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

After Ocarina of Time, Koji Kondo’s role as the sole composer for The Legend of Zelda would come to an end as he was joined by Toru Minegishi and other talented composers for subsequent Zelda scoring.  It’s evident in more contemporary Zelda titles that the orchestration has not only evolved in terms of technical production and musical complexity; it has taken on the identity of the series as much as the characters and the settings have.  No matter the departure from traditional Zelda orchestration, the music is unmistakably Zelda.

Majora’s Mask stands out in the Zelda series as perhaps the most unique in its storytelling, which is complemented by an equally unique soundtrack.  As past games featured scores that provided appropriate accompaniment to the various themes and moods throughout, MM’s melancholy moods and themes are elevated to outright spooky levels thanks to the soundtrack.  Majora’s Mask features the most bizarre, haunting, and melancholy soundtrack in the series.  Often compared to Chinese Theatre music, yangqin and paiban use conjure images of frightening surrealism and the odd, exaggerated posturing of maniacal personalities.  While many Zelda staples are present, they have been re-tooled to fit the unorthodox nature of Majora’s Mask (see Termina Field, Zora Hall and Goron Shrine).  The Song of Healing acts as the backbone of the soundtrack, appearing throughout as the means for Link to return to his original state (after being transformed into the Deku Shrub) as well as during cutscenes and as Clock Tower’s background theme.  Many of the Ocarina songs from OoT have returned as well, functioning mostly as Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout the land of Termina that Link can find and play for old-time’s sake.  It’s also interesting to note that Link finally gets in touch with his rock ‘n roll roots when donning the Zora Mask, shredding mad licks with his fishbone guitar.  By utilizing all three of the main masks, Link could essentially form his own band and play a kickass concert for the end of the world, much to the delight of Michael Stipe.

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When Zelda returned to the handheld format for Oracle of Ages and Seasons, the series’ orchestration returned to its simpler roots.  Both Oracle of Ages and Seasons borrow heavily from Link’s Awakening, and indeed only feature a handful of original tracks between the two of them.  While this does detract from the unique flavor usually present in each respective title, the Oracle games benefit from the classic score in that they have the goal in mind to recall elements of old-school, overhead-style Zelda.  When the score presents players with unique orchestrations, they tend to take on the characteristics of their respective title Oracles.  Both Nayru and Din are music-oriented individuals, one a singer/harp-player and the other a dancer/tambourine-player, and the original music focuses on up-tempo whimsy (Seasons) and subtle elegance (Ages).  The audio limitations of the Game Boy Color do little to take away from the signature sounds of Zelda, and the Oracle soundtracks retain the timeless essence of their predecessors.

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In returning to the console format, Koji Kondo and his cohorts looked to bring an unprecedented level of grandiosity and creative energy to the score of The Wind Waker.  Taking full advantage of the Gamecube’s hardware, The Wind Waker is scored with the most sweeping and lavish orchestration seen in the series so far. Even more so than its console predecessors, The Wind Waker succeeds in presenting a genuine and complete orchestral sound, which is appropriate considering that Link’s tool of choice is the titular Wind Waker (a conductor’s baton Link uses to control the wind).  Coming even closer to mimicking live orchestration, The Wind Waker is scored with adventure on the high seas in mind.  Returning Zelda tunes have been re-imagined as grand sea shanties and whimsical island tunes.   Capturing the whimsy of the game’s bright and colorful tone, the soundtrack to TWW is generally more light-hearted and playful in nature.  In addition to being able to control the wind, Link uses his conducting skills to lead other characters (the Sages Makar and Medli) in rousing fiddle and harp renditions of Master Sword-awakening melodies.  With countless standout tracks, The Wind Waker OST expertly captures the spirit of adventure and freedom apparent in the game’s gameplay and narrative.  The piano ballad “Farewell Hyrule King” is an impressive feat of ivory virtuoso and is a favorite of youtube pianists.  The title/end credits theme is on my list of most beautiful songs in all of music.

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The next Zelda title to grace the GameCube, Four Swords Adventures, is a terribly weak entry in an otherwise stellar franchise.  Despite this, the soundtrack retains an air of nostalgia while managing to sound fresh.  Almost the entire soundtrack is comprised of remastered versions of Zelda classic.  While this can certainly be seen a lazy and uninspired, FSA updates each track in a way that uses the GameCube’s hardware to impressive effect.  Not only is the simplicity of The Legend of Zelda and A Link to The Past present in FSA’s soundtrack, listeners can also hear the whimsical bounciness of The Wind Waker and the disjointed oddness of Majora’s Mask.  The Swamp, Village of The Blue Maiden and Formation Teaching are standout tracks, memorable in a game filled with forgettable moments.

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The Minish Cap took the franchise back to the handheld format in fine fashion, presenting gamers with another breath of fresh air in terms of gorgeous visual presentation and emotional storytelling.  Accompanying this charming little Zelda adventure is one of the franchises biggest orchestral offerings.   The Game Boy Advance’s sound capabilities outshine those of the Game Boy Color, and the sound quality present in The Minish Cap is impressive when one considers how tiny the device’s speakers are.  The Minish Cap’s soundtrack offers an unprecedented amount of variety when examining the handheld entries in the series.  Every environment is scored with BGM that summons a wide-variety of emotion, from apprehensiveness to playfulness.   Taking cues from The Wind Waker, The Minish Cap stands on the merits of quirkiness and whimsy to complement the colorful art direction.  Similarly, the soundtrack is rife with very robust and upbeat songs, bringing even more color to an already vibrant gaming experience.  All the grandiosity of OoT and TWW, as well as the solemn-ness of LA are present in The Minish Cap’s soundtrack.

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And thus concludes part II of this musical examination of The Legend of Zelda.  In my next entry, I’ll be taking a look at the more contemporary entries in the series to wrap up the main portion of this melodic endeavor.  Stay Tuned!

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