Almost 35 years of existence, and each new Zelda game attracts the ears on its music. Who will follow up to Kôji Kondô’s legendary melodies? And how will these persons bear the strong heritage of the iconic adventure game series, perennially bond to Nintendo’s history ? This focus on music exists since the beginning and the first charming melodies that Kondô brought to the players’ ears. But this link goes far beyond the simple use of catchy music.
It is no secret today that the Recorder from the first Zelda game introduced the first and most important instrumental magical features in the franchise’s history.
Today, we are going to take a little trip through some of the most important musical elements that has characterized Zelda’s sound throughout the years: music of course, but also instruments, and most of all, functions, all represented by three iconic tunes or items: The Recorder, Zelda’s Lullaby, and the Overworld Theme.
If musical instruments are popular in the series since Ocarina of Time (1998), for obvious reasons, they actually have been around from the very beginning. It is no secret today that the Recorder from the first Zelda game introduced the first and most important instrumental magical features in the franchise’s history : teleportation, that will become essential in other games such as A Link to the Past (1991) and Ocarina of Time, but also the power to reveal hidden things, as the mysterious melody allowed the players to find a few dungeons and caves by using the instrument.
A power that definitely comes back, whether it is through the Windfish Ballad written by Minako Hamano or, to some extent, the Frog’s Song of Soul by Kazumi Totaka in Link’s Awakening (1993) or through the Song of Time or the Song of Storms in OOT. Last but not least, the power to hurt specific enemies. This feature has not been as prevalent in other Zelda games as the first one, but the fact that the Sun’s Song freezes the ReDead (a fair revenge to their horrible paralyzing gaze) speaks for itself. If nobody except the Japanese players had the chance to shout in the Famicom’s microphone to kill Pols Voice (at least not until 2007 and Phantom Hourglass on the Nintendo DS), this power of sound has also been reversed to represent a danger for Link: who could forget Sharp’s deadly melody in the Spring Water Cave of the Ikana Canyon in Majora’s Mask (2000)?
As we can see, apart from its role as an aesthetic element, the instrumental feature was also very important for game director Shigeru Miyamoto at that time. As he stated himself later about Ocarina of Time, « Playing an instrument is a much more enjoyable way to accomplish things than just casting a spell »1. For whom was willing to mix perfectly gameplay and scenario into the more and more complex lore of Hyrule, musical instruments offered some great tricks through melodies.
The Whistle Theme was not available as a proper playable song.
If the Recorder is nowadays a simple easter egg one can encounter in Hyrule Warriors (2014), its first melody however has traveled through time and games, and is today the first iconic element amongst many others that have followed. Indeed, the small eerie melody is known for its occurrences, starting with Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988) and its well hidden Warp Whistles.
Later on, and after a few distinctive 2D episodes, Ocarina of Time was only the second to re-use this melody. Strangely enough, as it was the first episode ever to allow the players to enter each notes themselves while using the ocarina, the Whistle Theme was not available as a proper playable song. It could only be heard, in a very nostalgic mood, during the game’s introduction. Perhaps the melody’s length and its six different notes were too complicated, when the game used only five different notes for ocarina playing. But this pleasant easter egg tickling the ears of the first NES players at the time is not alone, as Capcom’s composer Mitsuhiko Takano put the same notes to contribution directly into the Minish Cap’s (2004) environment and gameplay.
Indeed, the Ocarina of Wind is back, and is used as an old-fashioned warping item. But most of all, it is where it is found that bears the most incredible reference to the first episode ever in the series. Before entering the Fortress of Winds that hide the instrument, the Wind Ruins are illustrated by an altered version of the original tune, using a musical mode that is most likely borrowed to Indian Raga or to Maghrebian Maqâm, making the melody quite difficult to spot for a non-trained ear. Will we listen to the Recorder’s tune again ? There are chances, and let’s hope so.
Today, the secret of a great adventure frequently lies into its characters and the melodies bond to their personality. The first Zelda games were, following the vision of Shigeru Miyamoto, not too inclined towards convoluted scenarios. The main characters didn’t have a proper song at first. Players actually had to wait for A Link to the Past – the third installment in the series – to hear for the first time the legendary tunes that are now bond to Link’s adventures: Kakariko Village, Hyrule Castle, and other Fairy Fountain themes… The same goes for all iconic characters: Ganon, and most of all Zelda, through the illustration of the Seven Sages song, that eventually became the beloved Lullaby in Ocarina of Time.
Although simple and sweet, Zelda’s Theme has been one of the most mysterious in the series, following her evolution and all the different representations and histories told through each game. Starting in Ocarina of Time, the beginning of the tune has been simplified to allow the players to remember it easily. Shrunk to the single repetition of three notes, forming a triangle on the music sheet, as a reminder of the Triforce of Wisdom that rest onto the Princess’s hands. Her role is not as obvious in the second part of the game, where she disguises herself into a Sheikah, Sheik, and hides her identity to the world – Link included. But the music, for the first time, speaks for itself : Sheik’s Theme is actually a small fragment from Zelda’s Lullaby, turned around and inverted in multiple different ways, only to give one solid glimpse of her real identity at the end of the loops.
A Link to the Past, she is the only character that actually has been depicted using another melody before.
