A center in music: How Link’s Awakening shifted Zelda’s focus to musical themes
by on February 20, 2019

The Legend of Zelda is well known not just for its world and gameplay but also for its iconic soundtracks. From its first appearance on the NES, the Zelda series has held pieces of music that are not only inseparable from the games but also some of the hallmarks of video game music as a whole. With each new game, several songs gain massive popularity. Yet despite the passing years, the sounds of Gerudo Desert, the Ballad of the Goddess, and that ever present main theme always send a thrill of excitement to our ears.

The very mystique of music has held a common theme in the Zelda franchise. Nearly every game in the series has had some kind of musical instrument as an obtainable item, and many of them have had a prominent — if not essential — role in the crisis the game presents us. One way or another, music is as essential to the Zelda formula as Hyrule and the Triforce. But it wasn’t always so.

Basic musical beginnings

An examination of the original Legend of Zelda shows an amazing level of detail and complexity despite the minuscule amount of memory space NES cartridges contained. This includes its music, where there is a surprising depth to its melodies. The purpose of that music is the same as that of most games: provide an overall atmosphere for the setting. As there was little diversity in those settings, the actual music playlist was very short, with only seven actual melodies and three shorter tunes representing particular events. And so, while the music on the NES was still impressive, it never allowed for much depth or purpose.

While music on the NES was still impressive, it never allowed for much depth or purpose.

The Adventure of Link, despite its much larger world, and multiple changes in setting and atmosphere, did very little to expand its music. Only ten songs were made for the game. While the complexity of the songs did increase, there is still a level of repetitiveness as nearly every town shares the same music, as well as that of almost every battle scene, temple, and boss.

It was in A Link to the Past where we first saw true growth in musical depth. With a dramatic opening fanfare and introduction, a playlist that tripled that of the previous games, and several specific people and places receiving their own theme song, the music truly began to shape itself around the story. However, despite the grandeur of it all, the music itself is never actually mentioned, and multiple pieces are reused in several locations. As great a job as it does, the music is still just background music.

Musical emphasis

All of that changed in 1993 with a surprising addition to the Zelda series for the Game Boy. Despite having a world, plot, and overall game that was much smaller than A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening provided marvelous depth to that story, both in its characters and especially its music.

While A Link to the Past opened its game with a fanfare and a dramatic opening, Link’s Awakening took it one step further with music that completely matches the story. As Link’s ship floats helplessly in the middle of a fierce storm, a tense tune plays in the background. But then, as the scenes shift between Link’s struggle, the destructive flash, and Marin’s discovery, the music purposely changes alongside it, telling the tale with both visuals and sound without a single word of text. Only then, does the dramatic opening theme begin, and by then, you’re already invested.

This clip means a lot more with music specifically designed for it

That emotional weight is carried by the musical score throughout the entire game. As the story progresses, the game’s immense playlist allows the music to change with it, adding tension and drama to newer locations. While A Link to the Past increased the track list from 10 to 30, Link’s Awakening expanded it to a staggering 79, essentially matching Ocarina of Time‘s soundtrack at 82 songs. No other handheld Zelda title would surpass Link’s Awakening‘s soundtrack until Spirit Tracks (143). This robust list allows unique themes to be held by every major location in the game and many minor ones as well, each one giving a distinct feeling to every place you visit.

The dungeons take on this responsibility the most, as they are the “newer locations” that you run into most frequently. For the first time, each dungeon also has their own respective theme music, playing off the different emotions that come from entering the first dungeon with trepidation and confusion, or traversing the later ones with hesitation and concern. The dungeon mechanics also make additional use of music and sounds, as this is the first game where a bombable wall will make a distinct noise when they are hit with your sword, and the compass with play a tune if a key is in the room you enter. Most importantly, all of this adventuring is focused on the true musical goal of collecting the eight instruments in the game, all of which are needed in order for you to finally return home.

Well, not eight; nine.

Tones of the ocarina

Despite not having any real musical focus, the first three Zelda games did have a musical instrument you used as an item: a flute. Nothing was uniquely special about them; they were just flutes. And even though A Link to the Past had a flute with a very familiar design to the musical instrument found in later games, it was still just called a flute (at least in the North American and European versions; the Japanese version called it the Ocarina) and was only used for a quick-travel mechanic. Thus, musical instruments, while present, never really meant anything special…

Until Link’s Awakening.

It is on Koholint Island where you retrieve in the Dream Shrine (a very interesting Inception case if ever there was one) your first ever Ocarina. With that name change came an entirely new significance to both the instrument and its use. Before, all you had to do was select the flute and use it just like you would any other item. In Link’s Awakening, if you just try and play the ocarina upon retrieving it, however, nothing comes out of it but a bunch of jumbled notes. You instead must learn songs in order to play it effectively. Three songs can be found on the island, and two of them are essential to your journey (and the third still useful). And naturally, “The Ballad of the Wind Fish” ultimately becomes the most prominent, and the most memorable, song of the entire game.

Of all the unique characters that reside Koholint Island, it’s Marin, the girl who found you washed up on the beach, that’s the most endearing. Her personality is truly the first archetype of Princess Zelda, and your multiple interactions with her only make her more engaging. Most of those interactions, along with the conversations with others about her, center around her voice, her ability to sing, and her signature song.

Before ever knowing anything about the Ocarina, the Wind Fish, or Koholint, that song immediately stands out as a prominent piece in the game. Despite the restrictions in hardware, the emotion and beauty conveyed in the song is palpable. Even though it’s never been reused since, the song’s strength and central role make it one of the greats, and its prominence is strong enough to warrant a mention in Majora’s Mask as the trademark song of the Indigo-gos. The song itself becomes the focus of quest to wake up a sleeping walrus, and then you learn of its indispensable role.

All of the instruments, all of your questing, and the very reason you are on this island in the first place come down to this single, beautiful “Song of Awakening.” And as you achieve victory over the nightmares and are finally called back to the waking world, it is the notes of this song that stirs you and sends you on your way home.

It’s there, where music truly became a centerpiece in the Zelda universe. Soon we would hear the powerful notes of the Ocarina of Time, the heavenly choirs conducted by the Wind Waker, and the beautiful chords of harps and flutes, but none of that would have come to pass had not a girl in the sea of dreams sang forth the glorious “The Ballad of the Wind Fish.” In creating a theme song for the game, it also created a theme for the entire series. Whether placed prominently at the forefront or simply providing the ambience and setting for the game, the indispensable power of music echoes forth from the island of dreams to the furthest reaches of Hyrule.

Connor Schultz
Adventurer, Trainer, and lifelong resident of Hyrule. Taking a closer look at how the Legend of Zelda became what it is. You can check out the video adventures here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFtQU0c_o1xjGr4KfmZhARg