Koji Kondo x Shogo Sakai – 2003 Composer Interview

Koji Kondo x Shogo Sakai – Composer Interview

In 2003 legendary Nintendo composers Koji Kondo and Shogo Sakai met at a music studio where Sakai was recording the Kirby Air Ride OST cd. Nintendo Dream interviewed them both and the result was a free-wheeling conversation covering various aspects of their long careers. The discussion includes interesting trivia about specific songs as well as more general musings on their approach to composition.

Nintendo | Koji Kondo | Shogo Sakai | Legend of Zelda | Super Mario Bros | Kirby Air Ride

—Can you recall how many songs you’ve each written, in total, up to now?

Kondo: Hah… wow… um, let me think… (laughs)

Sakai: Weren’t you saying at the recent Smash Bros. concert, that you’d written 27 songs for it?

Kondo: Something like that… you know I can’t remember anymore. (laughs)

Sakai: A long time ago I used to work for Data East, and counting those up, I wrote 42 songs then. Add another 45-46 for my recent work, and given an average of about 10 songs per game, I think I’ve got about 450 songs under my belt. And for this one recent title I worked on, I wrote a whopping 210 songs alone…

Kondo: 210?!

Sakai: It hasn’t been released yet… but if you added those, I’ve written close to 700 songs over the course of my career.

—If that logic holds, then you’ve probably written over 300 songs yourself, Kondo. If we added sound effects, it’d be even more?

Kondo: It’s definitely a lot. (Interview Note: the next day, Kondo counted and found his total was approximately 500 songs).

—I heard a rumor that you composed 40 songs for Majora’s Mask in the final month of the development. Is that true?

Kondo: (laughs) It’s true. That includes a number of very short songs though.

—How did the two of you originally get into music?

Kondo: I’m a Yamaha Music School student. (laughs) I was an Electone kid, from kindergarten up to high school. Then in high school I bought a synthesizer…

Sakai: I started with guitar, but piano was what I truly wanted to play. We didn’t have one at my home though, so I had to travel to my community center where they had a piano (I could only book an hour with it, though).

—How old were you then?

Sakai: About 20, I think?

Composer Shogo Sakai

—What were you doing before that?

Sakai: Playing guitar, mostly learning songs from famous bands…

—Did you ever take lessons?

Sakai: Nope. I started a band in high school. Later I became friends with the drummer of a band called “Sugiyama Kiyotaka and Omega Tribe.” They left high school to enter the music world. He knew I wanted to play keyboards, and he introduced me to some work. The Yamaha Vocal School was looking to hire someone, and since I could read chord charts they asked me if I was interested. That’s how I started earning a wage with music, playing everyday for about 7 hours.

—And from there, you went pro. (laughs)

Sakai: Obviously when you’re getting money, it’s a big incentive to work hard, and I learned to play piano properly after that. Because I taught myself in this way, though, my fingering is still very sloppy… I have a complex about it even now.

—I had thought you were playing and studying music from a young age.

Sakai: Everyone thinks that because I know a lot about classical music, but yeah, it’s not the case. When they were making Glory of Heracles at my old company Data East, the director thought orchestral music would be fitting and asked me to write in that style, and that was how I started listening to classical.

—Oh, so you were introduced to classical music through game music, then?

Sakai: Yeah. Well, there was also the fact that the girls who went to classical concerts were all very knowledgeable…

—Such impure motivations. (laughs)

Sakai: Yes, but my strength is that those impure motivations end up fueling my music.

(everyone laughs)

Sakai: I mean, look at bands. Guys want to be in them so they can look cool to women, right?

Kondo: I was in a band in middle school and high school. Playing keyboards.

Sakai: What kind of music did you play?

Kondo: In middle school, it was stuff like Deep Purple…

Sakai: Deep Purple?! In Middle School?! Amazing.

—I’m very curious to know what your workflow is like when you write game music.

