Throughout video game history, we’ve seen infinite games entirely based around music. DDR, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and more, are all essentially just jukeboxes with game elements dropped in, and put on a disc. Yet, I would argue no game series has been more impactful on (or connected to) music more than the Legend of Zelda. To many, this may seem crazy, and you may be right. But picture this: an over-800-year-old musical instrument whose usage had almost become extinct outside of very specific cultural centers, was revived by a few video games in the 1990s.
Starting with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the series became incredibly notable for its sound design and music, which later continued in certain entries such as The Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask; games that are now cited as some of the greatest of all time. Their immense popularity; particularly in their score; skyrocketed Ocarina sales worldwide, and now it’s difficult to find any Ocarina salesman who does not offer some sort of Zelda-themed product. While this has little relevance to most of what I’m talking about today, it is a very good way to illustrate how influential and well-known a lot of these tracks are.
Now, if these games are so noteworthy and famous, why not talk about their incredible and inventive scores? Well, I have a few answers for this. Firstly, I genuinely think that the Wind Waker sports the best music of any Zelda game ever released. Secondly, I think the aforementioned games are often over-covered; especially Ocarina of Time; and overshadow those games that came after them, like the Wind Waker. Thirdly, lastly, and most importantly, I have a job and school, and have very recently figured out I don’t have the mental capacity or time to analyze 4 soundtracks at once (I was gonna try).
So as I was saying, Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask were incredibly well-received, and well-loved by essentially all Zelda fans. Which then begged certain people to wonder what would be next. These two amazing, dark, and intriguing stories were masterful, and how could they improve the equation used to create them? And finally, after three years of waiting, the fans got their answer; but it wasn’t quite what they were expecting.
Nintendo decided to take a risk, and pull a complete 180 in almost every aspect with the release of the Wind Waker; exchanging a brooding and epic world for a bright, sunny, and bouncy one. This left most fans incredibly angry (which Nintendo would attempt to fix in the future) and very hateful towards this on initial release. Cartoon graphics, colorful backgrounds and goofy characters weren’t what they were wanting, and they made that clear. Of course now, it’s chalked up to be one of the better Zelda games out there, but its initial reaction still granted impacts, I think in the way it’s covered by critics and the gaming industry at large. Many people would rather look back on the N64 releases as the “golden age” of Zelda, due to its large technical jumps and developments they made, but neglect to look at similar aspects of the originally-infamous Gamecube game.
But now that you have the background of the game, its reception, and a bit of the series’ history, let’s talk about the reason I’m writing this: its soundtrack. I realize it at this point seems like I’m about to review the whole game, but that’s not why I’m doing this, and I don’t have the time to play through it again right now.
Actual Analysis/Info (Took me long enough)
So as I mentioned during my prior rant, the Wind Waker was coming off the most successful Zelda games to date; critically speaking; and maybe some of the most successful games in general. And although many see it as a small step down from the N64 games, I tend to look at it as either a side-step, or even a small step up. When looking specifically at the soundtrack, this is incredibly clear from the start.
The Wind Waker takes clear, direct influence from its predecessors, while establishing its own sound at the same time. It often-times borrows themes and sounds from games like Ocarina, but that is something that Zelda has done from the start; as the item-finding noise has stayed relatively consistent throughout the titles, etc. This happens at the very beginning, during the back-story section, as after a long, quiet ocarina solo, it goes straight into the main Zelda theme that I believe originated in A Link to the Past.
It also goes through very similar stylistic patterns as well (it occurs to me at this point that Koji Kondo was the head composer of all of these games I’ve been talking about so of course they’re similar). Listen to tracks like “Forsaken Fortress” and “Imprisonment,” that could easily be part of the older, darker soundtracks from Koji. Their passive eeriness is certainly something that he’d developed throughout the previous scores, and it comes out here just as well. Other tracks that demonstrated this dark, foreboding energy are “Cursed Ocean” (which is simply the ocean theme but in a minor key, I believe), and songs that deal with Gohma (there are like 3, so…). Most of these feature deep, loud drum beats that haunt behind the rest of the composition; not really taking the forefront, but often making you uncomfortable.
However, this isn’t just a revamped or polished version of the previous Zelda games. Wind Waker’s OST separates itself as much as any other individual game does, and it starts right off the bat. Both the “Title” track, and the first in-game track (“Outset Island”) are about as bright and calming as any Zelda song will be. If it didn’t already have by far the most soothing and light color palette of any of the Zelda releases, it would feel as if it did, simply from several of the individual tracks. Most other island themes, like “Windfall Island,” and “Dragonroost Island” feature incredibly boisterous themes as well. And most importantly, separate themselves from one another. It’s pretty obvious they’re trying to convey different messages with each separate island.
What I find to be the most effective of the entire soundtrack, are the emotional ballads. Link loves his grandma dearly, and eventually has to leave her; leaving him and her both feeling incredibly lost. And this is conveyed amazingly in all of the themes such as “GRAAAAANDMA!” (yes that’s the official name). The sheer simplicity of the flute melody, backed by almost nothing, strips back everything and just lets the pure emotion shine through. Other Zelda soundtracks; particular Majora’s; are intensely emotional and sad, but most of the time I see it as a dark sadness. In Majora’s there was a bleak energy to the entire game. Whereas here, it’s just a very pure, simple emotion that’s incredibly heartbreaking. I don’t want to cry as much as I want to save the world when I’m playing other Zelda games, but part of what makes Wind Waker feel so different is my emotional connection to each character; which is in large part due to the soundtrack.
Finally, the most important thing that makes the Wind Waker better than its well-loved predecessors, in my opinion, is the sheer quality of the soundbytes. This isn’t at fault of the previous games, of course, because of the lack of technology they were working with, but this is the first Zelda soundtrack that sounds like legitimate, live and acoustic instrumentation, thanks to the Gamecube. The piano sounds sound like pianos. The strings sound like strings. It would be incredibly easy to mistake this for an actual orchestra playing at some venue most of the time. I also think it may pay homage to these older games, however. Some of the layers in the background of certain tracks (like “The Legendary Hero”) sound almost lower-quality than the rest of the score, but I could be hearing things.
As a brief, secondary mention, I do enjoy how cartoony a couple of the tracks sound, as well. It’s another thing they did to establish their own style, and tracks like all those associated with the “Yacht Game.” This brings the bounciness and goofiness to a whole other level, and it’s incredibly enjoyable.
As a whole, I think the Wind Waker has one of the greatest scores of any video game I’ve ever played. It takes the unique, ocarina-driven, weirdly-Galic-influenced Zelda music, and takes it to new, brighter, and more interesting heights to me. Rather than being a slight downgrade (due to the theme changes) many people see it as, I think it did the opposite. It took its own route, and improved upon what it was given. As a whole, but more-importantly, from a sound-design and score perspective. I know a lot of this was just me ranting about the Wind Waker in respect to the other games in the Zelda series, but I hope you learned/enjoyed at least a little of this.