D.I.C.E. Awards


Special Awards

<h2>Koji Kondo, Composer and Sound Director, Nintendo</h2>

Koji Kondo, Composer and Sound Director, Nintendo

Biography provided by Chris Kohler, Editorial Director of Digital Eclipse, a game developer dedicated to preserving and celebrating the history of video games. 

Koji Kondo is not just a game developer, but a musician of the electronic age. In 1966, at 5 years old, he took up the Yamaha electronic organ. In the 1970s, he began creating sound effects with state-of-the-art synthesizers. In 1984, he applied for the only job for which he would ever apply, a new position as a sound engineer at Nintendo. The next year, he composed what remains to this day the single most recognizable piece of video game music in the world – the main theme to Super Mario Bros. 

Since then, Kondo’s compositions for the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda series have been heard the world over, playing a massive part in defining the emerging genre of “video game music,” inspiring generations of musicians to come, and imbuing Nintendo’s most important game series with an emotional depth that has helped to cement them firmly in the memories of millions of players. Today, 40 years after Kondo joined Nintendo, video game music has evolved to encompass everything from synthesized waveforms to fully orchestrated live performances, and Koji Kondo continues to lead Nintendo’s sound department as it continues to produce acclaimed game scores. 

Born on August 13, 1961 in the city of Nagoya, Japan, Koji Kondo began studying the Electone, a then-new electronic organ made by Yamaha, when he was in kindergarten. “I also took auditory training lessons, how to read the scores, and of course organ classes as well,” he says of those early years. In elementary school, he played the marimbas; by high school, his parents had bought him a Yamaha CS-30, a high-end analog synthesizer that allowed him to craft his own sound effects. 

Around the same time, he discovered video games. “I believe the first time I played a game was playing Pong or Breakout at the nearby arcade center. I thought the sound of how the ball bounces was interesting,” he says. He was captivated by how he could create sounds that he imagined using the synthesizer, and went on to perform hard rock with an amateur band using those sounds. 

When Kondo enrolled in Osaka University of Arts in 1980, he chose not to concentrate specifically on music but to get a broad-based fine arts degree, studying writing and visual arts alongside music. But electronic music was his first passion, and when it came time to graduate in 1984, he found a job listing that seemed a perfect fit. “I heard from a friend that an employment flyer for a sound creator at Nintendo was on the new graduate recruitment bulletin board, so I took their employment interview and exam,” he says. 

In college, Kondo had frequented a local coffee shop that had, like so many during that era, taken out their tables and replaced them with sit-down tabletop arcade cabinets, where he played Nintendo games like Donkey Kong and the original Mario Bros. “My emotions seesawed many times when trying to play through the games,” he says. “I thought the sound of the games were very unique and interesting.” While Kondo knew he should apply for several positions to ensure a job post-graduation, he was so intent on getting hired at Nintendo that it was the only application he submitted. 

Nintendo hired Kondo as one of its first batch of video game sound specialists. At the time, music data had to be converted and input directly to the computer program, so Nintendo taught programming to its newly hired musicians. “At the time, there was only a toy-like keyboard with only 30 mini sized keys,” Kondo recalls. “I entered each piece of note data into the development workstation, played it, reviewed it, and made changes, and kept on doing it over and over again. I was using a programming language called Assembly for the sound driver and sound effects.” 

His first job? Programming the theme music for the arcade game Punch-Out!!. He went on to compose music and create sound effects for Nintendo’s arcade and Famicom games such as Devil World, Golf, and Soccer. But it was when a small team working under director Shigeru Miyamoto created a new adventure for the Famicom that Kondo’s music would enter the world spotlight. Mario was leaping out of the arcades and into the home, and leaving behind the world of single-screen coin-operated games for a scrolling, twisting, epic adventure under a blue sky. 

“I used to play many different types of music until I created the Ground Theme of Super Mario Bros. including Latin, Jazz, Fusion, movie songs, classical music, and so on,” says Kondo. “All of those elements were a baseline for me, and the Ground Theme came to my mind while I played the game many, many times.” As he played early versions of Super Mario Bros., he composed music that would accentuate the bright, rhythmic atmosphere. 

“I wanted to create something that had never been heard before, where you'd think, ’I’ve never heard anything like this in any games in the past,’” he said in a 2007 interview. Kondo actually began by composing the theme for the game’s underwater sections before writing the now-famous “ground theme” for the outdoor levels. 

But his efforts on Super Mario Bros. were not simply relegated to musical composition. “Working on how the game’s sound effects would fit and everything else related to this was done by me,” he said. “Given how much data was involved, the game programmer and I had a very difficult time making it all work properly.” 

Super Mario Bros. sold over 40 million copies, and its theme became practically synonymous with “video game music.” During one of his tour stops in Japan in the 1990s, Paul McCartney wanted to meet the makers of Mario. When he was introduced to Kondo, the legendary Beatle started singing the overworld theme. 

In 1986, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda, the next work from the team behind Super Mario Bros. While Super Mario Bros. was an action game that could be played through quickly by a skilled player, The Legend of Zelda was an intricate adventure that players could spend months or years attempting to conquer, one puzzle at a time. 

Again, Koji Kondo’s masterful compositions heightened the emotional pull of Link’s adventures and created lasting memories for players. “With Mario, the music is inspired by the game controls, and its purpose is to heighten the feeling of how the game controls. With Zelda, I was trying to enhance the atmosphere of the environments and locations,” he said in a 2007 interview. Kondo says that today, this is a key point of advice that he gives to junior composers working under him on the Super Mario and Zelda games. 

As video game technology evolved, so too did Kondo’s musical compositions. He quickly showed that he was no one-hit wonder, and continued to turn out exceptional, memorable soundtracks for Famicom/NES games like The Mysterious Murasame Castle, Super Mario Bros. 2, and Super Mario Bros. 3. The release of the 16-bit Super Famicom in 1990 meant that Kondo could begin to build his compositions out of high-quality samples, leaving behind the classic “chiptune” sound for something more closely approximating real-life instruments. He continued composing the complete soundtracks to classic games like Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

On the Nintendo 64 hardware, he composed the complete soundtracks to Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, again reinventing his approach to give the proper emotional lifts to Mario’s and Link’s first adventures in fully 3D worlds. 

Since then, he has continued to supervise the Mario and Zelda soundtracks, composing some key pieces himself while training younger composers to follow in his footsteps and carry on the foundational work he began with the earliest games in the series. 40 years later, Kondo has never slowed down; his compositions can be found all the way up to the series’ most recent games like 2023’s Super Mario Bros. Wonder

“I think the power of music plays a big role in making gaming memories last a long time,” Kondo says. 

In 2023, Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. “Ground Theme” became one of a small handful of pieces of historic recorded music to be listed in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, which is made up of recordings that "are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States." As of today, it is the only piece of video game music in the registry. 

The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences is honored to induct Koji Kondo as the first game music composer in its Hall of Fame.