BiographyKondo was born in Osaka, Japan. He took to music at an early age, writing simple tunes for fun even as a small child. At seventeen, he decided to pursue music professionally. He undertook classical training, and he learned to play several instruments.
In the 1980s, Kondo learned that a company called Nintendo was seeking musicians to compose music for its new video game system, the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System in North America and Europe). Kondo had never considered writing video game music before, but he decided to give the company a chance. He was hired in 1983.
Kondo found himself in a totally different environment at Nintendo. Suddenly, he was limited to only three "instruments" (melody, harmony, and percussion) due to the system's primitive sound chip. Though he and Nintendo's technicians eventually discovered a way to add a fourth channel (normally reserved for sound effects), his music was still severely limited on the system.
Kondo has stayed with Nintendo through various consoles, including the Super Famicom (Super Nintendo in North America and Europe), the Nintendo 64, and most recently the GameCube. These latter systems have vastly improved Nintendo's audio capabilities, and Kondo today composes music with CD quality sound.
Musical Style and Influences
Koji Kondo is one of the pioneers of video game music. Critics cite as his greatest talent his ability to craft melodies that remain pleasant and unobtrusive even when looped over long periods of time and played through inferior sound equipment. His songs are definitely memorable; one survey revealed that two-thirds of people worldwide recognized Kondo's main theme to Super Mario Bros. almost 20 years after it was written, and Kondo can count talent such as Paul McCartney among his fans. Kondo's music has been cited as being as integral to the Nintendo style as the game design of Shigeru Miyamoto.
Conversely, this familiarity is also the cause of most criticism of Kondo's work. Over nearly 20 years in video game music, his style has changed very little. The themes of Super Mario Bros. in 1985 are little different from those of Super Mario Sunshine in 2002, although the earlier game sounds more primitive due to technology constraints. This need for sameness over the years is something of a two-edged sword for Kondo; when he does try something different, as in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998), his fans criticize him for abandoning the themes and styles they have grown to enjoy.
Koji Kondo's work shows at least three major influences: Latin music, jazz music, and classical music, often with a strong cinematic flair. Latin is particularly evident in his bouncy themes throughout the Mario series, such as the soundtrack to Super Mario Bros. 3. The happy main theme has a slow, samba-like rhythm, and the Bowser theme would not sound out of place being played by a Mexican mariachi band. This influence also shows up in his more recent works, such as the Gerudo Valley theme from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a song with a certain Spanish flair.
Kondo's more jazz-influenced pieces also come from a wide variety of projects. One of the earliest examples of this is his minimalist underground theme from the first Super Mario Bros. Saria's theme from Ocarina of Time sounds almost Dixieland in places. All of this is hardly surprising; Kondo lists Henry Mancini as one of his most admired influences.
Kondo was trained as a classical musician, and this shows in his more ambitious projects, such as the soundtracks to the Zelda and StarFox series. These pieces are distinctively cinematic, reminiscent of John Williams' work on Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The title theme to the 1986 The Legend of Zelda is grandiose for all its low fidelity, and echoes of this return in 2002's Star Fox Adventures, with its grand sweeping sci-fi themes.
Kondo's work is also highly influenced by Eastern Asian music, which is understandable considering his origins. His songs are predominately melody-based with little supporting harmony, which is in keeping with the Asian tradition. This makes him somewhat unique among the most popular video game composers, as his counterparts such as Nobuo Uematsu and Koichi Sugiyama produce more Western-sounding compositions for their games.
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