Kondo: The first thing I do is ask the planners and directors what kind of game this is going to be. Then I sort of point my antenna towards other media (music, CDs, video) that matches that general image, searching for anything that could be a good reference. I do that kind of genre research until I feel like I’ve made the thing my own, or come to my own understanding. However, once it’s time to start writing myself, I stop listening to those reference materials entirely. I have to stop or I’ll end up making something way too similar.

—You want something all your own, not just a cheap imitation?

Kondo: Yup.

Sakai: I think my methods are the same as Kondo, maybe. I’ve got a lot of mp3s on my computer. I pull up different tunes at random and listen to the ones that seem to match the game I’m working on, while I test-play through it.

—That does sound similar.

Sakai: One thing I realized doing this, is that most songs in the world are actually slow! There were hardly any songs with a tempo that would fit a race game like Kirby Air Ride.

For example, on the glacier stage of Kirby Air Ride, I thought something like David Foster’s song Winter Games might work. So I showed it to Sakurai. He very quickly said “This doesn’t fit.” I had been pretty sure this vibe would work so I asked him why. He said Winter Games felt like “watching from a skier making traces in the snow from far away.” Air Ride, on the other hand, has the camera attached directly behind the player so it’s more like bobsledding, fast and zippy. Winter Games was too mellow, in other words.

David Foster’s “Winter Games” contrasted against Sakai’s bgm for Frozen Hillside. While Sakai increased the tempo and added more frenetic background elements to accommodate Sakurai’s requests, I still feel like his composition is very reminiscent of Winter Games.

Kondo: I see. I remember when we were putting out a CD of F-Zero arrangements, and the band of professional musicians told me “The tempo on these songs is too fast, we can’t play at this speed!” (laughs)

Sakai: I had always thought of Winter Games as this nice, fast-tempo song, but it wasn’t really like that at all. It made me realize music for video games is something very distinct. Kondo, one thing I’ve been wanting to ask you for awhile… I know you have a lot of discussions with Shigeru Miyamoto when he’s directing a game. What kind of direction does he give you?

Kondo: Hmm, well, in the early Famicom days, he would say a lot to me…

Sakai: Such as?

Kondo: Simple stuff, like “This song doesn’t feel right.”

—Does he ever give you any concrete requests up-front?

Kondo: No, he’s never said make me this type of song, or anything so direct.

—Really?!

Kondo: I do look at the graphics and visuals while the game is being developed, but the rest is all left up to me. I will say though that when I try to write music without seeing those visuals first, it’s always a failure.

Sakai: I remember a long time ago, you said that the movement of the characters was very important for the music.

Kondo: That’s right. There’s a rhythm to a character’s movement. The rhythm of the songs I write comes from there.

Sakai: I’ve always thought that’s one of the secrets of your success. It’s true though: the music and character rhythms match up in your games!

Kondo: Sometimes during the development I’m actually the one who tells the other staff, “hey, wouldn’t it look better if they moved this way…?”

Sakai: Like a choreographer? (laughs)

Kondo: Hah, yeah, maybe so.

—Can you remember any examples?

Kondo: In Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, in the beginning I said Link’s little sprite movements looked a bit sloppy, and I said, “Can’t we do a little better here?”

—(laughs)

Kondo: Also, for Mario 64, when I first saw the 3D… I noticed that whenever Mario would punch or kick, he would sort of step back a bit first.

Koji Kondo

Sakai: Sounds like a hitbox problem.

Kondo: It ended up being necessary for the programming, but I thought it looked weird. Aren’t you supposed to move *forward* when you throw a punch?

Sakai: You sound more like a director than a composer!

Kondo: No, it’s not like that. (laughs) I only make small suggestions, and probably stuff that everyone is already thinking anyway.

—It’s hard for me to imagine playing Mario without that classic BGM. What’s it like to test play these games without any sound?

Kondo: It’s honestly very nice. It might be the funnest part of the whole process for me. It’s the place where I find the door into my own world. The games where the music comes to me right away upon first playing it, those are the ones that turn out really interesting I feel.

