From Super Mario to Zelda, Nintendo’s Influence on the Music of B.ARK
Updated: Oct 21, 2020
When I first joined the team at B.Ark, there were two things that were abundantly clear. I had to create this epic, yet friendly arcade-y soundtrack. And, from the musical references that I was given, I had to answer the question of what makes Koji Kondo’s, no, Nintendo’s music so unique and memorable. And you know what? I did a banger of a job on both accounts.
To start off from where everything begins I addressed the most primal part of what makes the big N’s music something that connects on a deeper level. That is, I had to think about emotions. What feelings arise when I listen to Super Mario World’s Theme, or Dragon Roost Island, or Norfair the Fires of Zebes? What is it that changes in me from the moment before I start listening to them, to the exact moment I start doing so?
Well for me personally, first of all, there’s nostalgia. Rushing to get my Christmas presents, and finding Ocarina of Time—a gift from my grandma—under the tree. I knew absolutely nothing about Zelda back then, but I knew, from the first time I played it and listened to the soundtrack, that at some point I’d be making music for games. Something perhaps compounded by growing up in a family of musicians, true, but it doesn’t take much searching to know that many others also feel deeply tied to Ocarina of Time’s music.
Why is it then that we recall these Nintendo tunes so vividly and with so much color? Surprisingly, there’s actually two answers to that. There’s a part of it that focuses on being iconic and memorable rather than just looking to feel as a natural feeling in the general environment of the games. And there’s a very technical execution to it all that allows each note to cause
On the surface level, there’s a relatively straightforward answer to it all, things sound the way they are. Much in the same way that you would see in say, a Disney movie, or the Star Wars soundtrack, even without seeing what’s going on onscreen, the melody alone tells you exactly the type of scene you are currently looking at. Villains sound evil and dramatic, climatic moments carry themselves with an air of epic grandeur, and the sounds of fun are positively exploding with joy. In this way, Nintendo’s music is honest to a fault.
This intent is by itself a step in the right direction as far as achieving meaningful, memorable, and uniquely tailored audio goes. Nevertheless, if making songs that stay with you throughout your life was as easy as thinking of the emotion of the scene in its simplest terms, it is fair to say that we’d see much more music that resembles Nintendo’s own. How do you go from knowing what you want to do for the music to understanding what you need to do to actually make it feel the way you desire? For that, we have to learn from the succinct technical prowess of Nintendo’s composers such as Koji Kondo and Kenji Yamamoto.
To give you an example of what I mean, let’s look at the theme that plays when you first see Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time. In this example, Kondo utilizes diminished chords. Diminished chords are usually utilized in the form of a question that is eventually resolved via other chords such as in the start of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, which resolves into a major phrasing and an uptempo approach. Ganondorf’s theme does not do this, instead opting to bounce into minor or augmented chords, then returning to diminished chords. In turn, the feeling that the player is left with is of something deeply dramatic that isn’t answered or resolved yet, giving an implicit understanding of the kind of shadowy figure that Ganon provides throughout the whole game, and resolving for real until the final battle against him.
Another aspect that is heavily relied on and cared for in order to allow the player to connect with the situation at hand, is the proper usage of instrumentation. On a bigger scale is the choice of instruments through a specific work. Mario utilizes a wide array of playful sound effects, and in Zelda, you’ll never hear a set of rock drums anywhere on the soundtrack, because that would completely break the illusion that the composer is trying to craft.
And this leads us to one of the big guys in the playground, the auditive identity. Because of how we perceive anything that goes through our sense of hearing, it is much easier to make immediate associations of some sounds with distinct images of the type of experience that said sounds will lead us to. And the moment a person makes these associations, changing that image becomes very hard.
Looking outside the lens of video game music for a second, we see that this applies even in other places such as film. Brian Tyler’s soundtrack for the Fast and Furious, movies that deal with the hard “bro” culture of sports cars, action, and buff dudes, is generally accompanied by songs that would be familiar to a general audience, or which allow for this whole urban look to come through. Comparatively, a character study such as Birdman uses an ever changing drum beat performed by Antonio Sanchez, that intensifies as emotions grow stronger and stronger. This has lead to the soundtrack of both of this film properties to become an inextricable part of them that feels just as essential as any of the actors.
In Nintendo games, this is accomplished by focusing on crafting an environment that reflects the game as a whole in every single song. Metroid’s music is constantly contemplative, reflecting the deep loneliness of the game as a whole. Starfox’s hectic beats follow the fast-paced, technical gameplay, as well as the Saturday morning cartoon vibe of the characters. And Zelda’s music is constantly intent on building a whole lore around the player with resonant emotional beats.
All of this would already be enough to craft an A+ memorable soundtrack, but Nintendo has a secret sauce in their hands, the soundtrack is also part of the gameplay. In Mario, when the time is about to run out, the music is your first cue on the fact, you are given a short cue, and the tempo goes up, directly modifying the player’s attitude towards their own gameplay. An even more precise and equally beautiful example can be seen in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. As you hit the enemy with your blade your hits go from C to E to G and finally resolve in a higher octave C, letting the player know they’ve effectively finished the combo.
Now, knowing this whole shebang is all fine and dandy, but this still leaves an important bit unanswered. How did I utilize all of this in BARK? Well following what I said before, and what was asked of me, this epic, yet playful, and arcadey, soundtrack, I managed to tie up all the elements of what makes Nintendo music great into a very solid package.
First I had to choose the instrumentation. Because of the spatial setting, the best idea was to utilize a symphonic instrumentation. The reason being that composers such as John Williams and Hans Zimmer have made it into an expectation for IPs in this setting. The fact that it crafts a distinctly epic feeling sure helps.
Following that was the juicy part, and that is, how to make it something that stays with you. In order to achieve this, every song of B.Ark is tailor made for the emotional impact of the scene it’s played in, as well as the relevant characters that make an appearance in it. Sad moments go full out with the tugging at the heartstrings, fun moments are bouncy and fast, fitting the skill-rewarding gameplay, and boss battles carry a strong sense of urgency to them while still feeling fun rather than overly tense. I’ll be talking more about the development of BARK’s soundtrack soon, so be on the lookout for that.
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