At this point, the series needs no introduction. The Legend of Zelda has been around for three decades, well established in the minds of gamers and non-gamers alike. For those who have been long-time fans, the name Koji Kondo is forever linked with the series’ legacy. The composer has worked on the majority of the franchise throughout the years, chiefly in composition and arrangement, establishing the groundwork for many of the enduring thematic motifs. It is on those foundations this entire soundtrack has been built and expanded upon, much like the game itself.
Although notes of Kondo’s work can be heard through various pieces in the game, it is Manaka Kataoka who helmed this divine beast of a soundtrack. A graduate from Kobe University with a BA from the Faculty of Musicology, Kataoka has been with Nintendo since graduating in 2006. Though she started in Wii Fit and Animal Crossing, she is no stranger to the Legend of Zelda franchise, having composed several pieces for 2009’s Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. Her grasp on where the series has been, and the potential for growth Breath of the Wild offers, is clear.
From piece to piece, there is a definitive cohesiveness between many of the new team compositions and the tone established by Koji Kondo, Hajime Wakai and other veterans of the franchise. The “Main Title” comes at you with a running piano that crescendos into a crash from the orchestra, immediately relaxing into a more contemplative, sweeping tone that establishes a main motif and the classic instrumentation used throughout the soundtrack. It is contemplative, pastoral and inviting, evoking curiosity before it builds and crescendos, invoking impending adventure, only to halt with an abrupt, tension-filled cut in the track that is shattered by the orchestra. What follows is another motif played in full force, largely by strings, brass and (I believe) the shakuhachi flute, establishing an epic world of drama, danger, and exploration until the decrescendo with the erhu at the end to another brief halt, a breath, if you will, before allowing the piano to resolve beautifully. I found this piece, in its sweeping wave of sound, feels akin to the “Main Theme” and “The Sky” from Skyward Sword, just without the military, driving snares underlying it. Similarly, Kataoka has let the player know what they are in for from the outset, using her own voice: this is a Legend of Zelda adventure, even if there is no trace of any previous themes in this piece.
That being said, Kondo’s pieces make several appearances in Kataoka’s work, like in the menacing “The Beast Inhabiting the Castle” or the regal notes of “Mysterious Old Man” and “The Old Man’s Identity.” Beyond these examples, these works are scattered throughout the soundtrack and serve to make the listener feel at home discovering the new parts of this sonic landscape while simultaneously working with the soundtrack’s established style to mesh old and new. My favourite example of this comes from, I feel, the best piece on the soundtrack: “Hyrule Castle” on disc four. Kataoka masterfully blends several motifs from titles past into a rousing, dark marching theme. Percussion establishes the military rhythm and a more melodramatic version of the “Ballad of the Wind Fish” sets the tone for the piece, perhaps hinting at its sleeping former glory. Piano dances wildly to its own melody periodically, adding an edge of threat and linking it to the music of the Guardians. The familiar “Ganon’s Theme” seeps in to take over as the baseline of the piece, reminding us of the Calamity that assaulted Hyrule, before a minor version of the Legend of Zelda “Main Theme” enters with fanfare, once again a reminder of a proud history. The “Ballad of the Windfish” returns, more triumphant, but with dissonant piano and dark strings layered throughout, not letting the listener forget their troubles. It begins its denouement with the interior version of the song as the pipe organ takes up the themes, rounding out the piece with some quiet contemplation on the fate of Hyrule. A heavy tick of the clock denotes time’s passage while the longing of “Ballad” and gloom of “Ganon’s Theme” war back and forth until “Zelda’s Lullaby” attempts to resolve things in peace. The track ends where it began, with “Ballad of the Windfish” and a driving beat that aims to feed it back into a loop on itself. Musically and thematically, there is SO much going on in this piece to leave listeners simultaneously inspired and demoralized as they are pulled into it. It is a lovely composition that is indicative of the central theme to Breath of the Wild, of a world that has lost touch with its history during the unavoidable march of time.
