Koji Kondo – 2001 Composer Interview
originally featured in game maestro vol. 3
—I understand you awoke to music at an early age.
Kondo: I started attending Yamaha Music classes from kindergarten, where I learned to play the Electone organ. I studied that way up to my second year of high school, and after that I continued to play on my own. I wasn’t really intending to become an Electone player or a composer. But after playing for that long, it kind of started to feel like this was all I could do!
—What kind of music did you like back then?
Kondo: I liked uptempo, rhythmical music more than quiet music. I didn’t have any particular genre restrictions; I’d listen to anything.
—Did you learn any other instruments beside the Electone?
Kondo: I played marimbas in the elementary school band. Our music teacher was locally renowned as a teacher who had won prizes before. He taught me a variety of things, including ensemble playing.
—And when you got to high school, did you start feeling the pressure about what you were going to do with your future?
Kondo: Yeah. My parents bought me a synthesizer during high school. The Yamaha CS-30. It had an 8-step sequencer as well. The CS-30 was an analogue synthesizer, so you could do things like filter sweeps on the oscillators. I was really interested in sound design, making a sound that sounded like a lion’s roar, for instance. It sounded pretty real, and I would proudly show off my patches to everyone. I loved figuring things out by twiddling knobs on analogue synthesizers, I thought it was awesome how many different sounds it could produce. At this time, more than an Electone player or pianist, I saw myself working in sound effects. I was also potentially interested in being a mixing engineer. With those goals in mind, I enrolled in the Osaka School of Arts.
Koji Kondo, circa 2001.
—What program did you enroll in?
Kondo: The Fine Arts program, which was a broad-level survey of the different arts. We studied music, and painting, and writing as well. Nowadays, it would be the kind of program you took if you wanted to become an Art Director or something like that.
—Being in college can really broaden your horizons, especially when you include the extra-curricular activities. Did you join a band, or any other artistic groups?
Kondo: I did. It was just an amateur band, formed with other students from the college. The sound was fusion, but closer to rock. We did covers of fusion songs from Casiopeia and Naniwa Express. I played keyboards.
—I have to admit I’m having a hard time picturing how you got from there to Nintendo… (laughs)
Kondo: At the school, companies would put up recruitment ads for new positions they were hiring for. That was actually the first year Nintendo started hiring for dedicated sound staff. My friend saw the ad first, and he told me about it. “Kondo, this looks like it could be a good fit for you.” I wholeheartedly agreed: “This is perfect for me!” In fact, Nintendo was the only company I applied to.
—How did you compose songs in those early Famicom days?
Kondo: Back then, there was no MIDI or other protocol that could directly convert your keyboard playing to data. Everything was composed directly on the computer, entering notes manually. I did practice on my Electone at home and sketch out ideas, which I’d then take to the office and enter into the computer. I would do the arrangement on the computer there, adjusting things as I went.
—Did the new sound staff also have to do any programming?
Kondo: We did. We all started studying programming once we were hired.
—What was the pace like for writing songs? How long did each one take?
Kondo: It depended on the song, but on the long side, maybe about a week. A short one might be done in a matter of minutes. (laughs) That doesn’t necessarily take into account all the time spent at home trying to come up with a good idea, though.
—While you’ve done a few games where you only worked on the sound effects, for most of your work, you’re credited for both music and effects.
Kondo: Yeah, when I was in charge of sound, it meant that I did everything myself. I think that was ideal, actually, since there should be a balance between the sound effects and the music.
—The music of Super Mario Bros. has a latin feel to it. I think this genre of music is particularly suited for the Famicom, don’t you?
Kondo: The Famicom uses square waves, which have a richer harmonic content than normal instruments. This means that when you’re writing chords, its better to use wider intervals rather than shorter ones. For example, take a 1-3-5 (do-mi-so) C-major chord… with the Famicom, open voicing (ie. wider intervals between the notes in a chord) sounds much clearer. That was a principle I discovered before I made Super Mario Bros, which is why I think Mario’s songs use chords with an open, wide feel to them. The Famicom only has three channels for sound, but using this technique, I was able to make it sound more like 5.
—I see. And this is something you figured out all on your own…?
Kondo: It was something I discovered while creating different sound effects. And Super Mario Bros. was the first time I got to practically apply that theory.
—And what about the latin feel of the songs?
Kondo: I had always liked Latin music. There was more going on than just a Latin influence, but I do like those bright, happy Portuguese songs. Sadao Watanabe’s music was also an influence, I think. The overworld theme in Mario might show some influence from the Japanese fusion band T-SQUARE, too. The rhythms in their music were easy for Japanese listeners to follow. Sadao Watanabe’s Nabesada was like that too.
Known the world over, the SMB overworld theme was built around that catchy hi-hat push.
