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Koji Kondo :: Biography

Overview Biography Discography Game Projects Interviews

Note: This biography was written exclusively for Square Enix Music Online by Chris. The act of using it without advance written permission is regarded as a copyright infringement. It was last updated on November 17, 2008.

Born on August 13, 1961 in Nagoya, Japan, Koji Kondo is an iconic figure widely known for his soundtracks to Nintendo's Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda franchises. The backbone to Koji Kondo's musicality came from taking lessons in the Electone organ from the age of five. Having pursued the instrument into his teens, he improved his skills in a cover band that played jazz and rock music — mainly the songs of Deep Purple and progressive rock group Emerson, Lake, and Palmer — though he chose not to grow his hair like his fellow band members, always mesmerised by the music rather than the image. At university, Kondo studied the general arts, but was never trained classically or particularly dedicated to music. Nonetheless, he gained some experience composing and arranging pieces, using both the piano and a computer to assist him. During his senior year, Nintendo sent a recruitment message to Kondo's university stating that they were interested in employing people dedicated to composition and sound programming. As an LCD and Arcade gamer, Kondo relished the opportunity to compose for video games and, in a 'lucky break', successfully applied for the job in 1984 without requiring any demo tapes.

As the first person hired by Nintendo for the specialised purpose of creating compositions, Kondo was to play an integral role making the company's games and music globally recognisable. Kondo quickly gained expertise at Nintendo working on Arcade games on the projects Golf and Punch-Out. Despite creating very little music, he quickly gained experience overcoming the challenges of sound design. Given the Famicom had become highly popular in Japan, Kondo was assigned to exclusively compose for the console's subsequent games at the company's new development team Nintendo EAD. Kondo initially wrote an instruction manual on how to program Japanese popular music into the Famicom using the peripheral Famicom BASIC. To conclude his first year at Nintendo, he created the music Devil World, but the score was little more than a collection of jingles. In 1985, Nintendo begun marketing the Famicom overseas under the name the Nintendo Entertainment System to monopolise on the video games crash that devastated the Atari. The hit releases Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda helped the console to sell 60 million copies in total — more than any other console to date — and, in the process, established the game industry's most well-known melodies. These titles were to transform Kondo's life.

The best-selling video game of all time, 1985's Super Mario Bros., was Koji Kondo's first major score. The four minute soundtrack was created so that short segments of music could be endlessly repeated during the same gameplay without causing boredom. As a result of the massive limitations of the NES console, its score could only feature three channels of music at one time, designated to melody, harmony, and percussion. However, Kondo was able to disguise repetition through employment of unforgettable melodies. His melodic flair proved so strong that the soundtrack to Super Mario Bros. is, even to this day, unparalleled in terms of its worldwide recognition as a video game score. The Latin-influenced main theme is iconic in popular culture in general; it has featured in over 50 symphonic concerts, been a best-selling ringtone, and has been remixed or sampled by various bands, several popular artists, and hundreds of amateur arrangers. The minimalistic underworld motif, carousel-like underwater music, and various fanfares are also instantly recognisable. The entire score to Super Mario Bros. did so much out of very little — it complemented the game, helped to characterise the fun nature of the Super Mario series and Nintendo's games in general, and became hummed and whistled by millions.

Kondo's music has also been a defining component of The Legend of Zelda series. Initially released on the Famicom Disk System in 1986, the original game was a difficult and time-consuming project to score given gallant music had to be created using a small number of sounds. Though Kondo only produced four main pieces of background music, they each helped to define the mood of their locations. The overworld theme has not only provided the prime example of the more mature style of the Zelda franchise, but became comparable in popularity with the Super Mario main theme, at least with Zelda gamers. Kondo emphasised the overworld music's importance by arranging it into the game's heroic title theme as well; he actually did this in one exhausting evening after the unfortunate revelation that the music originally intended for this purpose — an interpretation of Ravel's Bolero — remained under copyright. Following this success, he explored his stylistic diversity further on two Japanese exclusive titles — creating emotional traditional Japanese music on Shin Onigashima and some upbeat rock-influenced melodies on Nazo no Murasame Jo. He also created some tunes for the platformer Doki Doki Panic, later rebranded in the West as Super Mario Bros. 2.

