The Legend of Zelda series is home to some of the most iconic music in gaming. The franchise even debuted its own orchestral concert tour, Symphony of the Goddesses, back in 2012, just a few months after the release of Skyward Sword. No matter how each entry chooses to portray its world and characters, music is a reoccurring theme that holds many Zelda games together. This includes the use of playable instruments, such as the ocarina, wind waker, harp, and even wolf howling from Twilight Princess (ok, so that one was a bit eccentric). The series has often given players the role of performing specific songs to uncover secrets, satisfy an NPC’s musical needs, or even change the weather or time of day. Link has become quite the musician over the years, but his talents seem to have been lost in translation in his latest adventure, Breath of the Wild.
Unlike past Zelda titles, Breath of the Wild uses an ambient soundtrack composed of minimalistic tracks, often with soft piano or strings. Songs rarely build up to full-blown orchestral pieces, unless necessary for a dramatic cutscene or boss encounter. Likewise, there are no instruments for Link to play, and musical leitmotifs aren’t as common either. Admittedly, it can be a bit jarring to see such a lack of catchy, recognizable songs in the overworld of Breath of the Wild. However, there is an intentional choice to keep the music minimalistic in the game’s world, and it shows a connection to previous titles.
Let’s take a step back to some of the past 3D Zelda games. During the daytime, the overworld always has the same piece of music playing; whether you are exploring Termina Field in Majora’s Mask, or the Great Sea in Wind Waker, there is always a stand-out track accompanying you. When nighttime arrives, the music cuts out in favor of some quiet time (minus Link’s occasional grunts and “hiya’s!”). The use of silence enhances the tone of the night, signaling a sense of urgency for the unknown, especially when enemies are approaching. Wind Waker uses silence when exploring many of its random islands, while Ocarina of Time uses ambience for most of its dungeons. Even Ganon’s castle lacks music for its entire first section, and instead uses an ominous, eerie drone.
So if other titles have used similar musical elements before, what makes Breath of the Wild so divisive? Well, it may come down to expectations, and what some fans hoped to see from a new Zelda game. Putting music aside, remember the negative reception from Skyward Sword’s excessive motion controls and linearity? Or how about when people mocked the cel-shaded visuals from Wind Waker? It’s not out of the ordinary for fans to look at past Zelda games and expect certain aspects they loved make a comeback.
When compared to other Zelda titles, Breath of the Wild is more unconventional in its approach to world building, story telling, and, perhaps most notably, exploration. It shows the player as much as he or she chooses to see; the main quests can even be skipped altogether in favor of rushing to the final battle. There are only four main dungeons and no additional items to uncover after the prologue, which is a drastic difference from what fans are used to. Breath of the Wild is less concerned with guiding the player on an adventure, and instead gives them the ability to create their own journey. Sure, there is a story to tell, but it’s essentially optional.
The emotional value of music tends to be different for each listener, but it’s common for Zelda soundtracks to work toward evoking specific emotions. For example, it’s clear that the “Song of Healing” from Majora’s Mask is meant to be somber; this is notable from its minor chords and general slow tempo. Conversely, the shop theme from Ocarina of Time is a jolly tune that can easily make the player want to dance. In Breath of the Wild, ambient tracks don’t particularly have just one emotion to convey, because that isn’t really its goal. This is a game about nature (or “the wild”), and the ambient music builds a relationship between the player and the game’s environment. Just as the player has the option to explore the world at their own pace and limits, the music is often kept minimal, so as not to drive the player in one particular direction emotionally. Ambience is a universal musical style that helps build atmosphere, which can be interpreted in different ways.
That’s not to say Breath of the Wild can’t have clear emotions to portray in its soundtrack. One of the game’s most memorable songs plays when the player encounters a Guardian; a large, spider-like machine with devastating laser attacks. The result is a tense melody that fills the player with panic and dread. This element has appeared in all previous 3D Zelda games, where a suspenseful piece of music will play when an enemy is nearby. In this case, not much has changed, and if anything Breath of the Wild is even more dramatic with its enemy and boss encounters. Some of the enemies can defeat Link in just one quick attack! Still, it’s far more common for the game to keep its music simple and in the background, rather than a fanfare of upbeat instrumentation.
Nintendo has effectively shattered fan’s expectations for what a new, open-world Zelda game can be. Breath of the Wild doesn’t follow most of the series’ past conventions, and isn’t afraid to embrace new ideas. Yet at its core it holds a significant part of what makes the Zelda franchise so cherished. It creates a world where the player is free to explore and genuinely feel like an adventurer. This time, the music adds even more depth to the world, subtly permeating each region’s locale with mellow piano keys and windy breezes. Breath of the Wild may not have as many iconic, or even hummable music, but its soundtrack still builds one of the strongest immersive experiences in gaming today.