From Good to Great: The Music of the 'Legend of Zelda' Series

Erik Kersting

For a series in which the plots are loosely linked at best and can vary wildly in mood and tone, the music in the series is a great way to create continuity between games and make the player feel like they are playing a Zelda game and no other game.

The Legend of Zelda series is one of the most highly acclaimed series of all time. Stretching from 1986 to today, nearly every installment of the game has been well received, with some reaching the lofty heights of being considered among the best games of all time. Loved by a wide variety of people for a wide variety of reasons, it can be easy for one to ask, “Why is this series so beloved?” To the outsider who has maybe only played a little or only watched the game being played, Zelda may look similar to most other high fantasy adventure games like Skyrim, but many things separate the Zelda series from its peers. It is in these areas that we find what makes The Legend of Zelda series great as opposed to just good.

Many Zelda games are similar to each other, even as the series transitioned from 2D to 3D. They all have swordplay, similar over world formats, and feature many different dungeons. In each of these dungeons, there usually exists a new item for the player to acquire and a final boss to defeat before the player can move along the plot. The main characters Link, Zelda, and Ganon generally remain the same and even the items that the player acquires are similar from game to game. Despite the games featuring similar formulas, the series refuses to grow stale over time and each game adds or subtracts from the formula to create a new experience for the player, making nearly all Zelda games feel fresh.

For the purpose of this series, I want to examine three areas that I feel the Zelda series excels at and goes above and beyond expectations, particularly the series' music, variety, and its mood and tone. Each article will explore these areas of the games in depth. For the purpose of clarity and perspective, I will focus on what I consider to be the “Grand Slam” of the Zelda series, Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, and Wind Waker. Released one after another, I feel these three games are all nearly perfect, representing one of the best three game runs in any game series.

The music of The Legend of Zelda is not only memorable but incredibly important to the series as a whole. Even in the early NES games, there was clear attention and effort to create music that would be both memorable and moving for the player, but in Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, and Wind Waker, this emphasis on effective orchestration got pushed up to 11. More so than any adventure game that I've played, Zelda focuses on music as theme, device, and vehicle to move the player from one place to another, physically and emotionally. I am not just talking about the series' non-diegetic music and sounds, which, while fantastic, may be difficult to quantify in terms of why they are so great. The series also makes great use of diegetic sounds and music for a great variety of effects that influence the player and add to the game in substantial ways rarely seen in video games.

The first diegetic way in which the music of Zelda interacts with the player is in how the player-character literally has to play an instrument to complete some tasks and discover the world of the game. This need changes in each game, though. In Ocarina of Time, for instance, the player-character plays an ocarina, which is similar to a flute. In Majora's Mask, the player-character plays an ocarina as well, but as the player puts on different masks to change their appearance, their instrument changes to drums, bagpipes, or even a skeletal fish guitar. In Wind Waker, the player's magical baton (which is called the Wind Waker) conducts an orchestra. These instruments are not only important to the player for accomplishing objectives, but also to the plot and themes of the game. In fact, in two out of the three games, the instrument is so important as to make its way into the title of the game.

In Ocarina of Time, the ocarina serves a plot focus but also as a thematic focus. Chiefly, it has a magical power that moves the plot along. Mechanically, when the ocarina is played, it is often a solemn occasion. Unlike in the Wind Waker, in this game no orchestra accompanies Link as he plays his instrument. Thus, many of the songs carry with them a sense of solitude and sadness. This fits perfectly with the tone of the game, which, while adventurous, is often solemn, especially later in the game when Ganondorf's rule of the kingdom has created a dark populace of zombie-like creatures. Ocarina of Time’s diegetic music reflects the game's sense of Link’s inner turmoil and enhances the feeling created by the games plot and mood, rather than contrasting it with something more grandiose.

The masks in Majora's Mask also serve a similar purpose in enhancing the themes and sense of the characters in the game. The masks of the game are one of its defining characteristics, and the ability to change the form of the main character is one of its biggest draws. Like many things in the Zelda series, this exists not purely for gameplay reasons, though. It also clarifies the themes of the game. Each race represented in the game is associated with its own musical instrument and it own special songs, adding a sense of character to the races in a unique way as well as serving as way of representing aurally the social disjointedness of Terminia, the fictional world in which the game takes place.

Lastly, Wind Waker's baton adds to the game's whimsical, light hearted nature. The orchestral score that is conducted by the baton is often written in a major key. The small breaking of the fourth wall in which the character seems to be controlling an orchestra of non-diegetic music with a diegetic baton also fits the magical themes of the game very well. In Wind Waker, the feel good vibe of the game is enhanced by the feel good nature of its “instrument.”

Yet, this would all be for naught if the instruments served no purpose in the gameplay itself. Instead, music seems to represent an emotive way to control the way the world functions in many Zelda games. Playing simple songs on these magical instruments can change the weather from sunny to stormy, the wind’s movement from east to west, the world from day to night, transport the player from one place to another, and even the flow of time can be disrupted through this music. The thematic power of these instruments, and by extension the power of music, is reinforced not just through the plot, where there are required, but also in the way that they are used in routine gameplay. This emphasis on music cannot be found in the gameplay of almost any other adventure game

The music that the player-character plays also connects the player to the NPCs of the world. Usually when Link learns a new song he is being taught it by the other characters in the game. Songs are named things like “Zelda's Lullaby” or “Sarah's Song,” and each melody becomes an auditory cue for the player to think about and to remember that character. Each songs’ powers also relate to those who taught the song. This is a bond between player and character that is not present in other games and creates a unique emotional connection that contributes to the positive way that people remember the games and the characters that inhabit their worlds. It happens a little more on a subconscious level, but the emotion that the player feels when they first meet a character is recreated much more easily upon reunion when the music is beckoning the player to return to that emotion, whether that emotion be fear, anger, sadness, mischief, peace, or joy, which are all present in various characters throughout the games.