Sakai: I know what you mean.

Kondo: Those are always my best songs, whereas the ones where I use a bunch of music theory to complete them, those haven’t been very good. At least in my experience so far.

—Is that so? Interesting. I’ve heard that the first song you wrote for Ocarina of Time was given the OK right away.

Kondo: That’s one way of putting it, though what really happened is they simply didn’t say anything. (laughs) Recently with my work that happens a lot, and I’ve lost my sense for what’s good and what’s bad.

Sakai: It’s probably because the younger staff see you as a God. (laughs)

Kondo: That’s a problem though. And I don’t know what to do about it. (laughs)

(everyone laughs)

—I think Mario and Zelda are, in a way, polar opposites when it comes to their music. How do you conceptualize them when you’re composing?

Kondo: Interesting… one is in a major key, and the other minor, so they’re opposites in that sense. Mario music is basically bright and fun. The chord progressions are easy to remember, and they flow naturally. For Zelda, on the other hand, I don’t make the music too bright, and I include a variety of musical styles. The chord progressions are also a little more elaborate and harder to predict.

Sakai: It must be nice to alternate between “opposite” titles like that. For me it’s always the same intense aggressive style. (laughs)

Kondo: Well, I don’t know. But writing Zelda’s music is an ordeal for me everytime.

Sakai: That’s funny, because I think I remember you saying at the Smash Bros. concert how brighter, cheerful songs were hard to write for you…?

Kondo: I guess they’re both hard. (laughs) I was probably feeling that way more at the time.

—Kondo, you also worked on the music of Star Fox?

Kondo: Star Fox’s music is more of a straightforward sci-fi, cinematic thing…

Sakai: That’s my specialty! Hey, how do you think it would go over if I pitched them to let me do the next one…

—Whoa. (laughs)

Sakai: I’ve arranged a number of your songs, Kondo, for Smash Bros. and concerts, but when I do it feels like I’m starting to become you! (laughs) I deliberately try and absorb all the many musical Kondo-isms.

Sakai’s SSBB take on Kondo’s Underwater Theme. It’s a respectful remix that also shows off Sakai’s orchestral chops.

—Well done. (laughs)

Sakai: When I’m arranging your music it all comes to me so clearly. That famous musical phrase that opens the SMB theme, “da da da, da da da”, when I was analyzing the rhythm it moved me. I was copying from the sheet music and it was like, “6 beats here, 3 beats here… ah hah, I see what he’s doing!”

Kondo: Thank you.

Sakai: It’s an approach that’s all the more impressive to me considering you only had 3 voices to work with, you know? Though, to what extent my great respect for Kondo is clouding my judgment here, I can’t say for sure. (laughs)

—Right. Mario exists today because of Kondo, one could say.

Sakai: Yes. I would even go so far to say that Nintendo’s becoming as big as they have… they owe a debt of gratitude to Kondo for that.

Kondo: Be sure to write that in a really big font when you print this.

(everyone laughs)

—Kondo, you’ve worked on many games in your long career, but I believe Super Mario Bros. was done in your very first year at Nintendo.

Kondo: I joined Nintendo in 1984, and SMB came out the next year in 1985.

—What was your first assignment at Nintendo?

Kondo: It was the arcade game Golf. I did various things on that first project though. Besides the sound, I also drew some of the courses, and helped create the surface ROM that we sent to the factories. A whole bunch of stuff.

—According to what I’ve seen, you also worked on Spartan X?

Kondo: Ah, that name makes me nostalgic. (laughs) That laughing voice sample is me.

—Super Mario Bros went on to be a huge worldwide hit. When you were test-playing it for the first time without music, did you have a sense it would become so popular?

Kondo: No, when we made it, it was just another game to me. If I were writing it today maybe I would have more varied songs, I don’t know. Knowing what songs will fit a specific game is something I’ve come to learn with experience. The first song I’d written for Mario actually had a very different feeling.

