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8-Bit Mondays: Super Mario Bros. 3 – “Underground Theme” (Koji Kondo)

May 24, 2010

To help celebrate the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 (which if you haven’t played it, give it a shot – just don’t be scared away by the big purple star who acts as copilot), I’m going to do a week of Mario music. First up is “Underground BGM” from Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990). “Underground Theme” aka “Underworld BGM” is one of the most widely recognized Mario tunes, which is unsurprising since it has appeared in practically every game since the original. However, I like the Super Mario Bros. 3 rendition because it contains that extra sound channel for the drum samples, which makes ALL the difference. Better understanding of the 2A03 sound chip simply allowed the developers to create a soundtrack with much more color and depth than the original. The soundtrack was included in both the Super Mario World soundtrack (1991, a nice collection) as well as the Famicom 20th Anniversary Original Sound Tracks Vol. 1 (2004), among other releases. This version is from the Super Mario World soundtrack.

Super Mario Bros. 3 – “Underground Theme” (Koji Kondo)

“Underground Theme” is an excellent example of Koji Kondo’s work in composing game music that mimics the feel of the game world. The high and low notes mimic the structure of the caverns – ‘stalactites’ and ‘stalagmites’ of bricks, rock, and pipe create obstacles that prevent easy traversal of space as well and communicate this through the rapid upward and downward movement of the notes. Further, the short loop creates tension, making the player want to exit this space as quickly as possible. It is notable that in the original game, there was a short above-ground sequence in which Mario boldly walked into a pipe leading to the underground – a brief moment of blue sky followed by the darkness of the cave.

The “Underground Theme” has appeared in different forms in many different Mario games, including Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, an extensive mix in Super Mario 64, a classic reworking in Super Mario Sunshine, the fun remixes in New Super Mario Bros. and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Super Mario Galaxy, and Super Mario Galaxy 2. Oh yeah, Super Mario All-Stars also had a decent version, which was basically a straight-up instrument update of the original, though the piano sounds a little mechanical…

Of these, my favorite is “Cave Dungeon” from Super Mario 64 (1996), which is a long and creative rendition of the original theme (the others seem to either have annoying instruments or try to be too oldschool, focusing more on nostalgia than composition). “Underground Theme” makes up the bottom layer of the track, played out on drums and a cello-like synth line and guitar. Kondo adds bongoes to automatically make the track ten times cooler, but also has a piano adding high notes to supplement the theme. At the end of the loop, a gloomy choral line is added for cave mists and the dark spaces between the lights.
Beyond this, there have been many different remixes and versions appearing in non-Mario games. My favorite of these is Kentaro Ishizaka’s rendition from Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008). The track is heavy on synth lines, hearkening back to the original versions. It also has a hip drum and bass beat punctuated by water drops, making for a track that is both slick, nostalgic, and atmospheric.
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  4. September ninth, 2008 at 9:21 pm


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