If you were ever a Nintendo fan, and even if you are a person who has never played a video game in your life, there is a high chance that you have heard the work of Koji Kondo, the composer who has been responsible for some of Nintendo’s greatest and most popular tunes since the eighties.

Born in Nagoya, Japan in 1961, Koji Kondo had been playing musical instruments since the age of five, taken music classes since kindergarten, and grew up learning the electronic organ, even playing rock and jazz in a local band. Despite these hobbies, he didn’t pursue music as a career path when he attended Osaka University of Arts. That is, until Nintendo began looking to recruit students for the job of sound programming. Before being hired by Nintendo, Koji Kondo was already a fan of arcade games, including Nintendo’s own hit Donkey Kong, and he particularly loved the chiptune sounds of video games at the time, even learning to program his piano compositions into the Famicom (the original Japanese version of the NES) through the use of the Japan-exclusive Family BASIC keyboard accessory.

Kondo’s love of synthesizing and enthusiasm for games drew him to Nintendo, who hired him out of his senior year of college as one of very few music and sound designers working for that company.

After being hired to design the audio for the boxing arcade game Punch-Out!! (1984) and to write the instruction manual on how to program popular songs into the Famicom, Kondo composed some of the music for the Famicom maze game Devil World (1984) alongside composer Akito Nakatsuka, followed by single-handed efforts like Nintendo’s sports game Soccer (1985). But Koji Kondo’s greatest success came when Nintendo hired him to compose the score for the NES game Super Mario Bros. (1985). The background music for that game is so good it remains popular to this day, with the Overworld theme becoming Mario’s official theme music.

Kondo followed up Super Mario Bros. with the NES adventure game The Legend of Zelda (1986), which featured similarly iconic music, and he was the sole composer for the Japan-exclusive Famicom games The Mysterious Murasame Castle (1986), Shin Onigashima (1987) and Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic (1987) which was rebranded in America as Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988) as well as the final game in the trilogy Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988), a game that rivalled the original Super Mario Bros. when it came to toe-tapping music. After that Kondo composed the music for Super NES games like Super Mario World (1990), The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991) and Yoshi’s Island (1995) and the Nintendo 64 games Super Mario 64 (1996), Star Fox 64 (1997) with composer Hajime Wakai and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998). After composing these amazing soundtracks he could have retired right then and there, but he continued doing great work in the next millennium often collaborating with other musicians, including for the games The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000), Super Mario Sunshine (2002), The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002), New Super Mario Bros. (2006), Super Mario Galaxy (2007), Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010), Super Mario 3D World (2013) and Super Mario Odyssey (2017).

As someone who has played many of these games, the compositions of Koji Kondo are forever ingrained in my mind and over the course of my gaming years I have had my favorites. Here are some of my personal choices for the best of the best.

Overworld Theme (Super Mario Bros.)

By far the most popular song in video game history and one that forever set the standard for all video game soundtracks afterward. It was created with the intention of keeping gamers entertained with a catchy beat so as not to cause boredom during the gameplay of what was an ambitiously long adventure game. The song is just plain upbeat and perfectly sets the mood for the fun vibe that Mario games are all about.

Underground Theme (Super Mario Bros.)

The tune that shows up during Super Mario Bros. every time you enter a Warp Pipe and go underground is less than 15 seconds long but Koji Kondo did a good job of representing through a simple and minimalist melody the feeling of venturing into a place that is dark, quiet and menacing.

Airship Theme (Super Mario Bros. 3)

The music for Bowser’s airship in Super Mario Bros. 3 is a greater type of menacing. One that begins with military-style drums and descends gradually into louder trumpets as if to convey the feeling of a battalion slowly inching closer. It is loosely and appropriately based on “Mars, the Bringer of War” the first movement of Gustav Holst’s seven-movement orchestration The Planets.