Pieces musically akin to the above, but more “standard” or “expected” in a game like Legend of Zelda with their sweeping instrumentation and “epic” themes can be found throughout the soundtrack. What I find takes a moment to settle for the listener are the more dynamic tracks that tell of the height of Hyrule’s technological glory, as in the “Shrine of Trials” from Yasuaki Iwata. The instrumentation is so… foreign to most of what we have heard in the series thus far. Eerie, electronic echoes of the futuristic past, punctuated by a light bell toll, that build into a mystic melody that is periodically pierced by the clarinet. The instrument takes on an eastern-sounding theme as it weaves throughout the piece, playing melodies that are quite close to past series motifs, but with a minor twist. Similarly, the song begins with notes quite near the “Dungeon Theme” in Link’s original 1986 adventure, which likely is no accident. As one of the three main composers on the soundtrack, Iwata proves his worth with this composition that establishes the technological history of the Sheikah and the Guardians and unifies the electronic tone and instrumentation of what occurs in the Shrines. While the loop is brief, I find the piece non-intrusive and easy to get lost in.
Speaking to that, the first area players can explore in the game is the Great Plateau, and the theme therein composed by Kataoka clearly illustrates how she guided this team in a new direction that followed the gameplay. Breath of the Wild boasts the series’ largest maps to explore, which demands music that is much different than a brief loop as one jaunts across Hyrule Field riding Epona. The theme “Great Plateau” awakens a sense of wonder in the wide world players are about to explore without relying on a driving percussion or theme to rouse them to adventure. It’s a theme that understands this game is about the journey, about searching the world for new vistas and secrets and discovering the past. The subtlety of it captivates the ear as the shinobue flute and piano are the sole instruments, dancing about each other as they embody the vast loneliness of the Great Plateau. The brief pauses between the instruments now and again allow the player a moment to breathe — one where you can almost hear the grasses rustle in the wind — until the flute comes in with a long wail that tapers off, almost like birds calling overhead. While “Great Plateau” is the most minimalist of these quiet themes, others like any of the “Field” themes, “Cave,” “Waterfront,” “Ruins,” or “Divine Beast Lookout Post” all capture that same calm and curiosity, which truly sets this soundtrack apart from those of the past.
This makes it all the more jarring when battle erupts, as Hajime Wakai’s “Hinox Battle” best exemplifies. Starting with a slowly growing percussion of various tribal drums and low horns like something dangerous is closing in, it all breaks loose in a wild cacophony of brass as the beast sets upon the listener! The clarinet warbles out threat, creating tension between player and foe while the tribal percussion continues to beat beneath the melody as the battle ensues. The piece is one of drama, whether you stand toe-to-toe against the Hinox or make a run for it. Furthermore, its chaotic nature speaks to the untethered rampaging bestiality of the monster itself, unlike the more focused rage of other battles in the game. More traditional themes can be found in the battles with the various Divine Beasts and the final confrontation with Ganon himself. I enjoy “Divine Beast Vah Medoh Battle” having such pomp to it, almost as if Vah Medoh enjoys the thrill of battle with Link. A military percussive line keeps the tempo marching along as brass belts out a rousing melody that finishes its phrase to harmonize with the rushing, inspirational strings that play beneath. Between intervals, the strings play a sweeping melody that encompasses the drama and motion of the battle at hand before the heavy brass expresses Vah Medoh’s might once more. At the end of the eerie and tension-filled themes of Iwata’s “Divine Beast Vah Medoh (Dungeon),” his dramatic battle theme certainly gets the blood pumping, urging players to rise to the challenge before them. Of course, one must mention Link’s ancient foe, and his theme can be heard in various tracks now and again. One that recurs throughout the game is that of the various Blight Ganon battles, which I found interesting beyond their visceral, driving melody. Most of the instrumentation remains the same from fight to fight, but one main instrument is changed per elemental form, which I love as a way to set each battle apart. In such a grand world as this, fights are bound to occur, and the varied themes here have come a long way from the handful of tracks in 1986’s Legend of Zelda. Each track suits its situation perfectly, whether in the ancient Shrines or Divine Beast dungeons, or out wandering the world and running afoul of some of Hyrule’s greater beasts.
