Chicago was my next major city for years before I finally visited in March and fell in love with the place. When you’re walking around in the bitter cold and can still love a city, it says something about how good it is. Chicago, as you may know if you’ve been there, is huge and diverse, and yet feels totally comfortable. Perhaps there’s something about riding the El over the city, seeing the world from up high.
I couldn’t tell you how quick it was at this point but by the end of the first day, the sound of the El doors closing had gotten into my head. It was just two tones, a fourth apart, ascending to descending. BINGGGGG-BONNNNNG, they sounded, and I leaned over to my travel companion and followed up with “ba dada dada daaaaa.” This probably means nothing in onomatopoeia, but if sung would be pretty distinctly the first phrase of the main theme to the Legend of Zelda. Just two notes, and suddenly every stop engrained that theme deeper and deeper into my head. Which is not such a bad thing.
Ten to one, if you’re getting music news on the internet, you grew up with video games as part of your life. We can certainly argue the pros and cons to this on modern childhood, the varying levels of privilege inherent in owning expensive electronic games, but it would neglect the obvious fact that they were fun. Zelda itself doesn’t hold the same memories as the second game in the series, The Adventures of Link, does, with my sister wandering around the towns talking to NPCs but avoiding the gameplay itself at all costs. It does, however, have a very important element for our purposes: the music.
When we were playing these games, how often were we thinking about the music? Probably rarely. There are games I couldn’t hum the themes to no matter how often I played them. It is nevertheless true that almost every child of the 80s and beyond can hum the Super Mario Bros theme. Even at the very birth of advanced gaming, some of the most memorable themes were being composed to go behind what could have been ephemeral toys. The Legend of Zelda truly underscores this. Mario’s theme is fun and bouncy, but would have made for a somewhat awkward individual piece. Zelda, however, is truly composed. It’s epic, like the game’s plot intends to be, and majestic. The echoing of the first major run in the secondary patch, and indeed the entire interplay of the four lines, is composed like an orchestral piece. Koji Kondo could have easily turned this into a true symphonic piece and gained notoriety, but the folks at Nintendo clearly presumed, correctly, that it was worth the gamble to insert world class music into their games.
Dusseldorfer Symphoniker – The Legend of Zelda Suite (2011)
I’d level this challenge to you, if your older systems still work, before soundtracks were made up of real songs from popular bands, or realistic ambient noises: go back and play some old games, but listen to the music. You’ll probably remember many of your favorites as soon as they queue up. What you might not remember is the sheer compositional quality. Need more proof? Consider not only the bands that convert these songs into modern instrumentals, or the ones which use the same chiptune bases to compose new music. The Zelda theme is quite literally covered, and regularly, by real, respectable orchestras. All that from one of the first major game soundtracks. I could easily have chosen to feature one of those orchestral renditions here, to show the song at its “full potential,” but I decided not to. The intro, as recorded, is enough. It explores the major theme, and even in those 8-bit midi tones, the sheer complexity of the work can still be felt. It is worthy of top of the line musicians, but created, idealized in these now archaic electronic scores. It’s no wonder it’s still stuck in our collective heads.
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