The Legend of Zelda Sound & Drama
The Legend of Zelda Sound & Drama
June 22, 1994
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The Legend of Zelda Sound & Drama was the first substantial Zelda album released. Split into four parts, it included the original scores of the Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda and Super Nintendo’s A Link to the Past, as well as an initial disc featuring an orchestral arranged version and dramatisation of A Link to the Past. It provides the definitive representation of the series’ music prior to the Ocarina of Time, despite discluding the scores to The Adventure of Link, which wasn’t composed by Koji Kondo, or Link’s Awakening, a Game Boy game created after A Link to the Past. Unfortunately, the quality and charm of the original scores far exceeds that of the arranged section, however.
A Link to the Past has a warm and melodic soundtrack. The Legend of Zelda‘s “Overworld” music makes a welcome return here; its proud melodies benefit from the treatment of a synth orchestra that also adds a somewhat aggressive edge to the theme, presumably to reflect the numerous enemies on the overworld. The calming “Kakariko Village” receives its first ever incarnation here, arranged beautifully for synth chamber orchestra. The imposing “Hyrule Castle”, later heard in The Wind Waker, sounds incredible in all its regal glory. “Select Screen”, “The Goddess Appears”, and “Master Sword Demo”, also used in Ocarina of Time, are brief themes that present the game’s more fantastical side. Similarly, “Forest” does a good job representing the colour and haziness of the mist-covered Lost Woods. “Turned Into a Rabbit” is an amusing portrayal of Link’s transformation into a rabbit during his first journey into the Dark World atop Death Mountain; its lyrical melody is backed by foreboding sound effects, allowing the theme to simultaneously represent darkness and farce. “Church” is enchanting but tragic, featuring Baroque chord sequences strikingly sung by a synth chorus. Also touching are the first ever incarnations of Zelda’s Theme in “Princess Zelda’s Rescue” and “Crystal”, as well as the well-presented and nostalgic ending themes.
The soundtrack is very dark in places despite its usual brightness. Most impacting is “Dark Mountain / Forest”, used in the two most desolate and punishing places in the Dark World. Written in the style of an imperial march, it progresses with vigour, malice, and brutality, accompanied by warped sound effects and decorated by a lyrical but uncompassionate secondary section. “Dark World” itself is more melodic and consonant, but still reflects a depressing change from “Overworld” with its martial drums, minor chord progressions, and militaristic melody. “Sanctuary Dungeon” is dominated by string crisis motifs, but develops into a section with a great beat and trumpet melody; it’s agonisingly beautiful and quite catchy despite its fruitless accompaniment. The theme of Ganondorf, represented in “Priest” and “Ganon’s Message”, is now familiar to most Zelda players but was introduced in this score. Kondo does an excellent job employing a series of chord progressions that give a feeling of ascension until the theme slows down and eerily repeats. “Battle with Ganon” is a vibrant and well-written accompaniment to the final battle.
Aesthetically, there are a few weak links nonetheless. “Fortune Teller” and “Guessing Game House,” the two lightest additions to the score, are among the most musically superficial pieces Kondo has written. They’re repetitious and unmelodic, though try and fail to charm with irritating hooks. The dungeon themes are mostly based on variation and repetition of fragmented string motif against a static harmony. “Dark World Dungeon” is the worst example. It doesn’t have much of a melody to begin and soon becomes grating due to an obstructive and repetitive tremolo string accompaniment; having to spend several hours hearing this music on loop while navigating through the game’s seven latter dungeons is unpleasant, though bearable. “Cave” is similarly irritating. Though an interesting experiment, featuring plenty of percussion, Psycho-esque string motifs, and water sound effects, the hardware limitations of the Super Nintendo devastate it. The frantic boss theme and “The Soldiers of Kakariko” work well in context, but are rather transparent and repetitive on a stand-alone basis. Another minor quarrel is that the introduction of “Opening Demo” is identical to “Time of the Falling Rain,” used at the very start of the game; given the themes are heard in succession, the repetition temporarily halts the direction of the soundtrack.