—It seems to me that during the Famicom era, the composers and the game developers worked together in unison. Did you use in-game screenshots and/or footage as a reference when you composed?
Kondo: We did, yeah. In Mario, the first visuals that were completed had Mario running through an open grassy field. At first I added some very light, airy music to that—but it didn’t fit at all. (laughs) Everyone disliked it, and the tune wasn’t very interesting either.
So I went back to the drawing board, and tried to write something with more emphatic rhythm, using that little hi-hat beat as the basis. Then, I added a chord riff using the open voicing technique I mentioned. Working with that chord progression, I created a bunch of melodic variations, and selected the best one for the final version.
—Yeah, the melody in Super Mario Bros. seems simple, but it’s actually got some neat twists and turns. The game was such a huge hit, and I remember hearing the music all over town when it came out. It became a social phenomenon. How did you feel about that, at the time?
Kondo: I was really happy about it. The jumping sound was even used on a TV quiz show. I recognized it right away as my sound!
—Sound effects are an indispensable part of game design, yet there’s certainly no correlation in real life between a person jumping and a “boing!” sound. How did you come up with the ideas for sound effects like that?
Kondo: I seem to recall the director asking me to make a sound like that, for Mario’s jump. I remember saying something like, “…but your feet don’t make any special sound when you jump!!” Anyway, I thought that since this was a video game, I would like to create a sound that no one had heard before, which harnessed the Famicom’s capabilities, and maybe something funny. Those were my main ideas.
—With The Legend of Zelda in 1986, Nintendo released the Famicom Disk System, a more advanced system than the original Famicom. When you transitioned to working on FDS games, did it change the way you worked? I understand the FDS has an additional channel for sound.
Kondo: The FDS was described as having a “new sound”, but what it actually was, was the ability to write your own waveforms and store them in memory. The sound comes from referencing that short waveform repeatedly to create an audible sound, ie wavetable synthesis. Compared with the Famicom, it felt like you could get a much wider variety of sounds.
—Working with waveforms like that seems rather specialized; how did you learn it?
Kondo: Yeah, take something like violin or oboe: I have no idea offhand what the waveforms for those instruments look like. So of course, we had to analyze the sounds first in a separate program, and then carefully select the results to get a sample that really sounds like a violin. Being able to add vibrato to the sounds was really key. In the title screen music for The Legend of Zelda, I used that effect. It sounds kind of like an analogue synthesizer, a thicker sound than before.
—After the FDS, next came the Super Famicom and PCM sound. In 1990, Nintendo released Super Mario World for the SFC. What was it like composing music for this game?
Kondo: It was a huge shift in sound from what we had been doing on the Famicom. The FDS really only added that one extra channel. The SFC, on the other hand, was a decisive split from the game music of the past. It truly was a new sound. I spent a lot of time then thinking about what direction game music should go from here. The cheap square wave sound of the Famicom had come to define “game music” for most people, but the SFC could play a much wider variety of tones and sounds. That being the case, should I try and imitate “regular” music that we hear all around us? Or should I try and use these sounds to create a new style and lexicon of game music? I had to really pause and think here.
—What conclusion did you reach?
Kondo: For Super Mario World, I decided that for now, at least, I would try and use sounds that resembled the normal instruments you hear in the real world. However, my idea was to arrange the individual instruments in a way that you don’t normally hear. Like putting banjo and steel drum together, for instance.
—You wanted to make arrangements that would only be possible via programming, in other words.
Kondo: Yeah. I don’t think it’s quite right to call this new approach “game music”, but I did want to use as many weird, unique instruments as I could.
—Now that you were on the Super Famicom, did you still have to struggle with limited space and memory?
Kondo: Yeah, always. To me it was just the way things were. I used to do some sound programming, too, and I came up with various programming tricks to get around the memory limitations, which I did in fact use in the music. On games like Shin Onigashima, for instance, the amount of memory we had available was tiny, but because I was both the programmer and the composer, I knew how to compose the songs in such a way that they’d be easy to compress. It’s a bit different from the normal music recording process, where the musician and the engineer are two different people.
—Did you ever compose songs that ended up not getting used, or were rejected for some reason?
Super Mario World OST. The possibilities for game music took a major leap forward with the 16-bit era. Kondo’s concept for a new “game music” was to use unusual instruments to create a suitable video game-like atmosphere.
Kondo: Yes. The ending theme for Super Mario Bros. was originally an AABA structure, but we didn’t have enough memory, so I had to erase the B part, leaving the A part to repeat over and over. (laughs) I was finally able to include that song on Super Mario Bros. 2 for the FDS.
—Starting with Star Fox in 1993, you’ve also used synthesized voices. Were those done with effects?
Kondo: Well, it was a little different from just using “effects”, but yeah, we used sound programming to alter the samples and make them sound like a frog or human.
