Review Summary: Changing of the guard.
A quick note:
This review will be focusing predominantly on the Sound Selection
version of the official soundtrack that came as a pre-order bonus for the re-release of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
(or Twilight Princess
for the purposes of this review; the lead title will also be dropped for any other entries in the series referenced) for the Wii U, as well as the fan-compiled Complete Soundtrack
that contains all six hours of in-game music as opposed to Sound Selection
’s 53 minutes. I won’t be taking the original official soundtrack releases into account for this review as I don’t feel they cover enough themes from the game, nor do I think anyone planning on listening to this soundtrack would want to listen to anything other than the Sound Selection
which doubles as a remaster and is arguably the best way to experience the music without all the 10 second jingles and mini-game themes found in the Complete Collection
. In traditional Nintendo fashion, it is difficult to get an accurate gauge on who is directly responsible for individual compositions so I will be referring solely to Toru Minegishi within the review, but it should be noted that Asuka Ohta was a core composer for this soundtrack.
I don’t think it is too controversial to say Koji Kondo is one of the greatest video game composers who’s ever lived at this point. The future seems bright for the likes of Christopher Larkin, Toby Fox, Jake Kaufman, and many more who’ve already established themselves as forces for greatness in the thriving video game music scene, but there are only really a handful of people who’ve immortalised themselves with their compositions. The gaming industry is young. The way music is woven into such tangibly interactive experiences has evolved rapidly in a very short period of time. Twilight Princess
stands in a unique position, all this considered. It acts as a transition from the old guard to the newer generation of Nintendo fans. Composed primarily by Toru Minegishi, Kondo’s protégé (Kondo himself taking a backseat in a supervisory role), the soundtrack was the first in the mainline home console Legend of Zelda
release history where Kondo wasn’t the primary contributor. That being said, I’m of the belief it was also the last true link to Kondo’s legacy within the franchise. The move from MIDI in Twilight Princess
to live orchestrations in Skyward Sword
, the increasingly supervisory roles on Kondo’s part, the entering into of a golden era for Nintendo home consoles with the Nintendo Wii, and composer selections with a less intimate bond to Kondo’s work than Minegishi’s cause this soundtrack to exist in a vacuum. More so than any of the aforementioned considerations, however, the soundtrack shows its status through the way it interacts (and often dictates) the flow of one of the eeriest entries in the series.
A clear parallel can be drawn between Twilight Princess
’ opening scene and that of Ocarina of Time
. Both present protagonist Link on horseback as he navigates the fields of Hyrule. Barring formalities such as the fade-in logo, however, the opening theme of Twilight Princess
paints something dark by comparison. The title theme of this game is heavily based on the series’ main theme, utilising the same scale modes and similar intervals but rather than ascending melodically on a backdrop of percussive energy, the motif starts high and descends with no percussion to be found. Plucky strings and thundering brass sections have been relegated to the support position: rather than blasting forth the melody as they have done in entries prior, they linger and pulse in the background as the leading line is taken up by a sombre choir. It’s a strong indication of the overall tone of the soundtrack, and works well to mirror the dichotomous nature of Link’s powers within the game. If Ocarina of Time
was a coming of age story, and Majora’s Mask
a walk through the stages of grief, Twilight Princess
is an acknowledgement of both the good and the evil within all of us, and the title theme perfectly encapsulates this in tandem with the game’s opening screen.
The first time I became aware of how pivotal Twilight Princess
was as a transitionary period for the Legend of Zelda
franchise was upon reaching the menu select screen on a playthrough a few weeks ago and hearing the MIDI harp composition. A Link to the Past
’s “Menu Select” theme has been a staple in pretty much every home or portable console release in the franchise since it was written, and having only heard orchestral renditions in recent times through Skyward Sword
, Breath of the Wild
, and the absolutely stunning live 25th Anniversary Symphony
version, I don’t think it ever clicked just how instrumental MIDI’s limitations were to Kondo’s creative process. While improvements in technology have allowed Twilight Princess
to stand tall with dynamic compositions, the gap in timbral interplay and depth of expression at any given moment between this game and any home console releases after it is huge. The importance of motif was stronger than ever in the MIDI age, and while it isn’t a Minegishi composition, or even one remixed for the sake of Twilight Princess
, it is certainly recontextualised by the renditions that came after it. This is bolstered by the first area track in the Sound Selection
; “Ordon Village”. It uses the sort of plucky, woody instrumentation you’d expect of a village theme in an action-adventure experience. Hopeful melody lines on woodwinds and cutesy marimba thuds. It’s a memorable little loop that doesn’t easily tire, and I feel the care placed into every element pointing towards the core motif is what allows the song to work, despite its structural and dynamic simplicity.
