Tunes, Not Toons: The Music of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Other Classic Games

I’m going to take a different take here than what a writer would normally tackle when discussing Super Mario Bros. 3. This isn’t going to be about the platforming, the game’s place in history, how it did/did not catapult Mario (and Nintendo) into the stratosphere. What I’m here to do is talk about the music in the title and how it links us to our childhood.

If you’ve played the game, you know what I mean: World 1’s quick beat, the sinister tones of the dungeons, the understated “jazzy” theme played during the minigames, the triumphant chords of a mission accomplished with a king returning to his human form. Your brain is also probably flashing back to moments in the game, that time of year in your life, and some happy feelings associated with finally being able to defeat Bowser at the end of World 8. Some of its conscious, but not all of it, because human beings experience music not just in an audible fashion but in an emotional/psychological way as well.

Much as McDonald’s cashes in by reminding you of your youth with the smell of their food, the beauty and simplicity of Koji Kondo’s score instantly brings to mind the past. Maybe it was playing the title in your youth, or the fact that you could never beat your brother at that Mario Bros.-homage mini-game, or how you had to buy the game with your allowance money. You jump onto a Hammer Brothers unit and that familiar tune starts up…

…and it triggers “muscle memory” on how to defeat any and all of those hammer-wielding turtles.

Old games required such fast response for the hardcore gamer. Games were hard for a number of reasons, the biggest two being replayability and their growth out of Arcades. Games, due to size limitations in cartridges, couldn’t be very big and wouldn’t have widespread save functions until the late 80’s. Coin-op machines, meanwhile, were designed to separate players from their money in as fast a way as possible without being too challenging to be fun. To succeed at Contra, or Sonic, or Rygar, gamers had to learn quickly and remember well. Strategy Guides were for the weak.

This plays off of how a human being sees the world. Scientists now theorize that human beings don’t experience consciousness in a continuous flow but rather as a series of snapshots stitched together. We filter these snapshots through the cerebellum for recognition of patterns. This has an evolutionary benefit: human beings are able to make snap judgments based on partial information. When out on the savannah, the australopithecine that runs at the sight of a furry yellow creature running head-on will have a much higher probability of survival than the ape-man that has to sort through a huge amount of information before making a judgment as to whether run, fight, or…

…oh, nevermind. He’s eaten already.

We see this all over the world. It is essential to branding and iconography. Politicians play to it. Sports rely on it heavily, as well. We perceive something, our brains kick in, and the emotions and memories associated with a similar event in the past begin to flow. We remember how much it hurt when we touch an open flame, how soft Mary-Sue’s hand felt, how tasty that first bite of a Big Mac is.

We also remember that the warp flute is hidden above the long path just before you get to the spike room.

Video games haven’t exactly abandoned this method of dissemination, but tastes have moved on. Out are one-ups, limited health bars, and looping singles. In are unlimited lives, regenerating health, and fully orchestrated symphonies. A game can now be much more fully immersive, but it requires other triggers to get people to have positive associations with it.

SMB3 does this the old-fashioned way. It is simple. It is iconic. It is fun, silly, and cartoony. Its music does the job of setting the tone with looped singles that—like the best music of the era—don’t get too repetitive. If it did, people would turn it off, rendering it a much less enjoyable experience.

This isn’t just because one wouldn’t be able to drown out one’s little brother complaining endlessly about how it’s his turn. It shuts off one of the three senses tied to video game experience. A gamer can still feel the rectangular shape of the NES’s controller, can still see Morton Koopa hopping around in the bowels of Bowser’s airship, but he might not immediately remember that Morton can freeze an enemy with his bouncing steps. Five seconds later, the player has lost a life, the airship has traveled to the other end of the map, and your mother is in the room, yanking the controller out of your hand and reminding you that you two “agreed” to only one half-hour of gaming on a school night.

A good (read: positive and powerful) association is more than just a single transaction. Nintendo already had your money as soon as you forked over all the cash saved up from lawn-cutting, baby-sitting, and dog-walking. They also knew you weren’t going to beat the game on the first day. They needed mechanisms to make you WANT to keep coming back to failure, or even ultimate success in beating the game. They needed a happy, repeat customer that was going to tell all of his/her friends about how much fun they were having.

Music is a major part of that equation. It isn’t as visceral as fun game mechanics, but it is a primal communication to the soul, even in its very basic midi-formats. Gamers who grew up with Super Mario Bros. 3 don’t just remember the way to jump past the swirling cyclone and hop over the angry sun. They remember all the moments of childhood with which it is associated. Maybe they don’t have their old Nintendos anymore, but a hint of a single song can stir up a load of positive memories that make them want to buy the newest title, experience additional content, or share their experiences with friends/family/strangers.

For all its success, Super Mario Bros. 3 was not the most revolutionary game in its series, let alone in all of gaming. What it did have was solid mechanics backed up by simple controls and a fun soundtrack that set the tone for the entire adventure. It sticks with gamers because it is a well-told tale that many associate with their childhoods. It’s why grown men grow wistful when they hear a certain song. It is a connection to the past, in MIDI form.

For those of you who didn’t play the game, I apologize for waxing nostalgic on a topic about which you don’t care. Rest assured, I’ll be back next time with a better essay, filled with gratuitous nudity and hardcore swearing. In the meantime, check out my Duke Nukem essay, instead.

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