Videogame soundtracks continue to rise in quality and prominence, with many now available digitally or physically to appreciate as stand-alone works. *Press A* is an article series on A Closer Listen celebrating the finest the medium has to offer, past to present.
[This is part 1 of “The Music of the Sonic and Mario Rivalry”. You can find part 2 here.]
Introduction: What Marketing Ploy Are You?
I’m sure many of our dear readers will remember the corporate stand-off between Sega and Nintendo in the 1990s. It found, among its other various expressions, a place in the opposition between their respective ‘mascots’: Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. Mario was perhaps the first truly popular videogame icon, a character whose image became closely associated with the Nintendo brand by the end of the 1980s.
While a series of exclusive games and a certain diversity of products were both important to these corporations in order to sell their consoles, the competition became primarily articulated around certain characters that were wielded as meaningful choices between ways of being. The opposition between Mario and Sonic was, of course, another cultural level of brand competition (say, McCormick vs. Hellmann’s) that played deeply with identity instead of doing so exclusively through aesthetics (which is to say, a simple matter of taste, even if taste is never simple). This leads directly into the issue of sound: what was the music expressing about each character? What did it say about the identity that best reflected your own? While the Mario-Sonic opposition is ultimately spurious (it’s just mayonnaise, after all), in the 1990s there was a clear intent to separate Sonic’s style from Mario’s. It was contextually underlined by Sega’s bid to attract teenagers, not kids, to its consoles, as shown by the Mortal Kombat controversy of 1992-1993, in which Sega allowed explicit violence to be shown in its version of the game. Regardless, this distinction was an effort also undertaken in musical terms*.
The Koji Kondo Style
All of the main Mario game soundtracks from the 1980s and 1990s were composed solely by Koji Kondo, the author of many a legendary Nintendo OST. While the prog-rock bands he’s cited as having influenced his style can be somewhat heard in the complex transitions of Super Mario Bros. (1985) tracks such as “Underworld”, Romanticism is a much larger presence in the stylistic universe of the Mario games. In this sense, SMB, while experimental in nature due to technological conditions, is relatively conservative in structure, revealing another way in which Kondo enacted the principles of prog-rock by creating a synthesis of ‘high’ and ‘low’. Kondo’s style tends to recreate traditional songs and ‘high’ classical Romantic music in a ‘low’ electronic format, filling Mario’s conventional fantasy world with waltzes and folk. SMB’s “Ending” is just a repeating riff on a verse from the (originally) German folk song “O Tannenbaum”, its current form born in the 19th century and then popularized throughout other parts of Europe and the English-speaking world, which knows the song as “O Christmas Tree”.
Super Mario Bros 2 (1986) revels even further in traditional structures, divided by themes (a hint of the Wagnerian which Kondo would put to best use in the Zelda soundtracks). One of the most interesting developments of this music’s history is that while all of it was designed for the levels – the fantasy environments of the Mario world – the primary association the public has in mind is not with the rolling green mountains of the background or the grey bricks of the castle, but with the character, with Mario himself. The difference is significant. Kondo always thought that the rhythm of the music had to synchronize with the act of playing, the pressing of buttons an important aspect of understanding the game as fundamentally driven by different rhythms and movements that, put together, effectively make up a kind of dance for the hands and eyes. If these two experiences – playing a game and dancing – become equated, then the question of what kind of dance is it comes to the fore. The answer is, in Kondo’s style, a classical sort of dance whose roots are in folk music. There are waltzes and polka, the Romantic’s approach to the crossings between the classical and the popular, but then there are also jazz rhythms in there, another kind of folk that’s also the result of musical developments of the late 19th century and early 20th. That’s not even mentioning “Starman”, a full-on speedy samba to represent Mario’s transformation into an invincible version of himself.