Overworld Theme (Super Mario World)

This Overworld theme was just as upbeat as the one from Super Mario Bros. and this one even got remixed a number of times throughout the game with versions that kept being better than the last, including the energetic banjo jamboree of the “Athletic” theme, the balletic “Underwater” theme, the sinister “Castle” theme, the creepy “Ghost House” and the celebratory “Bonus” music. And any time you rode on your dinosaur friend Yoshi, bongo drums accompanied the songs, which was a nice touch.

Hyrule Castle (The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past)

The grand and dramatic melody you hear when you entered Hyrule Castle for the first time took the Super NES soundchip to zenith levels, right from the bang of that first gong. No one sets a mood like Koji Kondo. If you want to hear an even better version that’s more quiet and dignified, listen to “Hyrule King Appears” from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

Jolly Roger Bay/Dire Dire Docks (Super Mario 64)

Super Mario 64 is full of great songs but this might be the first one I fell in love with. Less something you would associate with a typical Mario game and more quiet and beautiful mood piece. A nice touch I liked was how the music changed depending on where you were. If you were above land the melody was more simplistic but when you began swimming in the water it became more orchestral. But land or water, the song was great.

Lethal Lava Land/Shifting Sand Land (Super Mario 64)

The music you hear in both the fiery pits of Lethal Lava Land and the vast desert Shifting Sand Land is one of the most perfect background songs I’ve ever heard accompany a world in a Mario game or any video game. Not only conveys the feeling of trekking through a valley in intense heat. It has an exotic and Arabian flavor and it’s not easy to pin down a melody because the orchestration is so complex, almost as if three different songs are playing at once. Genius level work from Koji Kondo.

Slider (Super Mario 64)

Super Mario 64′s version of an “Athletic” theme is the one that accompanies you when you encounter a slide, a race or any other death-defying moments, and the melody, along with the accompanying instrumentation of the accordion, banjo strum and whistle, is so energetic and fun-loving that it almost feels like a parody of a jamboree, like something out of a Disneyland ride. Which is honestly part of its charm and a perfect example of Koji Kondo understanding what the tone of a Mario game should be.

Ultimate Bowser (Super Mario 64)

The music you hear during your final battle with Bowser at the end of Super Mario 64 is synthetically played entirely by organ, which gives the confrontation a real Phantom of the Opera vibe, but this is also another complex composition from Koji Kondo in which he knows exactly when to speed up, slow down, repeat himself and emphasize the drama with accompanying background music at all the right moments.

Lon Lon Ranch (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

One of Koji Kondo’s most uplifting and life-affirming melodies he ever composed was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s background music for Lon Lon Ranch where Link first meets his trusty horse Epona and her owners Malon and Talon. When I hear this relaxing melody it just makes me want to lie down in the grass and fall asleep under the sun while taking in the nature around me. The song also plays an important role in the game because Malon sings it to you so that you can play it on your ocarina and eventually call Epona to your side whenever you need a ride.

Horse Race (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

Another horse-themed song from Ocarina of Time I like: the music you hear when someone challenges you to a horse race. Not much to say about it. It’s just every single thing you could possibly want in a horse racing song and I could listen to it all day.

Delfino Plaza (Super Mario Sunshine)

The central plaza of Isle Delfino in the GameCube game Super Mario Sunshine is my favorite of all of Koji Kondo’s post-N64 work. And the way it turns out in the final game accompanied by piano and accordion is one of my favorite musical arrangements in a Nintendo game, with a Southwest European style that especially gives it a cool vibe and makes me crave gelato. And I’ve never even had gelato before!

Other Koji Kondo Songs I like:

Dungeon Theme (The Legend of Zelda)

Overworld Theme (Super Mario Bros. 2)

Athletic Theme (Super Mario Bros. 3)

Kakariko Village (The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past)

Flower Garden (Yoshi’s Island)

Powerful Infant (Yoshi’s Island)

Inside Peach’s Castle (Super Mario 64)

Shop (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

Gerudo Valley (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

Deku Palace (The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask)

Ricco Harbor (Super Mario Sunshine)