Despite being such a big nerd over music, I have barely discussed video game music outside of my post on Space Invaders . Nevertheless, throughout the early 1980s it steadily expanded from the beachhead, bringing video games from a medium where some or many games had no sound at all or only rudimentary sound effects, to incidental jingles, to what we have here, constantly-running background music with multiple instruments running at the same time. Super Mario Bros  did not invent this concept by any measure, nor even the idea of changing this background music as the scene changes. There’s no innovation or technological achievement to make Koji Kondo’s theme iconic, just sheer craft and the popularity of the product.
I would call video game music a genre more than I would the film soundtrack. It’s pretty loose and disparate, but nevertheless I have encountered serious fans of video game music specifically, who more readily seek out sonic variety within those boundaries rather than something on-the-face more generically similar that isn’t for a video game. On top of this, I can fairly reliably identify video game music, regardless of instrumentation, just by the feelings it tries to stir (usually a kinda triumphant one) and by familiar families of chord progressions, like, I’m told, the “Mario cadence” found here or the “Royal Road progression.” I’m not a music theorist, and I can’t identify a V chord versus a VI minor chord for the life of me, but the chord turns particular to video game music strike me as moderately jazzy. The jazz influence on Super Mario Bros’ music in particular is flagrant: the iconic opening theme is actually a couple themes in the jazz sense of the word, the first of which is a variation on a bit of Sister Marian  by The Square (as is jazz tradition,) stitched together by quasi-horn solos, while the underground theme runs with the theme from Let’s Not Talk About It  by Friendship. This isn’t just any jazz we’re drawing from, it’s the smooth jazz (and the fusion it came from) of the late 70s through early 80s, and not just any smooth jazz, but a connoisseur’s deep cuts. (With a touch of ragtime; early jazz influence will become much much more pronounced in later Mario titles.) There’s also a lot of smooth jazz influence in city pop, and thus eventually J-pop, with plenty of personnel crossover and similar enough sonic palettes that sometimes era Japanese smooth jazz does just get called “city pop.” Suffice to say, smooth jazz was pretty culturally influential and mainstream in 1980s Japan, and Japanese video game composers of the 1980s coming from this background exported many memorable tunes, forever making it part of the fabric of video game music.
It’s not the only thread of influence you can pick out, of course, it’s just really prominent here. Sega in particular brought a lot of house, techno, drum and bass, and other mechanical forms of funk to the table. The electronic music of Yellow Magic Orchestra, particularly in the late 70s, sounds strikingly like video game soundtracks would years later, to the point where one must think video game composers had them on their minds for what could and should be done with synths. Once games started coming on full CDs, composers would leap on the opportunity to let their affinities for classical music fly high with a full orchestra. Around the same time, you get some metal in there too, which by the 90s was maturing into rock’s equivalent to classical music.
What’s interesting for me from all this influence trainspotting is that the genres video game music draws on for its melange are at best pop-adjacent, but rarely full-on pop music (at least until straight-up licensing music becomes a big thing, mainly for sports and rhythm games.) This makes sense to me: the formal requirements of a video game soundtrack are basically directly opposed to the formal requirements of the radio-play 45 record that formed pop music, its platonic ideal being something like the 2.5 minute right-to-the-point Motown single. Video game music usually loops, it aspires to background music that keeps a consistent emotional tenor, but usually doesn’t simply cycle back and forth from chorus to verse over the same four chord loop endlessly (at least if it’s any good) because, especially without lyrics, that gets tiresome and flat quickly. Not that I don’t myself quickly get tired of video game music anyway despite loving ultra-repetitive music.
Actually, hold up for more about how platform and context shapes form: Tower Of Druaga , among other arcade games of the early 1980s, has like a single bar of music for the whole game. That’s annoying indeed, but it was made to be and must be understood as made to suit its context, as something trying to stick out as distinctive despite being a swath in the quilt of an arcade’s cacophony, like a busker on Fremont Street who knows they have like 30 seconds tops to catch anyone’s attention before they can retain it. Up until this point in my walk through games, putting game music in the home required prohibitive technical knowledge of like, manipulating beep speakers, so it was rare. Now we enter the era where it’s included by default, and it’s a bit reminiscent of the home record player revolution: video game music no longer has to compete for notice because you’ve already given over your attention to it, and it also has to stretch out to indulge that attention, hence the turn towards genres of music that are suited to sprawl, like jazz and classical and techno. (You can say roughly the same thing about console games as games, too. I have, and will again.)
