Whether it’s sound effects from Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter popping up in Charli XCX and Flying Lotus songs, or hip-hop producers flipping samples from Donkey Kong and Chrono Trigger to make beats for Drake and Wiz Khalifa, the influence of video games on modern music is hard to escape. But few series have had as profound of an impact on a generation of musicians as The Legend of Zelda, largely thanks to the musical magic of series composer Koji Kondo.
In 2023, Polygon is embarking on a Zeldathon. Join us on our journey through The Legend of Zelda series, from the original 1986 game to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and beyond.
As Nintendo’s in-house composer since 1984, Kondo is responsible for almost all of the mainstay melodies you’d associate with Nintendo, whether that’s the iconic Super Mario Bros. theme or the legendary overture accompanying Link’s adventures through Hyrule. If you grew up playing video games during the ’80s and ’90s, it’s possible you’ve spent more time listening to Koji Kondo than any other band or artist.
“It’s difficult for me to imagine how different my life as a musician would be had it not been for Koji Kondo’s influence,” composer and orchestrator Eric Buchholz tells Polygon.
While Kondo’s melodies mainly act as background music in Super Mario Bros., they serve an actual purpose in The Legend of Zelda, where music answers your biggest problems. Need to change the time of day in Ocarina of Time? Play “The Sun’s Song.” Need to stop an ominous moon from crashing into Clock Town and destroying Termina in Majora’s Mask? Play “The Song of Time.” Need to escape from a nightmare in Link’s Awakening? Collect eight musical instruments and play “Ballad of the Wind Fish.”
It’s this connection between music and the Legend of Zelda games that resonated with a generation of young players, such as Buchholz, who went on to become musicians. Buchholz’s introduction to the series came when he was digging through the carts at a local flea market and stumbled upon a copy of Link’s Awakening.
“At that age, I was also developing an interest in music, so you can imagine my great delight to have found a game where the primary objective is to collect various musical instruments to perform a world-ending melody on top of a mountain,” Buchholz says. “Of course, the score for Link’s Awakening was not composed by Koji Kondo, but it did draw inspiration from the musical foundation he laid in A Link to the Past — a legacy that has been drawn from and built upon ever since it was written.”
Like many musicians, Buchholz has played a part in building on Zelda’s musical legacy with his own arrangements, notably his Hero of Time album. It’s what Buchholz describes as his “love letter” to Kondo — an orchestrated retelling of the music from Ocarina of Time, with 21 tracks performed by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra. It spans a variety of musical themes in the game, and the series writ large, from “Zelda’s Lullaby” to “Gerudo Valley.”
“These themes can now be used to imply deep lore connections across games in a franchise, or simply to invoke feelings of nostalgia for players of previous games,” Buchholz says.
Dan Reynolds, lead singer of the pop-rock band Imagine Dragons, grew up playing the Legend of Zelda games. He believes it’s the interactive and repetitive nature of video game music that makes music in the medium so powerful, especially when, as Link, you’re actually playing it. So, it was a dream come true for him and the rest of the band when they were offered the opportunity to join Koji Kondo on stage at The Game Awards in 2014 and play a nostalgic tribute to the games.
“Koji Kondo wrote the soundtrack to our childhood, so when Geoff Keighley suggested the idea of a collaboration, it was an immediate yes for all of us,” Reynolds said over email.
For many people, hearing someone play “The Song of Storms,” “Zelda’s Lullaby,” or “Dragon Roost Island” can transport them back to their childhood. This sense of nostalgia is incredibly powerful, and it’s the same emotion the Dutch DJ Hardwell mines to get people moving at electronic music festivals around the world.
Hardwell managed to get his hands on his favorite Zelda song after he was asked by Nintendo to remix a song of his choice for The Game Awards in 2015. Most of his fans play video games, he says, so they feel an instant connection with the song when he plays it live.
It helps, of course, that there’s also a huge link between EDM and video game music. Some of the genre’s biggest names have made remixes of Zelda tunes, whether that’s Deadmau5’s “You Need a Ladder” or Zedd’s The Legend of Zelda mix, while others, such as Steve Aoki, partner with gaming companies to make music for trailers and perform virtual concerts in Green Hill Zone.
