Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

play it with a full jazz ensemble!

Have you ever dreamed of racing in Mario Kart while being serenaded by a live jazz band? Well, in Oklahoma, that dream can become a reality as you can race with a full jazz ensemble!
Culture Games

play it with a full jazz ensemble! Have you ever dreamed of racing in Mario Kart while being serenaded by a live jazz band? Well, in Oklahoma, that dream can become a reality as you can race with a full jazz ensemble!


The music of Mario Kart is known for its iconic status in video game soundtracks. From its origins on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) to its evolution on the N64, Wii, and Switch, the characters, circuits, and power-ups have also progressed, bringing new music with them. Despite the changes, each version still includes familiar melodies from previous Mario Karts, but now with the addition of new tracks. Imagine the excitement of having a live jazz band perform the classic Mario Kart tunes as you compete in a race.

“The connection between video games and their soundtracks has always been very organic,” states Ethan Neel, the drummer for Mario Kart 8 Live. Neel also performs with the US alternative rock group Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards, and is currently speaking with his bandmates from Oklahoma.

“Everybody has licks they remember from Mario Kart. Some really quintessential songs have come out of it. Live music played with Mario Kart has been done before, but we wanted to do the newest version of the game and, as far as we could see, no one had done that, at least not in the US. Pairing the two seemed really natural. At the end of the day, everybody loves Mario Kart. It’s always a great time.”

Guitarist Noah Roberts of the Mario Kart 8 Live jazz band and gamers, top right, in action last month in Oklahoma City.View image in fullscreen

According to Neel, performing live music for video games is not a new concept. A similar group can be found in Melbourne playing music from Mario Kart, and there are also traveling orchestras that focus on game music. Playing live in a bar with unpredictable players presents a unique challenge, especially for jazz musicians. Collin Ferrell, who plays saxophone, clarinet, and flute, has an important role in this setting. He starts each race by playing four essential notes – a B on the clarinet or soprano saxophone, or an A on the flute or Irish whistle, as he explained to me.

“I want to avoid disrupting someone’s fast start, so I am fully concentrated,” he explains. “The band will continue playing until the first player reaches the final lap, and then we will increase the tempo. Once the first person finishes, we will switch to the winning theme, creating a more relaxed and chill atmosphere.”

The initial step taken by Neel to get the band on tour was to reach out to his former bandmate, Nelson Gonzalez, a bass player from Venezuela who currently performs with American indie rock band Bee & the Hive and Latin pop artist Lincka.

A flyer for the live event.

Display the image in full screen mode.

Neel explained that he messaged him with the intention of organizing everything smoothly, pondering “How could we incorporate a live band into this?” Neel then invited Ferrell, whom he knew from the University of Oklahoma and who has experience playing with the Temptations and the Four Tops. The lineup was finalized with the addition of Noah Roberts and Kendrick McKinney from Bee & the Hive on guitar and keyboard, respectively.

“We all work as professional musicians, so it was a process of arranging and learning the songs,” says Gonzalez. “The songs are for full big bands, so it took a bit of time to work out the logistics of how we could recreate them between the five of us.”

In 1992, the initial installment of Mario Kart was launched on the SNES. It featured 20 different tracks and 16-bit music. Since then, there have been a total of nine games in the franchise. The most recent addition, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, was released in 2017 and received its latest set of new tracks just a few months ago.

According to Ferrell, the latest version of Mario Kart features revamped versions of classic tracks and music from previous games. This includes the iconic Rainbow Road from Super Nintendo and N64. Nintendo has successfully incorporated nostalgia into their new games while also introducing new tracks.

The band currently knows 32 out of the 48 songs available in Mario Kart 8, but they intend to learn the remaining songs as soon as possible.

Ferrell stated that they had a scheduled date for their initial tournament and had to ensure preparations were made in time. The band has already performed at two events, one in December 2023 and the other last month, both at The 51st Street Speakeasy located in Oklahoma City. Additional dates have been confirmed for March.

Based on the Instagram video of the band performing, playing Mario Kart with live music appears to be quite an experience. But what is it like to actually participate in a Mario Kart tournament with a live band accompanying the game?

Mario Kart 8 Live drummer Ethan Neel at the 51st Street Speakeasy.View image in fullscreen

Michelle Cao, a student from Oklahoma who participated in both Mario Kart 8 Live events and emerged victorious in the second, explains that the inclusion of sound enhances the overall experience. She mentions being pleasantly surprised by the guitar and saxophone parts in Toad Harbor and Dolphin Shoals respectively, which are often muted during the event. Despite this, the energy of the cheering crowd adds to the excitement of executing a shortcut or pulling off a fancy move, while also eliciting an “oooh” reaction if one gets hit by a power-up.

Neel explains that the main objective was to create something innovative and competitive that was not overly intense, while incorporating music that went beyond the traditional 8-bit do-dee-do style often associated with video games.

One thing the band haven’t quite decided on is a name, although by the time you read this, they may have settled on a proper, still-to-be-legally-cleared band name. “Right now, our handle is just Mario Kart 8 Live because we haven’t done any other games,” says Ferrell.

The statement is valid. The live performances of Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda, and Tetris have been well-received. Are there any other games that could be included in these performances? Ferrell mentions that they have received numerous requests for Super Smash Brothers, which would be an exciting addition.

However, this enduringly popular game is possibly the most fitting for Ferrell and his team’s talents. According to him, “Mario Kart is a game that anyone can play. It’s extremely accessible and not overly complex. You don’t need to press numerous buttons – just hold down the A button and you’re ready to go. It’s a game that anyone can jump in and give their best shot.”

Source: theguardian.com