Bomber’s Notebook #028 – The New Music of Zelda

Majora's CatNovember 13th, 2012 by Majora's Cat

In last week’s editorial, I reviewed some of Zelda’s early music, jumping around every few years or so. Not unlike the other outstanding qualities of Zelda games, the music has improved markedly through the ages. What started out as a fledgling franchise grew to become one of the biggest inspirations in gaming today and the soundtrack boasts an equally impressive legacy.

Just as Zelda ages gracefully like a fine wine, the nostalgic if somewhat primitive music of yesteryear is just as good as it ever was. The work of Koji Kondo and the rest of the gang hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially in recent years. If anything, the music of The Legend of Zelda has just gotten better and better. Today I’m going to cover the music of the newer Zeldas, from the revolutionary tunes of The Wind Waker to the recent orchestral masterpieces that accompany Skyward Sword. Make the jump to continue reading!

While Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask brought Zelda compositions into the third dimension figuratively, the mimicry of authentic and exotic instruments fall flat at times, especially when it comes to vocals. The Wind Waker addresses several of these errors, crafting a score that almost sounds orchestrated. Yes, the melodies are usually played by three or four instruments, but they sound magnificently realistic.

To go along with the island vibe, songs such as “Dragon Roost Island” and Molgera’s battle theme feature instruments we would normally associated with indigenous populations across the world. Music plays a big role in the game, as evidenced by Link’s trusty Wind Waker, Medli’s harp and Makar’s violin. The song that I believe best represents The Wind Waker‘s style is one that I have mentioned just a few lines of text above. It mixes together the velvety timbre of a bass guitar, pan flutes and even flamenco castanets. Yes, you heard me, and if you didn’t hear me, you’ve probably already heard the song.

I won’t lie, I found myself quite obsessed with The Minish Cap‘s soundtrack for the longest time. Now some may dismiss the old-fashioned sound quality immediately, I say give it a good listen. Owning a decent headset may not enhance the experience like it would electronic music, but what makes the pieces so compelling isn’t the fact that it’s a retro throwback of A Link to the Past‘s unique sound. In fact, it molds its own identity and controls the feeling of the music much more professionally that the SNES classic.

Sad songs sound sad, epic songs sound epic – each and every tune is a pleasant surprise. Among my favorites are the “Temple of Droplets”, “Palace of Winds” and the oft-played “Cloud Tops”. Usually common themes in Zelda games are designed to blend into the background and not draw your attention away from the game. This sometimes makes them less memorable than, say, boss battle themes. “Cloud Tops” makes great use of multiple layers of sound but doesn’t try hard to imitate the sounds of instruments, similarly to A Link to the Past. Everything about the soundtrack is nostalgic, but The Minish Cap adds the modern complexity of video game music, resulting in absolute 16-bit goodness.

Twilight Princess brought Zelda back to a deeper, more emotional phase in its melodic history. Majora’s Mask played around with the concepts of sadness, death and suffering by expressing it through its score. Nintendo’s 2006 magnum opus for the Wii and GameCube delivered the goods with a somber, emotion-inducing soundtrack that spoke volumes through (in some cases) a minimalist approach to songwriting.

On the contrary, Twilight Princess featured orchestral pieces composed strictly for trailers. However, when Link rides on horseback through Hyrule Field, the main theme aggrandizes to resemble an orchestrated piece. It was a nice touch that I really appreciated. Even the songs that are MIDI sound nearly orchestrated. The developers reach a level of musical realism that transcends far beyond the capabilities of The Wind Waker‘s soundtrack.

Twilight Princess shows off a level of diversity we hadn’t yet seen in a Zelda game’s soundtrack. This advantage comes from the plethora of different instruments that can be imitated and the ever-growing creativity of the sound team. Songs like “Lake Hylia” perfectly exemplify the tranquility that normally only accompanies a steaming cup of Jasmine tea. The orchestrated “Hyrule Field”, “Blizzeta Battle Second Half” and “Death Sword” theme exuberate an incomparable grandiosity. However, the soundtrack excels at expressing sadness. Compositions such as “Faron Woods” shed a depressing light on the situation, making for some of the most atmospheric songs in the franchise’s history.

