"The music used throughout the Mario Kart series isn't intended to be just background music," says Kenta Nagata. "Instead we aim to produce pieces that will stick in players' minds. We consider it a great success if the other production staff start unconsciously humming the tunes as they're racing."
Anyone who's played Mario Kart 8 recently will surely have done the same. It's the first time the series has used live recorded music, and Nintendo used a number of composers and some of Japan's finest musicians to create what might well be one of Nintendo's finest soundtracks to date. Nagata, the game's sound director, explains that, as the series' HD debut, Mario Kart 8 needed a soundtrack to fit. "It was felt that live recorded music would work very well in conjunction with [high-definition graphics]. It really creates a vibrant, live feeling, and amplifies the scale of the game as a whole."
The benefit of using live musicians, explains Nagata, was no longer having to "painstakingly simulate guitar performances" on computer. It did, however, mean more work in terms of recording and mixing, though as this wasn't the first time Nintendo had used live recordings, the production process "wasn't particularly special".
It did, however, mean that Nintendo had to be particular in its choice of musicians. "As I'm sure you're aware, the Mario Kart series is all about racing around courses brimming with variety, and the genres of music that accompany this are equally varied," says Nagata. "We look for great musicians who can handle a variety of genres as opposed to just focusing on one in particular. We listened to a lot of music samples to select musicians we thought would be a good fit for the Mario Kart series."
"During development, we consider it a great success if the other production staff start unconsciously humming the tunes as they're racing."
"For the performances themselves," he continues, "we asked the musicians to play a little differently to how they would if they were performing formally, by asking them to keep in mind that the most important point was to avoid losing that game-like feeling, whilst also getting a performance with artistic character." The secret behind a good Mario Kart track, explains Nagata, is that it can survive being listened to "on [a] loop hundreds, if not thousands of times, without getting on people's nerves."
It's certainly an eclectic soundtrack, from the heavy guitars of Bowser's Castle to the freestyling saxophone solos in Dolphin Shoals and the string and brass-led grandeur of the majestic Mount Wario. And yet at the same time, it also relies on more traditional 'video game' instrumentation, which often combines with the live music. How, then, did the composers decide which tracks needed more live elements, and which would work better with synthetic instrumentation?
"It was a challenge to create music that made effective use of the good points of both video game-style music and live music," says Shiho Fujii, who previously composed music for New Super Mario Bros. U and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and was responsible for the Mario Circuit and Electrodrome themes here.
"For example, the music for circuit-type courses tends to be in a style suited to real instruments like guitar, bass, drums and so on. We were looking forward to hearing the natural groove and rhythm that the live performances of these instruments would bring to those tracks, so we chose to record them first. What we ended up with were tracks that had a lot more bounce than they would have had if we didn't use live-recorded instruments. On the other hand, we used synthesiser sounds a lot in the music of courses involving unusual locations or fantastical themes. That way we felt it would further enhance the sense of the fantastical and create very characteristic music."
One of the most distinctive and characterful themes can be found in the Electrodrome, as a punchy, thumping rhythm soundtracks a race through a disco-themed environment. "Electrodrome is a very visual course, featuring a light show of a kind never before seen in the series," explains Fujii. "I think you can really feel a freshness in the dance floor-style setting. The course itself is very stimulating, so for the audio I wanted to create something that felt completely different from anything in the Mario Kart series so far. This is why I went for a completely different tone and atmosphere, and made this piece an intense dance music number."
Atsuko Asahi, who previously contributed works to Pikmin 3 and Steel Diver, and arranged the music for The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD, was responsible for the equally catchy Sunshine Airport theme. "I had the sound of an analogue Moog synthesiser in mind while making the track. It just naturally came to mind when I thought about the urban feel of the airport mixed with the noise and smells of the runway. I also wanted to get across the feeling of floating, so I added effects like delay to achieve this."
