With the impending release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 (yes, I know, Japan and America have it already, cut me some slack here!), I thought I'd take a quick look at what I believe to be the five best Super Mario tunes ever. The Mario series spans over 200 games (!!!) but, surprisingly, the main series covers under 20 games. Either way, there's a lot of ground to cover to pick only five tunes. Let's-a go!
5. Super Mario Bros. Overworld Theme (Super Mario Bros., 1985) (Listen to it!) This is the single most recognisable piece of music in video game history. Not just Mario series history, not just Nintendo history- in allof video game history. There is no way you can have played video games for any length of time and not heard this tune. The tune is simplistic and actually quite repetitive, yet it's dangerously catchy. There's a reason it's recognisable, after all, and that reason lies in the simple nature of the tune. Plus, you're going to hear this all the way through the game (and the sequel, Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels), except for in underground, underwater and castle levels, so by the time you finally rescue Princess Peach, you'll have it ingrained in your brain.
So how come I only put it at number five? Perhaps it's the sheer simplicity of the tune that means I can't rank it higher. I know there are "verse" and "chorus" bits (for want of a better term), which mean it's at least less repetitive than the underground theme (which lasts roughly 30 notes over a period of about 12 seconds), but its appeal still largely lies in its repetitive, catchy nature. Maybe it's the fact I've become somewhat over-familiar with the tune. Nary a Mario game goes by without featuring this tune. You can remix it as many times as you like but 25 years is a long time to hear the same song. Maybe one key reason to put this at the bottom end of the list was the fact that, honestly, it's completely obvious to put it higher. Seemingly everyone ranks this tune right at the top of their favourite game music lists but, to be completely honest, it isn't the best tune in the franchise. Do bear in mind it ranking at number five still puts it higher than hundreds- if not thousands- of tracks that could have made the list and is a testament to its famous status.
4. Super Mario World Overworld Theme (Super Mario World, 1991) (Listen to it!)
It was tricky to decide whether to pick this song or the Athletic Level Theme from the same game as the best. Arguably, the Athletic Level Theme sounds better and would (and does) certainly sound more impressive played by a human, but the main Overworld Theme sums up the feels of the game more than the Athletic Level Theme. As well as that, its almost cutesy nature masks the game's often fiendish difficulty, particularly towards the end, not to mention on the eight hidden levels.
This tune truly brings to life the world of Yoshi's Island, it complements the colourful cast of characters, it makes the levels a more vivid, cheerful place and it really helps exemplify the juxtaposition that Mario's adventures really are: Mario constantly has to quest to defeat dozens of terrifying, evil foes to rescue the woman he loves, but have you ever seen him do it without a smile on his face, laughing and shouting "Wahoo!" all the while? Mario's the happiest action hero of all time and this tune pretty much embodies that theme.
3. Super Mario 64 Main Theme (Super Mario 64, 1996) (Listen to it!)
Super Mario 64 has some astounding themes. The water level music is one of the most beautiful tunes heard in any game- and I sincerely mean that. The main theme, though, wins it for me because of its eminent catchiness and "whistleability" (that is to say, you're very likely to whistle or at least hum along with this tune). As with the Super Mario World Overworld Theme, the main theme to Super Mario 64 is used almost to underplay the epic nature of Mario's quest, instead making it seem like a super-fun, madcap traipse through cartoon world. As opposed to Mario games on the systems before it, though, the main theme didn't feature on nearly every level. Instead, the various types of level (grass, water, cave, fire, etc) had their own theme. The main theme is essentially the theme of the grass levels, though it also plays when Mario collects a star.
The fact you don't have to hear it in every level makes this theme somewhat more endearing as you won't tire of it by the end of the game, which works very much in its favour. On top of that, the fact it plays on the open, mostly grassy levels means it's an instant sign that you're in for a fun level where you get to use Mario's jumping abilities- something that the 3D games have really ran with, with many of the levels designed around precisely how Mario will get from point A to point B using the abilities (and, in some cases, tools) he has at his disposal. To sum this up, this theme is the sign that you're about to have some serious fun playing around in a game that was already pretty groundbreaking in level design to begin with.
2. Bowser Battle Theme (Super Mario Galaxy, 2007) (Listen to it!)
Picture the scene: you're an avid Mario series fan with an appreciation for the tunes in the games that have come before. Super Mario Galaxy is an aural delight to your ears, with beautiful orchestrated music and some nifty computerised tunes to boot. You reach the first Bowser level and are overjoyed to hear a remix of the Bowser level theme from Super Mario 64, already a stunningly good tune. You track down the evil King of Koopas and get ready to pound his backside into the ground. And then the game blindsides you with this tune. Instantly, its awesomeness assaults you, leaving you astounded. It's fantastic enough that you're battling Bowser on a tiny planet suspended in space, but this music completely encapsulates a 22-year feud between hero and villain. Of all his games, Mario has never seemed more ready to kick reptile butt than he does with this tune playing.
And then you stagger Bowser. You're about to be able to cause him some damage. And the male chorus kicks in. There is no easy way to describe how incredibly epic this simple activation of a second channel of music makes the battle. You feel as though you could take on anyone with this music playing- and win. Then you pummel Bowser's scaly face and unlock the next area. Your sense of victory is almost overwhelming, but you also have a tinge of regret that the astounding tune you just heard is over. Amazingly enough, the final boss music is actually less epic than the standard Bowser fight theme, despite being ten times more dramatic. Video game soundtrack composers take note: this is how you write a boss theme.
1. Gusty Garden Galaxy (Super Mario Galaxy, 2007) (Listen to it!)
Just listen to it. Just listen to it. Do I have to explain anything? Even the most hardened anti-video game cynic simply must admit this is a wondrous piece. It's not very nice to say, but if you don't appreciate this track on any small level, you're a musical philistine. This is, hands down, the single most beautiful track I've ever heard in any game. I was almost moved to tears the first time I heard it because I realised that Super Mario Galaxy is the absolute pinnacle of video gaming. Some call it the finest game ever made. They may very well be right. A large part of that lies in the soundtrack and Gusty Garden Galaxy has the best tune of the lot. As well as perfectly matching the action on screen for this level, the tune makes you realise exactly how easy it is to take for granted video game music. This goes beyond catchy and becomes classic.
This was also the point I became almost immeasurably sad playing Super Mario Galaxy. I wondered if I'd ever play a game as good as this ever again. The video game industry has changed from when I first started playing. It's no longer about making wonderful games, it's about sequels, following the leader, franchiseability and making a cheap buck from downloadable content. They may have let me down a little over the last few years, but I know that as long as Nintendo are still here to stick a middle finger up to that particular business model, there will always be games worth playing.
Super Mario Bros 3 Overworld 2 Theme (Super Mario Bros. 3, 1990) (Listen to it!)
A fun piece, nearly made it onto the list, but it's simply not as good as the others listed here. Very catchy at the time, but hasn't stood the test of time as well as some other Mario tracks.
The theme of the hub world in the GameCube adventure. Sets the scene perfectly well, extremely "whistleable", has a "warm" feeling to it, making it ideal for this game.
So that's it, then. The absolute cream of the Mario music crop. If some reviews are to be believed, the Super Mario Galaxy 2 soundtrack is even better. I'm not spoiling anything for myself but I do know this much: if any game developer can make a tune better than the ones listed here, it's the game developer responsible for them in the first place.