After such exertions, reprieve is necessary, and any number of the settlements dotting Hyrule’s vastness would do the trick. Each offers its own unique night and day themes, some of which seem familiar, like “Zora’s Domain” (a direct rearrangement) or “Goron City” (sporting instrumentation deeply associated with the noble, rock-eating race). Others fit into the world with their light-hearted, slice-of-life, parochial, if distinct, vibes, as heard in “Tarry Town,” “Lurelin Village,” or “Hateno Village”. What stands out are themes like “Kakariko Village,” “Rito Village,” and “Gerudo Town” which have been instilled with cultures all their own simply through music. Kakariko seems to be tied to traditional Japanese themes through the use of the shinobue and koto as the dominant instruments with steady, strong percussion. It feels rooted in a sense of history and tradition. Similarly rooted in their past, but for different reasons, are the Rito. This theme starts with some clearly European tones on soothing piano and strings which slowly open the song until the motif of the “Main Theme” plays throughout on guitar, flute and piano primarily. As I suggested, a very traditional people with strong ties to the legends of their past and the Hero (a fact made literal by the Rito tribesman Kass’ performance of “Kass: Song of Tradition”). Finally, the Gerudo, an eastern desert culture as implied by the instrumentation; plucky low strings form the rhythm while high, exotic notes on the shinobue and koto play the melody that weaves like a languid dance. As day descends to night, the whole piece becomes even slower, loses the firm rhythmic strings and the notes on the koto seem to twinkle to life like the stars. The heat of the day has cooled, and sleep is possible in this exotic little town. Vastly different from the action-filled flamenco guitar of the first visit with the Gerudo civilization, it suggests that history has tempered these tribal warriors into a people that look to coexist with the rest of Hyrule.
Beyond the world-building fare of the above pieces, listeners can also take in the various little jingles and themes that play during activities in the game, like mini-games and fanfares and failed experiments in cooking. The various “Get Fanfares” have similar roots, but the instrumentation rearrangement keeps them fresh, like the twinkling piano of the “Sheikah Slate: Upgrade” which carries a certain element of mystery to it as this foreign historical technology works its magic. As much as these pieces can be jarring when listening to the entire collection on random play, I still enjoy the ingenuity in them, how catchy and suited to their specific job they are. Using kitchen or tinkering FX as part of the instrumentation in the cooking and repairing jingles respectively is so neat and, well, tactile, for lack of a better term.
Another treat that comes on disc five are the bonus tracks with the BGM for the brief 2014 E3 Trailer and the lengthier 2017 E3 trailer. The latter is a delight that gives me the same goosebumps as when we got that taste of the grand game Nintendo was offering us. It hits us with a variety of emotions, as any good trailer should, drawing us into the rise and fall of the hero’s journey. Kosuke Yamashita put this piece together and it worked brilliantly, especially in the grand choral parts that carry a weight of emotive gravitas to them when coupled with the punchy brass hammering home the Legend of Zelda theme we all know and love.
All 211 tracks and their five discs are packed into a gorgeous box set designed by Katakura Design Office, who have done a great job. They have kept the covers minimal (I love the little touch of Kass’ accordion on the front) and the interiors full of lush game art depicting Link, Zelda, the Champions and Calamity Ganon over Hyrule Castle, as well as a few images from production and from the game itself. Furthermore, the booklet contains interviews and bios of the core composition team members, all in Japanese text. The exclusively designed digipack has a gorgeous landscape of the Great Plateau that looks like concept art and feels reminiscent of older anime from the 1980s. Then there’s the neat PLAYBUTTON badge with pixelated Link circa 1986 on it containing 15 tracks from the Field Music Collection CD. Listeners can just plug their headphones into the badge and listen to this small selection of overworld themes taken from every game in the series before Breath of the Wild, played in chronological order.
As I mentioned, it is a truly massive soundtrack and daunting to write about. While I have some choice favourites and much beyond that stand out, I still feel there is so much that can be said and covered about this album. But, as with the massive world of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild, I suppose that leaves more for listeners to discover on their own. Heart and soul have been poured into the undertaking here, and it shows in the collection’s gorgeous physical presentation and the diverse and expertly crafted compositions performed by masterful musicians. Each note will play on your empathy, one way or another, as you listen and get lost in the journey your mind’s eye takes you on. The evocative original works and nostalgia-filled rearrangements and motifs offer something for fans of the series and of well-made music alike.