Note: Being a compilation album, this release shares many common tracks with previous Zelda soundtracks. Some RPGFan reviews of these contain audio samples of tracks featured on this compilation. If you’re interested in hearing these in order to better understand the music offered here, check out our music reviews of Majora’s Mask 3DS, A Link Between Worlds, Ocarina of Time, or Wind Waker.
For a series as beloved as The Legend of Zelda, it would’ve been remiss for Nintendo not to commemorate its 30th anniversary somehow. Unfortunately, Breath of the Wild isn’t due until 2017. So a compilation album of tracks from the prior games, including those lacking independent soundtracks, is another great way to celebrate, and a perfect release for fans who have held off on purchasing any other Zelda music releases. It is also a nice way to recognise the efforts of the composers who have contributed to the series. Although Koji Kondo will be familiar to most Zelda fans, a surprisingly large number of composers have contributed throughout the years, so this is a great way to celebrate not just Zelda’s 30th anniversary, but also those whose compositions have given the series some of its timeless magic.
Compilation albums are tricky, particularly for a release like this one. Nintendo needs to balance capturing the individual games’ idiosyncrasies with conveying the series’ essence and the music’s evolution across time. And with a series like Zelda, individual fans will have their favorite games and favorite pieces, which will most likely conflict with the selections here. Therefore, the best way to approach this compilation is with a sense of historical awareness and as a celebration of the series, rather than as a strict selection of the best tracks.
With this in mind, the release flows nicely from game to game and the compilation has a strong sense of unity. The overall tone of the release is suitably epic and heroic, and the pieces selected are, more often than not, upbeat and energetic, evoking the adventurous spirit that has drawn in the Zelda audience. That said, the series’ more mellow staples, such as Zelda’s Theme and the Kakariko Village theme, also feature. The compilation establishes a clear sense of historical progression as the series’ musical staples are revised and reappear across games. This is most obvious with the iconic title/overworld theme, which, perhaps more than any other piece, musically encapsulates the heroic spirit of the franchise. As such, it features a lot, and rightly so.
There’s enough music from the older games to provide retro charm and evoke nostalgia, but not so much as to put off those who, for example, don’t particularly care for the 8-bit sound. I fall into this camp, but I really enjoyed the tracks from the early console and handheld games. Their strong rhythms and catchy melodies set the precedent for the rest of the music (the series’ music has often struck me as being particularly focused on the melodies, and listening to these earlier tracks one can see why that might be), and the mastering has done a great job getting these tracks sounding clear and pristine, allowing these musical elements to engage listeners as much as possible. Since most of these games don’t have independent music releases, their inclusion is one of the major selling points of the compilation, so it was great hearing the care that their audio received.
No single game dominates the release, and most are represented in proportion to their importance within the series. There are a few games I haven’t played, so it was nice to get a little taste of these before moving on. Nintendo also avoids doubling up on tracks excessively: where games share similar/identical tracks, typically the newer version is selected. So although the section covering A Link To the Past is short, its spirit and importance to the series still comes out in later sections, particularly A Link Between Worlds’. It’s nice to see the amount of thought that’s gone into curating the compilation.
There’s a good mix of pieces across the different games, and many of the series’ recurring themes are represented, but credits themes take on a special importance in maintaining the celebratory atmosphere whilst conveying the overall sound, mood, and moments, of individual games within a short space. Where such themes might sound slightly rushed on a regular soundtrack, here their progression feels much more natural. The Majora’s Mask section is a good example. It was appropriate to choose two game tracks that encapsulated its distinctively darker atmosphere. However, Kondo’s compositions also reflected the game’s more eclectic and stranger elements, as well as its more conventional aspects (it is still a Zelda game after all), and it would’ve been unfortunate if that diversity wasn’t conveyed. (Also, the Indigo-Go’s track is just really smooth.) Whilst I typically ignore credits tracks, here I appreciated them much more.
Clearly a great deal of care has gone into selecting which tracks to include. Each section gives an intuitive feel for the game, so picking sections to visit is as valid as listening to the discs from beginning to end. I’ve already listed a few sections that I enjoyed, but Wind Waker’s impressed me the most. Many of the game’s key tracks are included, like the playful and lighthearted “Outset Island” and the bold and epic “Great Sea”, and the rest are catchy enough, or fill in gaps elsewhere (e.g. boss themes), to be solid inclusions. There isn’t a single bad apple.
However, like some conceivable listeners, there are some tracks I would’ve cut in favour of something else. For instance, “Shop” and “Horse Race” (from Ocarina of Time) struck me as odd inclusions: do these pieces really encapsulate something that is thematically significant about the game/series? Similarly, some games are strangely underrepresented. For a major console title, Twilight Princess features very little, and it was slightly painful seeing the length of its overworld/main theme (one of the best in the series, in my humble view) cut. Of course, TP was represented quite masterfully on the 25th Anniversary Special Orchestra CD, but so was WW (featured very thoroughly here). Additionally, Skyward Sword, another major console title, the first game with music performed by a live orchestra, and lacking an independent music release, probably could’ve featured more. Given the way pieces were arranged for the game, though, I can understand why it got the amount of coverage it did, and at least the issue is less pronounced with SS. Basically, I would’ve liked it if the compilation were more comprehensive.
When you consider that both discs are filled to maximum capacity, Nintendo has clearly struck an impressive balance, and the prior complaints will seem frivolous. There are probably good reasons why an extra disc was undesirable as well, and no games deserved less coverage than they received. However, focusing purely on the music and the (implicit) aims of this release, it strikes me that a third disc would’ve made a huge difference. It would’ve provided a stronger representation of the individual games, and consequently would’ve provided a more attractive package particularly for fans yet to purchase a Zelda music release (which I assume are a key market Nintendo would’ve aimed to engage here). If this degree of representation had been achieved (or more closely approximated), this would’ve raised my assessment from “strongly recommended” to “absolutely must own.” Perhaps this criticism is somewhat unreasonable, but this is a 30th anniversary release after all, so if there was ever a time to go all-out, this was it!
Overall, this compilation provides a strong, if imperfect, overview of the series’ music. Listening to the whole thing beginning to end, it is amazing to reflect on how, with limited musical tools, Kondo laid a blueprint that would stand the test of time for others to contribute to. If there is a lesson to be learned here, its the importance of perfecting music’s most basic elements. Additionally, for the amount of music you get, this is serious value for money! With that said, it should be clear that fans of the series will get the most out of this compilation, especially given the sense of history that informs it, and if you already own a few Zelda soundtracks, then whether you should get this depends on your desire to acquire music from games with rare/non-existent soundtracks. Otherwise, I would happily recommend this release to any Zelda fan. Here’s to another thirty years!