Lastly, the strange way in which the diegetic music and non-diegetic music interact creates for a stronger emotional bond to the game itself. Often times, a song that Link knows or has just learned will also emerge in non-diegetic form in the same area or in a future area. For instance, the solemn “Song of Time,” which the player uses to control time in Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask is sung by a choir in a non-diegetic chant in the Temple of Time. The feeling of this temple is completely altered because of it. What would be a more barren, destitute, and irreligious building becomes something holy in the presence through the addition of this familiar song. A similar effect is also achieved in other areas of the games, especially when the theme song of Wind Waker plays, a song which is used to bind all the different races of the sea and to create unity where there once was disharmony.

The non-diegetic music of Zelda is also incredibly important. As it should be, since it is often used to accentuate the feeling of various moments throughout the game, but the Zelda series does not just thoughtlessly influence the player's emotion with music. Rather, the game has a very poignant soundtrack that reflects the inner themes and workings of the games themselves.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the “Ocean Theme” from Wind Waker, which is, in my opinion, one of the best mergings of gameplay and music in any video game. The song is not complex. In fact, it is just a song that plays while Link sails the ocean, but what the song signifies about the adventure that Link is on and how it is incorporated into these moments is pure genius. The song, which features a swelling orchestration and a triumphant trumpet reflects the game's adventurous, but lighthearted nature. Something about the music reveals the vast nature of the sea so well that just hearing it makes me want to get into my virtual boat and sail. It makes the sometimes tedious task of sailing significantly more enjoyable and meaningful. A few minutes of sailing in Wind Waker musters up more of a feeling of adventure than other games can create in 20 hours. It is fitting that the song came out of Japan, which is surrounded and defined by the sea. Similarly, most of the music of Wind Waker is lighthearted like the game itself.

The whimsy of Wind Waker is also enhanced by non-diegetic orchestral sounds that play as Link swings his sword. While this may sound annoying in theory, it works very well in practice and creates a satisfaction to the gameplay that would not be as strong otherwise, as often the gameplay is on the easier side (which matches thematically with the game's lighthearted nature). This is a little touch that adds a lot to the game but is never overbearing, which is usually the purpose of music and sound in video games and even in film.

Tonally, Majora's Mask’s music goes a completely different way than the music of Wind Waker, as it is a much more serious, dark, and creepy game. The theme that is associated with the title “character,” Majora, is a great example of this. The percussion is not uplifting but sparse and jarring. The use of a minor key and the brooding nature of the song are used in many songs throughout the game and reflect its themes very well. Parts of “Majora's Theme” are used in other songs within the game to maintain that brooding tone.

Not all the songs within Majora's Mask are so dark, but they all reflect something deeper within the narrative and plot. The premise of the game is that the player has three days to save the world before the moon comes crashing down, destroying everything. Luckily, the player can turn back time, though they lose some progress when they do. The “Clock Town Theme (Days 1-3)” is an example of a great way that a little music shift can be used to change the tone of the game, even though the melody of the song never changes. On the first day, the music is happy and slow, the citizens do not know that the moon is falling, so there is nobody that is worrying and Link has three days to complete his task, so nothing is really pressuring him. On the second day, the melody is a lot faster and more hectic, there is something worrisome in the air, time is starting to run out, and time itself can't be ignored. By the third day, the melody is playing very fast and the undertones of the music are are composed of clashing, jarring minor chords. The music reinforces the idea that the world is ending. Once again, the music perfectly complements the theme of the game throughout its three days of dread.

Ocarina of Time’s music is adventurous in nature, but at times also solemn. The game is filled with many daring feats including the jump to 3D, but one of the greatest feats of the game is definitely represented by the game's menu music, which is pensive rather than adventurous. The theme, which is a slow and simple ballad complements the thoughtful nature of the game suggesting something more than a mindless adventure. I think it took a lot of courage from the game developers to include something that so contrasts the previous games' music and tone. However, as the player's very first experience with the new, 3D version of Zelda, it works amazingly and fits the theme of the game very well.

Melodies are not exclusive to any one game, which is good for the overall feel of the games. The “Faeries Fountain Song” is virtually the same in all the games, which achieves two major goals. One, it shows that Nintendo doesn't feel the need to fix what isn't broken. Two, it reminds the player of their previous experiences playing Zelda and deepens the bond between the player and the music and, thus, the game.

Many songs and sounds are repeated throughout the games, such as the “Song of Time” in both Majora's Mask and Ocarina of Time or the introduction to the “Hyrule Field Theme” from Ocarina of Time (a rooster crowing) being used to kick off “Clock Town Theme.” This reinforces the original feeling these songs had, working through pathways in the player's mind that have already been formed, rather than trying to create new ones to generate the same feelings. This can also be heard in the way that “Hyrule Field Theme” has a snippet of the melody from the “Hyrule Field theme” from the original The Legend of Zelda.

For a series in which the plots are loosely linked at best and can vary wildly in mood and tone, the music in the series is a great way to create continuity between games and make the player feel like they are playing a Zelda game and no other game. This is what is so special about the Zelda series. No matter how different the games are from one another, they all feel like a Zelda game. The music is a prime factor in this. It may be something that many critics and fans overlook, but if you're wondering why The Legend of Zelda is one of the most endearing series of all time, look no further than the close attention to detail to the game's music, both diegetic and non-diegetic. That attention to detail is present in almost everything the games do and is what makes the series is so great.






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