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Contrary to the common belief, the Zelda series has featured music from various composers, not just Koji Kondo. The others have been standing in Kondo’s shadow for decades without the recognition they deserve. This article aims to cover the lesser known Zelda composers and their impact on the series. They weren’t all fantastic, but most of them did well and certainly brought some variety and perspective to the musical aspect of The Legend of Zelda.


 

Akito Nakatsuka

The score for the original Legend of Zelda was written solely by Koji Kondo. He was most likely selected for the job because of his highly popular Super Mario Bros. soundtrack which was released the previous year. However, Kondo didn’t write a single note for the follow up of the original Zelda game, The Adventure of Link. This is interesting, because the father of the series, Shigeru Miyamoto, wasn’t heavily involved in the game either. The game was basically made by a different team altogether with Miyamoto only acting as a producer and adviser.

The music for Adventure of Link was composed by a lesser known composer Akito Nakatsuka who had previously worked on the music of Ice Climbers, an arcade classic made by Nintendo. Nakatsuka borrowed parts from Kondo’s Zelda themes but created mostly an original soundtrack. Unlike Kondo’s work, his music has not been reused in any Zelda game to date. The only reworks of his compositions can be heard in Super Smash Bros. Melee’s Hyrule Castle and the Ice Climbers stage. The opening theme of Adventure of Link was heard briefly as a part of a Zelda theme medley in the Hyrule Symphony CD.

The lack of reference to Nakatsuka’s work is rather strange seeing as how many of the Zelda themes have been used over and over, eventually becoming fan favorites over the years where as Nakatsuka’s work hasn’t been touched upon at all. This might have something to do with the fact that Adventure of Link is often considered to be the black sheep of the series and is rarely referred to in any way at all.


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The soundtrack of AoL was your typical NES composition consisting of less than 20 songs altogether. It is usually only remembered from the Palace Theme (thanks to SSBM) and naturally the opening screen music. The overworld music makes an attempt to remix the original Zelda theme which works, but does not reach the sense of adventure, achieved in the original melody. Some of the frequently repeated melodies are somewhat simple and do not have the catchy Zelda feel to them, which in turn makes the score less appealing to long time Zelda fans.

As I listen to AoL’s soundtrack, while writing this article, I’m beginning to realize why it hasn’t been reused in the other games. It’s just a mediocre NES composition that doesn’t stay with you when turn off the console. Some of the songs are also haunted by my childhood trauma of what this notoriously difficult game put me through. Though there are a couple of gems that would deserve to be heard again. The Village Theme is a nice tune that offers a break from the overworld music. Then there is the the Palace Theme which is easily the best track of the lot, hearing it in SSBM might have something to do with its popularity, but to me it was the one thing that kept me playing the game. So far only fan-made remixes of these melodies exist.

At least two songs in the japanese version were modified for the american and european releases. These tracks are the title music and the battle theme. The title music sounds like it was just improved rather than re-arranged to suit the musical taste of western players. The battle theme however is completely different. The japanese one is more monotonous but sounds a lot more like a Zelda piece, where as the one we have come to know sounds like it could be from just any NES title.



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Takashi Tezuka (director of Link’s Awakening), Kenta Nagata (one of the composers of The Wind Waker score) and Kazumi Tokata (composer of the Link’s Awakening score)


 

The Gameboy Composers

The next released game was A Link to the Past which saw the return of Kondo’s familiar style. The soundtrack featured countless tracks which have stayed with the series ever since. One could say that this was the soundtrack that shaped the music of Zelda. Koji Kondo created a powerful and memorable soundtrack that utilized the Super Nintendo’s maximum capabilities, only to step aside and give room for the sound team of Link’s Awakening.

The reason why Kondo was not chosen to work on the next Zelda title might have been because at the time he didn’t have any experience of composing music for the Gameboy. The team that took his place consisted of four Nintendo composers: Yuichi Ozaki, Kazumi Totaka, Minako Hamano and Kazue Ishikawa. They created a different sound, again borrowing the main theme from Kondo, to create one of the most memorable Gameboy soundtracks out there.