Ocarina of Time won over the hearts of millions of fans with its distinctive, simplistic melodies. Twilight Princess‘ music is typically by no means simple, as I’ve attempted to play the sheet music of some of its most famous songs. The game’s simple elegant stems from the lonesome chords being played somberly. A sole voice in the distance, whether it be that of a being or an instrument, is a staple in the game’s music library. I can’t think of a better exemplification of this than “Midna’s Lament”.

If anyone had any qualms with Spirit Tracks, I’m sure the game could be redeemed in part by its sensational soundtrack. For a handheld game, the music is of surprisingly high quality and often incorporates the sounds of train whistles to suit the train theme. A far cry from the repetitive Phantom Hourglass score, Spirit Tracks creates completely fresh tracks establish their own identities. Songs make heavy use of the digital sound of pan flutes, snare drums, guitars, violins and low brass instruments.

This sound is very different from what came before. Many themes are delightfully menacing, matching the oddball characters they represent. The boundless talent of Toru Minegishi, Manaka Tominaga, Asuka Ohta and Koji Kondo is obvious here as each and every composition is memorable while still being relatively complex. I fell in love with Malladus’ final battle theme and the “Realm Overworld” song played while speeding through the vast overworld. These are exceptionally memorable and well-written pieces that hardly ever grow tiresome.

If I could only use one word to describe Skyward Sword’s music, it would be “raw”. Yes, a full orchestra sat down to play out each and every song in the library. It also helps that this is the same core team that worked on Super Mario Galaxy‘s music. The overwhelming sound of a decently sized orchestra is best suited for powerful songs like the “Ballad of the Goddess” and the battle theme for Koloktos and Moldarach. Howsoever, it also brings to life vibrant pieces like “Faron Woods”, “Lake Floria” and other overworld and dungeon background tracks.

Unfortunately there are not a lot of heartfelt pieces to speak of. Although the sound quality is very rich and completely overshadows the quality of previous game’s soundtracks, solo pieces that accent emotional moments in the game will often be played with too much enthusiasm. In fact, nearly every song in the game is remarkably upbeat. Aside from this minor complaint, the composers manage to inject a booming, intimidating vibe into the music that works in perfect harmony with the fairly large orchestra.

The music of Zelda has shifted constantly over the ages and finally made the switch to orchestral music just last year. Hopefully the trend will continue and we have the pleasure of hearing what Zelda has to offer in the future. So what do you think? Do you like the direction Nintendo is taking with Zelda’s music? Feel free to let us know in the comments below!

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  • J64

    Small correction regarding Twilight Princess: The only fully orchestrated music in the game is played during opening demo sequences. The rest is done with MIDI.

    • http://www.facebook.com/SpiritReika Scott Reika Ripberger

      I thought it sounded a little…..well, sounds whatever MIDI sounds like…

      • J64

        Technically, MIDI doesn’t have a sound as it’s just a series of commands that are interpreted by hardware or software, and it’s the abilities of that hardware or software that determine what it sounds like. I get what you mean, though, and I think “artificial” would be an appropriate term to use.

        • http://www.facebook.com/SpiritReika Scott Reika Ripberger

          Yes, thank you…my vocabulary wasn’t the best yesterday. It IS amazing that MIDI can sound like some of the songs in-game, though.

    • Majora’s Cat

      Yeah, the trailer music is orchestrated but “Hyrule Field” on horseback also sounds orchestrated to me, although it’s possible that it was just made to sound like that using MIDI technology.

      • JuicieJ

        It’s all MIDI. I remember one of the developers saying the only orchestration was the original trailer.

  • Midna’s Sister

    The “Midna’s Lament” is actually Midna’s Desperate Hour. Please fix that.

    • Majora’s Cat

      The official OST listing is “Midna’s Desperate Hour”, but I just prefer “Midna’s Lament” to that as a song name. I think it’s an equally popular and acceptable name since it appeared in SSBB under that name.

      • Arkanite Kae

        I agree. Both are acceptable and I’m lazy so “Midna’s Lament” takes less time to say :p

        • Blackbaldrik

          Lament” sounds so much better too. (=

          • Arkanite Kae

            Actually, now that i think about it. I have it called “Midna’s Desperation” in my music list. So it’s whatever floats your boat haha

      • Midna’s Sister

        Ah. Just wanted to tell you, so other people don’t come back and eat you because they see that it was wrong xD

  • Delta

    With the orchestra, the music has more of a feel to it, like in Midna’s Lament they were giving a sad and depressing song, and in Skyward sword Koloktos and Moldarach it was more upbeat.

