The Legend of Zelda turns 35: Why music matters just as much as gameplay
Musicians spoke with Day 6 about the Zelda games' legendary soundtracks
In 1984, Japanese video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto began work on two titles that would change the course of history.
The first, about a plumber running and jumping his way through wave after wave of enemies across eight worlds, would eventually be released in 1985 as Super Mario Bros.
The second, an open-world adventure that emphasized exploration and discovery, launched on Feb. 21, 1986 — and would spend the next three decades revolutionizing the interactive arts.
The Legend of Zelda puts player in the shoes of Link, the Hero of Time, as he attempts to save the Princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil wizard Ganon.
It was an instant hit, and spawned a franchise spanning 19 titles, 35 years, and more than 120 million copies sold around the world.
While the original Legend of Zelda is remembered for its open, accessible gameplay and creative level design, the work done by Miyamoto and co-director Takeshi Tezuka is only one side of a now-legendary coin.
Today, it's also fondly remembered for its music.
The game's svelte list of five tracks composed by Koji Kondo have become earworms that set the standard for the next 35 years of Zelda games, as well as video game music more generally.
"I think the first thing that really stuck out to me from a musical standpoint when I played the original game was the main melody," video game composer Tommy Tallarico, told Day 6. "That was something that just reached my soul immediately."
Tallarico is the co-founder of Video Games Live, a touring concert series that adapts video game music into pieces for full orchestras.
"Sometimes, when you hear certain songs or certain melodies for the first time and you fall in love with them — that's the magic," Tallarico added.
When video game composer Eimear Noone listens to music from the Zelda series, she says its "thematic material" present in all of its songs stands out to her.
"Koji Kondo's … real strength is in creating these incredible, memorable, evocative themes that stick in your mind, in your heart, and they're there forever," Said Noone, who has also conducted Video Games Lives concerts in the past.
Noone also worked on the Legend of Zelda's 25th anniversary soundtrack, as well as the Symphony of the Goddesses concert tour. She compared Kondo's ability to exclude "gratuitous stuff" from his music to Ludvig van Beethoven's own ability to take complex music and reduce it to essential parts.
Beyond Kondo's ability to craft earworm after earworm, however, Noone said the Zelda soundtracks are appealing because they draw on from cultures "all over the place."
"Not just Kyoto, not just Japanese, [but] Celtic definitely, you can see them from other parts of Asia as well," she said.
Noone singled out the main theme to 2002's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, saying the track "totally sounds like Irish music to me."
"I remember when we were recording it … for the 25th anniversary album, I remember the concertmaster in Seattle that day was a girl from the U.K.," Noone said. "I was telling her, this theme, it sounds so Irish to me, when you play the solo, can you imagine that kind of style?"
"And she said … I used to play in a traditional Irish band, so … the theme had found exactly the right person to play it."
Tallarico said a track like Dragon Roost Island, also from Wind Waker, sounds like a "Spanish dance-off."
"It's got this whimsical vibe to it … but in such a … playful way that just worked so well," he said.
For his part, musician and Symphony of the Goddess producer Jeron Moore said modern video game composers can learn from Kondo's dedication to melody.
"I think composers don't focus on that enough, they get too wrapped in so many other ideas and they kind of lose the heart and soul of the composition because they never find that heart, that melody, that lyricism that grounds the entire experience," Moore told Day 6.
Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.