—Later in the life of the Super Famicom, characters would even sing.
Kondo: Yeah, that was all possible because we had more memory.
—With the N64, the sounds available to you changed yet again. I’m guessing the way you made game music also changed?
Kondo: Yeah, the very way I composed changed entirely. I no longer needed to do sound programming; I could focus entirely on the music composition. Even at the end of the SFC era, I was still doing sound programming, but with the N64, that work became too complex. We hired a new person who had studied sound programming at college, and he handled the programming side.
—Were there also hardware limitations with the N64?
Kondo: There were, yeah. There were limitations on the number of sounds you could have playing simultaneously. It fluctuated depending on the demands of the given scene, but in general it was about 16 simultaneous sounds.
—What was it like working on Super Mario 64?
Kondo: Compared with Zelda, Mario has a much happier vibe, so I aim for music that is happy, rhythmical, and with melodies that are easy to remember. The music for Zelda coexists nicely with Mario in that sense, because they don’t overlap each other.
—Mario 64’s 3D graphics were revolutionary for their time. Do you feel like game music also changed in a similar way?
Kondo: That’s an interesting thought. With the N64, because I was now able to focus purely on the music, I could also spend more time on the music production/direction side and pursue more of my ideas. One idea, for example, was now that Mario is in 3D, let’s drop the traditional ‘boing!’ jump sound. Let’s have him shout or say something instead when he jumps. And because it would be boring to hear the same sound over and over again, let’s randomize what he says. We also had a specialist working purely on sound effects at this time.
—I see. In the Famicom era, you had to do everything yourself. I bet you wish you had been able to focus only on composition and music from the beginning.
Kondo: Well, the thing is, the sound of video games originally was the combination of sound effects and music. So even today, where we’ve divided the tasks of sound effects and music between different specialist, I still consult with the other side regularly and build my work in consideration of what they’re doing, and vice-versa.
Ocarina of Time OST.
—Music is featured so heavily in Ocarina of Time that, in one sense, you could safely call the game a musical. When composing for the Zelda series, what kind of image do you have in your mind?
Kondo: Open, grasslands… the feeling of running or rushing through open spaces. But with Zelda, I don’t go for conventional chord structures, but instead focus more on the atmosphere.
—The music for the OoT has a lot of variety, too. There’s even some dance-y music for Goron City. Now that you’re able to focus solely on the music, is this the kind of thing you’ve been wanting to do?
Kondo: Yeah, maybe so. The new directors and designers at Nintendo are all very young, and so they haven’t been giving me so many direct requests. Maybe they’re intimidated, I don’t know. But without that direction, it does make it hard for me to write. To that extent, and for better or for worse, Ocarina of Time was largely composed according to my own sensibilities. But no one complained, so I guess it turned out ok.
—Towards the end of OoT, there’s even something that sounds like chanting… it’s an intense piece. 1
Kondo: I had wanted to do a song like that for a really long time. I recently found a CD shop where you can try out and listen to the CDs before buying, and I’ve been spending a lot of time in their folk music corner. I’ve been able to hear tons of things I’ve never heard before. I go there a lot!
—In Majora’s Mask, the characters wear masks and start playing instruments. There’s something very “rock and roll” about Majora’s Mask—music is central to the experience.
Kondo: When we were thinking about what to do for Majora’s Mask, and what would be the most “Zelda-ish” thing, I suggested that instead of traditional magic spells, it would be more fitting to have a instruments that cause different effects depending on the melodies you play.
—With the N64, I think you can now have a lot more diverse genres in video game music. What kind of music do you normally listen to, day to day?
Kondo: I like listening to the radio, so I listen to Osaka’s FM COCOLO station a lot. They have a number of international DJs, who introduce listeners to music that’s currently popular in their country. There’s an Indian DJ on there, who speaks entirely in Hindi.
—An Indian DJ? (laughs) Like, he plays songs from the top 40 charts in India?
Kondo: Yeah. A lot of the stuff I’ve heard on there recently, it sounds like they’re using traditional Indian folk motifs in popular songs. It’s really cool. I love Indian music. There was one time when I needed to write an Indian-sounding song for a game, and I went to the record store and bought a bunch of CDs with that feel, and listened to them over and over.
—The opening themes for Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask are both surprisingly quiet, subtle pieces. After the game loads your data, they leave a quiet space in their wake. And I can’t help but feel that that sense of space is a signature of your musical style.
Kondo: To be sure, that sense of space you’re describing is very important to me. Part of it too, I think, is that I came up from the early Famicom days, when you had to make songs with only 3 available channels, and so I aim to achieve the maximum expression with a minimal amount of sounds. I try to evoke something in the silence, in the absence of sound. Rest notes are very important to me, and the connecting space between sounds.