If you download the soundtrack (go ahead, it was never released on CD) the first thing you notice is that there are nearly 80 tracks of music! Some of them are short fanfares you hear when you obtain a special item, but mostly it’s just music. This game was the first to introduce individual dungeon themes and multiple songs to play with your ocarina. There was plenty of diversity and lots of tunes composed exclusively for cutscenes, something which was also pretty new in Zelda back in the day.

The DX version brought back a remixed version classic dungeon theme from the first Zelda, the music can be heard in the bonus dungeon of the game. There was also a secret song which was different for the japanese and western versions. In the original version Kazumi Totaka had included his trademark melody which is hidden in every soundtrack he has worked on. In the western version the secret melody was replaced by groovy remix of the Zelda theme. It can be heard by inserting “ZELDA” as the player’s name.

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Soon after Majora’s Mask was released on the Nintendo 64, The Oracle of Seasons and The Oracle of Ages saw the light of day on the Gameboy Color. This soundtrack was put together by a duo working under the aliases Kyopi and M-Adachi. The true identities of these people are unknown as are the identities of the sound effect people Yokopo and M-Aoki. It is very likely that M-Adachi is in fact Masanori Adachi, the very same composer who created the soundtrack to Freshly Picked - Tingle’s Rosy Rupee Land. Adachi had also previously worked on such classic titles as Rocket Knight Adventures, Castlevania IV and Contra III. Strangely enough, the music and sound effects of the Oracle games are also credited to Pure Sound Inc., a mysterious corporation that has to my knowledge disappeared after the games’ release.

Japanese video game music composers sometimes worked under aliases. This was very common especially during the 1980’s but wasn’t at all usual in the 21st century. Apparently the early video game composers used these aliases so that they could secretly work for several publishers at the same time without getting into trouble for breaking their contracts.

Kyopi and Adachi’s take on the Oracles was a step back to the more traditional Zelda music which was a good choice for these type of games. The music in the games is all round good, one can hardly find anything to complain about. There’s enough variety and plenty of memorable themes. As was the case with Link’s Awakening, the Gameboy’s sound system doesn’t allow much creativity, but then again the tunes that these guys put together are just what the doctor ordered, so there wasn’t really any need to go nuts with the soundtrack.

Speaking of Link’s Awakening, one can definitely hear lots of connections between the two soundtracks, even matching melodies. Some tracks were even borrowed from Ocarina of Time, just like some of the characters. It was obviously an attempt to cash in on Ocarina’s success, which is sort of sad, but since the rest of the soundtrack was fantastic, I’m willing to forgive them. When compared to other Gameboy soundtracks of the time, this one was exceptionally good, and was well received among critics even though the speakers of Gameboy Color didn’t do the music the justice it deserved.


Four Sword Composers

The Four Swords Adventures returns Zelda music to its roots. At times the soundtrack actually sounds like it was made 10 years ago, which is not a bad thing at all. The score was written by Koji Kondo and Asuka Ota. Unlike all the other composers, Ota is a fairly young composer, having made only one soundtrack for the Nintendo DS, prior to his work with FSA.

The soundtrack is bursting with adventure from days gone by. The samples sound better and there are more channels in the sound engine, allowing more complex melodies and harmonies. Still the spirit of the old games stays intact. Could a Zelda fan ask for more?

FSA also features many familiar themes from ALttP, that sound very close to their original counterparts. Actually the whole game resembles ALttP in more than one ways, it was made by the same team, that apparently wanted to pay a tribute to the SNES classic from 12 years ago. For a senior fan this either comes as a pleasant trip down the memory lane or as an annoying recycling of old ideas. Some of the themes were a bit stale but once again the amount of good pieces easily outweighs the bad.

