The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Koji Kondo

" Konji Kondo’s score to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a timeless masterpiece. "

Written by Joep de Bruijn - Review of the regular release

Kōji Kondō is an iconic Japanese game composer responsible for vital contributions to both the Mario and Zelda game franchise. From the very start, I was startled by the evocative music he wrote for the first game, The Legend of Zelda (1986) on the NES , followed Zelda II: The Adventure of Link in 1987. Yet, nothing can have prepared me for the evolution the franchise went through, esthetically, conceptually and musically for the 1991 for the Super Nintendo with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Disregarding the secondary line of three games on Philip’s CD-i, showing great musical decline, and even the Gameboy’s Link’s Awakening, not scored by Kondō, but still very good, I consider The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Zeruda no Densetsu: Toki no Okarina) the next important evolution in game music, and the franchise.

I have many fond memories of the themes in the Zelda games, some of which would often be reprised throughout its legacy. There are two in particular themes I love the most; the fairy fountain music and the Kakariko Village theme. The first remains the most simplified and textbook example of how to express a sense of magic, a fairy tale, the second is so joyously in expressing the relaxing atmosphere of a small village.

In working on the N64 game Kondō once more faced difficulties due to the limited hardware, a practice he was already so accustomed to, it forced him into being very creative and straightforward in what each piece of music needed to express. It was what made him one of the most accomplished composers over the course of previous console generations, while so many others failed. I became especially aware of this when competitive 16-bit game systems developed and published their own version coinciding with the releases of a film, in which regardless of some technical advances on the one system over the other, the different composers wrote anything up to terrible noise to music of actual compositional merit. However, with the new game technology, three-dimensional environments, had a huge potential in relation to musical interactivity. By now, Kondō was able to create fuller sounding music, much closer to real instruments.

In the continuation of the Zelda series, several games still used ‘inferior’ music The composer, who was known, for preferring to stick to the old methods, as a music director and co-composer, and even held on those beliefs for Twilight Princess in 2006 for the Gamecube. He argued orchestral music wasn't going to be effective and as interactive as old-fashioned 'sequenced' music, but I rather think he simply tried to stretch the durability of the approach for as long as he could, even though he often expressed to prefer live instrument. Still, I can understand that games of the franchise, even the 2002 Gamecube game shell shaded nostalgic The Wind Waker, that tried to evoke the feel and look of the older games, the MIDI approach, which was even more advanced than ever before, was unerring. However, Twilight Princess, while staying faithful to ingredients of the series, was graphically so much more advanced and  mature, that such a limited music approach provided an unnecessary contrast. Still, being accustomed to this in previous generations, it also provided me with some solace.

The game received a remake called The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D for Nintendo’s 3DS in 2011. Sound quality was largely improved, but Kondō was still very satisfied with the music he had written originally. There was some tweaking by other composers (Mahito Yokota andTakeshi Hama) , but overall the music stayed true to the original N64 presentation.

Ocarina of Time marked the last Zelda score solely composed by Kōji Kondō. Reportedly, the expansive view in succesors formed a problem to him to write everything alone., which is a reason why he continued as a sound director and co-composer. Yet, I believe Nintendo simply wanted to use other composers, as they had done before for few of the games, while not neglecting Kondō’s legacy, keeping him on board a selection of games to come, now in a much more humble role, perhaps even just out of respect.

Previously, ignoring music games, playing an instrument was usually restricted to automatic use of an instrument by the click of a button, a sound and thus something interactive was triggered. Zelda games have made use of such a simple tool, while many other games included the use of an instrument more extensively, sometimes adding to the game play; Super Mario RPG, various Final Fantasy games, Animal Crossing: Wild World. For Ocarina of Time; the player had to learn and play a series of 12 different melodies on the ocarina, an interactive musical feature by which you could advance; turning day into night or vice versa, transport the lead character to another location, reach high ledges, among other things.

It’s the combination of interactivity with the game play and the actual effort of playing notes that still makes this such a relevant example. Each of the songs were restricted to a limited amount of pitches, coinciding with the general limitations, and needed to work with the button layout of the Nintendo 64 controller. Naturally, easter eggs appeared and once as the source code was broken, there were more possibilities. Still, the game allowed you to bend these limited amount of pitches by using the analog stick of the controller, which allowed you to play additional tones. The composer faced difficult challenges creating such limited melodies, but the result remains memorable. Once successfully performing one of the melodies, the system took over, providing a fuller performance and introducing a small cutscene leading up to whatever interactive use the player intended with his performance. I think Eponia's song, which activates the arrival of a pony the player can choose to travel faster, is particularly preternatural

A variety of themes, alas leitmotifs, from the previous game are revisited, while Ocarina of Time replaces the enchanting music of the Overworld theme, the most well known theme of the franchise, nwith a new Hyrule Field theme, which is equally memorable and does include a recognizable single phrase from the other theme. It’s a rhythmic melodic theme based on 8 bar blocks, constantly rotating and adaptive to what the character does in the open field. It sounds like a simple idea but it’s one of those things shows how music and the hardware communicated.
This wasn’t the only musical change for the game; Kondō was instructed to score to each of the temples by using minimal ambient atmosphere. As a player the experience in each of these temples is now very compelling and hallucinate, and each of these temples have a very distinctive musical design. It was a radical change, only met by what sound designer Hajime Wakai along with composers Manaka Kataoka, Yasuaki Iwata, and Soshi Abe changed for the 2017 game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild; a more passive and ambient sound design score with a lot of sparse (thumb) piano and short phrases, even often no music at all, allowing the open world to breathe on its own.

The composer sought inspiration in a variety of things, from rhythmic marimbas in Goron City,, Gregorian chants, the twang heard at the Lon Lon Ranch, the transcendal Indonesian angklung in the Forest temple and a sample of a library piece coming from a Koran prayer in the Fire Temple. It gives an insight in how remarkably diverse the overall score really is.

Indeed, due to its technical limitations, some ‘sequenced’ music is rather generic and it doesn’t help that these pieces use sound and techniques that aren’t so engaging anymore, nor were they at the time. What still makes the score memorable and relevant is how the composer gave in each different area, situation or character a distinct, often amiable musical feeling. There is some nostalgic value I cannot ignore, but growing up with scores wonderfully constructed out of sheer bleeps to great modern scores, musical merits have always been most important of all.

Then, there is a curiosity, which must be addressed.... Nintendo, much like Sony and Sega, included content in their original Japanese made games that faced censorship in their forthcoming international releases, depending on the board of censorship in a specific region or country; from ‘offensive’ words, symbols of religion to violence. However, examples of censoring a piece of original score, unlike songs, is a rare phenomenon, both in games, films and other media. It happened with the music in the Fire Temple, replaced by a more generic piece of music for later (re)releases and its remake, yet it went by unnoticed upon its initial overseas release. The music made use of an Islamic prayer, and it even included the clearly detectable phrase ‘Allah’. With the absurd amount of religious censorship in international released versions of Japanese games, its unclear how they could have missed this. At the same time, one of Link's shields, obviously depicting an Islamic symbol, was also censored.

Ocarina of Time received numerous of music releases, going from various ones including the original score, while others gave new life, and still do, to the music through newly orchestrated and rearranged version performed by real instruments. However, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Hyrule Symphony 1999 release by SM records, a live performance mostly transcribed for a string ensemble, is especially beautiful. It’s a vibrant experience that touches upon the basic amiable quality of all the different melodies, which still alludes to people who are and aren’t familiar with the original music and its game.

Kōji Kondō’s score to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a timeless masterpiece.

(written 14-12-2020)

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Released by

Nintendo (regular release 1998)