The most disappointing aspect of the album is the synth orchestral arranged section, handled by Yoshiyuki and Masumi Ito. “Overworld” sounds incredibly amateurish and gamey, but also ridiculously overblown. Its bombastic use of tinny brass and cymbals is disturbing throughout and there is sadly no timbral, harmonic, or melodic variation, given no attempts were made to even establish a dramatic arc. It’s followed by “Theme of Guessing House”, a terrible choice of track given a) it’s too light-hearted to be featured two tracks in and b) it was horrific in the first place. The annoyingness of the original is worsened here by the cringe-worthy effort to give a certain amount of punch to the repetitive bass line. Add to that numerous misplaced forces — exotic drums, pseudo-virtuosic violin lines, and an unpianistic piano line — and the arrangement is truly hideous. “Dark Overworld” and “Hyrule Castle” are listenable enough given the strength of their original material and conservatism of the arrangements, though still sound dreary and devoid of emotion, arranged in a very similar way to “Overworld”. Their original incarnations were far more striking and honest.
There are some attempts at experimentation in the orchestral section. These often have potential and demonstrate that A Link to the Past could have been the source of an awesome arranged album. “Sanctuary Dungeon” gives a new take on the haunting theme through epic sound effects and a techno bass line, while “Forest World” provides an impressionistic take on “Lost Woods”, ideal for representing its mist. It’s a great pity both were butchered by amateurs. Unfortunately, some of the experimentation is misguided as well. “Kakariko Village” was crying out for a rendition on string quartet or chamber orchestra in the style of Mozart or Beethoven. Obviously, the Itos haven’t heard of those guys, so they pay homage to Father Christmas instead. And then there’s a peculiar ‘new age’ rendition of “Zelda’s Theme” with flute, guitar, synth vocals, and weird drum echoes. What on earth…? To recap, with unrealistic synth, weird track selections, poorly realised experiments, bombastic rehashes, and a lack of drama, refinement, and musicality, the orchestral section is awful. Fortunately, the 17 minute dramatisation seems to be quite well done, seemingly inspired by the Dragon Quest CD Theater albums. However, those who cannot understand Japanese (like me) will have a hard time deciphering what is going on.
Finally, the incorporation of the original score for 1987’s The Legend of Zelda was a quaint touch to the album. The score is very brief, featuring just three gameplay themes, as well as four fanfares and obligatory opening, ending, and game over themes. The cinematic “Title” and busy “Overworld” are instantly recognisable to Zelda fans; both use the same melody that does an excellent job of reflecting the pride and benevolence of Link, but is also downright catchy. “Underworld” shows that Kondo really knows how to capture emotions with his deep minor chord progressions but becomes unbearable within the game endlessly repeated as the sole dungeon theme. “Death Mountain” isn’t all that interesting, but reflects a formidable setting moderately well. The “Game Over” and “Ending” themes open, somewhat paradoxically, with the same chime motif; “Ending”, however, is soon joined by a jolly Mario-influenced melody, whereas “Game Over” just repeats for 28 seconds. It’s clear that Kondo was still an amateur composer when he created the score to The Legend of Zelda, but the score is still a classic despite its limitations. This is mostly thanks to the title and overworld themes, though all the additions initially enhanced the game before they became gratingly repetitive.
It is difficult to recommend The Legend of Zelda Sound & Drama. The original score to A Link to the Past is an excellent achievement and charmingly reflects grandeur, beauty, darkness, and fantasy with exuberance and individualism. However, its orchestrated version is a big letdown and the dramatisation is mostly for Japanese speakers. Unless you’re a massive Zelda fan with the money needed to buy this rare item, I’d recommend SPC sets as an alternative vector to listen to A Link to the Past‘s score. As for The Legend of Zelda‘s score, it’s worth a few listens, but doesn’t warrant the purchase of an inconsistent album; if you’re a fan of old-school music created by Koji Kondo and his Nintendo contemporaries, 2004’s Famicom 20th Anniversary Original Soundtracks Vol. 1 includes this soundtrack and a dozen others (e.g. Super Mario Bros., Kid Icarus, Metroid, and Donkey Kong) at a good price.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Chris Greening. Last modified on August 1, 2012.