8-bit tunes: thinking inside the box
5 min read

8-bit tunes: thinking inside the box

What we can learn from the composer of Super Mario.
8-bit tunes: thinking inside the box

Systems and limitations. Those are not two words I'd usually have highlighted as aids to creativity. But I've come to understand that they are in fact incredibly important, and finally I can use an example from my favourite company, Nintendo, to illustrate why (because this is my website, so there).

Before I begin, listen to this:

Created nearly 40 years ago and lasting less than 90 seconds, it's one of the most iconic pieces of music in modern culture.

It's also the perfect example of creating something remarkable inside a very small and limited box - both literally and figuratively.

A 1980s revolution

The early 1980s was the start of the home video game revolution, spearheaded by Nintendo and Super Mario.

Video games were already in the ascendance. Arcades in Japan and the US were full of young people playing the likes of Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, and Pac-Man. And gamers just couldn't get enough.

Nintendo in 1983 then began their efforts to bring video games into the home with the Famicom, otherwise known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). It was huge.

Previous home systems such as the Atari had failed because the games were, well, really bad. Nintendo, and games like Super Mario Bros. released in 1985, was a different beast.

I was born in the early 1980s and to this day I still remember seeing my friend's NES and jumping around level after level with Mario. Although I had my own computer and games (a Commodore Amiga 500 - look it up), this was just on another level.

The Nintendo team squeezed everything they could out of the technology and focused on every fine detail. They relentlessly drove for quality, pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible.

While Mario creator/game-god Shigeru Miyamoto was creating captivating levels within levels to make players come back even after completing the game, Nintendo hired young composer Koji Kondo to work on the soundtrack that was every inch as innovative.

Previously, soundtracks for games were mostly nothing more than regular bleeps and fuzzy explosions. The technology at the time was extremely limited, and music was just considered background noise.

Kondo had other ideas.

Koji Kondo's box

Kondo had four sound channels to work with, two for melody, one for bass, and one for percussion. That isn't very much to work with. Today, albums generally have around 10 - 120 channels with layers upon layers of sounds. It was like coming up against an orchestra with a whistle.

Andrew Schartmann wrote the charming 'Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack', detailing how and why Kondo's work is so special.

"The NES audio chip is incredibly basic and is barely more than a four-voice tone generator..." said Schartmann. "You needed a grasp of how the processor worked at a very low level, and you needed to be able to code functions and routines to exploit and abuse it!"

Kondo, who played in jazz bands and rock music cover bands, set his sights high.

Despite only having four basic channels, he had a compositional vision: catchy music is nice but it should also match the mood of the game and the experience of the player. Music should strive to move people, no matter what.

“The [Super Mario Bros.] music is inspired by the game controls," said Kondo. "[I]ts purpose is to heighten the feeling of how the game controls.”

Kondo would have played the game and taken note of how your body slowly syncs with the game: jumping Goombas, collecting coins, and avoiding Piranha Plants. He felt the game's rhythm and translated it into sound.

Somehow, he found a way to do this with four channels.

"Kondo does this (in part) by creating a sonic lightness/darkness binary," explains Schartmann. "By using rhythm, harmony, melody, and form in different ways, he creates two different “sound worlds”—one that is bright and fluffy, and another that is dark and heavy."

That tension you feel when jumping over pits makes you feel uneasy. You know that a misstep will lead to Mario's death. Kondo designed his music to capture that uneasy feeling.

But he also found a way to twist the melody with slight adjustments. So when you began to approach the end of the level and felt relief, the music would feel light and positive.

This is complicated at the best of times, but Kondo did not let technology limit him.

Rather, he worked hard with the limitations to push the boundaries of creativity. He translated his complex vision into computer code, and in a way that connected with millions, if not billions, of people to this day.

“People sometimes think, ‘well, we’ve got all of this.’ So rather than having to create something that’s really great, they … rely heavily on technology, or say, the instrumentation.” - Koji Kondo

Schartmann, who analysed Kondo's compositions in great detail, describes how the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack demonstrated a great deal of musical complexity. Kondo did a huge amount with very little.

"This degree of rhythmic complexity in video-game music was extremely rare at the time, if not unprecedented," says Schartmann. "More important than novelty, however, is the effect this complexity has on the listener."

Systematic inventive thinking

Theory time.

Systematic Inventive Theory (SIT) is an approach to creativity and innovation created in Israel around 30 years ago and being used today in universities across the world.

It created the concept of 'the closed world condition' - otherwise known as thinking inside the box.

Once a problem is defined, the problem solver knows that the solution is right there in front of her. They simply have to reorganise and play with what is already there.

No searching for outside inputs. No Googling new systems and trends. You just have to stick with what you have. This, say researchers, pushes you to be even more creative and innovative than you otherwise would have been.

And, that's exactly what Kondo did.

He didn't spend time trying to change the technology, he focused on pushing the limits of what he had to hand.

This ensures that your focus has boundaries. We can't import anything from outside - we can't step outside of the box into an unlimited universe.

This forces us to do two things: be truly creative, and keep things simple.

I can't tell you how many times I've searched for solutions to simplify a problem only to find myself losing hours and hours in the process, often coming out with something more complex. What's more, I am more likely to stick to the new crappy system because of the time I've already invested in developing it.

I sense many of us always feel like there's something out there that will make us work smarter. But in truth, what we need to create and innovate is usually already inside us. It's all about how we approach the challenge.

So next time you hit a problem, consider what Koji Kondo managed to achieve with some simple bleeps and buzzes. Like clear explanations, simple solutions are acts of strong creativity.

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