After twenty-five years of major episodes musically built by a small team of composers dealing with the consoles’ technical limitations and revolving around one key figure, Kôji Kondô, Skyward Sword shaken up some habits and reconsidered the musical DNA of the series in 2011.
One of the things that makes Zelda’s music so memorable is indeed the recurrence.
But the origins of many of the changes that occurred during the development of the famous Wii episode actually goes back a long way and were established little by little during the fifteen preceding years. At that time, though, bringing the orchestra into Zelda and rethinking the melodic heritage of the series was far from obvious, which caused quite a turmoil at Nintendo EAD.
Kôji Kondô gradually stepping back from his role as the main composer of the series started way before he officially let Hajime Wakai take the lead on this episode. He wasn’t alone already on Majora’s Mask, Tôru Minegishi helping him then by composing some battle themes. But as the dive into 3D continued to deepen, it came with a need for more people dedicated to sound in order to handle the growth of Hyrule and take up the new emerging challenges in terms of interactivity and spatialization.
Starting with The Wind Waker, and Wakai’s first contribution to enhance the game’s sound features by using interactive scale and harmonic based tutti during battles, and followed by the addition of more and more people to the soundscape creation, Zelda’s musical identity was still gripping to Kondo’s lead and frequently referring to the first games’ heritage in terms of melodic references when Skyward Sword’s development started.
But things took a rather radical turn, especially following the successful use of an orchestra under the influence of composer Mahito Yokota from Tokyo Software Development Department – who had already triggered the idea by composing one of the famous Twilight Princess trailer – a few years earlier in Super Mario Galaxy (2007). At first, though, and even if his battle to promote real recordings literally flew the Mario series to the moon, the plan was to keep the the next Zelda game’s sound synthetic.
Despite the plumber’s spatial and symphonic adventures’ success, some fears regarding the orchestra were still vivid: the rigidity associated with a recorded score was one of them. Also, the risk of standardization that would make Nintendo’s beloved franchise identity more difficult to stand out came along with the financial weight of such a decision. It was only during an interview at E3 2010 – when the game’s development was closer to the end than the beginning – that Shigeru Miyamoto turned tables and announced that a recorded soundtrack indeed interested him, before asking Eiji Aonuma and the sound team to make it orchestral.
The number of people working on the music and sound aspects of the game had to increase after this decision. The team already grew bigger and bigger before, as Masato Mizuta (who first constructed the sound and music generation system) and Hajime Wakai realized that the sky and ground were definitely too much to handle, and invited more people to join them.
But this time, the total of ten composers (including Kôji Kondô, Shiho Fuji, Takeshi Hama and Mahito Yokota), sound designers, sound programmers and so on (not counted in the team, planners also surprisingly got a hand on sound creation) were not only working in Kyôto under Wakai’s order, but also under the guidance of Mahito Yokota in Tôkyô’s office for everything that was orchestral and cinematic-related. An organizational change that was not easy to handle as the series was also going through deep questioning about its musical heritage.
Indeed, Skyward Sword’s plot is taking place before Hyrule’s foundation. Until this episode, one recurring question was how to include the overall series’ heritage in a way that fits the new artistic direction and innovations without giving up too much to fan-service. One of the things that makes Zelda’s music so memorable is indeed the recurrence of many of Kondô’s compositions, starting with the famous Overworld from 1986, that could be found in every main or map theme ever since.
If the melody has been transformed, cut down to small pieces and used as a citation or gimmick in recent episodes before Skyward Sword, the choice was more radical this time as it was not included at all. Indeed, the Overworld appears only in a few cutscenes that occur late in the course of the game, and is never heard in the main theme, the Ballad of the Goddess (which is Wakai’s reversal and reorchestration of Zelda’s Lullaby) nor in the sky’s music which is a completely new, entirely orchestral music.
How the Master Sword is treated from a musical perspective that catches the ear.
Many other tracks, such as the Kakariko village’s, the Fairies’ and Zoras’, to cite a few of the most famous, are (almost) nowhere to be found in the unnamed land roamed by the player during their adventures. But it is a fairly logical choice here, since all these places and people actually don’t exist yet: Skyloft is the only Hylian-inhabited town, and is not meant to be a part of the future Hyrule.
The episode stands out because more than recycling old themes to include them in a pre-existing mythology, it actually seeks to construct this mythology. If the nuance seems thin, this choice changes everything when it comes to how the recurring themes are build through the story: the best example is of course Zelda’s theme, that we don’t hear played forwards until her true role is unveiled. The character has indeed a different melody and personality before she becomes the founder and iconic princess of Hyrule, and the reversed lullaby heard in the Ballad of the Goddess bears a specific symbol that we won’t spoil here.
The same could be said about Ganon, whose name is never told in the whole adventure. His existence as a recurring enemy is wiped-out, blended into a new identity that slowly – and never overtly – slips towards the revelation the player is waiting for. But even more interesting, it is how the Master Sword is treated from a musical perspective that catches the ear.
Indeed, even the legend behind this iconic item is yet to be told in Skyward Sword’s timeline and, as the famous jingle that accompany the removal of the sword from its pedestal is not heard until late after it is obtained, a new story and musical accompaniment have been written for the occasion. It is the story and beautiful theme of of Fi, that has since been discretely brought back into the main mythology and events of Breath of the Wild, that was then created to give us the impression that we were re-discovering something hidden, forgotten by history, that we did not know before.
The legend behind this iconic item is yet to be told in Skyward Sword’s timeline.
This episode was puzzling for many players the first time it came out ten years ago. Skyward Sword was trying to find some kind of equilibrium between past and innovation through formulas and narrative structures that were bearing the heavy weight of twenty-five years of history and ludic evolutions. If it didn’t met everyone’s expectation by then, despite a lot of interesting and fun ideas, the game still outstands for Wakai’s and the rest of the sound team risk taking from a musical point of view. The complexity of its construction and the quality of the orchestral arrangements still has a lot to tell about Hyrule, and the new path that the series was about to take a few years later.