Firmly established as Nintendo's main composer, Kondo returned to the Super Mario series to produce several large and ambitious scores. 1988's Super Mario Bros. 3 featured diverse themes to represent the game's eight worlds, several catchy new overworld themes, classic arrangements, and more serious efforts to represent fortresses and Koopa. He nevertheless maintained the melodic flair and sense of fun and action characteristic of the series. Kondo also provided a delightful score for the Super Nintendo's first title Super Mario World. The majority of the level themes were diverse arrangements of the same melody while the zone themes excellently characterised their locations despite their simplicity and brevity. Koichi Sugiyama commemorated the impacting score by directing a jazz arrangement album and overseeing its performance at the first Orchestral Game Music. Following this project, Kondo assisted his employee Soyo Oka create the music of Pilotwings and challenged himself to create realistic sound effects on Star Fox. Several years later, he created an especially musically and technologically accomplished score for Yoshi's Island, gaining particularly flair with Caribbean and orchestral styles. Kondo's trademark themes were also used, without credit, in the TV shows and 1993 film dedicated to Super Mario Bros.

Kondo also remained active in the Zelda franchise despite being too busy to work on The Adventure of Link and Link's Awakening. His work on 1991's A Link to the Past developed his fluid relationship with Shigeru Miyamoto — designer of the Mario and Zelda series and head of Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development. Kondo depended on the visual inspiration of Miyamoto to accurately portray each setting, but only asked for feedback after completing compositions. This gave him freedom, autonomy, and, where necessary, criticism. This unique approach allowed Kondo to overcome the constant challenge of creating music to reflect the Zelda series' environments. Though A Link to the Past's overworld was influenced by European settings, it was nonetheless alien to everybody — geographically diverse, split into two parallel worlds, and dominated by dark dungeons, mystical caves, and a grandiose castle. Kondo actively researched a wide range of musical styles in order to represent the game's diverse and unfamiliar environments. He integrated and often combined various genres into the score's compositions while exposing amazing melodies. Some of the themes he introduced, such as the Hyrule Castle, Kakariko Village, Zelda, and Ganondorf themes, have become popular mainstays of the series.

The stylistic diversity of Koji Kondo's Nintendo 64 scores provide the most impressive symbol of his musicianship. He once again created scored the console's first game, 1996's Super Mario 64. He accompanied the various levels with imaginative music influenced by numerous cultures — ranging from Bom-omb Battlefield's lively brass-led jazz to Dire, Dire Docks' watery synth chillout all the way to Lethal Lava Land's abstract Indian-influenced polyrhythms and Big Boo's vocal-dominated ambience. His interpretations of Super Mario Bros. main theme and underworld theme were unlikely percussion-dominated creations while he emphasised the climactic battles with Koopa with heavy metal and organ counterpoint. Despite the tremendous diversity of the score, he still carefully ensured each theme fitted the worlds they were used in. His one attempt to create a level theme without game prototypes was a mismatch — he wrongly envisaged Snowman's Land to be a relatively laid-back level so had to scrap an ambient theme in favour of a lively action piece. Subsequently, Kondo worked on Star Fox 64 in a composing role alongside Hajime Wakai. This unique addition to his discography featured serious pseudo-orchestral music influenced by Hollywood science-fiction scores.

