The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening has captivated fans of the franchise for years with its whimsical take on the champion of Hyrule’s continuing adventures. The beloved title has been remastered three times now since 1993, but the most recent version has seen a complete overhaul to the game’s presentation. When Nintendo teased the game in early 2019, the visuals presented seemed to enhance the dreamlike state of the entire adventure, and it sounded like the new take on the game’s stellar soundtrack would receive a similar treatment. Starting with a solid foundation of tracks composed by now storied veterans Minako Hamano (Metroid), Kozue Ishikawa (Earthbound), and of course Koji Kondo, composer/arranger Ryo Nagamatsu had both a straightforward and daunting task to invigorate the soundtrack. However, he does just that with such aplomb, expanding the soundtrack to 114 entries and updating the original music for new audiences to enjoy.
The distinct visual style breathes new life into Link’s Awakening, that much is obvious, and the soundscape needs to match. New instrumentation choices by Nagamatsu brilliantly capture the toyland/storybook aesthetic of the Switch version, and it almost feels like an entirely new soundtrack. Due to the larger storage format of Switch cartridges, there is expanded room to play that lends itself to a broader overall listening experience both in and out of context.
From the outset, the original soundtrack pulled you into the adventure gently, with the same motif playing for both “Tarin’s House” and “Exploration for the First Time.” These pieces lack the iconic theme for The Legend of Zelda that often plays in the overworld, which sets Link’s Awakening apart from previous entries. In this new presentation, the tone is cemented by these opening notes as Link awakens in a strange house on a mysterious island.
With “Tarin’s House,” the new arrangement retains the sleepy pacing with its digital soundscape, but a few new choices set it apart. First, the decrescendo of the strings coupled with sprinkling chimes emphasizes that sense of falling into bed better than the original chiptune did. As the song progresses, the strings come back as a warm undercurrent, wavering in and out lazily. Then “Exploration for the First Time” gets a similar treatment, embellishing the original crunchy, driving bass of the Game Boy soundchip while the new, warm strings and woodwinds make the world around Link so much sunnier and more welcoming. Each instrument gets its moment in the melody, starting with the violin to ease listeners into the piece. Then the flute takes the second verse and adds more playfulness until a minute in, where the oboe reminds you to take this journey seriously and keep your wits about you. Both pieces are so much more intricate now, which surely is to be expected. Still, they work wonders for this game’s opening moments and establish a foundation, both in gameplay and music.
Another favoured track that anchors the game tonally comes with your exploration of Mabe Village. As the accompaniment for the hub of Link’s adventure, this piece needs to grow and show some diversity, or else players will tire of it. The original chiptune is fun, plucky, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it doesn’t offer much from its short loop. What was once a less-than-thirty-second jaunt has become a roughly two-minute-and-twenty-second stroll through the small town. A toy piano sets the mood beautifully alongside a xylophone holding the rhythm, capturing the established whimsy this remake touts while simultaneously retaining the playfulness of the original composition. Then, about twenty seconds in, those warm strings I mentioned earlier join with a beautiful harmony and wrap you in their embrace, reminding you that this is a safe space, Mabe looks after its own, and you’re one of them now. With this foundation established, the melody gives way to other instrumentation, almost representing the different characters or homes and shops you encounter on your stroll. This piece ensures that every return trip for items or quests is a welcome delight and reminds us that it’s okay to take a break now and again.
These establishing tracks illustrate Nagamatsu’s understanding of the world perfectly. He’s retained the dreamlike magic the original soundtrack managed to craft with its limited soundchip, but he’s molded something new as well. Each piece still feels small and understated in its own way. Nagamatsu has said that he wished to hold back the sound, keep it intimate, and maintain the handheld feeling of the whole experience.
That sentiment is especially poignant when exploring the dangerous dungeons across the island. The accompaniment could have gotten epic and brought the full weight of an orchestra down upon listeners. However, Nagamatsu brings almost a kind of horror sensibility to the music, with a small instrumental scope that builds tension throughout each piece. “Dungeon 3 Key Cellar” is possibly the most intimidating and grim of these pieces, opening with this oppressive, menacing brass and choral mix, which is backed by an eerie electronic arpeggio. It’s punctuated by fantastic timing, with sharp cuts to silence filled at first by a few staccato piano notes, then the arpeggio rejoins the heavy brass once more. The subsequent silence features a few different piano notes and the same arpeggio, but this time the chilling jingle of chimes takes on the melody, and it’s genuinely haunting. The juxtaposition of the two musical movements within this piece is jarring and unsettling, reminding you that danger lurks everywhere for Link, and it only takes a few instruments to convey this.
On a completely different note, the original Link’s Awakening soundtrack continued another tradition of Legend of Zelda music, with its bizarre and goofy tracks that offer a complete departure from the adventure. “Kiki the Monkey’s Gratitude” exemplifies playfulness in a brief ditty. Brass trundles along with sharp little electronic notes that pierce in between, and you can just feel the energy and excitement that a joyful little monkey would give off. A more bizarre piece is “Telephone Booth,” which plays inside the trees dotting Koholint that Old Man Ulrira has set up. The song represents the strange elder’s quirkiness; he’s a man that knows so much about the island and your journey but is incapable of speaking face-to-face. So as you travel about and find yourself stuck, stopping at these trees that have been transformed into phone booths gives you access to hints, as well as a weird little tune. This piece has a consistent bass drum rhythm, comprised of canned strings, telephone rings, and little choral “wah’s” like the voice at the other end of the phone — it’s too fun. “Tarin Chased by Bees” is commedia dell’arte-inspired gold, “Animal Village” is an anthem of barks and meows, and don’t even get me started on “Manbo’s Mambo,” a ridiculous piece that sounds like it’s pulled from a kid’s after-school special, or the incredibly dope dancehall “Frog’s Soul.” All the silly tracks that delighted in the original game are still fun palette cleansers, and with the new instrumentation in the remake, there’s so much more character and life in each piece.
The entire soundtrack is a brilliant journey. Nagamatsu has done such an incredible job harnessing an already fantastic collection of music and suitably modernizing it for the Nintendo Switch remaster that I could go on about each of the tracks at length. When you have songs like the driven “Tal Tal Mountain Range” or dreamy “Ballad of the Windfish” that seem perfect as is, you worry that a remaster could botch things. Thankfully, that’s not the case at all. Nintendo and Nagamatsu could have played it safe and gotten away with updating the electronic soundscape of an already beloved soundtrack, but introducing a diverse range of live instruments to fill out the new take on this playful world is worth the added effort. It’s more rich, like the new textures and character models, more vibrant like the full range of colours the Switch can deliver, but it has the same charm and heart, just in its own way.