“It’s like a perfect marriage,” Hardwell explains. “There’s no doubt that [The Legend of Zelda] subtly influenced my early creative process without me even realizing it at the time.”
You only need to listen to the opening seconds of the electronic music duo Sweet Valley’s album Eternal Champ to hear just how much of an influence Ocarina of Time has had on member Joel Williams. The album starts exactly the same way as the game, with the sounds of Epona galloping across Hyrule Field building into a hip-hop beat using samples from the file select theme.
“I played that game religiously as a kid, and every so often, I will revisit it as an adult; the opening horse galloping SFX and strummed chords teleport me back to my childhood every time,” Williams says.
It’s perhaps appropriate that Ocarina of Time has been so widely sampled and remixed. It’s a game largely about nostalgia, where Link uses music — most of which was introduced in earlier Zelda games, such as Link to the Past — to navigate two worlds: the dark one of his adulthood and the innocent surroundings of his youth.
If you’ve ever recognized a video game sample in a song before, you’ll appreciate how it can immediately create a sense of affinity and familiarity with an artist, even if you’ve never listened to their music before. As Williams says, there’s something “very cool” about hearing Skull Kid’s menacing laugh from Majora’s Mask in Burial and ASAP Mob tunes, or the flutter of Navi’s wings over persistent Heys in Rejjie Snow and Chance the Rapper tracks.
“It’s music crossing realities,” Tim Summers, a lecturer in music at Royal Holloway University of London and the author of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: A Game Music Companion, says. “It’s adding another level of meaning to what you’re doing and a whole new way of experiencing music within the games.”
Summers points to the music creation in Ocarina of Time (which allows you to improvise songs with the titular instrument) and Majora’s Mask (which does the same with a handful of different instruments) as examples, explaining how not being confined to the specific notes within the game’s melodies provides players with the opportunity to experiment.
“The fact that you can pitch bend and have access to a full chromatic set of notes — there’s no purpose for that,” Summers says. “In fact, it’s all the better because it doesn’t have a purpose. It’s there for you to play with.” And there’s been plenty of playing, from the arrangements of Toto’s “Africa” on Deku pipes to Ocarina renditions of Howard Shore’s “Concerning Hobbits” from The Lord of the Rings.
Outside of the game, arrangements such as Dr. Pez’s epic Ocarina of Time prog-rock concept album, Ro Panuganti’s Bollywood spin on “Gerudo Valley,” and August Burns Red’s metalcore medley of NES-infused blastbeats and breakdowns prove the adaptive and versatile nature of the music in The Legend of Zelda is another huge part of its charm.
“It transcends so many different styles,” Dustin Davidson, bass player for August Burns Red, says. “If you look at the evolution of music in the [Zelda] games, you see it go through different instruments, and then you look at how it’s been transcribed, whether it’s as a metal song, acoustic guitar, or piano — there are arrangements for all of these different instruments.”
OverClocked ReMix is a video game music fan community started in 1999 that releases remixes and arrangements of video game music. Its community manager, Larry Oji, says that Zelda series arrangements count for 7.6% of its total catalog spanning 4,200 tracks. Some of the most popular include a “Song of Storms” interpretation by Big Giant Circles and the Legend of Zelda Rabbit Joint Cover that everyone’s mistaken for a System of a Down song at some point. (Thanks, Napster and Limewire!)
“As of today, the two most-arranged themes on the site are from Zelda — the original title theme, and then ‘Zelda’s [Lullaby]’ from Ocarina of Time,” says OverClocked ReMix’s founder, David Lloyd. “Both are featured in multiple Zelda games, so it makes a certain degree of sense that they’d end up appearing more often, but it also speaks to the music’s enduring popularity.”
It’s impossible to pin the infectious appeal and success of Koji Kondo’s music in The Legend of Zelda to a single factor. This music means so much to so many people, who have interpreted it and experienced it in so many different ways.
To some, such as Davidson, the ongoing appeal of Zelda’s music is that it will always remind them of family. “It played such a big role in my upbringing because it was a way to bond with my mother and my brother. That’s why I ended up getting Zelda tattoos.”
To others, such as Hero of Time composer Buchholz, it laid the foundations of a successful career in music.
“It’s mind-blowing to think about all the different directions my life could have gone if it weren’t for the influence Kondo’s music had on me growing up.”