In the introduction to his 33 1/3 entry on Koji Kondo’s soundtrack for Nintendo’s 1985 video game Super Mario Bros., author Andrew Schartmann dedicates a significant portion addressing those who might be critical of his book. He’s forced not only to defend the subject as worthy of the 33 1/3 series (which primarily deals with music albums significant to popular culture rather than scores or soundtracks), but also to explain why a video game soundtrack is worthy of academic scrutiny at all. While his arguments for the former may come off as overly sensitive, the latter speaks to the public’s insistence on disregarding video games as worthy of valuable analysis. While Schartmann thankfully avoids the tired “video games as art” debate, this question hangs perilously in the background throughout his book. On the other hand, it’s a testament to the writer that he can transcend such an exhausted conversation to deliver such a detailed critique of Kondo’s influential score. If Schartmann’s thesis is that Kondo’s work deserves artistic recognition, such a claim would be nearly impossible to dispute after reading his book.

In the first section of the book, titled “Contexts,” Schartmann explores Kondo’s early life, the origin of Mario as a video game character and the state of video game music previous to Kondo’s iconic score. He tells us that, as much as Super Mario Bros. signaled an evolution in game mechanics, design and production, it also marked a serious step forward in what a game’s music could do. Kondo’s unique score is contrasted with the primitive beeps and boops of early arcade games (Schartmann mentions the relentlessly accelerating tempo of Space Invaders’ music as both an early innovator in the medium and as a potential influence on Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. work) and, via a brief interview with NES composer Neil Baldwin, those of his Western contemporaries. We also learn about the compositional process involved in programming for Nintendo’s NES system and the technological restrictions that Kondo was dealing with at the time (the console only allows for four channels in composition, for instance: two melody lines, a bass and a “noise” channel used as percussion). Schartmann offers a healthy look at the circumstances behind Kondo’s work, made all the more impressive because of the limitations on them, and provides a solid if incredibly cursory history of video game music, a subject not often explored by music scholars.

The book’s “Music” section delves into the theory behind Kondo’s score in an almost impenetrably deep fashion. Schartmann provides snippets of the notation and assesses how the rhythms and melodies work together to create such memorably off-beat pieces. He touches on Kondo’s waltz, jazz and pop influences — specifically how the “Underwater” waltz suggests movement, and how syncopation keeps the “Overworld” music lively and bright — and how certain aspects of the score mirror the rhythm of the game itself, an incredibly novel concept for its time that has gone on to influence essentially every game score since. Schartmann, a classical music scholar, doesn’t shy away from using technical jargon in his analysis, but he does a fine job of stepping back every so often to speak in simpler terms for the layman. His insights are rich as he breaks down each individual component of each individual piece — the bass and percussion, melodies and harmonies — explaining in turn why the pieces are simultaneously so catchy, innovative and crucial to the Super Mario Bros. experience as a whole. He makes his passion for Kondo’s work clear, and, to his immense credit, any reader walking away from the book will doubtlessly have a significantly greater appreciation for the score than they did before.

The book has plenty of content to amuse those with any level of interest in retro video games, video game development or modern composition in any form, and even open-minded 33 1/3 completionists will find Schartmann’s subject refreshingly different and his approach surprisingly in-depth. Others that are more skeptical — those that Schartmann indirectly addresses early in the book — may continue to deride video game music as artless or juvenile, but that attitude of course betrays the whole point of a series meant to challenge and illuminate the virtues of the contemporary music canon. By those metrics, Schartmann provides a more than satisfactory entry.

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