Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s new, daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-arse sounds they make. Today we’re listening to a stone-cold classic: Mario’s very first portable adventure for the Game Boy. But first, some chatter.
A few items to mention before getting to today’s tuneful payload. First, we’re (finally!) proceeding with the original Morning Music plan of having a variety of Kotaku writers share their vidgame music favourites. While my own taste is very good — thank you for saying — I’d also like to see Morning Music spotlight material that falls outside those bounds, and other folks joining in is the absolute best way. I’m excited to hear what great music my colleagues are passionate about. Also it’s hard to write five of these a week in addition to my other work, I’m pooped.
Speaking of other people, we also want to expand the bounds of our discussions here a bit. Kotaku’s daily “How’s It Going” hangout posts, conceived as a temporary 2020 shelter-in-place thing, are being retired, so we’d like Morning Music to become a welcoming place for anyone who just wants to stop by and shoot the shit, sip some coffee, and talk about daily life stuff like they have been in HIG. Music discussion good, random daily life and video game discussion good. Let’s all enjoy each other’s company.
Lastly! Morning Music is no longer “just” on weekdays, as weekend editor Zack is on board to make your Saturdays and Sundays more musical as well. I know he has good taste in pizza (no pineapple!) so I’m confident that’ll carry over to video game music, too. Maybe. Unproven theory actually.
Updates complete! So yeah, let’s talk about Super Mario Land.
Super Mario Land (longplay) embodied a lot of firsts. It was the first mainline Mario game on a portable system, the first to be developed without Shigeru Miyamoto’s input, the first to take place outside the Mushroom Kingdom, the first with Princess Daisy, the first with monochrome graphics, and the first with stereo sound. Aha, the magic word. Let’s talk about that.
In yet another Super Mario Land first, Super Mario Bros. series composer Koji Kondo stepped aside to leave music duties to Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, fresh off Metroid, Kid Icarus, and Famicom Wars. (See also: Balloon Fight.) Tanaka created an almost entirely new soundtrack with few callbacks to previous mainline Marios, one which showed that the Game Boy could generate pretty nice music with capabilities not too far off from the NES’.
Nintendo / NMC2006 (YouTube)
Super Mario Land’s a brief game of only four worlds / 12 levels, with five main gameplay tracks. “Main BGM #1 / Birabuto Kingdom” is the boppy affair covering most of the first world, sort of a new anthem for a new platform and form factor. “Main BGM #2 / Muda Kingdom,” first heard in World 2, is a similarly easygoing jaunt. “Underground” has an Egyptian motif goin’ on, playing to the world-spanning nature of many of the game’s settings and enemies. I really liked it as a kid.
“Shooting” accompanies the game’s two fun auto-scrolling shooter stages, in which Mario pilots a sub and plane, and sounds most like an existing Super Mario Bros. song. “Chinese / Chai Kingdom” covers the game’s final levels, where you tangle with hopping zombies out of Chinese folklore. Finally, “Ending” wraps everything up with a peaceful outro.
All told? Short. Pleasant. Energetic. And sometimes, when played through headphones, distractingly stereo. This and Game Boy Tetris were the first two home video games many folks played with stereo sound, and Super Mario Land was really, really into it, often even alternating the percussion between ears on each beat. Game Boy could only place sounds in the centre, far left, or far right, so the stereo was certainly noticeable! (I thought it was neat.)
At some point the game saw a revision 1.1 release that altered many of the songs, generally seeming to reduce their usage of stereo and even removing audio artifacts like pops. Not too surprising when you think about how bleeding edge the whole project was, being a Game Boy tech demo and launch title.
I have a memory, must have been Christmas 1989, of playing this game at night on the couch and completing it just as the four AA batteries expired. Good times.
Bonus round? Bonus round. Super Mario Land (playlist / VGMdb) was a 1989 album covering most of the game’s tracks with enthusiastic synth arrangements, as was Nintendo’s style for a few years there. A bit corny, but I like it well enough. The same could be said for 1992’s Super Mario Land: Ambassadors of Funk featuring M.C. Mario (VGMdb). The Lost Media Wiki explains:
In the early 1990s, the band Ambassadors of Funk teamed up with Nintendo to make a Hip Hop album based on games in the Super Mario Bros. series. These songs were later released on an album named Super Mario Compact Disco. While the album was only released in Japan on March 21st, 1993, one song, based on Super Mario Land, was released worldwide as a single on 7” and 12” records, on CD, and as of 2009, it is on iTunes. A promotional video was made for the song.
And here is that single and its video.
They were really into it! Appreciate their enthusiasm. If you’d like more Super Mario Compact Disco, YouTube can deliver.
That’s it for today’s Morning Music! How’s your day shaping up? I guess that’s our first Game Boy soundtrack — glad we picked an iconic one, not to mention one with an unexpected hip-hop tie-in. Say hi to any new faces you see in the comments, be welcoming to my colleagues, and I’ll see y’all soon!