The Minish Cap’s soundtrack was composed entirely by Mitsuhiko Takano, another new composer to the Zelda series. His music is at times very atmospheric and at times really gives the listener the GBA’s sound at its best, take the Wind Ruins music for an example. It’s too bad that half of the soundtrack doesn’t sound as good at all.

The parts that hurt my ears the most are where Takano uses non-midi sounds as a part of the composition. The sound is just so crude when compared to the sophisticated harmonies he creates with the midi. In case you’re wondering just what I mean I suggest you listen to two songs and see if you can spot the difference. First, listen to the Intro Story music, which to my knowledge is nothing but midi all the way. Next find a song called House, and concentrate on the bass line.

The soundtrack would have been a classic if Takano had just stuck to the midi instruments. In some cases he does make the combination work but those are too few and far between. Despite this flaw, the music is very impressive at times and makes for a good GBA soundtrack.


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Koji Kondo performing at the PLAY! A Video Game Symphony -tour



Twilight Princess and Orchestral Zelda

Koji Kondo finally achieved his dream of creating fully orchestrated music for the highly anticipated Twilight Princess. The soundtrack of TP is every Zelda fanatic’s every wet dream put together. The soundtrack is a brilliant mix of synthetic music and traditional film score. Most of the major locations and characters received an orchestrated suite which will hopefully released soon on CD.

The masterminds behind the soundtrack are Koji Kondo, Asuka Ota and Toru Minegishi. Together they have created a soundtrack so great I can hardly find words to describe it. While this certainly isn’t the first time Zelda music has been orchestrated, the soundtrack of Twilight Princess marks the first ever occasion where the orchestrated tracks were produced for the game itself. The key melodies of Ocarina of Time were arranged for a symphony orchestra after the game’s release. The album was called Hyrule Symphony and was never released outside Japan. Some Zelda tracks have also appeared on the Orchestral Game Concert albums along with other video game orchestrations.

The most ingenious achievement of Twilight Princess’ soundtrack is the musical contrast between Hyrule and the Twilight Realm. Hyrule is filled with adventurous uplifting themes and exciting songs, along with long time fan favorites, creating a sense of great enthusiasm. Hyrule’s music has its relaxing side to it as well, making the place feel secure and familiar yet fresh and exciting.

Once you enter the Twilight Realm you no longer hear the pleasant sounds of Hyrule, instead you are confronted with a bizarre set of compositions that create an air of uneasiness and discomfort. This playing with the players emotions is what made the score a genuine masterpiece. Some of tracks take a very experimental direction which hasn’t been done since Majora’s Mask.

The musical references aren’t as subtle as they were in The Wind Waker, but they are there. Musically, Twilight Princess refers mostly to Ocarina of Time, borrowing a couple of tracks from other games as well.

Altogether the soundtrack is darker than your typical Zelda soundtrack. It also borrows heavily from film scores, which seems to be the trend with game music these days. I would complain that by imitating film music the video game composers are killing a musical genre they created, but how can I when it sounds so good? A great majority of songs on Twilight Princess’ soundtrack are “old school” songs which were done the same way as The Wind Waker soundtrack - with midi instruments. These tracks feel slightly out of place, because they are clearly artificial and from time to time make no attempt to hide it. However, even the midi tracks take a very cinematic approach to the music, giving the soundtrack a very epic feel.

Right now Kondo, Ota and Minegishi are the Zelda music dream team, I can only hope to see them involved in the upcoming Zelda for the Wii.

The music has come a long way from the bleeps and bloops of the early games. Each game represents its time, without breaking ties with the past. It really brings a smile to my face to see Mr. Kondo still involved in Zelda without leaving the new talents behind. If I had to guess, I think we’ll be hearing from him again, if not in Phantom Hourglass, then at least by the time of the next big 3D Zelda.

Author’s note (Sep. 22.07): I took the liberty of adding a newly discovered detail to the paragraph that talks about the Oracle composers. This was of course Masanori Adachi’s possible involvement with the games. While I was at it, I also added a couple of paragraphs discussing the Oracles’ soundtrack more thoroughly.


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