Scoring a Legend: The Music of The Legend of Zelda (Part One)

The Legend of Zelda has offered gamers a plethora of iconic scores throughout its lifetime.  From the opening notes that accompany the title banner to the medley showcasing the staff credits and familiar faces encountered throughout our time in Link’s shoes, our ears are treated to some of the most memorable and effective orchestration in all of video gamedom.  The over-world theme from the first game is perhaps the most recognized tune in the medium next to the Super Mario Bros theme or the Final Fantasy Victory Fanfare, and has appeared in every entry in one form or another.  The Menu Theme summons forth nostalgia faster than The Song of Storms summons rain (or the wrath of Guru Guru).  How many gamers can still hum the tune of The Song of Time, or Zelda’s Lullaby?  The Legend of Zelda’s score has bled into other forms of presentation as well; Countless piano virtuosi took to Youtube in order to showcase their mastery of Farewell, Hyrule King.  Speaking of Youtube, the great Lindsey Stirling recently showcased her Zelda Medley dressed as a blue-garbed Link.  During a football game my senior year of High School, the school band broke into Hyrule Field Main Theme following a kickoff, much to the delight of every nerd in attendance (myself included).  Every Zelda OST is a tour de force of earworm after earworm, embedding themselves into the minds and hearts of those that love the franchise, and even the less-than-passionate crowd must concede the merits of Koji Kondo’s (and his various cohorts) brilliant sonic orchestrations.

A common theme among the orchestrations conceived by Kondo are his propensity for scores that ring of novelty throughout their entirety despite their obvious repetition.  Using the vaunted Family BASIC system, Kondo achieved widespread acclaim for his work on Super Mario Bros and Zelda, turning simple oscillation into nostalgia-fuel for generations to come.  The Legend of Zelda is certainly the most primitive of the Zelda games in terms of it’s design across the board, yet the somber notes accompanied by light percussion-imitation plodding slowly out of tube TVs apprised players of an adventure more weighty than the bouncy acid trip featured in Super Mario Bros.  The Legend of Zelda took video games into a realm of unparalleled immersion, and the OST contributed heavily to the idea that players were taking part in a legend.  Though the OST is comprised of a mere four songs (outside of the Get Item jingle and the like), those four songs carried more substance than anything else presented in the medium at that time, and they continue to provide the foundation for Zelda soundtracks.

 

 

Despite not being among the most loved of the Zelda games, The Adventure of Link is a truly unique title that stands out among it’s peers for better or for worse, and it’s soundtrack is similarly distinct.  As the developers of the series attempted to add a layer of depth to the narrative, so too did the composers strive to bring another layer of complexity to their musical arrangements.  Despite the continued limitations of the NES hardware, The Adventure of Link features more atmospheric tunes than it’s predecessor, incorporating more sophisticated techniques of sonic manipulation.  Though many fans don’t know it, the Temple theme is the same tuned used in Super Smash Bros Melee to score the Hyrule Field stage.  The occasionally dissonant music combined with the unorthodox gameplay combined to make what would be Link’s strangest journey for more than a few installments in the series.  It was also the first game in the series to feature a musical instrument as an item, simply called the flute.

 

 

Though The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link laid the foundation for the series, it was A Link to the Past that put up the walls and installed the plumbing.  Practically everything present in contemporary Zelda titles originated in ALttP, and the soundtrack is no exception.  ALttP was the first big step taken by the development team to include a fleshed-out narrative and developed characters.  In the same manner, Koji Kondo worked diligently to bring more personality and complexity to the orchestration.  Using the more advanced capabilities afforded by the SNES (courtesy of the S-SMP), Kondo and his crew conducted a masterwork of sweeping themes, tense battle music, and tender ballads.  No longer was the music used as simple BGM, it was used to provided an atmospheric compliment to the story, adding varying moods to the more complex narrative situations.  The music contributed to a series becoming more and more immersive, and once again players found themselves caught up in the adventure of a lifetime set to a score of epic proportions.  The game introduced players to themes now synonymous with the series; Zelda’s Lullaby, Ganondorf’s Theme, Hyrule Castle Theme, and ominous Cave Theme made their debut in A Link to the Past.  ALttP also introduced the now-expected element of mystical musical instruments for Link to use throughout his adventure.  Apparently, before he was an adventurer, Link was a musical virtuoso.  Though fans of the series know the flute better as the ocarina now, it was simply the flute once again in ALttP.

 

 

Link’s Awakening is often forgotten by gamers, but it was the first major departure in the narrative focus for the franchise.  Not only did it not revolve around Link attempting to save Zelda, Link’s Awakening told a more somber and melancholy tale of a world that was mere imagined reality, destined to vanish upon Link’s success in his mission to awaken the Wind Fish.  The score reflects this, using methods similar to ALttP in that it set the mood for the story using more brooding melodies during the more poignant story narrative moments.  More than ever, music played an integral part in conveying the varying themes in a Zelda game.  Despite the simple hardware present in the Game Boy, Kondo was able to orchestrate a heartfelt score that conjured feelings of longing and bittersweet empathy in gamers.  Indeed, most of the Link’s journey revolves around collecting the various instruments he will use to wake the Wind Fish from his slumber and return to his own reality.  Marin, the lead female in Link’s Awakening, is a songstress of sorts with a deep passion for her music and the denizens of Koholint Island.  Marin teaches Link The Ballad of The Wind Fish, unwittingly giving Link the means to effectively obliterate her very existence.  It’s a heart-breaking tale, and once again we see a Zelda tale bolstered by a stellar soundtrack.  It’s not all doom and gloom, of course, as more than a few bouncy themes burrow their way into our ear canals throughout the game.  Along with The Ballad of The Wind Fish, stand-out tracks include The Storm, Link and Marin’s Song, Manbo’s Mambo and Animal Village.

 

 

 

 

Ocarina of Time arrived on the scene and quickly established itself as one of the greatest achievements in the video game medium.  A massive evolutionary step for the series, Ocarina of Time brought the series into the 3D realm with remarkable success, and it remains the most lucrative and popular entry in the series.  A big part of that popularity can be attributed to the soundtrack; Kondo utilized the technical capability of the N64 to craft the most stand-out score the series had seen thus far.  Ocarina of Time would also mark the last time Koji Kondo would take full responsibility for the series’ soundtrack.  For many, Ocarina of Time is one of the quintessential video game OSTs.  Most of the songs present are re-orchestrations of A Link to The Past tracks, but several original pieces shine just as brightly as their classic brethren (Saria’s Song, The Temple of Time theme).  No longer was the score limited to various blips and bleeps, and the various characters and landscapes were graced with themes that now sounded as if they were being played by real instruments.  The sweeping score provided an unparalleled sense of grandiose scale and atmosphere, and many of the songs are as memorable as the narrative moments and characters/locations they accompany.  Following the cues of Link’s Awakening, Ocarina of Time places a greater focus on music as part of the narrative, and the titular Ocarina of Time allowed players to take greater control of Link’s affinity for wind instruments.  In the second half of Link’s journey, the Ocarina songs become increasingly complex and adopt intricate and even philosophical implications as taught by Sheik (see Bolero of Fire, Nocturne of Shadow).  Throughout the adventure, Link uses the Ocarina to open doors, sway the inclinations of other characters, and travel through time.  With so many timeless songs, it’s difficult to pinpoint any standout tracks when the entire OST is composed of such.

 

 

 

Thus concludes part one of this examination of The Legend of Zelda’s music.  Next time, we’ll take a look at the series’ movement into more experimental, unique, and even bizarre musical directions.

Stay tuned!

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