With Super Mario Bros 3 (1988) came new technological solutions to the reproduction of complex sounds, and Kondo exploited jazzy electronic rhythms to concentrate more upon the levels and less on the characters of the game. There are more modern beats here, at least more rhythmically daring, from reggae to calypso, and the mixture is made not from a modernist’s point of departure, against these things’ traditions, but a classicalist’s point of view, as the reinforcement of those things’ very rules, even if their context was upended. The “World Map” tracks are an excellent example of Kondo’s eclectic and romantic approach to folk, a fitting reflection of Mario’s own kid-friendly version of romanticism: an innocent princess trapped by a monster, the restoration of the castle to its rightful aristocracy a restoration of all that is good in the world. And yet, for all of his flirtations with modern ‘folk’, or pop music, like in “Hammer Bros” (nevertheless classic) rock n’ roll or his evolution of the “Underground” theme from prog-synth to hip-hop beat, Kondo would fully go back to less industrial folk for Super Mario World (1990). Its famous “Overworld” theme is an eclectic Latin rhythm that makes use of new tech to reproduce the sound of the marimba; all over, SMW is much more (Caribbean) percussion-oriented, its melodies carried out by drums, marimbas, and bongo sounds. Its other main component is the ballad, like in “Donut Plains/Chocolate Island”, one of the sweetest – if shortest – pieces in videogame music, a return to the promise of “O Tannenbaum” and children’s music to integrate an experience of play based upon the joy of childhood imagination and dance. “Egg is Rescued” reimagines the “Overworld” theme as a waltz with African percussion (!), not only marking the highest point of SMW’s Wagnerian repetition of themes but also reinforcing the Romantic idea underlining the entire soundtrack. It even explores Mario’s story as two sides of the romantic, villains getting gothic music and heroes getting the ballads. “Bowser’s Castle” is straight up gothic ‘hard rock’, while “Bowser” veers into hard rock territory, sounding often like a metal chiptune. At play here is an opposition between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’. The modern tends to inform villainy while the traditional tends to inform the hero, coming once again to equate places with characters to great effect.
Super Mario All-Stars (1993) was a compilation of all three previous Mario games with an “updated and upgraded” OST, which Kondo’s reinterpretation oriented in ways that made them all much more similar to SMW and which reaffirmed his commitment to the classical. SMB introduces two “Title Themes” rooted in waltz and lullaby, and uses a marimba sound instead of the crunchy synth of the original for its renewed “Overworld” theme. SMB 2 (remember, the most traditional of all three!) ends up avoiding major modifications, and SMB 3 becomes much more fanfare-centric. By this time, we have to recall, Sonic the Hedgehog had already made a spectacular entrance in the imaginations of videogame players.
A New Challenger Appears
The composer of the two first Sonic games, Masato Nakamura, was from 1988 a member of the band Dreams Come True, which played pop songs and ballads in a style best described as late new wave. His profile was completely different to that of Kondo, evidently aimed to an entirely different audience. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991), ever from the start, is catchy and multi-layered – this type of sound comes not from folk tradition but from pop and melodramatic cinematic music, its jazziness more up to date than Kondo’s 1940s vision of jazz. In other words, it is cooler.
‘Cool’ was the word that Sega wanted to attach to the character of Sonic. It’s a word that meant much more to teenagers than children, and the music of these games reflects the youth culture with which Sonic – conceivably a teenager himself – was supposed to connect. It’s not the catchiest or the most memorable of Sonic 1, but “Labyrinth Zone” is perhaps one of its most interesting tracks, inasmuch as it’s got the structure of a ballad, but it’s much closer to a Madonna production than any kind of classicism rooted in 19th century folk. Kondo’s lesson, that music and play should integrate as one, is fulfilled here as a more modern type of dance. In this sense, “Star Light Zone” is the closest to Kondo that Sonic 1 gets, and it subverts the cheesy 80s balladry with a short new wave pop deviation: this is not “O Tannenbaum”, this is “Step by Step“. Where Kondo uses melody as a thematic center, Nakamura uses it as an engine for the game’s speed. Sonic was characterized by his speed and care-free attitude, and the game emphasized his velocity over any kind of rhythmical coherence. If Kondo’s rhythmic structures tend towards the stability of repetitive movements and specific steps to win, as if it was a waltz, Nakamura’s music is all about forgetting the steps, eluding any kind of muscular training: just follow your heart and dance however you like.
