By Joseph Walter
In a formula revisited by Nintendo's latest Hylian masterpiece, Breath of the Wild, most everything can be done in any order, and the joy of discovery is a constant thrill, whether it's finding the foreboding entrance to a labyrinth, or a casual Moblin hoarding some rupees under a bush.
While so many of the game's peers focused on straightforward moment-to-moment action, Zelda carved its own path, fascinating and frustrating many in the process.
As we all know, that game was an enormous success and spawned countless highly-regarded sequels and masterpieces through the years, with many icons of the franchise being crafted in the very first outing.
Among green tunics, evil pigs, rupees and the Triforce, one of the most iconic elements was the fantastic soundtrack by Koji Kondo, which accompanied the player throughout their lengthy and often-confusing quest.
Originally intended to be Ravel's Bolero, the world was this close to not having the incredibly recognizable Zelda theme before fate intervened through the magic of copyright laws, and Kondo was able to deliver a beloved theme and soundtrack that we're going to dissect and discuss below!
Editor's Note: for those who want to listen along, each song's title is a link to that particularly piece of music!
The opening of the piece achieves a sense of grandeur while remaining serene as our first taste of the main motif takes shape. As the glorious title screen fades to night, the track transitions to a march as the familiar Zelda main theme takes shape for the first time. The density of the composition, along with the outstanding harmonies that Kondo was able to implement, establish this title theme on a pedestal that only a handful of the game's peers would be able to match.
Expertly composed, this outstanding piece created a tone for a world that players had never experienced before. It set a tone and established an atmosphere of a game that was unlike anything else on the system at the time.
While nothing ground breaking, there's something calming about this little piece that manages to make you feel sorry for that little boy wearing the green who was killed repeatedly by the dreaded Peahats.
Triumphant, sweeping and boldly adventurous, it's not hard to understand how this piece came become so beloved. A fair amount of variation and complexity still exists, which helps dull the pain of hearing this on repeat for many hours.
This is simply one of those brilliant pieces of music, like the work of John Williams in Star Wars, that is somehow perfect, remaining fulfilling and enjoyable no matter how many times it's listened to.
The brilliant opening fanfare sets the stage, for the harmony-laden main body of the track. Featuring ascending and descending takes on the motif and little musical flourishes, with countless moments of high adventure and danger, there could be no better accompaniment to the perilous rupee-hunting and Octorok slaying.
Incredibly simple in execution, it's astounding how infectious this jingle is, with its sweeping tone somehow packing an absolutely satisfying emotional impact. But it should come as no surprise, since Kondo would deliver an enormous amount of simple-but-satisfying jingles in not just this game, but in the upcoming Ocarina.
This doesn't shatter any standards, but it's hard not to grin at this triumphant piece. Especially if you've just acquired the Magical Rod.
It's better that way, though, as this short collection of notes captures a sense of nostalgia and mystery in a perfectly concise package, and it has very few competitors in that realm.
This would be rectified in later entries, however, as the enhanced version of this track, particularly in Ocarina, is excellent, but, then again, it's a stretch to call it "enhanced," since the newer version is such a massive departure structurally.
While the melody is simple enough, the performance is complex, creating numerous layers and an air of some Bach-like funereal themes with its organ-esque sounds.
When the players comes across one of the terrifying dungeon entrances on the overworld, and then decides to bravely enter, this song makes a perfect and most impactful impression. A superb juxtaposition against the comparatively cheery overworld theme, this dark, dank and haunting piece gives life to the creepy statues and repetitive interiors of these dreaded labyrinths.
Alas, there is but one negative about this piece, and it's the fact that, unlike the overworld theme, this underworld anthem can become grating, particularly when players are grappling with the similar rooms and frustrations of the eight labyrinths.
So while the song is an excellent atmospheric triumph, and still an overall heart-pounding piece to listen to, it does get long in the tooth if you've been stuck in a dungeon for far too long.
When you finally best one of the game's bosses and enter the inner sanctum, you see the shard of the Triforce glowing against the bleakness of the underworld. Touching it, Link hoists it over his head and this triumphant fanfare erupts.
A grand take on the main motif, with unique harmonies and variations, the piece creates a whirlwind of emotion that's hard to put into words.
Unfortunately, "Death Mountain" is filled with the most annoying enemies in the game, and its size is unfathomably huge when compared to the eight lairs.
You'll be hearing this song a lot, while also being increasingly frustrated.
This is a shame though, because on a contextual level, this piece makes perfect sense. A sort of proto-version of the eventual Ganon/dorf theme we'd get in future games, the composition and driving beat conjures an atmosphere of danger, evil and impending doom, which all fit perfectly.
Sadly, when coupled with the length of the dungeon, the difficulties within, and the short amount of time before the song loops, "Death Mountain" could conceivably leave a musically sour note.
Strangely, this pieces seems that it would eventually become part of the "Receive Item" jingle in future releases, but even in this original form, it fits the situation perfectly.
While nowhere near as cathartic or triumphant as the "Triforce" fanfare, this still serves as a great and satisfying change of pace to the repetitive "Death Mountain" theme, and it still has a great element of relaxed victory, as if you can breathe a sigh of relief.
It's appropriately regal and rewarding, but the major downside is that it simply doesn't stand out as much as the other distinctly "Zelda-style" portions of the soundtrack, not unlike the death jingle.
It's also strange that Kondo didn't attempt another, unique variation on the main theme a'la "Triforce," but oh well.
While it's definitely unexpected and strange compared to the mostly-straight score of the game, there is something cathartic, relaxing and smile-inducing about this concluding piece.
While later titles would have sweeping suites and heroic outbursts, this fun little track just makes you want to smile and say "I somehow figured out what 'SPECTACLE ROCK IS THE ENTRANCE TO DEATH' meant."
Each piece on this soundtrack is a perfect accompaniment to whatever the player is doing. They're rewarded for solving puzzles with a mysterious jingle, their encouraged to celebrate with a joyous fanfare upon acquiring a treasure, and they're emboldened to do battle and adventure with a triumphant overture.
It'd be extremely difficult to replace these perfectly-fitting pieces with something else, making this soundtrack's contextual presence a marvel in the vein of peanut butter and jelly.
Out Of Context:
While yes, it's been done before with the likes of Castlevania II, among others, Zelda stands apart with the sheer complexity of its title screen music, overworld theme and others. What it lacks in variety, it makes up for in sheer ear worm potential.
Not only is nearly every piece enjoyable on its own due to structure and music, but they also manage to be incredibly catchy.
With no context to go by, Zelda's music is quite a few steps above some contemporaries, but doesn't quite reach the top of the mountain of the NES, mainly due to the comparably small size of the soundtrack as a whole. This doesn't hinder the enjoyment of listening to it purely as music, however.
While the soundtrack is on the short end, and does carry one or two comparable duds, the listenability and overall emotional impact and enjoyment further cements the original Zelda's place as a triumph, not just in terms of gameplay and design, but sonically.
Overall, a fantastic soundtrack that's capable of transporting the listener to the land of Hyrule, whether they know what that is or not.