Interview:Electronic Gaming Monthly May 3rd 2005 (Kondo)

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Koji Kondo has long been one of Nintendo's secret weapons, creating theme songs and soundtracks for game series such as Mario and Zelda since the 80s. He will be putting his focus on the latest Legend of Zelda game as the project nears completion.

EGM: So I bet this is very different from the studio where you made the Mario Brothers music...

Koji Kondo: All I had was a small keyboard, about this size [holds hands up], to compose the Mario music.

EGM: Maybe you could talk a little bit about how you got started at Nintendo, and your early memories of working on the games here?

KK: As I recall, I think it was when I was still five years old. I started in the organ class; you know what the organ is?

EGM: You mean a church organ?

KK: No, not that big [laughs]. When we were young, richer people had pianos, but somebody else...

EGM: Ah, an electric organ.

KK: Yeah, that's correct. So I recall that was the time when I started playing a musical instrument. And I believe up until when I was in high school -- when you say high school in Japan, high school starts at when you're fifteen years old and lasts for three years, so from fifteen to eighteen -- I was playing the organ.

EGM: And then how did you get started with Nintendo?

KK: After graduating from high school, I went to university before joining Nintendo. At university, I was studying [general subjects]. I was not dedicated to music, but there I was able to learn about composing and mixing music tunes, and at the same time I studied the arts in general like painting as well. So, when I was a senior at university, Nintendo sent the university a kind of recruiting message, a recruiting opportunity for the university students, you know? According to that notice, it said that Nintendo, for the first time in its history, was hiring men who were dedicated to sound and sound composing. Because I liked games myself -- back in those days I played some of the LCD games and I played some of the arcade games -- I thought yes, this is the company I should work for. I applied for the job and I didn't send out any other applications to any other companies, other than Nintendo.

EGM: Did you send a demo, or did you play anything as part of your application?

KK: Nope, nothing like that at all. I think the simple reason was, even if I were to do that, there would have been nobody who could evaluate that at Nintendo back then. I recall that I was tested, but it was exactly the way how designers [and] artists were treated.

EGM: Was your first project?

KK: An arcade game, Golf.

EGM: What did you think about making videogames at first?

KK: At first I was pretty surprised and impressed, because before what I was doing is I played music myself, and immediately I was listening to my music being played. However, what I did with the videogames was pretty different. I programmed the computer and the computer generated the sounds as something that was kind of alien for me. I was not playing, but somehow, music was coming out. The sheer surprise was there, but soon after, I realized that it was a very interesting opportunity, because by manipulating the program, the music which was very unknown to me could be generated through the computer.

EGM: It's obviously changed a lot, from those early days of making music to today, but how would you describe how making videogame music for Nintendo has changed over the years?

KK: Well, after all, whenever we're composing music for videogames, the objectives still remain the same -- that is, to make the best, most appropriate music for the game itself. What's different is, it's actually dependent on the advancement of newer technologies. We can now have a much wider range of musical tunes that we can select, and the music itself can be clearly reproduced through videogames. We all know that there's much wider room for us to express ourselves through composing music. I think that's the biggest difference, considering what we were doing back then. On the other hand, I have to admit that the sheer amount of the workload is much bigger than before.

EGM: Do you ever go back and listen to your old classic music these days, and if so, what do you think about it now? Like Mario, or the NES, Famicom-era music...

KK: When I listen to this old music, even though that sound's playing, it can have some definite status or interest that keeps people listening. Having said that, however, I should admit that for each sound, music was composed in a manner so that a short segment of music was repeatedly used in the same gameplay. I'm afraid that the current gamers can more easily get tired to listening to the repetition of such a short piece of music. Of course, back in those days that was all we could do within the limited capacity. We were doing our best.

EGM: Could you describe what your process of making music is? Do you sit down at the keyboard...or has it changed from the old days as far as how you get your inspiration? Do you suddenly just wake up in the middle of the night and have a melody in your head, or do you work it out on the keyboard, or the guitar...?

KK: Sometimes I compose in front of my keyboard, or sometimes I hit upon a new tune when I'm taking a bath, for example. Often I am working in my office, and a game director gives a specific request, like "Mr. Kondo, we're working on this kind of image, or this type of music, or the background is like this -- could you make music that's appropriate to that?" Also, because it's a game, the scene changes one after another, so they specifically tell us that you have to have a kind of segue from this part to that part. I take notes from them, probably on adhesive tape or post-it types of small messages, and go to affix these in front of my keyboard. Then I'm going to watch the actual gameplay footage...I try to make something for about 30 minutes at first, and then I listen to it, whatever I have made, once again, and sometimes modify it, sometimes delete it, something like that. I'm doing that kind of repetition as long as I'm in the office. And because I've been doing an awful lot of those kinds of works at work, even in my house I sometimes intentionally or unintentionally I have to think about it. Mostly it's when I'm very relaxed, taking a bath or when I'm in the men's room at home, sometimes music comes to my mind.

EGM: At the hot springs sometimes? I heard you're a big fan of those...