And about music theory! Music theory is really quite comprehensive, and systematic. It’s granular, it starts from the smallest of foundation stones, with the mathematics of sound that create syllables, before examining the grammar of intervals, which give way to ever-more-complicated musical sentences. Though it comes mostly from a parochial western tradition, the field expansively aspires to be able to describe almost any kind of music you throw at it, shy of power noise. At the root, this elaborate catalogue is handy tips and tricks and memorization tools for practitioners.
Outside of that very last sentence, video game analysis as it has existed (including my own) bears no resemblance to music theory. Rather, it takes after literary theory.
I’ve thrown the words “Aristotelian unity” around a couple of times on this blog I think. This time, let’s get a little deeper on where that comes from: Poetics [c. 335 BC]. Aristotle talks about meter and rhythm and such, but he doesn’t get very deep in the weeds about how these things work and how they add up to create their effects on that nitty-gritty syllable-by-syllable level. He’s not himself a poet. Instead, his catalogue is of big-picture ideas, summarizing whole long plot sequences and types of meter into what he sees as their broad functions, many times phrased pithily. One of the works that he takes as a prototype specimen is Oedipus Rex [429 BC]. Oedipus Rex is a knot readied then pulled tight, a pressure cooker on a timer. Every part of the play contributes to its central thrust and constant plot motion, with no excess or redundancy, that’s Aristotelian unity. It’s strikingly structurally elegant and clever, which is the product of an increase in professionalization versus the even-then-old days of oral tradition, but it’s also this way for a reason, for specific aesthetic effect. It wants everything to feel oh-so gut-wrenchingly inevitable, a horror unfolding step by step before your eyes until it boils over explosively. Other stories are… not like this. Even the other plays in Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy are not really like this. Aristotle uses words like “should” and “good” and even “perfect” a lot, he’s extremely opinionated and wants everyone to know about his very specific tastes in stories. He’s not describing things like he might taxonomize animals, he’s making normative quality claims left right and center that actually fundamentally obscure our ability to describe things: things that don’t fit Aristotle’s rules, things that are not structurally something like Oedipus Rex or whatever, are just bad and incorrect and it’s a minor struggle to find other words to say about them. Poetics is in the same genre as those loathsome, influential screenplay-guru books by people who have never actually written a good screenplay, but since he’s such a respectable authority on so many subjects for so many centuries, his opinions became bedrock for how future critics and writers in many cultures think about stories — this is part of how we get the extremely-Oedipal Back To The Future  — and it starts to look like that’s just naturally-occurring in human brains and not encultured. But most ancient stories are I think pretty structurally messy, wandering around episodically, losing track of things or even whole ideas, doubling back on themselves, and when you inevitably judge them by later standards you either have to think your way around these or write them off as errors. It’s risible to me that Joseph Campbell enlists The Epic Of Gilgamesh [c. 2100 BC] to shore up his post-Poetics Hero With A Thousand Faces  formula, because it’s so, so messy in all those ways. It’s an excellent example of throwing a standard back in time to before that standard.
So, how many times have you, a reader of my blog who must like to read about video games, seen someone break down Level 1-1 of Super Mario Bros as an illustration of good game design? Me, maybe a dozen or more times. Super Mario Bros is virtually a holy text of game design, parts of it seeming to come almost ex nihilo (from the perspective of this blog which skims through game history.) Though the influence is not immediate, it inaugurates what “good game design” — that is, orthodox game design — is. Here we officially pass out of The Hobbyist Era into The Classical Era, where all the archetypes and definitions come into sharp focus under conditions of studious thought and the craftsmanship grows more precise and refined, both products of an increasing professionalization, but which is shot though with a spirit of effervescent, amiable innocence that is mainly just common romantic nostalgia ambiently glowing around the oncoming succession of widely-beloved classics, as opposed to the wooly curiosities I’ve hitherto been mainly trafficking in. (If I was being more accurate to the music history terminology I’m pilfering from, this would be The Baroque Era, but that has a potent connotation of being very elaborate and even obstinate, when if anything we’re moving in the opposite direction. And sidenote, periodization is bullshit, it’s just irresistible fun for my brain.) We move into the future, and in the process we lose the past, irrecoverably judging what a good game even is by the standards set by a game that did not yet exist.
