History of Nintendo Game Music (1983-2001)
Veteran Nintendo composers Koji Kondo and Kazumi Totaka expound upon the ever-changing world of video game audio in this interview published on the “Nintendo Online Monthly” website in 2001. As this interview sought to outline the day-to-day work of a videogame sound designer, there’s little discussion about particular tunes, but there's still plenty of insight into how Nintendo’s approach to audio has evolved in tandem with their hardware.
—Kondo, tell us how you got started at Nintendo.
Kondo: I joined Nintendo the year after the Famicom was released. I was the first “music specialist” they ever hired.
—What equipment did you use to write music then?
Kondo: I didn’t have any special gear back then, so I wrote things on a basic Casio-tone style mini-keyboard. Most of the time, I’d write the songs while I programmed in the sounds at the same time.
—So you used a computer for that work, then?
Kondo: It was a Famicom-specific development tool, yes. At that time, whoever was in charge of the music also programmed the sound effects. People who joined Nintendo then as “composers” still had to learn how to program in order to write their music.
—The Famicom was limited in polyphony (the number of sounds it could put out at the same time), wasn’t it?
Kondo: Yeah. You had three normal sound channels, and one noise channel. There was another option for something called delta modulation too, which we used for percussion sounds in Super Mario Bros. 3. In practice, however, delta modulation used up a ton of memory, so when we composed Famicom music we would generally try to limit ourselves to 3 simultaneous sounds max.
—How about “rejected” songs, did you have those?
Kondo: Yeah, sometimes when you went to match your song to the game, you found out it didn’t fit. That was usually the case if you wrote music before seeing the graphics and the movement on-screen.
—How did you create the music for Super Mario Bros? Did you choose that “latin” feel because Mario is Italian?
Kondo: No, it wasn’t like that. I had an image of my mind, based on Mario’s movements, of wanting to make something bright and cheerful, and the slightly latin feel just came out naturally as a consequence. Rather than thinking about “genres”, I’ve always been more conscious of that fact that I’m writing game music. The first scene I was shown was Mario running through a grassy field. From that, my first attempt was a softer, more heartwarming melody, but it didn’t fit. So I re-wrote it to be more upbeat and “action”-y.
—Did Miyamoto have any requests?
Kondo: Yeah, he was very insistent about the sound effects. He’d say stuff like “This sound needs more impact.” He was pretty much in constant communication with me as I made them, giving out instructions through the entire process: “This should be different, fix this here, do this there.” As for the music, he didn’t tell me what kind of songs to write, but Miyamoto loves bluegrass, so he would bring records and sheet music for me to listen to, “Check this song out!”
—A sly appeal to his favorites, I see. (laughs)
Kondo: You may be right. I still haven’t given him back that sheet music, come to think of it. (laughs)
—How did you create the sound effects for Mario?
Kondo: The Famicom can only put out square waves,1 which make a sound kind of like a clarinet. That made it hard to write sounds that resembled other things. We also couldn’t apply many fx to the sounds, so I had to resort to other methods. Sometimes I tried to use quick little bursts of notes at different intervals (from the songs), or I’d lower the pitch of a note so far that it sounded like something different.
—It sounds like the whole composition process was closer to sound experimentation, rather than traditional writing on a musical staff/ledger.
Kondo: That’s true. We did spend more time jiggering with the sounds in the programming than writing the music. And this is still true even today, but there were memory limitations then which you always had to keep in mind while writing (both music and sfx). We also had to make sure our programming used as little processing power as possible.
—Were they songs you wrote that, when you went to program them in, you realized they wouldn’t fit?
Kondo: There were songs that wouldn’t fit, yes, and I would have to re-write them.
—As the composer, did you ever propose music-related ideas to Nintendo or the other developers, like “hey, if we tried this, our games could be more fun”…?
Kondo: I never said anything like “If you make this kind of game I could write really great music for it!” However, I would say “Here’s our approach for the sound side, here’s what we can do”, in an effort to inform them about what kind of scenes/presentation would be possible.
—Overall, it sounds like the work of writing game music was very different from a “pure” music composer.
Kondo: Yeah, it was. The fact that you were writing for a game always came first.
—Do you think writing music via programming is something anyone can do, if they work at it?
Kondo: You don’t need the kind of mathematics and “numbers” knowledge that actual game programmers need. That's not to say anyone can do it, though. Even if you’re a good musician, I think if you have absolutely no math skills whatsoever, it would be rough-going.
—In 1986, Nintendo released the Famicom Disk System, with upgraded musical capabilities.
Kondo: The FDS added one additional channel for music, and it was a new type of synthesis (custom waveform/sample-based).
—The world got a little wider, musically.
