There have been compilations of the Mario series' music in the past ranging from the excellent but exceedingly rare Super Mario World album to the incomplete 'best of' collections for the 20th and 25th Anniversaries of the series but this release is the only one that is easy-to-find and still encompassing. Nintendo Sound History Series: Mario the Music is the most comprehensive collection that a Mario or Famicom music fan could ask for. If you're willing to kick back and enjoy feelings of nostalgia, then this CD is a must-buy.
Overall Score: 8/10