Music of The Hyrule Fantasy: the horror of the Dungeon theme
by on October 30, 2016
This is the first article in a series looking at the music of The Legend of Zelda and its long-lasting influence over the series.

As we stride towards the 30th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda’s western release, the series stands tall among video gaming legends as one of the best. The journeys that are laid out throughout the series have many reasons to be revered and remembered. Whether it’s the tricky puzzles, graphics, or even the personal stories that emerge, the games have an abundance of amazing content which makes a lasting impact on players.

One thing that has always been an integral part of that journey for me is the ground-breaking and memorable music, which has evolved and been central to the series for the best part of three decades. Over the next couple of weeks I want to take a dip into a few fan favourites and take a look at them and their importance.

Mr Koji Kondo @ The 25th Anniversary Symphony

Mr. Koji Kondo at the 25th Anniversary Symphony

Before that though, let’s look at this man: Koji Kondo. Kondo is one of the fathers of video game music. This man gave birth to not only most of the music you hear in Zelda games but also a lot of the most recognizable video game soundtracks of all time. Mr. Kondo composed, created, and organized the music for Super Mario Bros. on the NES and Famicom Disk System. This was created only a year before he introduced us to that illustrious “Overworld” theme that sculpted Hyrule with that age lasting feeling.

He has continued to work on the series right up until the latest titles. Koji himself wrote the music all by himself right up until the N64 era where then he worked with other great composers like Toru Minegishi and Kenta Nagata who themselves have worked on a variety of different Nintendo titles including the likes of Pokémon Stadium and the Mario Kart series. The music we hear today within video games would not be possible without the work that Kondo has laid down over the years.

So since we are looking at our first venture into Hyrule — the game that started it all — then let’s look at an interesting theme that above all else really set the mood and atmosphere of those difficult and sometimes mind boggling dungeons: the “Dungeon” theme. The original version in its eight-bit glory can be heard below.

Imagine trying to get a song you have composed on real world instruments to sound as close as possible to the computerized bleeps and blips. This song was memorable and atmospheric. When you took that first step into Level 1 (characterized as “The Eagle”) through that lone, old tree, it was meant to be dark and creepy. The theme captures that perfectly with that foreboding low undertone in the background while the faster paced sequential melody plays over the top of it, reminding you to be fast but cautious. Keese coming at you in the next room don’t warrant too much of a surprise as the music itself is reminiscent of an old Dracula tale.

The Video Game Pianist released a fantastic rendition of the tune back in 2013 for us all to enjoy. He really keeps the key elements of the song and it just works beautifully with that grand piano. It’s absolutely chilling. Take a peek.

In his performance he keeps an atmosphere appropriate to the theme, and I imagine he keeps it very close to how Koji tried to make it sound when he whacked out those first notes on his piano back in ’85. He has a great moment about midway through the video where he puts his own flick on it by adding sound effects with higher pitches with his left hand while he continues the momentum of the song with his right. It shows a confidence in his ability and love for the series which is evident in his passion while he plays. He does some amazing things with several well-known musical entries in our most beloved video games, so, if you haven’t checked out his channel before, you should definitely peruse his music.

Screenshot (7)While the “Dungeon” theme itself has its roots in the style of slow lounge music that could be played as a backdrop in a ’20s horror flick and also possibly (and most interestingly in) the ’60s rock band Deep Purple, the theme itself has inspired new music and the energy for people to go out and put their own stamp on it. Films, video games, and musical artists alike draw on sources from all over; it would only make sense to pull on something that sets an emotional tone and can be played for hours on end without getting tiresome. Video game music has to be versatile in that way, where the music has to have that aspect of replayability. Otherwise it will become a sore spot for the player and break immersion.

Games like WildStar, a great sci-fi MMORPG from 2014, can arguably be compared with the track drawing inspiration directly in sections, especially here in the song “Ancient Science.” Themes like these in video games carve memories for people who battle the difficulties placed in front of them. They become nostalgic and as such promote a great deal of love around them; this pushes people to want to emulate what Kondo was trying to convey or even put their own spin on it with their own versions.

Below is what I believe to be a really fulfilling expansion of the theme. Harold has taken what was teased at with horror tones and taken it to extremes by throwing out this amazing and harrowing piece where you’re left cold, drawn in, and impressed. The skill level shown as he has multiple elements playing all at once in the fashion he has shown experience and left me feeling a bit hesitant to go down stairs to grab myself a drink while writing this late at night. He has certainly put his stamp on it and fleshed out that horror feel turning “creepy” in to “terrified.”

Thanks for reading, I’ll be back soon with another entry in the music of The Hyrule Fantasy (better now known as The Legend of Zelda).

Kai Shepherd
This is but one of the legends of which the people speak… Lifelong video game & Zelda fan. Lives in Northern England with a history of game design, journalism and writing. "Hey! Listen!"