Kondo: Yes. Vibrato was now possible, which previously had been very hard to achieve. The new synthesis made it possible to create sounds with a texture closer to real instruments—we weren’t limited anymore to only using the “cheap” sounds of the Famicom.
—The Legend of Zelda was the FDS’ big hit.
Kondo: Yeah. I didn’t use the new sounds for the music in Zelda; instead, I tried to make the sound effects cooler and more dazzling.
—Can you give some examples?
Kondo: That “bzyuun!” laser sound your sword makes? That wasn’t possible on the Famicom’s sound chip. The sounds the monsters make when they appear was also done with the new synthesis channel. I tried to use impressive, showy sounds that no one had heard before.
—And did Miyamoto have any requests for Zelda?
Kondo: I remember he had me make a lot of different sounds for when you use the flute (when you warp). He was very particular about that one sound. “It shouldn’t just be ‘pretty’. I want it to evoke something more mysterious”, he told me.
—How many different versions did you make? Dozens?
Kondo: Yeah. I remember how difficult that was.
—Turning to the Game Boy now, what were some of the challenges you faced composing for Nintendo’s first handheld?
Totaka: Well, just like the Famicom, the limited polyphony—in which you had to write both music and sound effects with so few sounds—was very challenging. The Game Boy, too, could only play three sounds at once. However, for one of those channels, we could write our own custom waveforms, and that really helped us out.
—Did you use the same developer environment/tools for writing Game Boy music?
Totaka: Yes, they were the same. My keyboard got bigger though. (laughs) And like Kondo, I too had to learn programming after I joined Nintendo, and only then did I start composing for games.
—What kind of tricks did you use to make your music fit into such a small amount of memory?
Totaka: Well, sometimes it happened that you’d add sound effects, but then the music wouldn’t fit, and vice versa. Or you’d write a song, and then have to remove notes one-by-one, to let the sound effects stand-out better, or even just to make it fit into memory. Once you got used to it, you could write music economically in a way that didn’t take up too much memory. No matter how good your song may have been, if you heedlessly ignored those limitations it would never fit. To that end I would try to be clever about re-using phrases and patterns as I wrote, making sure that it remained a pleasing and “listenable” song.
—It sounds like a style of writing that you had to get used to over time.
Totaka: Yeah, that’s right. On the other hand, working within those limitations actually made it fun. It was a challenge: how many variations can I create from just this small pattern? It was a challenge you couldn’t find in other kinds of media.
—The Game Boy had stereo sound. Did it feel like a palpable upgrade from the Famicom?
Totaka: Well, it was pseudo-stereo—you could only pan a sound 100% hard left, 100% hard right, or center. However, with certain sounds like, say, a typical “I did it!” kind of fanfare sound, the pseudo-stereo was more effective and impactful compared with the monaural Famicom. In “X”, a game which used wire-frame graphics, the visuals had a nice sense of depth to them. So I wanted the soundfield to have depth as well, so that when a laser is coming at you, it feels like it has dimensionality and solidity to it. I think there were a lot of cases like that, where the Game Boy did exceed the Famicom.
—The Super Famicom represented a much larger evolution in video game sound.
Kondo: Yes, the SFC could play 8 sounds at once. For the flagship SFC game, Super Mario World, I got to try out all different kinds of instrument sounds. I had worked on the Famicom’s flagship titles, so I was very conscious about wanting to do something here that would feel fresh for players, something they’d never heard before in a game. In The Legend of Zelda for the FDS, when you first hear the music, it immediately registers as something new. Likewise, in Super Mario World, I used a rich variety of novel instrument sounds and textures for the opening theme.
—The SFC was really an amazing step up, musically, from the previous consoles.
Kondo: The tones and sounds were completely different from the Famicom. It used PCM and sampling—in other words, you could record sounds from the natural world and use them as sound sources in your game. Guitar, piano, and other instruments were now possible.
—And the SFC was in full stereo.
Kondo: Yeah. We tried to make use of that in our music, always trying to bring out the stereo effect—like tracking the movement of sound effects in the stereo field.
Totaka: I only worked on one game for the SFC. I composed the music for Mario Paint.
—That must have been a dramatic difference, to go from the Game Boy to the SFC like that.
Totaka: It was. I was really happy to be able to use so many different sounds and textures.
—Mario Paint was something of a forerunner to the music games of today.
Totaka: Yeah. We had this vague, hazy idea for a game where you could make music by placing sprites on the screen, and that’s the shape it eventually ended up taking.
—The SFC could now make realistic sounds like car engines revving. Were there any particularly revolutionary, or ground-breaking sounds that stand out for you?
Kondo: Voices, being able to make the games talk. Star Fox was one that used voices for the main characters.
—And those voices were all sampled from real life?
