“Din… With her strong flaming arms, cultivated the land
and created the red earth…
Farore… With her rich soul, produced all life forms
who would uphold the law…
Nayru… Poured out her wisdom onto the land,
and gave it the spirit of law…
The Great Deku Tree,
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Nintendo 64 (1998)
If this sounds a little Lord of the Rings, you are not far off.
Swords, dungeons, monsters, magic, little guys in green tunics…you get the idea.
The Legend of Zelda is one of the best-selling adventure video games in history. After a successful 1986 Japanese launch, the original Nintendo Entertainment System™ game hit the North American market in 1987 and spawned more than 15 sequels and spin-off games, including this year’s highly-anticipated Breath of the Wild, produced for the Wii U™ and Nintendo Switch™. Every few years, older games are routinely remastered and re-released, since We Nerds cannot wait too long before yet again pulling the master sword from its stone.
The series (for the most part) takes place in the fictional kingdom of Hyrule. Our hero, Link (played by you), is destined to save the kingdom–and often, Princess Zelda–from the clutches of the evil Ganondorf. To do so, Link must obtain The Triforce, a divine artifact that holds the essence of the three Golden Goddesses: Din, Farore, and Nayru.
Plug in your controller and press start.
Every Zelda fan remembers their first game. I myself was in second grade when the series’ third installment, A Link to the Past, was released and lost my mind over it. My thumb aches just thinking about the hours I spent assaulting a controller button. Not infrequently did my mother have to turn the game off as I cried with frustration and threw a controller at the wall. Damn Ganon battle.
The series’ graphics have steadily improved over its 30 years, as has the sound quality. While even non-gamers may recognize the image of Link (think Peter Pan with a sword and shield), the iconic music is known only to those who have spent time in the game. Once heard, the themes are not soon forgotten: the rousing horns as you race across the great fields of Hyrule, the magical harp heard upon entry to a fairy’s lair, and the triumphant four brass chords that accompany a treasure chest’s opening.
The 1986 score was orchestrated with only a bell tone and sound of electronic scratching. Since then, the arrangements have grown in complexity, length, and sound quality. Eventually, games played actual symphonic recordings alongside gameplay, rather than in-game programmed instrumentation.
You can thank Koji Kondo for most of this. The composer, pianist, and sound designer is known for composing the scores and designing the sound effects for most of the Super Mario games and Zelda games. Though he has not composed an original Zelda score since 2004’s Four Sword Adventure, Kondo created all of the recognizable themes still used.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the series in 2011, Nintendo commissioned an original symphony, The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses. The show was originally performed in the fall of 2011 in Los Angeles and consisted of live performances of much of the music from the series, arranged by prolific game composer Chad Seiter.
Much of the new content sounded exactly as it did in the games. But orchestral arrangements had to be be created from scratch to expand upon the electronically-programmed sounds from the earlier installments.
An updated version of Symphony of the Goddesses began touring in March 2017 and visited the Durham Performing Arts Center on November 10. The concert now features a new movement from 2011’s Skyward Sword, a much-anticipated movement from 2016’s Breath of the Wild, and reimagined pieces from A Link Between Worlds, Twilight Princess, the remake of Majora’s Mask, Ocarina of Time, and A Link to the Past.
When I saw an army of Links lined up at the men’s room door, I knew this was no night at the symphony. This was a convention crowd. These, my friends, were Gamers. Before the concert began, I relived oft-held conversations all around me. “Do you think Link was really dead in Majora’s Mask?,” “I thought Minish Cap was far too easy; practically a waste of time,” and “Navi really is not that obnoxious if you know what you’re doing.” One man bragged about his “Zelda Autism Powers” and said he could quote the introductory story dialogue all of the major games.
The nostalgia factor is strong with this event, and gamers are the target audience: the lines at the merch stand snaked halfway across DPAC’s entire second floor.
In the auditorium a camera spotted costumed spectators in the crowd for all to see–jumbotron style. Three video screens playing game trailers and retrospective footage were interrupted by the arrival of 66-piece orchestra and 24-member choir, appearing ready to play Tchaikovsky and not video game tunes.
Maestro Kelly Corcoran conducted these North Carolina-based musicians, who flew vigorously through the straightforward, but rich arrangements. Though it took a few minutes to get the chorus on-tempo (likely caused by sound troubles), Corcoran’s rigid and precise direction kept things tightly synced to the videos–a formidable task. I appreciated the choice to highlight some of the orchestral soloist’s work through occasional on-screen projection of certain players.
If the gameplay footage were to be turned off, the uninitiated might mistake this for a performance of Carmina Burana or perhaps a John Williams film score. This was as lush and vibrant as his work on Star Wars–which the NC Symphony was playing at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts this very same night. Luckily for fans of both, the Star Wars concert had a second, non-conflicting, showing.
Stage lighting complemented the lush palates of the games’ many environs as they appeared on the three screens–highlighting mood or letting the game’s landscape come spilling out across the orchestra. A dreamy blue stage matched Link’s underwater adventures, while fiery reads mirrored his trips through the volcanic Goron region.
The concert was interrupted a few times by pre-taped comments from the game’s original creators. This was cute, but added little to the evening. While some of the videos did not quite support the music, and an orchestra playing against GameBoy™ footage seemed silly, the concert stirred the emotions of long-time gamers and newbies alike.
Though I missed some of my favorite selections (particularly “Gerudo Valley” from Ocarina of Time and more Goron City material), the thrilling show and electric crowd revived many childhood (and, frankly, adulthood) memories of hours spent traversing woods and deserts as Link.
The next time you’re playing any video game, try sitting back and closing your eyes–absorbing the aural world. As Navi, the obnoxious fairy helper has told Link again and again, “Hey! Listen!”
The Legend of Zelda Wiki: https://zelda.gamepedia.com
Tour website: https://zelda-symphony.com
Concert trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VSC1Hp-6BA
Venue website: https://www.dpacnc.com
Composer biography: http://www.famouscomposers.net/koji-kondo
Conductor website: http://kellycorcoran.net
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, has been a video game nerd for more than 25 years. He is an actor, teacher, and director and holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.