The "Underworld Theme" from 'Super Mario Bros' is a Replay of a 1979 Fusion Record
A look back at esteemed composer Koji Kondo's early scores, memorable interpolations, use of sample CDs, and more current work.
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Legendary composer, music director, and pianist Koji Kondo found his initial footing at Nintendo after seeing a job listing on a bulletin board at his college. Despite conventional wisdom telling him that he should apply to a wide range of positions after graduation, something about a potential placement with the company seemed ideal. “I saw the Nintendo ad, and had a love of making synthesizers, and loved games, and thought—that's the place for me, “ he told Chris Kohler in a 2007 Wired interview. “I interviewed with one company, Nintendo, and that's where I've been ever since.”
His first composer credit came in late 1983/early 1984 with the arcade version of Punch-Out!!.
Punch-Out!! was an important stepping stone but Super Mario Bros. proved to be a true watershed moment for Kondo, as both the game and accompanying score maintain an all-time legendary status. Highlights on the soundtrack abound, but “Underworld Theme” is definitely one of the most memorable cuts.
Readers might be surprised to learn that “Underworld Theme” features a clever replay of the late-‘70s fusion group Friendship. They only recorded one self-titled album together in 1979 with Don Grusin serving as producer. Take a listen “Let’s Not Talk About It,” especially at the 0:12 and 2:26 mark, and you’ll here the origins of “Underworld Theme.”
Though “Underworld Theme” marked Kondo’s first replay, it isn’t the only time he utilized interpolation in his masterful scoring work. Check out the expertly crafted “Dungeon Theme” from 1986’s The Legend of Zelda.
Head to the 2-minute mark of “April” by Deep Purple and you will once again hear the original sounds that Kondo reimagined for the Nintendo console.
Despite his early successes, Kondo found that the feedback he received on the original Super Mario Bros. score made it difficult to create freely as he composed the songs for 1988’s Super Mario Bros. 3. “When I made the original Super Mario Bros. music, I didn't pay any attention to genre,” he told Akinori Sao in a 2017 interview for the Nintendo website. “Instead, I just played the game and made music that went along with it. But as more people heard it, they started saying it sounded Latin or like fusion, and I wondered what direction to take with Super Mario Bros. 3.”
Kondo eventually found his way and dug into the musical archives for an interesting bit of inspiration while working on the score. Give “Castle Theme” a listen.
Now go to the 1:49 mark of the “Original Theme” from The Twilight Zone and you can hear the brief orchestral segment that Kondo reworked for Mario in his own way.
He largely moved away from interpolating music after Super Mario Bros. 3, but Kondo did use samples from stock sound libraries and sample CDs several times. “Forest Temple” from the Nintendo 64 title The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time makes memorable use of Zero G Sample Libraries’ Ethnic Flavours release from 1996.
Kondo has worked in a variety of roles at Nintendo since his earlier and most prolific years as a composer. Despite his expanded duties, recent scores like the 2015 Wii U game Super Mario Maker have also benefited from his involvement.
Koji Kondo raised the standard of video game music and created some of the most iconic video game songs. He influenced countless game composers and artists in other genres and spaces. His scores are also a frequent source of interpolation and sampling.
There’s no doubt his work will continue to inspire and bring people joy for a long time.
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