A prime example: The thing that makes 1-1 so useful for demonstration is how it onboards the player, an implied player who has never played a side-scrolling platformer before, how it wordlessly teaches the concepts of the game, one-by-one, iteratively. (That player who I’ve been talking about this whole time is, of course, entirely hypothetical and rhetorical by now. I don’t remember when or how I learned how to get to the first warp zone, but I surely knew by, oh, age 8, long before I had even touched the game, and playing it for the blog was the first time I sat down and did not use the warp zones.) The specific strategy 1-1 employs is the “Mario cadence” of gameplay, sometimes known as the kishotenketsu, which is now a famous, even beaten-to-death, formula. Introduce some concept in a safe or pretty safe environment to teach its operation to the player, then show the same concept with a risk, then complicate or twist it in some way typically by combining it with some other concept, then conclude with a final challenge or punctuation. This goes for basic movement, for question mark blocks, for jumping on enemies, et cetera. What’s perhaps under-observed, if anything is, is how Super Mario Bros also enacts this logic on an overarching macro level, which is most obvious when it recycles earlier levels in their entirety, but adds flying fish to it to twist it into a new challenge.
But the important point is this means it uses the introduction of the game to… well, introduce the game. Forget the 4-beat rhythm that it uses to process concepts, the first beat alone is straight-up a fresh, novel concept in 1985! Going back through the early 80s as someone who is even passingly familiar with the post-SMB paradigm, it’s absolutely glaring how nobody making games was much considering the basic principle that the first parts of the game sets the player’s expectations of the game to come, that what concepts it shows to the player early on are vitally important. Either you have an arcade-style game which simply drops you into the standard gameplay situation, simple enough that it practically explains itself through interaction (and failing that, brief instructions on the cabinet, in the manual, in the attract mode,) or a more complicated game that thoughtlessly teaches the virgin player all the wrong lessons about what type of game this is and how to play it, like Zork ’s truly-random effectiveness of actions at the gate to the underground. There’s only two exceptions in this blog: Donkey Kong , appropriately enough because it’s quite recognizably the rough draft of Super Mario Bros that is being returned to after many divergent experiments with the Mario and Donkey Kong characters; and strangely, Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77]. Despite being in the same league of tremendous influence as Super Mario Bros and Spacewar  and perhaps no other video games, the deliberate on-boarding in its introduction was simply not an inspiration to its heirs. Instead it begat an era of deliberate, baffling obtuseness alternately apathetic and openly hostile to the player, to be conquered only by bloody-minded persistence, a mode which certainly has its pleasures and appeal and endured, but which Super Mario Bros presents a new, friendly alternative to. It is, perhaps, the smooth jazz moment of video games.
Probably the most fruitful comparison to the old-school can be made with Jet Set Willy  (or Manic Miner , except I didn’t play nor write about that one.) I already observed in my earlier post how Jet Set Willy by far has the greater claim to surrealism so let’s talk design instead (though I’d like to add here that I think part of how people talk about Mario as a particularly out-there specimen of video game collage has a dash of Orientalism). Jet Set Willy, despite offering more lives up front than Super Mario Bros, is far more brutal and unforgiving. It’s a precision platformer, to the point where you have to learn to count pixels because that is how narrow your margins for error are. You can’t eliminate enemies from the screen, they’re fixtures with more permanence and dominance than your transient self. Most of all, though, it’s those damned fixed jump arcs that make Jet Set Willy a pain in the neck. The basic act of moving around, which is also the only way to interact with the game, is fundamentally unpleasant and awkward.
This is the most important way Super Mario Bros distinguishes itself from its peers and predecessors: through fine-tuning. Every bit of Super Mario Bros is not perfected, but put together rather intelligently and perceptively, building upon lessons from game history. Like in Galaga , it’s fundamentally fun to just exist in Super Mario Bros, to accelerate from a walk to a run step by step and then skid to a stop with a sound effect and animation, to double back on yourself with that unrealistic but oh-so-intuitive mid-air control. Despite leaving the gradation of analog control behind in the arcade and placing restraints like gravity and friction on Mario’s movement, it actually affords the player the ability to expressively fine-tune your own performance on the fly, “free play” in the unstructured way a small child runs around with no goal in mind except to live — but you’re less “free” than the classic cursor-avatar, you always have forces to push against that not only give you something to do but something to define the self against, encouraging you to identify Mario as a character. Even before its strategically-playful level design is built up from there to accentuate that friction and make you implement its physics, it’s a winner. For once, the game loves you. It invites you to come sit down and stay for a spell.