“Midna’s Theme” presents the other face of the coin. It’s downtrodden and unfulfilled; staccato is completely swapped out for droning strings that fade into gloom at the end of each cycle. The backing strings and their constant dives into dreary territory, yet again, work to serve the main motif which paints a feeling of aimlessness with its constant walks up and down the scale. While Link is the protagonist in every canon release in the timeline, Twilight Princess
might be the one solid argument against that. Midna comes to represent facets of humanity that in prior releases have been experienced through either the setting or the storyline, and having her become partially controllable while Link is in his wolf form really allows the differences between the homely “Ordon Village” theme and the wandering “Midna’s Theme” become fully apparent. This carries onto the next new theme in the selection, “Light Spirit’s Energy” which opens with much the same feeling of aimlessness before transitioning into possibly the darkest rendition of the aforementioned “Menu Select” theme seen in a Legend of Zelda
entry. Aside from being used in game menus, the theme has often been used in tandem with visits to Great Fairy fountains, Great Fairies themselves being pools of respite and healing. With a brooding undercurrent, Twilight Princess
almost completely flips the script both in game and musically: Link’s visitation with the Spirit of Light, Ordona, is the catalyst for the game’s descent into twilight, and Link’s call to adventure. It’s calm before the storm rather than the other way round.
The storm in Twilight Princess
takes the form of a number of things, but most prominent during the full runtime of the game would be Link’s encounters with Twilit beings. These malevolent, digitally pumped monstrosities serve as both a constant threat to the kingdom of Hyrule, and also a fascinating cause for musical experimentation. Minegishi’s past efforts haven’t solely been limited to music. His works in general game sound design are on full display with any pieces involving antagonist Zant’s contorted minions who skulk and squirm in the darkness like anthropomorphised data corruptions. “Twilit Battle” from the Complete Collection
remains even today as one of the most unnerving battle themes I’ve ever heard in a video game; the constant panning war taking place as two distorted bass passages bicker and argue accentuated by the occasional metallic riser feels like you’ve struck a hornet’s nest loaded with trojan malware. “Twilight” might be the most intriguing soundscape ever put to a Legend of Zelda
game. It has multiple unique yet equally unnerving parts that work in tandem to create a blurry line between the alien and the familiar. Even when the twilight zones within the game are painted with a degree more beauty than malice, there’s still a fascinating level of care placed on making everything feel just off
. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Twilight Realm”. The beauty in the chord progression juxtaposed with both a fairly unbalanced synth tone and the fact Link is entering one of the most pivotal areas in the game, the Twilight Realm, cause for a degree of tension that is rare to find in Legend of Zelda
isn’t immune to the series-wide trap of reusing themes to a near excessive degree, but I think it does a fine job at reworking tunes when needed. “Sacred Grove” and “Rutela’s Theme” serve as fine remixes of “Lost Woods” and “Serenade of Water”, adding and subtracting elements to better fit the context of the game. Some reworkings might be a little too
light on touch-ups, however, with tracks such as “Death Mountain”, “Kakariko Village”, “Lake Hylia”, feeling either too similar to their previous counterparts, or too sparse relative to other themes on the tracklist. “Zelda’s Theme” is notably unchanged from “Zelda’s Lullaby”; I feel given how Minegishi treated “Light Spirit’s Energy”, there could have been a stronger attempt at assimilating the iconic motif into something more singular to the darker Twilight Princess
experience. The same sentiment goes for the final boss battle themes. It wouldn’t surprise me to know Minegishi was under the pump to return to something more familiar given Zant not only isn’t the final boss, but is almost completely shoved out of existence once you’ve left his domain. All of the fantastic Twilit audio design and the incredibly creative compositions in the Twilight Realm are abandoned in favour of a more traditional Legend of Zelda
experience come Ganondorf, and I really feel this was a missed opportunity on both Minegishi and Nintendo’s part.
