A Hymn to the Golden Goddesses
The Music of The Legend of Zelda
A musical history of The Legend of Zelda Franchise; the impact of Koji Kondo and the audio legacy of the series.
As we ended the last article with an exploration of J-pop, it’s only fitting that we return to the world of video games developed by Japanese studios like Nintendo as well as the composers and techniques that transformed these “primitive” sounds to iconic soundtracks. In this case, it begins with a simple idea: to give people an adventure.
Long before the golden era of the video game frontier bought by Nintendo Entertainment system in the 1980’s, there existed analog formats of role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Before the development of The Legend of Zelda for the NES, gamers were subject to rudimentary pixels and bleeps to get any sort of digital stimulation. Just before the videogame crash of 1983, at least in North America, arcades and the Atari 2600 were on the forefront of the gaming market. Games like 1982’s Pitfall and Dragonstomper were meant to immerse the player in imaginative new worlds where they become Pitfall Harry hurdling crocodiles or a fearless adventurer in a dangerous land full of mythical creatures and magic. At the time, it would be a fair assessment to say many gamers were impressed by the technological capabilities of game consoles and arcades, even when compared to the vastly more high-fidelity movie and film soundtracks of the day.
Unfortunately, many of the games for the Atari 2600 failed to deliver in the visual and auditory stimulation that is necessary for an immersive experience. Many people would still prefer the more affordable option of pen and paper tabletop role-playing games with a group of friends, a pizza, and blasting music to stimulate their creativity and imagination in a fantasy world setting. 1986 would be the pinnacle year for video gaming that would diverge from the traditional method of fantasy adventuring and place the player in the boots of Link – a green tunic clad elven hero destined by the Golden Goddesses to save the princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil Ganon.
The context of time eventually played a crucial role in the shaping of the entire Legend of Zelda franchise. Time synonymously compliments one of the key elements of composing music, an art that associates time with sound and all its dynamics. With the technological capabilities of Nintendo’s 1985 home console, North American audiences were now fully aware of the NES’s audio potential with Super Mario Brothers and how composer Koji Kondo was able to shape his melodies around the famous plumber’s journey. It was up to the same development team at Nintendo to send players on a beautiful and creative journey, not just visually but audibly. According to a Vice.com article citing music theory expert and teacher for Kondo’s music: Andrew Schartmann states the contrast between Kondo’s scores for the Mario and Zelda franchises respectively. “Mario is, in [Mario creator] Shigeru Miyamoto’s words, an ‘athletic game,’ Zelda is an action-adventure game—and much more puzzle oriented than Mario. In fact, when the original The Legend of Zelda came out, Miyamoto was worried that it would be too intellectual for the average gaming audience” [ 1 ].
The Triforce of Inception
According to Shigeru Miyamoto,
“The Legend of Zelda was principally inspired by his “explorations” as a young boy in the hillsides, forests, and caves surrounding his childhood home in Sonobe, Japan where he ventured into forests with secluded lakes, caves, and rural villages.” [ 2 ]
Coincidentally, creators Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka were also teamed up with composer and sound effect creator Koji Kondo to give players a new gameplay experience in a way that hadn’t been conveyed in any other game at the time. The Legend of Zelda for the NES would introduce themes of exploration, discovery, and amazement as the player unfolded all the hidden truths the land of Hyrule had to offer. With the foundation of the Nintendo Entertainment System, players could now immerse themselves into this fantasy world in the comfort of their own living room, without having to rely solely on their imagination and creativity.
Now that a role-playing game was fully accessible to anyone with an NES and a television set, it was the immense world of sandbox exploration, puzzles, hidden items, and power-ups that would bolster The Legend of Zelda’s initial releases’ critical success. For the appeal of The Legend of Zelda to receive an exceptional response from fans, it was Nintendo’s means of presentation that would first attract consumer’s attention. With its shiny golden box and matching cartridge, it became a legacy that placed it on a pedestal above so many other games of the era.
The Appeal of Fantasy Games
While some gamers were or may be hesitant of the nerd-chic setting that The Legend of Zelda drew from, it would set the stage for the future of the franchise as well as other critically acclaimed RPG video game series such as SquareSoft’s Final Fantasy and Sega’s Phantasy Star. It was the wonder, splendor, and prestige of these role-playing games that kept players returning for more. They were rewarded for exploring these new massive and uncharted worlds and meeting a wide variety of colorful NPCs (Non-Playable Characters). Since the Legend of Zelda set a benchmark for these types of games, Miyamoto and the rest of the development team were tasked with a feat never fully perceived in the world of a videogame. From its initial title screen, with the epic and heroic 8-bit melody of Koji Kondo’s composition introducing the precursor of what was to come, it was clear that the development team at Nintendo was onto the untapped potential of the NES and the overall video game market at the time.