Earlier, I implicitly raised the question about what specific aesthetic effect Mario Rex creates with its structure. It’s not an explicitly ideological or didactic kind of text. In fact, there’s not a lot of text at all: there’s one memetic, iconic line of yearning meeting disappointment, and another line to conclude the game. It’s all broad strokes and bare scaffolding, it’s reheated Donkey Kong with the proven progression in giant beasts from King Kong  on to Godzilla . It’s a romance, in the medieval sense: a knight saving a princess from a dragon on a bridge. It’s got a theme song, with jazz-style themes in it, but it doesn’t have explicit literary themes to guide our interpretation. You can definitely still say things about its story, and plenty have. Anyone who’s ever made a joke or observation or reference about Super Mario Bros, from Braid  to Tropes vs. Women In Video Games [2013-2017] to any number of gaming-themed webcomics and flash cartoons, has. But it’s clearly perfunctory and doesn’t really shed a lot of light on the gameplay. The first-time non-reading player that 1-1 is designed around won’t even know there is a plot until they beat 1-4, that’s how superfluous the damsel-in-distress plot is as a carrot-on-stick motivation here.
Instead, the player quests forwards and onwards from the silent push given to them by the ratcheting side-scroll, one that unrolls smoothly and continuously, unlike its predecessors’ disjointed scrapbooks of whole-screen panels. Unlike Pitfall  giving you a choice of left or right, or how Lode Runner  has you scrambling in all sorts of directions all over the screen like an ant in its farm, progress is always extremely clear in Super Mario Bros. There’s a timer that doesn’t ever really present a problem (except in the castle mazes) but that exerts a gentle suggestion of pressure. You move into the future, and in the process irrecoverably lose the past.
But despite the fine-tuning, the game can’t just be an empty canvas, it can’t just be holding down right on the D-Pad with an option to jump, otherwise the game would be like a dead fish on the line. There’s always some obstacle in the way, something to jump on or around or to, something to pay attention to. You can scan around for secondary routes through Coin Heavens and Coin Sewers and even Warp Zones (the first of which is astonishing for breaking the visual regime, and then revealing it was all anticipated by the game the entire time) but those are wholly optional, maybe even essentially decorative. It’s full of candy. Coins that flash and chime, stars that bounce and turn you disco. Early on in 1-1, there’s the first of many question-mark blocks: a secret that loudly announces its intrigue in neon lights. If it were just the question mark blocks that held goodies, it would make sense to accuse Super Mario Bros of harboring some light gambling logic that would become much more elaborated in Super Mario Bros 3 . But though that might be a part of it, secrecy is more all-suffusing in Super Mario Bros, with that first question mark block hopefully piquing the player’s curiosity so they go off mining for more secrets. There’s enough secrets to make you look for secrets, to color every odd corner of the screen with potential intrigue.
In short, I think the specific aesthetic aim of Super Mario Bros is simply, tritely, to be… engrossing. Super Mario Bros is designed to garner interest about what’s next and about what’s already there (which might not be as it appears,) while also being pleasant on a moment-to-moment tactile level that can fluidly get out of the way or come to attention as needed. It invites you to sit down and spend your time with it… maybe too much time. There’s 32 whole levels to get through, and you only start with 3 attempts to do it all, so you have to do the entire game over and over again. (With that under consideration, the castle mazes, relying entirely as they do on trial-and-error memorization and coming late in the game, are uncharacteristically perverse and sadistic.) It’s a direct alternative to a TV show. It wants to be a sponge for your time and mind, without giving you things like insight or ideas or feelings. Although ideally, it wants exactly as much irritation as is needed to keep you engaged without making you change the channel. In this way, Super Mario Bros is at cross-purposes to the other landmark games of 1985 I will be covering, which have across the board clear and articulated aspiration to be more than time-filling entertainment. They’re all thinking deeply about what games “should” be like, but only Super Mario Bros is so strictly formalist, and though these upcoming games certainly have their own enduring legacies, the Super Mario Bros paradigm will be very dominant.
Oh, and the water levels still suck.
Thanks to Andrea and Violet for taking a look at the music theory stuff.