The Zelda Symphony Orchestra Is A Link To A Musical Past

The Zelda Symphony Orchestra Is A Link To A Musical Past

This is my first review for Kotaku. If I have my way, it’ll probably be my last.

I’m in a car with my wife. I’m driving to a birthday lunch. I look at the road ahead. Usually I summon every ounce of my imagined psychokinetic strength to will traffic lights green — this time I’m trying to make them stay red. I’m listening to The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony Orchestra on CD and I wish this journey would never end.

My eyes glaze over — the way they do when I’m trying not to cry at the end of E.T. My wife looks over. I sense confusion — bemusement — and I understand why. Minus context, minus the decades of cherished memories currently at my disposal, the music we’re currently listening to is nothing more than a collection of notes, played by musicians; recorded, printed onto a disc and packaged with a game she has no intention of ever playing. So why do I care so much?

My wife bops her head innocently; she has no dots to connect, no memories to relive. Me? I’m struggling to keep it together. I’m supposed to drive a car while my entire life flashes before my eyes at the precise same time? Is such a thing even possible?

The Legend of Zelda symphony orchestra works by grasping at your memories and forcing you to relive them, in a way that makes your stomach lurch with the force of a thousand caged butterflies. Every Zelda game released subsequent to A Link to the Past has attempted the same trick, but I would argue the Symphony Orchestra does a far better job than any game ever could, because it forces you to fill in the blanks. It’s almost interactive in that sense — the notes come together, they sound familiar, but different — a little more powerful than their initial MIDI equivalent. You make the connection, you remember where it comes from, you remember where you were, how you felt, when you first heard it. Except now it sounds like it does in your memories — better than it ever possibly could in real life.

That’s what listening to The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary soundtrack feels like.

The first track is the worst and, of course, by that I mean the best. It darts between my memories without mercy. I don’t have a second to recover as it slips me from one recollection to the next. One minute it’s Wind Waker. I’m sitting in front of my CRT in Nagoya, and I’m on a motherfuckin’ boat. Next I’m exploring Dragon Roost Island for the first time, but I’m also meeting my wife for the first time. Starting a new life, existing in a strange country, the memories from the game and that period of my life begin to blend, and all I’m left with is a bare sense of it — a hollow reverberation. An echo.

The best/worst moment within that track comes towards the end. I’m still in the car, I look towards my wife, still bemused. I swing my head enthusiastically to the trumpets. Somehow I start driving faster. It’s the Dark World theme from A Link to the Past. The memory is more vivid than any other. I’m 11-years-old I’ve just beaten Agahnim and I sit back to watch the credits roll.

Then the music kicks in. I’m so confused… all along I’ve been told that Agahnim is my enemy, the one I have to defeat. Now I realise this is just the beginning. I’m barely a third through A Link to the Past and my favourite gaming experience of all time is still ahead of me. Involuntarily my eyes widen. My heart beat increases and I’m about to explore a new world I didn’t know existed.

Every Zelda game ever made subsequent to A Link to the Past has, in some way, tried to replicate that feeling: the feeling of a once restricted world expanding beyond your expected dimensions, redefining what you thought possible. Ocarina of Time’s move into 3D came close, while others faltered — doomed to repeat the same magic trick with diminishing impact.

The car journey ends. Journeys always end. I remember obsessively charting my progress on every Zelda game ever made, calculating how much of the game I had left to play, my heart sinking as I realised how much closer I was to finishing.

I’ll never be able to experience A Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker for the first time ever again, but at least with this music I can press repeat and disappear into the weird refuge of my own skewed memories.

Whether or not that’s a good thing remains to be seen.

Music: 3 out of 3 spiritual stones Memory reliability: 3 out of 8 Triforce charts Nostalgia factor: All of them. Overall: Six Sages out of Seven


  • Yup, the music is very good. My favourite track is easily the Great Fairy Fountain theme, which surprised me a bit. I’d never really thought about that track too much until I heard it from an orchestra. So good.

    Close runner up is the Wind Waker track (I still hold that Wind Waker has the best music out of all the Zelda games).

      • Shame that they used MIDIs (or something like that) so that they could have context sensitive music, lowering the quality as a result.

        It was amazing but it could have been even better.

        I’ll have to get my hands on this CD to see if the WW music is as awesome as it should be.

  • Totally lsitening to it right now, Link to the Past was my first and only Zelda experience, I’ve since bought Skyward Sword and am playing through it now, good to be back home 🙂

  • That’s an amazing piece you’ve written Mark. I haven’t listened to the CD or played the game yet, I have it sitting next to my TV as a Christmas day gift to myself. After reading this, I’m really looking forward to putting it on and having a nostalgic trip. Thanks for painting a fantastic picture of your experience.

  • I don’t think I’ve even opened a single one of my VG soundtrack CDs, let alone played any. Well, slightly untrue. The de Blob soundtracks got a great workout in my car, though they were burnt CDs of files I got from the interwebs (records remain unplayed though). There’s a Zelda one, Smash Bros, MadWorld, FFCCCB, Xenoblade, Shadows of the Damned, the OoT3D one, Skyward Sword… I’m no good at this music thing 😛

  • I never played Zelda. Except briefly with an emulator. I didn’t play it for longer then an hour as the emulator was really awkward. But thats not all, i just dont SEE it. What everyone gets so excited about, isn’t there for me. I LOVE the final fantasy series, my favorite game ever is final fantasy 8, the first RPG i ever played. The MEMORIES i have of that game…other people talk about zelda the same way i talk about FF8. So i try Zelda but…it’s too late, im too old, the nostalgia that makes that game amazing for people my age isn’t there. Nowadays its just a game that looks old and plays like many others out there today. I relize it was the first to do it and thats why everyone was so blown away by it but now…..
    I feel like i missed out…
    I envy you.

  • Wow, you pretty much exactly described my experience in first listening to my CD… Only for me I was driving to my grandparents’ house where I used to live. It was after work and I was going to meet my girlfriend and my 1 year old son there. So I drive through my life and relive all those memories and times and people.

    When I showed up at the door I was in a fog of emotion and when my lil guy ran to the door to meet me my vision got all blurry and I had to pretend I had something in my eye 😛

    I’m such a softy sometimes. I can’t wait to show him Hyrule and watch him run off on his own adventures.

    It’s dorky, I know that. 😛

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