Boomerangs, Bows, and Bombs
Our protagonist, Link, was ready to tackle his first adventure with the sounds of composer Koji Kondo, whether with the heroic melody of Hyrule’s overworld, or the rewarding jingle of receiving a new item from a chest. While The Legend of Zelda typically stayed away from much of western and Arthurian folklore and incorporated more eastern environmentalism and Japanese Shintoist elements into its thematic delivery, there were occasional exceptions such as the constant presence of a mysterious old man. This beginning would become the foundation of the future games in The Legend of Zelda franchise, separating and elevating the adventures of Link and his friends above much of its competition.
The Sounds that Shaped Link’s First Adventure and Beyond
Koji Kondo’s method of composition has always shone through in setting the tone of the music to correspond to what is happening on the player’s screen. This is demonstrated in his earlier works as well as his classical piano background. Adept in his craft, Kondo’s composition drifts with the ebb and flow of the game’s design flawlessly. Whether Link is traipsing through menacing dungeons in a chaotic minor key or frolicking through the grassy green fields of Hyrule in an upbeat major key, the score complimented the game’s atmosphere and was synced when moving from screen to screen or changing stages from a glorious overworld melody to a dark demon filled dungeon. This trend of sound design and composition complimenting the game’s visuals would continue to the next generation of 16-bit home consoles, albeit with a few missteps, before the pointy-eared hero found his way on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. In a Polygon.com article interviewing Kondo over the phone, Kondo shared some insight with audiences on how he finds his inspiration when composing for a Zelda game.
“’When I’m thinking of the main theme — the melody and the main theme of any game, I don’t really come up with those at work,’ said Kondo. ‘For some reason, they don’t come to me when I’m in the office! Usually, I’ll be in the bathtub, it’s like ‘oh, there it is!’ Or I’ll be sleeping, and the melody is in my head. Or even, you know, I’ll be walking down the hallway in my house, suddenly the music pops into my head. It really doesn’t happen at work, it’s always somewhere outside of the office.’” [ 3 ]
As The Legend of Zelda was still dominating the NES, 1991 would find the release of the critically acclaimed Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. With the 16-bit processing capabilities of Nintendo’s console, Kondo’s expression as an artist would shape the tone of A Link to the Past even further with a plethora of additional voicing options and sound effects. A standard SNES cartridge went far beyond the capabilities of Nintendo’s previous cartridge-based consoles like the NES and portable Gameboy. A Link to the Past received an excess of positive reception as the game not only built upon the LOZ universe’s content and lore for fans to sink their teeth into, but also created an innovative, serene, and cheery or somber atmosphere depending on Link’s location in Hyrule’s fractured multiverses of the light world and the dark world.
Giving the player a euphoric sense of wonder, enjoyment, and immersion is the intent for most successful video game franchises. However, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past would set a new benchmark for what many fans of the series would call a single-player immersive open-world action RPG. The audible nuances of the game were exemplary and created audible dynamics, whether exploring unending forests in search of the legendary Master sword or dredging evil laden dungeons. This tendency of audio and visual association in the Legend of Zelda series was about to evolve even further as Nintendo was on the verge of entering a new console generation.
Heralding a 3D Golden Era
By 1998, the new Nintendo 64 had already seen critical success with games like Super Mario 64 and Goldeneye, both of which are well-known for their accomplishments in musical storytelling. The Triforce of Courage, Wisdom, and Power were etched in the hearts and minds of all the Legend of Zelda fans. While the N64 wasn’t the most powerful system on the market at the time, with fierce competition from Sony’s PlayStation, Nintendo was still an innovator with stellar first-party titles. Another pinnacle year for Nintendo would be 1998 with the release of Link’s first 3D epic in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Time itself, in all its abstract contexts and constructs, would play a crucial role in shaping the theme, plot and motif of Ocarina of Time’s aesthetic. Even the title itself, Ocarina, an ancient wind instrument, considered a type of vessel flute, conveys the message of music and time incorporated in the game’s delivery.
With the N64’s expanded processing capabilities, larger memory, and access to more development tools, our friend Mr. Kondo created a two-hour soundtrack that scales the emotional gambit from sorrowful and somber to triumphant and heroic, and even to delicate and ethereal.
“In short, the Zelda music is epic. What makes it special, however, is how Kondo combines so many different genres into something entirely his own: Gregorian chant, Hollywood fantasy, rustic folk, 20th-century classical—the overworld theme was inspired by Bolero—and mediaeval troubadour all melded into one. It was a new kind of music, really—something that had never been heard before, especially when dressed up in synthesized sounds.” [ 1 ]
Whether conversing with Saria via an enchanting forest melody, or changing the course of Hyrule’s history with the powerful and haunting Song of Time, Link and the player’s engagement with the music brought a new level of immersion. The player was rewarded with a victorious jingle upon completing an Ocarina melody or upon opening a treasure chest and acquiring a useful item for Link’s quest.