Being a setup for corporate competition, it is possible that Nakamura listened to the music of Mario games before composing Sonic 1, taking inspiration from the ways that Kondo configured the aural universe of something like a videogame, focused on a particular blend between character and place. “Special Stage” from Sonic 1 is basically a deviated Kondo: a sweet, lovely waltz that’s all about the catchy tune instead of the complexity behind it. The main difference is in the music’s use: the ‘special stage’ interrupts the flow of the game, being an interlude between levels, instead of being the measure with which the entire game is configured. Even a superficial comparison of the music – how each character’s invincibility mode is represented (not the only way in which the games’ mechanics come to mirror each other) – throws interesting results: SMB 3’s “Starman” is way, way faster than SMW’s equivalent and Sonic 1’s “Invincibility”.
This could seem contradictory but actually furthers the point that the speed of samba is an exception to the rules of Mario, whereas the rock speed of Sonic 1’s invincibility theme is just the continuation of the standard rhythm of play. “Starman” has a polyphonic base that makes it interesting even as it continually repeats the same 5-second or so segment of music, while “Invincibility” opts for a longer melodic approach composed by a single type of sound. Although different in implementation, however, what they both convey is similar: the rules are broken, so rejoice and dance forward as fast as you can; keep running, because nothing can stop you anyway. Another good point of comparison is the villain’s music, which in Sonic 1’s “Boss” has nothing to do with the Romantic theme of good vs evil that Kondo’s music underlines. Instead, Nakamura’s villain also uses a ballad, but it’s not a pop ballad meant for dancing, it’s a ballad meant for slowing down.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992), also thanks to technological explorations, contains many more sounds, leading to more complex melodies than in Sonic 1. Where the Sonic 1 tracks are short and emphasize repetition, Sonic 2 emphasizes uniqueness through melodic development, even though all tracks invariably repeat when at play. Beats tend to be much faster as well, and harmony, as opposed to Kondo, ceases to be an important element of the music, meaning also that the ambience of the pieces (their ability to aurally depict a place) gives way to the mood of the different melodies, which are usually working towards getting the heart racing. I cannot affirm with certainty that there is a musical dialogue with Kondo here, but Nakamura often makes it seem like there is. Because in Sonic 2, not only is the level-character relationship almost an afterthought, there’re also plenty of moments when Nakamura takes the Kondo model and subverts it one way or another (dear readers, I’m this close to writing the word ‘deconstruct’ here…). “Aquatic Ruin Zone” is based on a Latin rhythm, but it is not slowed down nor does it focus on percussion – it is melodic and almost undanceable. Similarly, “Casino Night Zone” takes the classic jazz sound favored by Kondo and adds a pop melody on top, making it a repetitive feature of the track even though it’s the longest in the whole soundtrack. In a sense, it’s basically anti-jazz. “Hill Top Zone” reverses the structure of “Casino Night Zone” by developing a jazzy ‘country tune’ on top of a simple pop background. It even emulates the sound of the harmonica to a degree of success and uses its high pitch to create a blues-like call and response, even though the blues is hardly present here.
The fanfare of “Wing Fortress Zone” is also subverted by unexpected breaks in the rhythm. It’s like victory parade music that is suddenly stopped by a ‘villain theme’. The track is a fanfare for the constructions made by the game’s bad guy, effectively turning the tables on Kondo’s associations of rock and modern music with the villain: evil loves a good fanfare, while good loves modern, culture-industry produced music. In other words, evil is old, while good is young (but not any kind of young – it’s the teenage young). Mario is a middle-aged (read: old) guy with nearly ancient ideas about the world: save a princess and return the world to order, overcome the chaos and the noise that all these young punks and new-wavers make. The goal in the Sonic games is not to rescue a princess, but to save animals destined to become robots, and to win you do not have to defeat a monster but the only human ever represented in the game. Sonic is -presumably- a teen with a kid sidekick facing the new problems of the world, like rampant, unchecked industrialization and the slavery of animals. “Death Egg Zone” (corresponding to the villain’s ultimate construction) is an interesting track because of this – an uplifting theme for which the context is mass extinction, an uplifting melody underscored by sinister electronic sounds. In the same line of thought, “Dr. Robotnik’s Theme” is the only other theme apart from “Wing Fortress Zone” that emulates any kind of classical instrumentation, being also the closest to an East European folk rhythm that any Sonic soundtrack ever gets. The “Final Boss” theme is a heroic confrontation of a dramatic – almost tragic – nature, its first sounds akin to alarm bells. This is a romance of a different kind, one much more centered on expression and passion than the cute yet dry romanticism of Mario.
