Ba-dum-pum-ba-dum-pum-PUM! 33 1/3 Super Mario Bros. Review

There are not a lot, if any,  negative points that need be said about one of the latest releases in the 33 1/3 series from Bloomsbury, a history and musical analysis of Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. soundtrack. Why? As the author of the volume, Andrew Schartmann, puts it, “such is the power of nostalgia.” Seeing these syllables strung together “Ba-dum-pum-ba-dum-pum-PUM!” is as nostalgia inducing as hearing the tune or seeing the 8-bit pixel image of that stout but spry Italian plumber man.
The second part of the above quoted sentence qualifies this nostalgia as one that also “lies at the heart of Nintendo’s marketing strategy.” By this I mean to say that in addition to the creative efforts of Koji Kondo and Shigeru Miyamoto that generated a world for us to escape into, Super Mario Bros. was also the product of a particular company and time. Everything from Nintendo’s hiring strategy and the state of the video game industry in the United States in the 1980s, to the particular ways the game, controller, and console were developed, to how the console was marketed not as a video game but as a toy–all of these things were factors in why we have what Schartmann calls a “seemingly inexhaustible fascination with a handful of well-organized sound waves” that is the  Super Mario Bros. soundtrack.

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Throughout the book, Schartmann balances the nostalgic notes with historical context and thorough research, which is exciting for anyone who loves knowing trivia–it is tempting to just list off fun facts about Nintendo and Koji Kondo as way of endorsing this book. Plus, there are direct quotes from Kondo: “I was…interested in [arcade games] because they were really the only place where you could find the kind of sound creation that I was looking for.” Throughout the book Schartmann discusses how the limitations of composing for the game fostered Kondo’s creativity so it’s interesting to note that these confines were ones that Kondo specifically sought out. (This is also an idea discussed in the New Yorker‘s profile of Shigeru Miyamoto from 2010, which is worth a read if you missed it.)

Finally, Schartmann writes clearly and without pretension. The musical analysis that makes up the second section of the book is never outside the reach of anyone who is interested and for those who do read music it is fun to see the transcription of the tunes, especially the way he breaks down Bowser’s “Castle” Theme with all its dissonances and rhythmic ambiguity. While I would have liked some lines drawn between video game music and its electroacoustic precedents or contemporaries that would have been a different book. This is only a small wish, which was ultimately satisfied by Schartmann’s brief history of the waltz, the calling up of Beethoven and other classical composers, and the introduction to ideas about embodied cognition, which help explain how and why the sound effects add to our experience. Where “Kondo was convinced that game sound could lessen the gap between Mario and the hands that move him,” I am convinced that if Mario means anything to you, you will enjoy this little volume.

About Tessa Liem

Tessa eats, sleeps, reads and writes in Montreal.

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