Recently my music habits have changed. It used to be that I rarely listened to videogame music outside of playing games. For a long time the only game music I had on my iPod were a few select tracks from the original Cho Aniki game. (That’s no joke by the way – that’s a really good soundtrack!) These days though, I’m finding videogame music dominating my listening time in way it never has before. Rather than speculate on the reasons behind this shift I thought it a good idea to capitalise on it by spotlighting some of my favourite Nintendo composers and ranking them by impact! I had to limit myself to talking about Nintendo just to set myself some boundaries, otherwise this list would go on and on and on and on… as if it isn’t going to do that already. Ahem.
Of course, if you’ve played any Smash Bros game in recent years, you will already be familiar with large swathes of Nintendo’s remarkable musical legacy. At this point in the series history, it’s hard to overstate just how effective the Smash Bros series has been at re-packaging classic tracks of yesteryear, and in the process creating a whole new audience with an appreciation for game music. I’m not making any attempt here to stay away from territory covered in Smash Bros, but I do think that by focusing on individual composers rather than game franchises you can get a different perspective on the music.
1. Koji Kondo
Starting with Nintendo’s biggest gun here. Everyone knows him, everyone loves him. He took a step back from composing after the N64, but Koji Kondo’s prolific musical output from the the mid-eighties to the late-nineties is rivaled only perhaps by a select few game composers through the years (specifically I’m thinking of that rare breed of Japanese composer – Yuzo Koshiro, Yoko Shimomura and Nobuo Uematsu – that’ve been in this game for donkeys years). One thing that’s certain is that Kondo’s music transcended the narrow confines of gaming culture in a way that has never occurred before or since: is there anyone who doesn’t know the Super Mario Bros theme, or the Zelda theme?!
To try and collect here Kondo’s career highlights would be a fool’s errand, so I’m not even going to try. Instead, here are a few of my current faves from just one of Kondo’s many game soundtracks: Majora’s Mask for N64. Kondo’s music for previous Zelda titles is of course utterly iconic and classic, but the music for Majora’s Mask is unique in how it reflects the melancholy feel of the game.
Tears shed? You bet.
2. Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka
I really love Tanaka’s style. If Kondo is the master of simple, memorable melodies, Tanaka is trickier to pin down. At times he sounds classical, imitating an orchestral sound on the NES in something like Kid Icarus.
At other times his music is much closer to pop/rock, with rocking beats and a catchy style, as in the original Metroid credits music.
What stands out to me at all times though in his music is the ambition. Tanaka’s career, limited as it is primarily to the NES and Gameboy, means that the challenges in making music for games were far more technical than in more recent times. On top of composing we also have to acknowledge Tanaka’s skills in engineering and programming. His skill in all of these areas is what lead to him designing the original Gameboy’s sound chip, which he then made good on by composing some of the most memorable game music ever on the Gameboy in Super Mario Land.
For me the coolest thing about Tanaka’s music is that, even though it impersonates music styles we’re all familiar with, their rendering in a purely digital form adds, rather than detract from the pieces. The net result is that updated and arranged versions struggle mightily to live up to the original. Compare the original Famicom Metroid credits with the arranged version in Smash Bros Brawl and hopefully you’ll see what I mean.
Another skill of Tanaka’s that comes through in all of these pieces is the sense of journey that he’s able to deliver in a single piece. The credits to Super Mario Land are a perfect demonstration of this, transitioning from the first world’s theme to the original credits theme. I love it.
Last but not least, a discussion of Hip Tanaka can’t pass without mention of Mother/Earthbound, which Tanaka co-composed with Keiichi Suzuki. There’s so much wonderful music here, so I will just let this awesome live performance featuring both composers speak for itself (I believe Tanaka is playing bass guitar)…
Tears shed: Not yet but Mother/Earthbound is bringing me close.
3. Kenta Nagata
In a word, diverse. Undoubtedly the highlights of Nagata’s career to date are his very first soundtrack, Mario Kart 64, and several years later, the Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Thanks to him, we have the beautiful, nostalgia-laden Rainbow Road music…
As for Wind Waker, Nagata did not work alone on the game – Koji Kondo composed several tracks. But Nagata contributed some of best themes in the game, that reveal his knack for composing music that is at once up-beat and emotional impactful.
What needs to be said here? Nagata has that wistful style practically down to a science.
Tears shed: Most definitely…
4. Kazumi Totaka
You want to talk about a composer with a particular style? You got it, although there are two sides to Totaka. First off, he is the master of those cheesy, catchy tunes that will never leave your head. To that effect, Totaka’s cheese factor shines through strong in Wave Race 64.
The same skills ring out loud and clear in his subsequent tracks in Wii Sports, alongside every song that plays in the Wii’s various “channels”… lest anyone forget, the Wii was Totaka’s baby (music-wise anyway).
Totaka’s second style is quirky. You see, Totaka is not only the composer, but also the voice of Yoshi. And you know what that means… yep, Yoshi’s Story.
Check out that voice work! Totaka is also heavily, heavily involved with the Animal Crossing series, providing many of the garbled voices himself and turning them into songs. I’m not so familiar with the Animal Crossing series so I don’t have any music to put here… I’m open to recommendations though from anyone out there who is familiar with it!
Tears shed: Yoshi comes close, but those aren’t tears of joy necessarily…
5. Mahito Yokota
Yokota is, if not the youngest in terms of age, certainly the most recent addition to Nintendo’s stable of composers on this list. Coming to Nintendo from Koei (his credits include Maya’s despised Kessen II), Yokota is best known for his wonderful orchestral compositions on the Super Mario Galaxy games. There are so many amazing tracks but this one is my favourite: the end credits to Super Mario Galaxy 2.
Stunning, stunning, stunning. Best of all for me is the sheer confidence on display. You can’t hide a bad or dull melody in a track like this.
Tears shed? Come on, we all know it. Yes!!
So that’s my list. It only seems fair at the end here to give some honorable mentions to a few extremely talented individuals who didn’t quite make my list. Hajime Hirasawa, composer of the original SNES Starwing/Star Fox game, does a wonderful impression of John Williams – gotta love the epic Space Armada. Second: Yuka Tsujiyoko, a highly talented woman who is best-known as the main composer for the Fire Emblem series, including that iconic main theme. Finally, Yumiko Kanki only worked on a few games, but she made them count. She co-composed the original F-Zero, writing one of the most iconic pieces of videogame music ever in the process: Mute City (show me your moves!)