—What kind of techniques do you use to keep the sound uncluttered, and evoke that space? For bass instruments, for instance, do you favor short notes that punctuate grooves over legato notes?
Kondo: Yeah, it’s things like that. That’s also something very important to me, finding the right points to bring out the rhythm.
—Recently, Nintendo has been hiring and using a lot of new composers. No doubt training them is a new task for you, but because the hardware was so different back in your day, I imagine it must be difficult?
Kondo: Right now, there’s just over 20 people working in the sound department at Nintendo. But regardless of how the hardware changes, what remains most important is that we are making music for video games, and remembering that the music should fit the game. I’m talking about musical ideas which enhance the interactivity of the game, ideas which could only be thought of in a video game. For example, making the tempo go faster in the last 100 seconds of Super Mario Bros. Or in Super Mario 64, when you go deep underground, the bass subtly changes, or the fact that the music is different when you’re underwater vs. above-ground. We try to add ideas like that, as much as we can. Rather than technical hardware instruction, that’s the kind of guidance I give to new staff.
Another example would be in Ocarina of Time. The field music is divided into short 8 bar blocks, but those blocks are played randomly to keep things fresh. Also, when Link stands still and rests, the music flows more peacefully, and when an enemy appears, the melody shifts to a more heroic theme. I made those with the idea of smooth transitions in mind… whether anyone noticed, I can’t say (laughs). But I didn’t want to interrupt the rhythm or flow of the music with a brand new song every time.
—For music like that, I imagine you create it after the scenes are completed by the rest of the development team.
Kondo: Yeah, that’s usually how it is. Once a scene is completed enough that a player can play through it, I play through it many times, trying to think of musical ideas. Since the N64, though, our schedules have become very strict. The developments are on such a larger scale now, and there’s so much more coordination required. All the developers are working in lockstep and things only come together in the final months, and then it’s a huge scramble for everyone to finish their part. It’s like the whole game gets delivered to me at once at the very end. The deadlines are much more intense than they used to be.
—That sounds grueling! But I suspect that as long as Nintendo is making Zelda and Mario games, you’ll be writing music for them.
Kondo: Hmm, I wonder about that… I’m afraid I’m all out of ideas by now. (laughs)
—Incidentally, how many songs were there in Majora’s Mask?
Kondo: Around 90. It’s the largest project, in terms of volume of songs, that I’ve ever worked on.
—With that many songs, do you ever end up unintentionally copying yourself, writing things that resemble pieces you’ve written in the past?
The Mayor’s Meeting, Kondo’s favorite song from Majora’s Mask.
Kondo: Hah, I do. And of course I don’t notice it. But someone will come up to me and say, “hey, haven’t I heard this before in ____?”
—Do you go back and rewrite the song, in that case?
Kondo: Yeah! While grumbling “damnit!” to myself. Sometimes I end up writing things that sound too much like other people’s songs too, and I have to begrudgingly rewrite those as well.
—In a way, I think your personal history is the history of game music. You’re one of the composers who has been around since the old days and is still active today, when those old hardware restrictions are gone. It’s really exciting to hear what a veteran like you will do with these new possibilities on the N64 and the Gamecube.
Kondo: My thinking has never been, “Look at this composer, they’re doing that. So I’m going to do this instead!” I’ve only ever tried to write music that fits the specific game, hopefully better than whatever I worked on last. There’s lots of composers out there today who have been doing it since the Famicom days. But, other than Kouichi Sugiyama, I don’t think they’re very well-known. I think the reason for that is probably because they were never allowed to participate too deeply as members of the development; they were only there to provide songs. But I think “game music” is precisely something that comes from composers working closely together with the rest of the staff. It’s a very important point.
—In that sense, no matter where the hardware goes from here, your approach will be the same.
Kondo: That’s right.
—Since joining Nintendo over 16 years ago, you’ve composed hundreds of songs. Do you have a personal favorite?
Kondo: I actually have several favorites from each game, but for Majora’s Mask, it would be the Mayor’s Meeting theme. At the very last minute, just before the deadline, I was asked to change the mood of what I had written. And I had very, very little memory to work with. It’s one of the songs I hear and think, “Yeah, I nailed it!” I think it really fits the feeling of a conference or meeting.
—Interesting. I thought you would have said the main theme or something!
Kondo: I like that one too, but for me, the most important thing is feeling like the song really matches what’s happening in the game. When I’ve managed to write a song like that, I’ll end up staring at the screen and listening to it over and over, glowing with my own satisfaction… I’ll even dance to it! Of course, I have my own private office, so no one gets to see.
—Somehow, that’s a hard one for me to imagine—you dancing to the Mayor’s Meeting theme. (laughs)
Kondo: It’s a joyous feeling, to finally overcome something you’ve been struggling and struggling with. When I get it just right, I can listen to it over and over!