This essay is part of a series devoted to the future of the Legend of Zelda games. Please click here for more information.
With the possible exception of the Super Mario series, it's hard to imagine a more iconic set of sounds and music than those associated with the Legend of Zelda games. From sword slashes to treasure chest discoveries, much of the distinctive personality of the Zelda series is communicated through its distinctive sonic library.
In addition to iconic sounds, the series has long relied on musical leitmotifs associated with characters and locations. These recognizable pieces of music help identify and contextualize Link's adventures within a game, but they also connect each adventure to the series as a whole. Consequently, while the individual narratives occur in various epochs of time, the music spans across all of them, connected through the player's familiarity with these familiar themes. As a result these leitmotifs tend to resonate for longtime Zelda players in ways they may not for newer players.
This continuity is largely due to the contribution of Koji Kondo, who has served as both composer and sound designer for the Zelda series since its inception. Kondo's impact on these games has never been properly acknowledged, in my view, mainly due to the large and impressive shadow cast by Legend of Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto. But I would argue it is Kondo who has provided the most useful model for how to evolve the series in significant ways, while remaining true to its roots.
Kondo established a template of sounds and music in the original Legend of Zelda on an NES sound board that supported a total of six limited channels. In the 20+ years since, he has bent, morphed and reiterated these in every imaginable way to serve the unique needs of each new Zelda title, while continuing to preserve their sonic and musical heritage. Obviously, he has also composed dozens of hours of additional material over this time, but that small original treasure chest of sounds has remained his primary source of inspiration.
A few examples (I hope you will listen to each, as they highlight my points):
Here is the signature theme from the original The Legend of Zelda (1986). Typical of Kondo's work, it's a simple, sturdy tune that embeds itself into your brain while conveying the spirit of the game. In this case, we are clearly embarking on an adventure.
Next listen to the way Kondo weaves this melody into the storytelling opening of Wind Waker (2003), beginning in the style of a seafaring song, then slowly, suspensefully building to a forceful segue to the familiar heroic melody.
I love the way he does that! Wind Waker is my favorite of all Zelda scores, but that's another post.
Now listen to him use this same relatively small palette of notes and intervals and mold them into a different melody, still connected to the familiar Zelda theme, but now mournful, less militaristic, better suited to the older, more mature Link who appears in Twilight Princess (2006).
(Note: Kondo supervised the musical production of Twilight Princess. Some of the original compositions were written by his collaborator, Toru Minegishi.)
Similarly interesting are the ways in which Ganondorf's musical signature darkens and becomes more dissonant as the series evolves, gradually mixing with twisted human-like cries, and thunder, horses and wind:
Ganondorf - Ocarina of Time (1998)
Ganon - Wind Waker
Ganondorf - Twilight Princess
Finally, listen to how Kondo updates two of the iconic action sounds from the game - altering each, but preserving the original flavor:
Item fanfare - Legend of Zelda
Item fanfare - Ocarina of Time
Secret - Legend of Zelda
Secret - Ocarina of Time
What strikes me as important about Kondo's work is the way he so cleverly balances his continuing evolution as a composer and designer with the rich heritage of the Zelda series. Ocarina of Time is a terrific score, but Kondo and team's work on Wind Waker and Twilight Princess are richer thematically and significantly more complex compositionally. Few composers--Hollywood or otherwise--could so perfectly capture the vivid natural worlds of Wind Waker with such child-like wonder, mixed with Andean pan flutes, uillean pipes, and Irish jigs. Kondo continues to grow and move forward creatively, yet I can't think of a single note of his work that doesn't say "Zelda" to me.
Koji Kondo may point the way when it comes to thinking about how the Zelda series can evolve, but even he may have been restricted on Twilight Princess. While the music itself is beautifully evocative and serves the game well, Kondo was limited by a technology other triple-A games rejected years ago: MIDI music. While I don't hate MIDI as passionately as some, I do think we're overdue for a properly recorded orchestrated soundtrack, and I'm sure we'll have one in the next Zelda. Twilight Princess suffered graphically and sonically from being tied to its original hardware, the Gamecube. The next Zelda will be free of such restrictions. I hope. I can't wait to see what Kondo will do with a 40-piece orchestra.
The next logical question regarding sound is whether or not Link should speak, but I'll leave that for the next post. As always I welcome your comments and suggestions.