This evolution of instrumentation and time synergistic incorporation would be magnified even farther in 2000’s N64 release of Link’s adventure in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Majora’s Mask would place Link in Termina, a Kingdom doomed in four days by a colliding and menacing moon, leaving it up to Link to relive the events of those four days through the manipulation of time to stop the chaotic event. Kondo’s composition was exemplary within the Legend of Zelda franchise and fit the tone and atmosphere of the game’s theme flawlessly and bolstered the series’ legacy. With Nintendo’s critical success of both Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask on the N64, the future of the franchise was looking bright for Nintendo’s next generation of consoles.
Wind Wakers, Wolves, and Technology for the Millennium
Nintendo’s first disc-based console, the GameCube, was released in 2001 in North America. While the GameCube never saw the success of the previous consoles, the quality of first-party Nintendo titles never ceased to disappoint audiences and 2003 would mark the release of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker [ 4 ]. With the compact disc-based console, the GameCube’s spectrum of visual and audio capabilities were far beyond previous generations in terms of immersion, graphical feats, and audio quality. Now, composers like Koji Kondo had free-range of voicing, dynamics, instrumentation, and length for a game as large Link’s pirate-themed adventure. Not only would the game’s soundtrack compliment the game’s tonality just as much as previous LOZ titles, but the incorporation of instrumentation and time synergizing with Link and the player’s actions goes unparalleled. The Wind Waker itself, a magical baton that could control the unbridled power of the seas, was used by conducting the motions to each song’s melody.
With the technology boom of the new millennium, many saw the lifetime of video game consoles growing shorter as new consoles were being released throughout the mid 2000’s. Link, however, would still find great success on each of Nintendo’s innovative home consoles whether it be the transforming, digital dark world of The Twilight Princess or in the mysterious temples of Skyward Sword. Both titles were released on the Nintendo Wii in 2006 and 2011. Although the legendary Koji Kondo was not behind all of the composition for these titles, his influence, arrangement, and management played a crucial part in shaping the sounds of these games, as well as the epic, massive, open-world, survivalist natured threshold of one of Nintendo’s most impressive titles to date – 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
A Portable Hero
Hey, but what about all the great music in The Legend of Zelda games on handhelds? Link’s adventures on handhelds have been truly inspiring, whether it be the dream like etherealness of 1993’s Link’s Awakening for the Gameboy, or the linked endings between Flagship games’ 2001 simultaneous releases of Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages for the Gameboy color. Link has been no stranger to the handheld console market. The elven hero’s journeys went even further as developers like Capcom and Flagship would be contracted by Nintendo to develop 2005’s The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap for the Gameboy Advance. Nintendo would return with a powerful presence on handhelds as the market evolved with the technology. The Nintendo DS would yield 2007’s Phantom Hourglass, and 2009’s Spirit Tracks. 2013 would also see a revival in the top-down style of perspective so popular in the SNES classic – A Link to the Past in the wall magic and nostalgia jolting journey of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.
- “Be it in cameos for Doctor Who or other speculative fiction, or in debates between purists on literary history, it’s long been established that Shakespeare himself stood at the crux of the war between ‘Highbow’ and ‘lowbrow’ entertainment.” Source: https://free-images.com/display/the_legend_zelda_breath.html
- “From the crescendos of the iconic themes, to the more somber or apropos atmospheric tracks that convey a sense of setting, the Zelda soundtrack has never failed to transport us across time into the various eras of Hyrule.” Source:https://www.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/frozen-night-zelda-hyper-realistic-intricate-2196000809 (Shutterstock “Frozen Night in Zelda hyper realistic intricate detail Digital Art Illustration Painting Hyper Realistic“ by Pattern Trends).
A classically trained musician, when paired with her talents in creative writing, her career as a technician and industrial electrician, and her education in journalism and the arts, Kyla’s a force to be reckoned with. Having served in SFS’ core and intermediate writing staff, she’s made her mark, both on The Living Multiverse and, of course, The Unconventional. Her series Sonata of the Screen and Grid, provides in-depth analysis of the usage and evolution of music in video games and cinema.
- Jobst, Merlin. “It’s the Music That Makes The Legend of Zelda So Extraordinary.” Vice, Vice, 11 Nov. 2015, vice.com/en_us/article/jmakxy/its-music-that-makes-nintendos-the-legend-of-zelda-series-so-extraordinary-330.
- “The Legend of Zelda.” FactRepublic.com, 19 Apr. 2018, factrepublic.com/facts/15148/.
- Joshi, Arjun. “Koji Kondo Discusses Music Creation for Iconic Mario and Legend of Zelda Games.” Nintendo Life, Hookshot Media, 17 Dec. 2014, nintendolife.com/news/2014/12/koji_kondo_discusses_music_creation_for_iconic_mario_and_legend_of_zelda_games.
- “Nintendo GameCube.” Zelda Wiki, zelda.fandom.com/wiki/Nintendo_GameCube.