Have you ever been listening to music, enjoying yourself, and then BAM, suddenly you hear the first four notes of a song from a video game — and then you have that song stuck in your head for the rest of the day?
Well, that's not always a coincidence. Many musical composers take heavy inspiration from their favourite music, sometimes on purpose, sometimes without even realising it. It's called interpolation, and it's a common musical technique in which a musician uses borrowed melodies to craft their own song. It's functionally different from sampling, which is taking a direct sample from another song, and more importantly, it's not stealing!
But it's always exciting and weird to find borrowed riffs in video games, and we've trawled the internet to find a whopping three pages of the best examples of music that inspired video game music, even if not all of them are completely confirmed. And yes, there's a lot of Koji Kondo in here. What can we say? The man loves interpolation...
The Real Songs That Inspired Iconic Nintendo Music
The Legend of Zelda 'Title Theme' & 'Dungeon Theme' — 'April' by Deep Purple
Perhaps one of the most well-known tracks in video games, the Zelda title theme draws inspiration from this extremely churchy track by Deep Purple. Of course, it's 12 minutes long, because Deep Purple wasn't exactly known for their ability to keep things snappy. That's prog rock, baby.
Listen to it at 1.5 speed to really hear the Zelda coming through, and see if you can pick up the bits that inspired the Dungeon Theme, too!
Super Mario 'Starman Theme' — 'Summer Breeze' by Piper
The Starman theme from Super Mario is catchy as hell, and that's no accident. It's heavily based on this Japanese bop that's dripping with '80s synth:
Super Mario 'Underground Theme' — 'Let's Not Talk About It' by Friendship
The running joke that people make about this track serving as inspo for Koji Kondo is that it's even called 'Let's Not Talk About It', as if Kondo would want to hide his habit of borrowing catchy melodies. But, again, interpolation is legal, common, and often a great way to cross-pollinate the worlds of music. So just sit back and enjoy!
Super Mario 'Overworld Theme' — 'Sister Marian' by T-Square
In a 2001 interview Game Maestro Vol. 3, Kondo admitted to being inspired specifically by the Japanese jazz band, T-Square. "The rhythms in their music were easy for Japanese listeners to follow," he told the interviewer — also name-checking jazz musician Satao Watanabe, whose relaxed bossa nova beats influenced the vibe of Super Mario's music. Click to 1:02 on the video below to hear the Mario-like riff:
Animal Crossing: New Horizons 'K.K. Adventure' — 'He's A Pirate' from Pirates of the Caribbean by Klaus Badelt, Hans Zimmer, and Geoff Zanelli
Yeah, K.K.'s a pirate too — pirating melodies, that is. A lot of K.K. Slider's songs draw from real-life music, especially in the genre they're emulating. 'Only Me' sounds like R.E.M.'s 'Everybody Hurts', for example, and 'K.K. Bossa' sounds like 'The Girl from Ipanema'.
The Legend of Zelda 'Fairy Fountain' — 'Morning Glory' by Tatsuro Yamashita
The gorgeous arpeggios of Fairy Fountain didn't come from nowhere. The track is lovely enough that we even made a ranked list of every version of Fairy Fountain, but perhaps we should have included 'Morning Glory', which has the recognisable tune in the background of the dreamy vocals. Maybe Tatsuro Yamashita was getting upgrades to his armour when he wrote this song?