Asahi was also given the responsibility of producing the game's title theme, which was a rather different proposition. "I usually choose the instruments and tone of a piece to match the image I have of the course, so I didn't consciously think about whether each course needed a live element in its music or not," he says. "However, I wanted the players' immediate impression [of the main theme] to be that the music had been 'powered up' through the use of real instruments.
"Basically, my aim was for the track to have the feel of a live session, so as much as possible I gave the musicians space to improvise, emphasising creativity more than I did when working on tracks for courses in the game." Few would argue that Asahi achieved his goal: the main theme brilliantly intersperses a bold brass melody with some freestyle guitar work before introducing a Moog-esque line that is recalled in Asahi's Sunshine Airport theme, and then segueing into a remix of the original Super Mario Kart theme.
"Basically, my aim was for the [title] track to have the feel of a live session, so as much as possible I gave the musicians space to improvise, emphasising creativity more than I did when working on music for courses in the game."
It's not the only callback, of course. As you approach the start line on the first of the Special Cup tracks, Cloudtop Cruise, the soundtrack wonderfully and seamlessly weaves in the melody from Super Mario Galaxy's Gusty Garden Galaxy theme. "After I talked to the course designer and they shared what they had in mind for the course, I felt that an orchestral sound would go well with it," says Asahi. "It was right at that moment that I decided to incorporate the Gusty Garden Galaxy theme into it. There isn't really any deep meaning behind using it though, I'm afraid. The Good Egg Galaxy theme was used as a counter-melody in Rainbow Road on Mario Kart Wii previously, and more than anything else, Cloudtop Cruise is graphically evocative of Super Mario Galaxy, so it just seemed natural to do it."
Talking of Galaxy, it may not come as a surprise to learn that the man responsible for the bouncy strings of the Puzzle Plank Galaxy theme was also behind the rearrangement of Moo Moo Meadows. "I feel that when it comes to live performances of the game's music, a lot of the tracks are very fast and difficult to play," says Ryo Nagamatsu. "It makes it very hard to reproduce an exact match to the original, and in any case, it can be argued that the retro feel is a valuable aspect of the tune. Following on from that though, where the original track simulated live instruments, I tried to use live performance as much as possible."
Colleague Yasuaki Iwata, who composed the Mario Kart Stadium and MKTV themes, adds: "due to the graphical improvements in this entry, the original music no longer matched the feel of the game for certain courses. In these cases, we poured a lot of effort into creating new arrangements."
One of the game's smartest aural flourishes comes in Dolphin Shoals, with the triumphant arrival of a live saxophone when you emerge from the quieter, more muted underwater sections. Asked about the technical issues of shifting naturally between the two, Asahi admits it's actually a bit of trick. "We raised the part where the saxophone plays the melody up one key compared to the other parts. This is a method we don't usually employ when switching between pieces, but I think the ear picks up on the fact that the music sounds 'brighter', rather than the specific nature of the change. To make the switch sound more natural, we overlaid a splashing sound effect when players leap out of the water to mask the cross-fade and make the change harder to discern."
It certainly seems that Nintendo is pleased with the results: players are given the opportunity to better appreciate the composers' efforts by watching replays with the sound effects turned off, and indeed that's something Asahi recommends for Dolphin Shoals in particular.
"The piece used there is a longer version than the one you hear during the race. You'll be able to hear one of Japan's top sax players ad-libbing with great feeling in it!" Nagamatsu is equally keen to pay tribute to the solo composers. "I'd be really happy if players listen out for the phrasing of each individual instrument. In the pieces I was in charge of, such as the Mount Wario theme or the Staff Credits music, the tracks as a whole are very dynamic, and contain a lot of solos on different instruments, so I hope you enjoy listening to the unique voice and tempo of each of them."
"We carefully crafted all the music, regardless of whether it was recorded live or not," concludes Iwata. "I hope you all enjoy playing the game, and find your own favourite courses."
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.