Sakai: Really?!

Kondo: Yeah. In the very beginning, the main image I had for Super Mario Bros. was an open plain, so the music was very light and peaceful. It was the kind of song you’d hear a harmonica playing over. Unfortunately it didn’t match the rhythm of Mario’s running and jumping. So I went back, laid down that little swinging beat with the noise channel, and then composed rest of the song around that.

Sakai: So that’s how it was… did you then have the programmers put it into the game so you could show it to Miyamoto in-situ?

Kondo: Yeah.

Sakai: I thought so.

—How about you Sakai? What’s your process like?

Sakai: I send mp3s first. My workplace is in Tokyo, and Sakurai is located in Yamanashi, so we communicate via e-mail. I send him the files, and wait for his response. At first I thought he would listen to them on headphones while running through the course, or playing the Smash Bros. stage it was written for… but to my surprise, he usually writes back with his impressions right away.

DYKG created a great overview of Kondo’s career in this video, which goes further into his focus on character movement.

Kondo: Ah, I see.

Sakai: Sometimes he like them, sometimes he doesn’t, but when he doesn’t, he writes these torturously long mails where I’m like… OK OK, geez, I got it!

Kondo: (laughs)

Sakai: The approvals, on the other hand, are one-liners: “This works.”

—Right to the point. (laughs)

Sakai: So it makes it where, if I don’t get a response back within an hour, I start to get worried.

Kondo: An hour?

Sakai: Yeah, when the song is good, he usually replies within 15 minutes. When I get a reply and see the “preview” bar showing there’s more than one or two sentences, it’s like… uh oh, here we go. It’s a very tense moment when I open Sakurai’s emails.

Kondo: That’s the greatest moment of fear.

Sakai: Sakurai never compromises his vision. For Air Ride, too, writing the music for Fantasy Meadows took me well into the New Year. I started it in November, and finally fnished it in January. I re-wrote it six or seven times.

—That much?

Sakai: I think Kondo touched on this a moment ago, but when you’re writing music for a game your first inclination is often to look to the backgrounds for inspiration and guidance. However, the player’s emotional connection to the game is centered around the character. And as a composer, if you don’t focus on that player experience, your music will feel off. That’s why what Kondo says about character movement and music is so on-point.

—I think that’s exactly right.

Sakai: But it’s funny, even though I know that intellectually, when I’m first shown the stage visuals and see it’s a field or a meadow, I still mistakenly think “Oh ok, this music should be gentle and mellow…”

—Something I’ve been curious about, actually… when a song is rejected, what happens to it?

Sakai: Some just go unused. And others I sneak in some other place… (laughs)

—Do they get stockpiled for future use?

Sakai: I don’t go that far, no. I’m not a very organized person.

—How about you Kondo, are there unused Zelda songs out there?

Kondo: There are. I think they’ve been saved somewhere.

—I’d love to hear those someday! Have you ever pulled any of them out to use for a later game?

Kondo: No, I never have. For a new game, I always start fresh and new.

—What’s the most important consideration for you when composing?

Sakai: For me, making sure I don’t fall into self-indulgence.

Kondo: I think I’m always trying to do something new. That could be trying out a new genre, or adding interactive ideas…

Sakai: That’s something I feel in every game you’ve been involved in. Like in Super Mario World when you get on Yoshi and that extra percussion comes in, or the strings that start playing when you go underwater. That kind of stuff is one of your greatest strengths.

Kondo: (embarassed laugh)

—You’re talking about the strings when you go underwater in Mario 64.

Sakai: I love those. I would keep jumping in and out of the water to hear the difference. Man, it just feels so nice.

Contextual changes (like the strings that are added to Dire Dire Docks when going underwater, as seen in this video around 40 seconds in) are more common today, but were novel in the 80s and 90s when such dynamics required more manual coding effort.