Kondo: Yes, that’s right. The voices in Star Fox were done by people at Nintendo of America. We didn’t use voice sampling very often during the Super Famicom era, though—as you can probably guess, it’s because they ate up too much memory.
—Did the way you composed the music also change, for the SFC era?
Kondo: Up until then, we had had to write the music in actual programming code—basically straight programming. However, with the advent of the SFC, new tools were created where we could simply specify the pitch and length of the notes. We still used a computer and monitor, but now we sequenced everything with more musical parameters like pitch and note length. The writing environment looked similar to a musical staff, or a piano roll.
—And were you still writing all the sound effects by yourself?
Kondo: Yes. Up until the N64, I wrote them all by myself together with the music.
—The N64 had a truly huge variety of sounds and music on offer. Were there still polyphony limits you had to observe?
Kondo: It depended on the game, but generally, you could play back about 20 sounds at once, I think. Before this we had used distinct hardware chips for the sound, but from the N64 on, the sounds were made in software—that is, the same CPU that rendered the graphics and made the sprites move also output the sound now. What this meant, was that if a game used too many sprites, for instance, the polyphony would be reduced. Even in a single game, therefore, you’d have some scenes where there’s a lot of sounds playing at once, and some scenes with very few sounds.
—With the N64, how many people, in general, would be assigned to work on the music for a single game?
Kondo: The programming on the N64 had become more complex, so the number of people on a development also increased. If you left all the sound work to just one person, it wouldn’t get done in time. It was at this point that Nintendo started hiring people who knew programming more thoroughly: sound programmers. In the beginning, the sound teams would have one person working on sfx, one person on the music, and one person dedicated to the pure programming. Nowadays it’s more common to have 2 programmers, and big titles might have sound teams with 5 people or more total. So it varies game-by-game, but at a minimum you’ll still have 3 people working on the sound team.
—What do you think the biggest change was with the N64, in terms of music?
Kondo: The N64 used the same PCM format as the SNES, but because of the increase in memory, the textures and tones of instruments available to us also went up. From the production side, there were more tools, plugins, and fx available on the market too.
—Do you mean music production software for PCs?
Kondo: Yeah. With the N64, we started to use the same kind of methods and software that PCs use, writing music with a mouse.2 There’s a big variety of software out there, but now we could just take whatever we’d written and use it in the game as-is.
—And the N64 was the first time you were able to do this?
Kondo: Yeah. Previously, the memory limitations meant that you couldn’t really just playback any old thing you wrote. However, at the same time, a new kind of knowledge was now required: we now had to research and study the actual characteristics of real instruments. Up until then, it was fine to have a sound that sounded “like a flute”, because that was the best you could do. Now that the sounds themselves were higher quality, however, that wouldn’t fly anymore. We had to start thinking, “wait, a real flute wouldn’t sound like this, it couldn’t be played like this”.
Totaka: As the sounds approached a greater degree of realism, it became very clear when something sounded unnatural—it was something even I noticed myself. I’d notice things like, “Ok, with a real flute, the sound wouldn’t cut off this quickly” or “The attack on this sound is all wrong”. I’d then make adjustments while playing it back.
—How about sound effects? Characters could talk freely now!
Kondo: We added a lot of speech for Pokemon Stadium. Simple stuff like “Oooo~”. (laughs) There were English, Spanish, and Italian versions, and while the narration was recorded separately for each region, the individual dialogue lines were done by the Japanese sound effects staff. They had their Spanish dictionary open beside them while they recited the lines, it was funny. Whenever hardware evolves, there’s more new things to learn.
—Was it common to have to revise songs after they were added? How did you calculate the length of each song…?
Kondo: Generally, we’d be told how many seconds a piece should be, and if not, I’d just look at the screen and calculate it myself: ok, from here to here, how many bars will fit at this tempo, that kind of thing. If it wasn’t long enough, I’d find some way to add a little bit as needed.
—Conversely, did you ever write the songs first, and then try to fit them to the game/visuals afterwards?
Kondo: I almost always knew the time in advance, and wrote my songs to that. However, most of the time the songs would just match up naturally in timing. I think it’s down to the inherent sense of rhythm that human beings possess. The people who make game trailers certainly have it, as you can see from the way the trailers always have a certain flow and the music ends precisely on time. So I don’t think I’ve ever run into those kinds of timing problems myself. Have you Totaka?
Totaka: I have, I have.
Kondo: Yeah, I just think there’s such a thing as an underlying sense of rhythm in human beings. I think it’s something common to all people, whether you’re someone creating visuals, or someone creating music.
Totaka: I’ve never thought of it like that, but you may be right. I’ve had that experience too, where I was handed the video for a trailer, and I just felt “Ok, I know the type of song that will fit perfectly for this,” and I created it that way, by intuition.
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