Many people considered Super Mario 3D World to be one of the best games of 2013, if not the best game of 2013. The game has excellent level design, mechanics, multiplayer, and graphics, but the one thing that I feel has been criminally overlooked is the game’s excellent soundtrack. It is not just a cool set of songs to listen to; it is a defining characteristic of the game. More importantly, whereas other soundtracks just may fit well with the subject matter, this one takes risks, venturing deep into the realm of the jazz genre and introducing several very genuinely musical elements nary seen in games. For this article, I would like to look at one song in particular that truly defines the direction of the whole game. This track comes from the final credits.
The first thing you should notice is that, in contrast to the full orchestra that many games have used to record music recently, 3D World utilizes a big band to record its music. “Big band” is just a relative term for jazz, though, meaning that the band is maybe only 15-20 members in size. Compare this to the usual size of an orchestra, which can range from 50 to 100 members, and it becomes quite easy to see that 3D World‘s soundtrack is played by quite the small crew.
Why is this contrast important? In an orchestra, many players work together with their section to make a larger, all-encompassing sound. This places less emphasis on the members and emphasizes instead on the full sections. In a jazz band, however, each individual player has a certain and very specific role. As a result, it becomes easier to make out each contribution in the band. Just listen to the track above and think about it!
Right off the bat, you can hear the drummer doing a count off with his drumsticks. The drummer is the one who counts off the jazz band as opposed to the conductor in an orchestra. This is such a unique feature of a game soundtrack! Not ever have I heard a drummer count off the band, indicating right away that Nintendo is going for a much more of a genuine musical feel. By incorporating this, composer Koji Kondo is breaking down the fourth wall by specifically and purposely drawing attention to the music and contentiously notifying the player that this music is worth listening to.
Continue listening through the first fifteen seconds of the track and pay attention to how every single instrument in the track makes itself noticeable. Right in the intro the saxophones begin complementing each other with a harmonized line; meanwhile, the trumpets are finishing off the lines. The trombones come in after about seven to eight seconds and play their line very strongly as well. In the background, it is very easy to hear the baritone saxophone leading into each and every new musical phrase. This type of jazz theme is simply unheard of in other modern video game soundtracks. Each individual instrument has a role to play in the band and the song would be worse without even a single member.
The song also utilizes some very musical techniques in order to come together. The saxophone solo from the 0:15 to 0:30 mark is awesome in the way that it feels unstructured. At about 0:35, the trumpets begin using an extra item to augment their playing: a special mute that changes the sound of the instrument completely, but still sounds like it fits in perfectly with the main line. One other really cool thing is the range and ability level of the trombones in this piece. Trombones are generally known to be a very low-pitched instrument, but a skillful player can play at a much higher octave. This can be heard at about 0:50, when the trombone section comes up a few intervals in order to play at a much higher register.
In many other orchestras or even much more traditional big bands, instruments may be limited solely to their intended range. This single piece at the end of 3D World flips that idea on top of its head. The baritone sax is still there for support and the rhythm section is providing a solid backbone, but all the instruments sound very free-flowing and flexible in their utilization.
This reality is exemplified at about 1:25 mark, which is personally my favorite part of the whole song. First, there’s a nice little drum solo in the background; then, the players come in, snapping their fingers. I never thought I would live to see the day that I use this word in writing, but the music is snazzy. I do not know what other word I could possibly use to describe the track. This does not just stop at the snapping, though, as what comes next is even more unique. The baritone saxophone begins to play an extensive solo, followed by a trombone. Ask any player in a big band and they will tell you the same thing: the baritone sax and trombone are the two least likely instruments to receive a solo. Mr. Kondo completely flips these musical ideals on their head.
Finally, looking at the end of the track, there is a gradual buildup in the volume of the music in the last thirty seconds, preparing the listener for a release in energy. It continues to build, wherein the last ten seconds sound like the song will end on multiple occasions. This continues to build tension for the listener, as there is a lack of any sort of resolution. Finally, after repeated attempts to close off the song, Kondo opts to end the song on a much more somber, constant note rather than a grand exit. All of these things are defining pieces of the track and display how musically aware of itself it is.
This song alone is one of my favorites of the past several years, as is the soundtrack as a whole. Throughout the 3D World soundtrack, Kondo weaves in musical elements that may only be noticeable to those who are musically minded, but come together incredibly well, regardless. What is even more important is that, after pointing out all of these musical features, the players hopefully begin to have a deeper appreciation of the soundtrack and may even begin to look for these things when listening to soundtracks in the future.