—I know exactly what you’re talking about!

Sakai: I think it’s one of Kondo’s signature touches. It’s something that has to be planned closely, from the start, with the programmers. To explain it simply, you have to create sounds that are “hidden” in the background and are only brought forward and played when certain conditions are fulfilled. The rest of the music also has to keep playing.

That is all quite taxing on the programming side, and I don’t think it’s easy to implement. But it’s very effective, and that’s something Kondo must have known and envisioned in his head first. His ability to explain that to the programmers and convince them to make the extra effort is unique.

—As a player it’s not easy to notice. In Ocarina of Time it’s very smooth, the way the music transitions on the plains.

Kondo: That was something I intentionally wanted, to have the music change in that subtle, unassuming way. Normally, like when an enemy jumps out, the music suddenly switches, but you’re on this huge expansive field in Ocarina of Time there, and I didn’t want that mood to be interrupted.

Sakai: Do you think this sense of refinement is because you’re from Kyoto?

Kondo: No, I’m from Nagoya.

Sakai: What, really? Damn, I wanted my “Kyoto-theory” to tie a nice little bow around this conversation. (laughs)

Kondo: I moved to Kyoto after joining Nintendo.

Sakai: My mistake. (laughs) You’ve been there for over 20 years though.

Kondo: Yeah. People say I still have a Nagoya accent, though.

—Kondo, your music, in a way, feels like cooking with ingredients taken from all over the world, it might have anything and everything in it…

Kondo: That’s probably because I’m always wanting to do something new. And as a consequence, it eventually ends up feeling like world music in a way.

Sakai: I noticed it in the very first Super Mario Bros. Mario USA (SMB2) has a latin flavor to the music too. You’ve explored jazz, latin music, and then in Wind Waker there’s even Celtic influences.

—Majora’s Mask had an “asian” taste. Those “chan chan chan” motifs.

Kondo: Yeah, the Peking Opera-ish parts.

—I feel like I can hear instruments from around the world in your music.

Kondo: I kind of am always searching for rare sounds.

—Sakai, your orchestral parts are always impressive.

Sakai: Music was developed in Venice, and it blossomed in Vienna. I love Vienna. Keeping a reverence for that core musical tradition is, I think, a big part of my personality.

—Do you travel a lot?

Sakai: I do. My travels are centered around music, actually. Going to Europe to see the opera… all my traveling is like that.

Kondo: I’ve never gone on vacation just for music. Mine are mainly for my family. (laughs)

Sakai: One thing I’ve wanted to ask you, Kondo… in Wind Waker, Link holds his conductor’s baton in his left hand, correct?

Kondo: Yeah.

Sakai: Why is that?

Kondo: Because Link is left-handed… he’s always held his sword in his left hand, too.

Sakai: I see. But in the real world, even left-handed conductors will hold the baton in their right hand.

—But to the players in the orchestra, it looks reversed, right?

Sakai: Yeah. It’s hard to write even a simple letter while looking at your reflection in the mirror. In the same way, if the conductor holds his baton in his left hand, the players can’t follow along.

Kondo: Is that so? I’m sorry, I didn’t know! (laughs)

Apparently, the canon left-handedness of Link is a point of contention among many fans.

Sakai: I think there’s only one conductor in the world, in Sweden, who holds his baton with his left hand. One time, when Miyamoto visited me while I was working on Air Ride, I noticed that he was left-handed. Maybe Miyamoto was the model for Link’s motion capture, I thought to myself… of course that’s not true. (laughs)

Kondo: Well, I believe it is true that when Link was first created, Miyamoto made him left-handed because he was too.

—Of all the music you’ve created, if you had to choose one song…?

Kondo: Hmm, I don’t know if I can really choose one myself. The overworld theme of Super Mario Bros. is probably my most-heard work, so I think of it as my most representative song.

Sakai: If I had to choose one today, it would be the opening for Smash Bros, but I like to think my most defining work is yet to come.

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