These shortcomings could be overlooked if Twilight Princess
had a few more “Dragon Roost Island” or “Gerudo Valley” tier romps of its own but the most intense themes on both Sound Selection
and Complete Soundtrack
are by and large the least interesting compositions the game has to offer. There’s definitely compensation for the lack of percussion in the title theme throughout the game’s combat tracks but it’s almost to a fault; many battle themes are nothing but percussive tomfoolery. “Aeralfos” might have the most intriguing battle theme but I think a large part of it is due to the fact you are fighting a dragon above a floating city in the sky. The “City in the Sky” theme that precedes it and runs throughout the dungeon leading up to the boss fight is considerably more interesting and inventive with its usage of airy pads and drifting murmurs not dissimilar to the kind of thing you’d hear during an Animal Crossing conversation. Snowpeak Ruins’ frozen landscape doesn’t have as much to hold onto in terms of musical intrigue as you’d think going by the brief little intro arpeggios that start off the first track in the area, “Snowpeak”. Atmosphere-wise, it is perfect. But the battle themes that follow on later in the dungeon are yet again uninteresting and seem to do the absolute minimum.
Nothing does the absolute minimum quite like “Malo Mart”, however. It almost isn’t worth mentioning due to how little time you’ll spend listening to it and the context surrounding its use but part of what makes soundtracks in mainline Legend of Zelda
games is how consistent they are throughout. While I fully understand the need for gimmick tracks in games so resplendent with things to do and sights to see, “Malo Mart” feels like it was slapped together on the drum preset of a $50 classroom Casio portable keyboard in about a half hour. Tracks such as “Oocoo’s Theme” and “Ook” show that kinda-annoying-but-in-an-endearing-way-type compositions aren’t out of the ballpark, and both showcase a significantly higher degree of detail than “Malo Mart”. That being said, the lowest point on any game soundtrack should be and likely is more often than not the gimmick tracks. It’s just a shame this one had to stick out so blatantly.
It is a good thing, then, that Twilight Princess
does have its own “Dragon Roost Island”. Given its prevalence in general content creation culture online, it might even have surpassed a lot of classic themes in terms of relevancy. “Midna’s Lament”, possibly the least fitting song on this entire soundtrack, might just be the best song it has to offer. I’m inclined to think it won’t stand tall in the same way “The Twilight Realm” or “City in the Sky” standalone, but it comes alive when all that’s running through your head is “how do I get to Hyrule Castle before Midna dies on me？” There’s no dynacism in the timbres. For the most part, it’s a solo piano piece. The fact the left hand is running arpeggios for its entire duration shouldn’t work (and notably doesn’t at most Guitar Centres) yet it in turn directs all focus on the tension of the situation. There’s always that nag at the back of your head trying to divorce you from the experience, pointing out the tropes of the adventure game medium, but the atmosphere of Twilight Princess
, the focus on a darkness that is pervasive, and a general discontent to shine the lights on our green-clad hero keeps this passage just as poignant in memory as it was in movement.
I hope Minegishi is proud of the work he and his team put into this. It’s bewildering to think that the best elements of this soundtrack weren’t Kondo’s. I hope Kondo is proud of the work Minegishi put into this. The care and adoration put into reworking some nigh untouchable Legend of Zelda
staples into pieces that work in a remarkably foreign, technologically alien landscape. It isn’t all sparks and glory. It isn’t an exercise in triumph or a doomsday clock. There isn’t near the same sense of adventure seen in later entries. But what it does well, it does better than anything I’ve heard in a game before or since. And while Kondo’s works won’t ever go anywhere, I believe the atmospheres and soundscapes that permeate Twilight Princess
will leave a longer-lasting impression on the minds of those who experienced it than any other release in the series. A veritable treasure chest of dualities both in game and out, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess’
soundtrack is a stunning labour of love that only astounds me more as time goes on.