Nakamura was billed as the composer for Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles (1994) but left because of differences with the company. His legacy for Sonic 3 was, funnily enough, perhaps not in the main body of Sonic 2 and all his Kondo subversions, but in the three tracks he composed for the two-player stages in Sonic 2 that were completely separate from the main game. The two-player version of “Emerald Hill” is a catchy reggae tune, no longer a melodic, rocking piece; “Casino Night” is almost funky, a complete reversal of the mood of the jazzy “Casino Night Zone”, feeling much closer to the funky hip hop of the late 80s than any kind of traditional jazz music; finally, two-player “Mystic Cave” opts for speed instead of a subversion of the Kondo gothic present in “Mystic Cave Zone”, integrating a Latin rhythm into new wave pop (I didn’t mention Madonna just because!), an adventurous and more modern kind of music than anything from Sonic 1 and any of the Mario games.
Jun Senoue, Tatsuyuki Maeda, Masaru Setsumaru, Tomonori Sawada, Masayuki Nagao, Sachio Ogawa, and Howard Drossin were in charge of Sonic 3. They took Nakamura’s legacy forward and created something quite special, perhaps the best of all the 90s Sonic OSTs. It’s got Michael Jackson-style pop-funk, it’s got its share of hip hop inspiration via the (scarce) use of voice samples and certain beats, it’s got complex riffing and rock, it’s got cumbia rhythms… in short, it’s complex in the way in which modern music is complex, as against the classicality of Kondo’s arrangements.
“Angel Island” (both Act 1 and Act 2) develops a thematic core by variating it into different melodies and riffs, making the track perhaps as sophisticated as anything Kondo had done till that time. It uses polyphonic systems quite well and is a perfect technological prelude to the kinds of sounds that Kondo would achieve with Super Mario 64 (1996). Act 2 of “Angel Island” is a great example of the variations of folk themes that accompanied the other games, both Mario and Sonic, except the composers take the whole thing in another direction altogether. At this point, Sonic 3 shows its hand, revealing an debt not to classical or even pop but something even ‘cooler’, and which Nakamura’s two-player tracks from Sonic 2 greatly hinted at: acid jazz.
With its deft mixture of electronic beats, jazz structures, Latin rhythms, and pop sounds, the Japanese acid jazz scene grew rapidly over the 1990s, from United Future Organization’s self-titled album from 1993 to Gota Yashiki’s It’s So Different Here from 1997 and Jazztronik’s Set Free, from 2003. Thus, Sonic 3 is much funkier and danceable in general, and less inclined to rock, like Sonic 2 often did. “Launch Base”, halfway through the soundtrack, presents perhaps the clearest picture of the type of electronic sound that is being articulated here: a mix of break dance music, EDM, and hip hop. The near-samba beat of the track throws it squarely into the field of break dancing. To both Kondo’s traditional, romanticized view of folk music and Nakamura’s pop orientation, this new group of composers responded with a more modern, more actualized view of popular music, as well as an accessibility that does not eschew complexity in any way.
To be continued on part 2.
*In order to make this comparative exercise, I had to make a few methodological decisions, of which the most important is that I only used ‘main game’ soundtracks from both series up to 1996 in order to try and be fairer. What this means is that I avoided differently-styled games and offshoots such as Mario Kart or Super Mario RPG, focusing instead on the biggest platformer releases of the time for each corporation’s ‘flagship console’. Therefore, I also didn’t consider platformers such as Sonic Chaos or Sonic CD, which came out for portables and add-ons for the ‘flagship’. I stopped at 1996 because that was the last year when there was comparable contemporary competition between Mario and Sonic games – the last Sega console exclusive of a Sonic platformer was Sonic Adventure (1999), which was developed for a system that was discontinued in 2001, one year before its nearest counterpart, Super Mario Sunshine (2002), came out. After that, Sega closed its console development shop up and opened its intellectual properties to other corporations, effectively ending whatever was left of the early 1990s mascot opposition.