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It's the Music That Makes The Legend of Zelda So Extraordinary

Koji Kondo's incredible score helped to position The Legend of Zelda as a mythology fit for the 21st century.

by Merlin Jobst
Nov 11 2015, 7:10pm

Promotional artwork for 'The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time'

Music means fantasy. From pop to hip-hop to opera, it drags us into fabricated landscapes or realities, or immerses us in scenes of love, joy, or death. Inspiration and evocation keep us listening to it, and its purely sonic nature makes it perhaps one of the most unadulterated supplements to fantasy out there. The great thing about combining music with video games is that the story and visual elements are interactive. Unlike film, we're not just viewing them, we're living them.

As a kid, I was never allowed a console, thanks to parents who were headstrong enough to think they could easily raise children without video games in an age when everybody else had access to them. This naturally meant that I spent all the free time I could with friends who, between them, had them all: Game Boys, PlayStations, SEGA Mega Drives, and (what was, for me) the hallowed Nintendo 64.

I discovered the Legend of Zelda series in 1998, at around seven years old. My N64-owning friend was one of five siblings, which may have contributed to why I wasn't allowed to have my own save on the cartridge. I was, however, allowed to watch him play, which I was more than happy to do—and for what could literally have been days on end, had I been allowed.

I didn't get the opportunity to embark on my own quest until around a decade later, when my parents had given up and N64s were cheap. I don't remember if my first console was a gift or something I decided to invest in myself, but the long and the short of it is that in 2009 I sat cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom before a tiny relic television borrowed from a friend, and flicked the power button on my own N64. Planted in its slot, like so many Master Swords in forest plinths across the world, was a copy of Ocarina of Time. As Koji Kondo's piano-led score atop the title screen unfolded to the silhouettes of horse and rider careening over a Hyrulian landscape, I was dragged by what felt like my navel back to being seven years old, sitting in the same cross-legged position beside my bastard N64-owning pal.

The author's Triforce tattoo, and some plasters. Photo by the author, all rights reserved

That music that was hitting me so hard was written by Kondo alongside his revered Super Mario Bros. soundtracks, which have been well analyzed over the years. According to Andrew Schartmann—an expert on musical theory, the history of music in gaming, and an author and teacher on the subject of both—Kondo's music for the two series was very much written to juxtapose one against the other.

"Whereas 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."

As Schartmann details in his book from the 33 ⅓ series, Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack (which VICE ran an excerpt from, here), the music of the Mario universe was written with action in mind. From Cheep-Cheeps flapping their fins in time to the music, to rhythms written with anticipation for how a player would sway to a given level, those themes were designed to incite, predict, and complement movement.

Zelda's soundtrack was a new kind of music, really—something that had never been heard before. —Andrew Schartmann

"Zelda is a completely different animal," Schartmann tells me. "Its music is atmospheric—it is designed to capture the vastness of Hyrule, and of Link's quest. Unlike the music to Mario, there is little that is flippant or comedic.

"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."

The Legend of Zelda illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham, commissioned for the VICE article, The Greatest Moments of The Legend of Zelda

In the early days of gaming, scores would be limited to the capabilities of the console they were playing through, which despite Kondo's desired scope, meant him cutting back on almost everything a full score would traditionally include. But this not only didn't prove an issue for him—it's where he shone as a seminal composer.

It may appear repetitive, understated, and entirely un-complex, but Kondo's music for Ocarina of Time—from the delicate twinkling and sprawling strings of the series-wide Great Fairy's Fountain theme to the jingling, wind-up waltz employed for that of the Windmill Hut—was expertly and, at the time, uniquely crafted to induce that almost nauseating hit of nostalgia I felt circa 2008. According to Schartmann, there's enormous compositional depth to all of Kondo's soundtracks, of which even fanatics of the series may not be aware.

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"Kondo's formal techniques were quite revolutionary during the NES and SNES eras," Schartmann tells me. "Amidst severe technological constraints—very limited memory, for one thing—he found ways to produce the illusion of variety. Not only did he repeat segments out of their original order to trump predictability, but he also varied the length of repeated phrases to avoid squareness, again making it more difficult for the gamer to predict when the theme as a whole would repeat. It's quite complex, actually, despite its simple surface.

"It's worth mentioning the je ne sais quoi that makes a theme memorable. Whatever it is, Kondo has it in spades. Some might argue that repetition explains his music's memorability—after all, gamers heard each theme dozens, if not hundreds, of times while playing. But all soundtracks were repetitive back then, and people remember only a select few—Zelda being one of them."

With the Zelda series, Kondo created perhaps the perfect music for sensory memory, paired not just pleasantly but meticulously with stories we didn't just watch but fully experienced.

Even now, as the series grows increasingly visually and conceptually brave, the Zelda soundtracks retain what Schartmann loves and respects about them. "I've always appreciated Kondo's bare-bones technique," he muses. "Despite having the option available to him, he doesn't use technological bells and whistles to prop up his music. He relies instead on a solid craft and basic musical features: rich harmonies, jostling rhythms, and, of course, tunes we just can't forget."

And boy, is that true. In fact, with the Zelda series, Kondo created perhaps the perfect music for sensory memory, paired not just pleasantly but meticulously with stories we didn't just watch but fully experienced. Hell, I found myself at 18 with a stick-and-poke Triforce tattoo on my ankle and still unable to rid my head of those themes, which led to my obsessing over the recording of an unfortunately guitar-heavy medley of the lot of them. This can still be heard below, under an equally embarrassing moniker—which is fine, because we were all awful teenagers at one point.

The author's own medley of Zelda tunes, recorded several years ago

Being, effectively, the game through which I discovered games, it was specifically the revolutionary 3D visuals and, at the time, unfathomably epic nature of Ocarina of Time that held and holds the most resonance for me, and many others. Based on Schartmann's comments on its astonishing soundtrack, this is fairly unsurprising.

"In Ocarina of Time, Kondo proved himself a master of reinvention. Not only did he re-orchestrate the music we all know and love (from previous, arguably less-ambitious Zelda titles), but he also created several new tunes to fit with the old ones. It's hard enough to reinvent the same themes over and over again, let alone supplement them with new ones—and all of that without sounding derivative.

"Ocarina was also the first game in which specific environments became firmly wedded to specific tunes. Yes, there was consistency between previous games, but Ocarina really set things in stone. With Ocarina, Kondo gave us the sound of Hyrule—something we could rely on from game to game for information about our surroundings. And that sonic consistency helped to position The Legend of Zelda as a mythology fit for the 21st century—a world around which we can roam freely, as its sounds wash over our ears."

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