The Legend of Zelda Just Turned 35– Let’s Look Back at It’s Iconic Soundtrack

Arie Likhtman

Last Sunday, on February 21st, every gamer’s favorite green-clad elf boy Link, and his parent game The Legend of Zelda celebrated a monumental 35th anniversary.

An event that any 90s kid knows, is worthy of the highest celebration. But oddly enough, this massive event fell on deaf ears, as Nintendo was rather quiet, and even a little nonchalant about the whole affair.

Whether this was due to the pandemic, which has the uncanny ability to make every event a little less fun or just due to a marketing decision, die-hard Zelda fans like myself are not willing to let this juggernaut’s birthday go uncelebrated.

 

Many of you must be confused right now… this is a music blog, what does The Legend of Zelda have to do with it? Well, fear not, because we are celebrating LOZ in the best way we know how, through music. Any fan of Zelda, Nintendo, or video games at large, is familiar with the iconic main overworld theme; the triumphant anthem that has accompanied every Zelda story since the beginning, and just reminds us all of a simpler time. But few in the video game or the music world know just how musically intricate and historically important this theme is, so in honor of the big 35, let’s give this theme its due diligence.

 

This iconic theme, like the entire Zelda Soundtrack and most other iconic Nintendo themes, is the brainchild of Koji Kondo, revered Japanese composer, and fan-crush of every video game expert and casual gaming nerd alike. If you don’t know Kondos’s work, pick up any Mario game and take a listen.

 

The Legend of Zelda theme was revolutionary in video game music partially because of how it differed from many video game themes at the time. While many game soundtracks at the time were darker in tone, LOZ’s theme takes on a brighter quality, using a lot of major elements. This was designed to make the game more hero-centric and character-focused, instead of strictly linear. Zelda was always designed with a true sense of adventure in mind, and this theme is the perfect embodiment of that.

 

Like most video game themes, it is quite brief, only taking up a few short minutes, but what Kondo did with those few minutes is absolutely brilliant. This theme switches between major and minor chords, giving the whole game a dualism between triumphant and heroism and dark struggle. This haunting and dissonant nature has been seen in countless video games since, both from Nintendo and other companies alike, in major franchises such as Dark Souls, Call of Duty, and Bioshock. If you’re a music nerd like I am, check out this full analysis.

 

But perhaps more important than the compositional intricacy of this theme is its influence on video game music and popular music alike. As far as video game music goes, LOZ was truly a trailblazer. As musicologist and critic Andrew Schartmann put it “Zelda’s soundtrack was a new kind of music, really—something that had never been heard before.” As one of the first open-world quest style RPGs, Zelda needed a soundtrack that created a feel as truly grand as this game was. As Schartmann said…

 

“The Zelda music is epic. What makes it special, however, is how Kondo combines so many different genres into something entirely his own: Gregorian chant, Hollywood fantasy, rustic folk, 20th-century classical—the overworld theme was inspired by Bolero—and medieval troubadour all melded into one. It was a new kind of music, really—something that had never been heard before, especially when dressed up in synthesized sounds.”

 

Video game music has long been used as a forum to blend genres and sounds from all over the world, and Legend of Zelda was one of the first games to truly display a compositional style so eclectic that it had never been seen before. What makes this theme even more impressive is that at the time in the late 80s, technology was heavily limited by the consoles present, such as the NES and SNES. 8Bit reigned supreme.

 

With these limitations in mind, it was masterful how Kondo crafted a theme that is so short and so repetitive, and yet so intricate and never boring, like the best-broken record ever. We see this use of repetition and limited tech used again in future Zelda games such as Ocarina of Time, as well as modern games such as Skyrim and Undertale. 

 

The impact of Kondo’s compositions was not just limited to video game music. Many modern EDM and dubstep artists, most notably Skrillex, cited video game music as inspiration for their work. Video games have long been an industry sandbox for electronic music, with composers free to break limits and smash all the rules of traditional music. Zelda started the industry down this path. To this day, EDM, dubstep, house, and dance music all remained heavily inspired by early video game music. The music industry owes a lot to video games, as all genres tip their cap to gaming when it comes to groundbreaking experimentation.

 

35 years ago, on February 21st, 1896, a legend was born. Not only a legendary game but a legendary soundtrack as well. Whether you’re a hardcore gamer, a casual fan, a music nerd, or just an observer, it is absolutely essential to acknowledge the genius musical work of Koji Kondo.

 

The Legend of Zelda theme influenced everything from video game music to classical composition to modern electronica. This review is just a starting point, and a proud cry to not let this musical juggernaut go unnoticed on its 35th birthday. Its time we as music fans, across the world and across genres, pay homage to an often overlooked area of music and give video games and The Legend of Zelda soundtrack, the respect they so badly deserve.

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