Hiding Zelda’s identity into the music, or simply making the music evolves following the her inner changes has since become a common trick as the series has become more narrative-oriented. In Skyward Sword (2011) for example, the link between the Goddess Hylia and Zelda is depicted through the symbolic inversion of the original melody. When Zelda learns her true nature and becomes the incarnation of the Goddess (and the future Princess of the Kingdom of Hyrule, yet to be founded), the reversed melody is put back in its original state, and the Lullaby is born. But the young lady that sung the original Ballad of the Goddess (written by Hajime Wakai) is first represented using a completely different melody, showing the genuine teen unaware of her real fate.
Her musical character is even more complex in the Main Theme of Breath of the Wild (2017), as the story takes places 100 years after the fall of Hyrule. If the Lullaby is frequently heard in its most recognizable form, it has indeed inspired a part of the Main Theme. Even though it is quite difficult to unfold the original melody, as well as the Overworld, from the beautiful – a little uncanny – composition by Manaka Kataoka, they are a direct representations of Link’s memory loss and the personal history of the Princess, full of doubts and contradictions.
But if memories regarding Zelda’s musical history are focused towards Kôji Kondô’s original contribution to A Link to the Past, she is the only character that actually has been depicted using another melody before. Indeed, The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987) was composed by another Nintendo musician : Akito Nakatsuka (most known for Ice Climbers music). At the time, he wrote a small, five notes long, catchy tune to illustrate the final scene of the game and the awakening of the Princess.
Today, this tune has been forgotten, but can still be found, as a lovely reference, in the Minish Cap’s soundtrack. Mitsuhiko Takano chose to mix both Kondô’s and Nakatsuka’s versions, and to use Zelda II’s tune as an introduction to the Lullaby – of course – at the end of the game. As the same episode is introduced with Ocarina of Time’s melancholic credits version of Zelda’s theme, it proves that, independently of her royal nature, she was already, at the time, a vector for fond memories.
We spoke about musical instruments and character’s theme, but there is a third striking sound element in the Zelda series: environment. Among the many iconic ambient musics such as the Lost Woods, Kakarico Village and other Gorons groans, there is one that has been here since the very beginning. It also appears in each and every iteration of the series: the Overworld. This first heroic theme composed by Kondô is now recognizable only by hearing its first eight notes – whether they are from one of its two well known introductions or from the theme itself – and frequently used in concerts or remixes.
Zelda series and the land of Hyrule has become closer and closer to portraying our quiet avatar.
Apart from its catchy melody and rhythm, the Overworld has become more than a mere old tune. The first games were all using the theme – or at least its introduction – They either stayed close from it or have been going the opposite way, proposing a new main theme and traveling songs (as we saw in Zelda II). But it is not as simple today. Starting with Ocarina of Time, the Overworld has not been disappearing as one might think. In the contrary, it is still here, but distilled through the numerous interactive loops of Hyrule Fields’ music.
The melody the players’ new so far has not been broken into pieces, but rather shrunk into one fragment – a recognizable descending and going up fourth, followed by an ascending fifth in place of the initial suite of five rising notes. Following this first change, the Overworld has become convoluted. Rather than illustrating the player’s rides through the green lands of Hyrule, it has been used in plot-related contexts and cinematic scene.
If The Wind Waker, for example, still has some traces of the Overworld in the Ocean’s Theme, the most obvious quotes of the melody follow Link’s journey to becoming a hero. The same goes for the latest installments of the series, from Twilight Princess and it’s refined separation into three fragments of the new Overworld, mixed with subtle references to the original, to Spirit Tracks and its completely new theme, keeping the first melody aside for important and heroic moments only.
In the end, the beloved tune representing the Zelda series and the land of Hyrule has become closer and closer to portraying our quiet avatar, Link. In Skyward Sword, which takes place long before the creation of Hyrule and the dawn of its sacred myths, the melody is nearly absent and totally disconnected from the soaring of the sky sequences: it can be heard only a few times, when our hero finds about his destiny and restores the Sacred Sword. Here, it is literally the Song of the Hero.
In Breath of the Wild, finally, the field’s music nature has radically changed: due to the huge open world the game is taking place in, the heroic and loud fanfare has been replaced with more contemplative, scattered fragments. The strings have become a windy flute and the brass left for the delicate touch of the piano. And the Overworld ? Despite not being present in the fields, you can still hear it at multiple occasions.
When it is not lost into the Main Theme, played in stories, like Zelda’s Theme, or keeping company to the Princess into Hyrule’s Castle, fighting against Ganon’s melody, it is one of the two melancholic horse riding tunes, softly played by the cello during our nocturnal promenades through the quiet lands. The ground might be silenced in this last episode, crushed by Ganon’s malediction and bearing the marks of the one hundred years old defeat of Zelda and Link, but its melody is still here, slowly growing and preparing for a dazzling comeback.
As the new composers play with the essential tunes crafted by Kôji Kondô, we continue to listen and hunt every musical reference they hide in recent games.
And the story continues… Today we gave you a quick glimpse of three of the most important musical elements in the Zelda series : instruments, iconic characters and environment. Of course, they are not alone and many melodies have traveled through the episodes, linking the recent evolutions of Hyrule’s universe to our memories and the new ways of telling stories.
In more than three decades, the musical web of Zelda has been extending and has gained in complexity. As the new composers play with the essential tunes crafted by Kôji Kondô, we continue to listen and hunt every musical reference they hide in recent games. A full inventory of them would be impossible to make in one paper. Plus, it would spoil the fun of finally remembering the origins of this tune we are so fond of, appreciating the rise of good memories. Today, more than ever, Hyrule is a universe we can still discover and appreciate with our ears.