June 3, 2017
Since the Zelda series began, and for that matter video gaming in general, music has been an integral feature which assists every other function. Without music, games would be less emotionally entrancing experiences, if not just boring. Individual tunes in this particular franchise have become icons among the gaming and music industries alike. Nintendo has gone so far as to send a symphony dedicated to recreating the new and classic tunes on an international tour. With each installment, the music develops to suit the game, and often comes with a unique spin based on the fluctuating lead composers. The most drastic of these changes from one title to the next came earlier this year with Breath of the Wild and the team’s addition of Manaka Kataoka, whom you may know better as the Animal Crossing guy. His leadership took the music in a more subtle direction, and if you come along with me, we will explore the pros and cons of his decisions. The elements which I believe most influence a Zelda game will each be touched on individually to make sure they are each given the focus they are due.
At first I did not know what to expect, having never played an Animal Crossing game. Kataoka’s take on my beloved series left Koji Kondo’s in-your-face, bombastic overworld theme by the wayside in favor of a minimalistic overture that one would barely notice under a microscope. This was not without reason. The very nature of Breath of the Wild is that exploration is everywhere, and this new take on gameplay is what I believe to have inspired the music. You know it is there, as you do Korok seeds, but sometimes you have to pay attention and actively make yourself aware of it.
This exploration aspect which is almost more important than in any other Zelda game could be hampered by a grander theme; the subtle details could be overshadowed by such. Overlooked aspects would include a blend between audio and visual minutiae. With more complicated music surrounding you, a greater amount of your attention span would be dedicated to absorbing it subconsciously and you might miss anything from a fairy or an insect darting from the grass to a Bokoblin charging you from off-camera. In this game, it is the little things that so often elude you in the first place. The ambient audio may have been turned up to compensate, but even so most of the natural sounds would be swallowed by a sea of “who cares?”
In any other game, I would have disagreed with the choice of ambience over music, however for this game there is something more to the practical sound. You hear the wind literally rustle the grass around you. You hear the footfalls of animal life and various roars, howls, and bleating sounds. If you know much about game design, this should not shock you, but a dedicated sound team spent four years researching, recording, and programming the sounds of wildlife. Four years is about four years longer than I have ever spent on any project other than skulltula hunting in Ocarina of Time. This massive undertaking seems extravagant but it adds a certain level of depth and immersion to the world thanks to an attention to detail that no other game has ever approached. Music is only a part of sound design in a video game, and the effects and the overworld theme blend together in such a way that the details suck you in and enshroud your vision of the real world. Kataoka gets a point in his favor on this one, even if it makes terrible listening music.
This is perhaps equal in importance to the overworld theme. If half the game is exploring, the other half is combat, so there should be equal attention paid by the composer. Breath of the Wild has several combat themes unique to particular fights, specifically overworld boss fights. Guardian, Hinox, Molduga and Talus battles have individual themes, one is shared for the bosses found within the Divine Beasts, and one for each phase of Calamity Ganon. Pairing such tunes with longer, harder fights like this was incredibly important. The standard battle theme was well scored, and fueled fast-paced combat scenarios, but even so it could get monotonous. This is an interesting thought I had while listening to the soundtrack CD. It is actually quite repetitive, however it is staggered with other themes often enough to break up this feeling. Between overworld bosses and shrine battles (which also have a separate theme) the combat music never gets stale.
The individual themes are of mixed quality in my opinion. They are each very well composed, recorded, and mixed, however my musical tastes don’t always get along with them. The standard combat theme is upbeat and conveys some sense of urgency, however just listening to it I have trouble making it through the two minutes on the CD. It makes few variations, which is not uncommon for a game soundtrack so it can be easily looped to fit the length of the battle, but several of the other battle themes feature less repetition and have something unique to bring to the table. My favorite by far is the Hinox battle, which has a clever and rather unexpected addition of bagpipes to what would otherwise be just another battle theme.