KK: Yeah, I like hot spring resorts, but that's when I'm on vacation, and I try to escape from work [laughs].

EGM: So let's talk a little bit about Zelda specifically. Describe what Legend of Zelda means to you, what you think of the game and what you keep in mind when designing music for the game.

KK: When I think about Zelda, it's an adventure game that comes to my mind first and foremost. I have to think about the feeling, the kind of brave or courageous feeling in terms of making the musical notes. At the same time, the general setting sort of European, with historic European towns and cities and things like that, from a long time ago. Yet it's not so defined, after all; it's an unusual and unknown world for everybody. If you are going to make music appropriate to a totally unknown town and unknown cities, you've got to come up with totally unusual music as well. In that sense I've been given total freedom and autonomy when it comes to the types of music I can compose, so what I'm trying to do is let players have the opportunity to listen to a number of different types of music, by sometimes combining the different genres of music intentionally.

EGM: Have you started working on the music for this new Zelda?

KK: If you're asking me personally, no, I have not, but my staff members have already started working on that.

EGM: Will you start working on it later in the project, towards the end?

KK: Yeah, most of the time, yes.

EGM: Is there anything different in particular about the music this time around -- directions you've been given by Mr. Aonuma or anyone else?

KK: Specifically, I know that what I'm supposed to make are very dynamic sounds, now that the visuals are going to be rather photorealistic.

Nintendo PR: Does the change in graphics change the way you approach the music for a Zelda game? Does it make you think about the music differently?

KK: Actually, in a lot of ways, it's identical. After all, what we're doing is to try to make the appropriate music for the visuals, so whichever game you're working on the approach is similar.

EGM: What kind of music are you listening to, that you like to listen to?

KK: I like jazz and Latin music.

EGM: And what instruments do you play yourself. You said you were learning the cello, and obviously the piano -- are there any others?

KK: No, nothing else.

EGM: I know that in America, the most popular downloaded cellphone ringtone two months ago was the Mario theme. What do you think of this resurgence of all your classical music that you made popular?

KK: It's a surprise, and I'm very glad. I knew that some people have done similar things in Japan, but I didn't know that they were doing the same thing in the US.

EGM: Why do you think that is, that your music has stood the test of time that way? That people have cellphones that could play real music but instead they choose your classic tunes?

KK: Well, yeah, I understand that people want to have a kind of nostalgic feeling with that, but more importantly, there are technical reasons. When it comes to the sound of a ring or a telephone, rather than really complicated or elaborate music, simple music is more suitable.

EGM: I think you're much too humble. I think it's because it's so memorable. [laughs] I know sometimes in Japan there are concerts with full orchestras playing versions of your music. Do you ever go to those, take part in those? And will we ever see that in a game, do you think, where you'll get a full orchestra together and use that kind of music?

KK: It was the days of the Super NES that every year for about five or six years they were having the videogame music concerts. And unfortunately I didn't participate as a musician, but I used to appear at the beginning of the show to introduce myself. Last year we had a concert over one day, playing two times, and there we made the game tunes arranged for the big band, and I was actually playing one song myself, on the electronic organ. We played Mario and we played Zelda music.

[Note: This event was called "Mario and Zelda Big Band Live" and was held on September 14th. They held a concert with a 30s dance-hall kind of sound, and they cut an album version of this as well.]

EGM: So is there a chance that we'll ever see that kind of a music [in a game], with the full orchestrated...

KK: If it's necessary to do that kind of thing, depending on the game, I believe it's going to be possible.

KK: It's very hard because I like every single piece of music that I compose myself, but in terms of popularity, I have to admit it would be the ground level music of Super Mario Bros. That was literally a smash hit. But once again, I like every single bit of music that I compose myself.

EGM: This is an open-ended question, but do you have any stories or funny anecdotes that you remember from the early days, maybe the early Famicom days, about your music or the games?

KK: Yes, as I recall, in the very first Legend of Zelda, in the very opening title screen, we used to use the classical music of "Bolero," because that tempo was perfectly matched with the speed of the opening screen rolling. But I remember it was just before, when we really had to complete the final ROM for reproduction, they told me that unfortunately the copyright of that music hadn't expired yet, so I had to compose a completely new piece of music tthat night. I recall that I did it within one day. You know, "da-da-da-da" -- that was done in just one day.

[Note: "Bolero," by Ravel, is a famous bit of classical music. It's also the name of a really sh--ty movie with Bo Derek in it.]

EGM: You came up with that and recorded it in just one day?

KK: Yeah, but of course, we already had the ground level music figured out, so what I did was just an arrangement to perfectly match with the opening scroll.

Nintendo PR: Was that one very long day?

KK: Yeah, just doing overnight work.

EGM: Is there any music or films or anything that you use as inspiration when working on the music for Zelda games?

KK: As a matter of fact, I'm listening to many soundtracks from adventure movies, and also I'm trying to listen to many, what you'd call "ethnic" global music from many different parts of the world. Also, I'm trying to listen to the very old-fashioned music tunes as much as I can.