  • Darkgreyfire

    After listening to the Symphony of the goddesses and the 25th anniversary CD, I hope they stick with the full orchestrated pieces. Although, the simple folk Irish sound of the music I hear from the wii u Zelda battle quest, is intriguing. Reminds me of the title theme to WW. Whatever direction they go, that’s one thing Zelda has always gotten right. The music has given the perfect character to each individual game.

    • Ninty

      I don’t think every song has to be orchestrated and feel constantly so grand, but more like have more songs with live instruments rather than just computer-made ones.

      Lately, Zelda Reorchestrated has been making live music, but their downloadable, computer-made music shows how it can still sound good.

      • Darkgreyfire

        I do agree. For example, I think skyward sword did great with Fi’s theme. It’s simplistic sound worked perfect for the points in the game that it was used. It created a sad, but necessarily eerie sound at night in Skyloft.

  • JuicieJ

    As I said last time, I much prefer the music of Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword as to that of any other Zelda game. They each have their own specific styles that they go with, but create different feelings with songs in different areas. In the past, Zelda music typically had a somewhat similar feel to the majority of the tracks, and there wasn’t much variety in flavor as a result. There is SO much variety in ST and SS’s soundtracks, and it’s almost always thick with emotion and life. Rarely does a track sound dull, even if it is somber. These games seamlessly blend atmospheric music with memorability, and it’s the kind of style the series should have had back with Ocarina of Time. But better late than never, I suppose.

  • The Hylian Monolith

    I used to dislike Dragon Roost Island for the pure reason that I also use for teh Dark World: I hear it too much. But now tah I’ve heard teh full, ORIGINAL composition, I’m in love with ti again.Speaking of love, you got ME hooked on teh MC sondtrack, too. Now I REALLY want to play that game…
    I know how everyone goes on and on about how amazing Midna’s Lament is, bit I feel taht it’s inly a single poece of the picture. I’d heard it many times in teh past, but I only really felt its full impact rightafter the Water Temple, when(SPOILER WARNING: SKIP TO END OF WARNING) Zant nearly kills her and you have to carry her to Princess Zelda. I got stuck three times in the waterways, I’m ashamed to admit, but the whole time I was nearly crying. I spoke to her once or twice, and she only said “Link…Hurry…To Zelda…” I felt that every monster that came and interrupted the song, I killed for her. I had never felt for any Zelda companion like I did then. Ever. It was the best moment in the game yet, and trust me, I remember this. I did that part for the first time just yesterday. Why does everyone think about it in tems of the end? I recall it after the Water Temple, when its full beauty slapped me in the face(SPOILERS END HERE).
    I loved ST, everything about it. It was the first Zelda game I finished, and I’ll never forget how it got me addicted to the series, ad especially the music. ST FOREVER! But I almost hate the Overworld Theme for the same reason that I hate Daark World and almost hated Dragon Roost Island, because whenever someone needs a good ST example, they choose that one. One day, I’ll jsut scream in their faces to choose something else… Not now, I’ve typed too much now. I did like the SS music, though, and our opinions pretty much match on it.

    • The Hylian Monolith

      So you don’t like that I don’t like the Dark World Theme? I don’t either, it should be a great song(to me). Sorry, random disliker.

      Or was it the typoes? Sigh…I got trolled for my vast plethora of typoes once.

  • Ninty

    Man, do I love the Spirit Tracks overworld theme. I guess it helps that Koji Kondo had three other people to help him make the music. Not trying to to put him down, but he can’t do it all. It helps to have people working with you who know different kinds of music who to collaborate with, you know? :3

  • KidNintendus

    I don’t know about you guys, but I personally love the flutes in WW, PH, and ST. But my favorite Zelda song ever, and possibly my favorite song ever… was The Great Sea from Wind Waker. This song just gave me this awesome sense of exploration and adventure.

  • Darkstar

    The Cloud top music of MC should have been the Hyrule field theme; that was the most epic song in that game and it’s a prelude to OoT’s Hyrule field song (timeline wise). TP’s Hyrule field was also one of the best in that game, along with the sacred meadow theme.

  • Gaseous Snake

    All awesome

  • A_LINK_IN_TIME

    Spirit Track’s soundtrack is absolutely gorgeous.