The primary bosses also suffer from a lackluster score. The themes fit each area quite well, but fall flat of music present just before entrance of any given Divine Beast. During the four fight scenes you must complete to gain entry, there are unique tracks created to suit the aesthetic of the area and the personality of the Champion within, or their successor. These are significantly superior to the Blight battles, which were all an identical tune performed with different instruments as the lead melody. Each one is unique and goes more than sixteen bars without repeating.
Calamity Ganon had a theme that worked well for a fight, but it did not innervate the ear in the way past games have that explains without words that “Ganon is back.” Ganon is my favorite boss to fight in any game, and I love seeing this recursive nightmare return to Hyrule again and again. A large part of my disappointment with him (as I discovered only after researching the music for this article) had nothing to do with gameplay elements or how easy it may have been, but the music was just so… meh….
Let me start by saying that the only theme that stuck with me from a dungeon is from Hyrule Castle, which is the closest thing to a traditional Zelda dungeon that the game has. Not that the Divine Beasts were bad, they were just short and linear. This music was entrancing and gave a similar feeling to the claustrophobic castle corridors that was found in the overworld theme. In addition it made it feel like you were in constant danger from the plethora of brutal enemies found within. It replaced the combat theme for this dungeon, and this all around theme did justice to both aspects.
As we are certainly all aware, there are one hundred twenty shirnes dotting the landscape. While this is a new method of presentation, I think they should be included when discussing dungeons for this game. Every one shared a theme with the exception of combat trial shrines, which used the dungeon battle theme for their entirety. This was again more intricate than the Divine Beast soundtracks, and even after completing every shrine, I have not gotten bored of it. It is rather simple and has its share of repetition, but you are usually in the shrine for all of five minutes, and the overworld theme breaks up the monotony since you perpetually explore there for much longer before you reach another shrine. The welcome addition of bagpipes is also present here, and there is just no way that can go wrong.
Finally, the Divine Beast themes. If you could not tell, I have no tolerance for them, since they feel like they were made to be background music. Of course music in a video game should fit into the background, but if it is treated as no more than that, it comes across like a cardboard cut-out tree behind John Wayne in a film. Sure, it needs to be there, but why not make it a real tree? Some people may not notice, but the people who truly care about the film or video game as an art form will appreciate it so much more, and you will be providing a preferable product.
Various Other Themes
There are a few other themse which do not fit into these categories that I still believe deserve a mention, and in some cases more recognition than themes which really could have been handled better that fit under the previous umbrellas. The most memorable tune in the entire soundtrack for me is Kass’s Theme. It is simple yet elegant, and it helped move along his character every time you would meet. While exploring, it became a joy to hear his melodious accordion drifting over the hills. I went out of my way to seek out every occurrence of this charismatic character in order to learn the lore of the land, as well as complete several shrines he had a clue on how to open.
The horse riding theme was utter garbage. Only when I listen to it alone can I comprehend what is going on musically, and honestly it is not that enthralling. The worst problem is that it is mastered very quietly and is muffled by the sound of… you know, riding a horse. This ensures that no sound reaches your ears besides what seems to be a four-year-old plinking random keys on a piano.
City themes are incredibly insightful additions. They key you in to what music that culture may use, which adds a little depth to the world, thereby increasing immersion. Be it the drums and horns of Goron City or the combination of clarinet and dulcimer in the Rito Village (which hearken back to Dragon Roost Isle in Wind Waker) the town themes could not have been handled better. Even the simple steel drums in Lurelin Village added to the character of the location.
My biggest gripe is regarding the Main Theme. It is barely heard within the game and I feel as though it would be more appropriate to bestow it with the moniker “E3 Trailer Theme.” It is a fantastic score, and the live performance of it found on the sound selection CD is even more thrilling than what made it into the final game. This theme should have been utilized more.
Overall, it probably does not sound like it, but I believe the music in this game was handled rather well and it would be a major undertaking to improve upon it. On the other hand, I believe that there was a man for the job, and that Koji Kondo should be the lead composer in every Legend of Zelda game. Had he scored the game, I have no doubt that he would have risen to the challenges that Kataoka masterfully undertook, but I also believe there is a certain feeling of Zelda-ness that is missing whenever he is.