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How Nintendo made video game music mainstream

Written by Tom | 30th October 2019


When Nintendo launched Super Mario Bros. on the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), it didn’t just reintroduce us to Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and champion the joys of side-scroller  – Nintendo was one of the first game publishers to make music an integral part of the gaming experience. Since then, Nintendo’s music has gone from strength to strength; from the lilting orchestras of The Legend of Zelda to the sparse soundscapes of the Metroid series. We dived into the company’s sonic history and looked into what it is that makes Nintendo’s scores so loved and how the company changed gaming music forever. 


Opening score


Back in the mid-1980s, the video game industry was in decline. 1983 saw a sharp drop in revenue for games and questions over the longevity of consoles and home computers were raised. Japan and the United States were hit especially hard by this and both markets were close to collapse . That is, until Nintendo launched the NES in 1985 – a console credited with reviving the industry and producing one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time: Super Mario Bros. While the platform-scrolling gaming format was revolutionary in itself, Super Mario Bros. pioneered another feature that video games had previously yet to tap into: music. 


The main plaudits went to the game’s theme song, ‘Overworld’, which would become one of the most recognisable jingles in gaming history. Composed by Nintendo’s Koji Kondo (often fondly dubbed the Mario Maestro) ‘Overworld’ pushed the boundaries of what music in games meant. Rather than considering music to be an afterthought to the game design, Kondo positioned it as a fundamental part of the experience. Practically, this meant that music became the connection between movement and sound – Mario moved and jumped in step with the chipper nonchalance of the song. 



The 'Overworld' theme is one of the most recognisable gaming jingles, now synonymous with Super Mario


And Kondo etched music into every aspect of the game; Mario levels that took place underwater were soundtracked by a waltz that synchronised with the glinting of the gold coins and bouncing Bloopers (Super Mario’s version of squids). Kondo’s premise was that music should be the medium that connects everything you see with everything you feel. 


Lingering feeling


Perhaps what sets Nintendo apart is the feelings its music tends to evoke. Ask any Nintendo fan and you’ll hear words like ‘nostalgia’, ‘homesick’ and ‘yearning’ used to describe the soundtracks. And while much of this can be linked to that age of the players when the games were first released, there’s an emotive quality distinct to the Nintendo scores. Music was, as Kondo describes, a way to bring the game to life and tell a story. And there’s arguably no game that does this better than Nintendo’s classic title The Legend of Zelda


The land of Hyrule (that has served as the setting for most of the series’ games) is one that has always been defined by music – the ocarina in Ocarina of Time, the conducting baton of The Wind Waker or the harp that crops up in most games, are all instruments integral to the game (some games even take their names from them). Consequently, the actual sound has always been pivotal in not just enhancing the game but also understanding it. Many of the songs in Zelda games function not just as a soothing soundtrack for your journeys across this fictional land but also as a friend throughout the game. Whenever Link (the game’s protagonist) is lost or in need, he often turns to his instrument and music to save him. 



Ocarina of Time isn't just regarded as one of the best games ever – it's also lauded for having one of the greatest soundtracks


The soundtracks are now widely revisited and lauded for their diversity – from rumbling orchestral might (The Wind Waker) to melancholic folk numbers (Majora’s Mask) – and it is a testament to their impact that they’re still able to revive memories of a time and place among contemporary players. 


Innovative sounds


Nintendo’s approach to music has always been forward-thinking. And the company has continuously paved the way for gaming audio to advance in terms of technical requirements too. The introduction of the 8 and 16-bit processors, for instance, were a mode of technology that gave Nintendo’s early music a uniquely electronic flavour. 


Beyond the likes of Zelda and Mario, games such as Metroid helped shape what music could be. Sweeping melodies and cheerful tunes were swapped for sparse, ethereal soundscapes that helped affirm the isolation and remoteness of the Metroid world. While the Metroid scores weren’t inherently musical in the traditional sense, they helped pioneer a genre of music that was atmospheric and challenged musical norms. When the composer of the Metroid soundtracks, Hirokazu Tanaka, was asked how he approached the series, he said that instead of seeing the music as a backing and atmosphere, he wanted to create a primal and immersive sound that could as easily be the sound of one of the world’s haunted creatures, as it could be actual music. 



Metroid Prime is the GameCube generation edition of the Metroid Series and reflects the series' classic sparse sound


And if there’s any doubt around Nintendo’s impact on music still, press play on some of today’s most popular artists – Drake, Childish Gambino – and you may find a Nintendo jingle or two sampled in their songs, where the gentle yearning of Hyrule’s music lives on. 


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