Kondo's most ambitious solo work is 1998's The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time soundtrack. A significant challenge was to create music that reflected the unity and diversity of Hyrule. Locations, dungeons, individuals, and races were far more individually characterised and elaborately presented relative to A Link to the Past. Thus it was necessary for Kondo to express great stylistic versatility and individuality while maintaining a fantastical and adventurous overall sound. The score was carefully integrated into the game. The overworld theme, for example, was varied according to time of day, Link's motion, and whether an enemy was approaching; Kondo achieved this interactivity by building a theme upon a series 15 second segments and allowing complex algorithms to determine the order the segments are played. Furthermore, Kondo's unforgettable ocarina melodies and orchestrations were prominently integrated into the gameplay and storyline. The score to Ocarina of Time's sequel, 2000's Majora's Mask, brought a Chinese-operatic influence to reflect a malevolent mask's impact on a parallel world to Hyrule. Though arguably Kondo's darkest and strangest work, it was largely musically continuous with its predecessor and directly ported over several dozen often trivial compositions.

Since Majora's Mask, Kondo has focused his attention on leading the large resident sound team at Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development's headquarters at Kyoto. His team is responsible for the composition, sound effects, and sound programming for the various Super Mario, Mario Kart, Luigi's Mansion, Zelda, Pikmin, Animal Crossing, and Nintendogs titles, among others. Kondo hired its current members — Kazumi Totaka, Kenta Nagata, Hajime Wakai, Toru Minegishi, Asuka Ota, Ryo Nagamatsu, and Manaka Tominaga — to enhance the productivity, quality, and versatility of Nintendo's sound production. The team nevertheless continues to preserve Kondo's principles of game music — offering fun melodies, stylistic diversity, and in-game interactivity. Kondo also advocated two Nintendo-only concerts. 2002's Smashing... Live featured symphonic arrangements of a variety of Nintendo music performed by the New Japan Philharmonic while 2003's Mario & Zelda Big Band Live was dominated by live jazz, Latin, country, and bluegrass performances of his music and included performances and announcements from Kondo. Kondo's music has also been celebrated at Press Start -Symphony of Games- and Leipzig series as well as the Video Games Live and PLAY! A Video Game Symphony tours.

Though Kondo takes a small supervisory role in most productions, he has worked directly on the latest Super Mario and Zelda scores. On 2002's Super Mario Sunshine, Kondo took a large composition role for the last time in his career; he established a tropical feel to the score through big band and calypso works while his collaborator Shinobu Tanaka provided most of the event and ambient music. On The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Kondo took a backseat while Nagata, Wakai, and Minegishi established a folky nautical feel, but still contributed a few short sentimental pieces. He did not have a composing role on Minegishi and Ota's Twilight Princess or Nagata and Minegishi's Phantom Hourglass, but still had a major influence as music director. Despite this, Kondo composed the catchy main theme of Ota and Wakai's New Super Mario Bros. in 2006 and contributed the vibrant symphonic compositions for Egg Planet and Rosetta's Comet Observatory to Mahito Yokota's Super Mario Galaxy a year later. His latest musical role crafting a piano-based arrangement of the Super Mario Bros. main theme for the multi-artist score to Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Though his large administrative responsibilities prevent him composing more, Kondo and his fans hope he'll one day lead a full score again.

Kondo is an iconic figure with hidden depth. He has composed for all the launch titles for Nintendo's five consoles, created the two most famous video game melodies of all time, and provided the characteristic sounds that not only defined the Zelda and Mario series, but, to a certain extent, Nintendo and video games in general. The number of games, albums, compilations, and concerts featuring his Mario and Zelda works reflects his massive legacy and he remains the only video game composer to ever significantly affect popular culture. While largely known as a two franchise composer, he has diverse other works and has influenced the scores to numerous other video games. His diverse and refined works on behalf of the Nintendo 64 contradict criticisms that his musicianship is particularly superficial and his emphasis on increasing interactivity of video games with Nintendo's music is also progressive. Kondo remains an ambitious musician. He dreams, for instance, that the next Zelda title will use live performances throughout, utilising a full 50-player orchestra to capture the big action scenes and an intimate string quartet for more lyrical moments. As head of Nintendo EAD's sound team and one of Shigeru Miyamoto's most trusted employees, Kondo will continue to influence the development of game music while overseeing his employee's scores for the Wii and DS.