It's a credit to one's abilities as a composer when people all over the world can vocalize the instruments that play your songs. Every hook The Beatles got on the radio proved their expertise at this. Plenty of album-oriented rock bands have accomplished similar feats. In terms of worldwide appeal, however, Koji Kondo may have them all beat. Though few know his name, a simple vocalization - "Doo-doo-doo-do-do-DOOT" - solidifies his status as a legend. And to think, his most successful music comes from one of the least appreciated of media: the video game.
Such is the story of Super Mario Bros., the video game series created by Nintendo and celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. To commemorate the occasion, the publisher has released Super Mario All-Stars: 25th Anniversary Edition, a special package for its Wii system that also includes some treats for fans of catalogue video game music.
The main focus of the bundle is, naturally, a game: Super Mario All-Stars, a compilation originally released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1993 and collating four 16-bit-enhanced versions of games originally released for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (the three SMB games released in the U.S. in 1985, 1988 and 1990, plus "The Lost Levels," which was Japan's SMB 2 in 1986).
While the focus for readers of The Second Disc is the music, the games play as well as they ever did over the years. All four are simple enough for all audiences but incredibly challenging to master. That said, one wouldn't be wrong in wanting more: the option to play the 8-bit versions of the games on the same disc would have been nice, as would have been more games, such as the excellent, 16-bit follow-up Super Mario World (1991) or the groundbreaking Super Mario 64 (1996). Any of these features would have boosted replay value dramatically.
The value for collectors lies in the second game case in the box; a CD of music composed by Kondo and others for 25 years of Mario games alongside a thick booklet of "liner notes" featuring rare artwork and equally rare insights from Kondo, Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto and developer Takashi Tezuka on their creations.
The takeaway from this disc is an argument that game music can be as complex and catchy as anything that's ever graced the pop charts. The first three tracks, taken from the first three NES games, were composed on the system's incredibly simple sound chip, yet they boast full harmonies, bass countermelodies and percussion. It's astounding how clear they sound all these years later, and while Kondo and crew would evolve (later tracks include samba rhythms, bluegrass arrangements and, ultimately, a full symphony orchestra), it's those early tracks that keep drawing you back.
The disc is not without its problems. At barely 25 minutes long (including a sampling of game sound effects toward the end), it's more of a promo disc than a full album. Granted, fans are very lucky; this is the first major domestic release of this music (it's much more common on disc in its native Japan). That said, it's so good yet so short that you may consider paying high prices for imported discs with more of the music. The lack of length is compounded by the fact that most of these tunes loop at least twice, being meant to score a video game stage for as long as needed. Cut down the tracks as presented and you'd have an even shorter playlist.
For all its flaws, Super Mario All-Stars: 25th Anniversary Edition is actually a really nice package (for gamers, hard to beat at $30). The commentary in the booklet is nice enough (Miyamoto and company rarely get any mainstream press stateside), and the artwork - featuring rough sketches of games, vintage ads and other fun stuff - is appealing. If you've got a retro gamer in your family, this wouldn't make a bad stocking stuffer - and you might find yourself sneaking off to listen to the accompanying CD while said gamer is playing.