Nothing Takes Me Back To 1987 Like The Legend Of Zelda

Nothing Takes Me Back To 1987 Like The Legend Of Zelda
Image: Nintendo / Kotaku

Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-arse sounds they make. Today’s object of aural inquiry requires no introduction, so what am I even writing here? Let’s get to it.

Sometimes I’ll think back to a fascinating music/gaming/cultural scene and think, “damn, I wish I had been born [earlier/later/in a specific foreign country] so I could’ve been there to experience [whatever awesome thing] firsthand.” Perhaps that’s a silly impulse, but it’s almost like I experience nostalgia for events I wasn’t actually around for. (The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows made up a great word for this: anemoia.)

So how often can you say you’ve been in precisely the right time and place to appreciate, enjoy, and experience a given happening to its fullest? Not as often as I’d like, in my case! But that doesn’t mean I’ve always missed out, and The Legend of Zelda (playlist / longplay / VGMdb), which I first encountered in 1987, is one blessed example where I was in the right place, at the right time, at the right age to feel deeply affected by its every aspect.

What did it offer? Utterly compelling mystery and adventure, beamed right out of the television screen. At this point we’ve all played a thousand games inspired by Zelda, and it’s hard to jettison all that acquired knowledge and will yourself back into the naïve mindset of a total newcomer. So you might have to take my word when I say that this first Zelda felt more expansive and rife with intoxicating possibilities than any game I’d encountered before.

Back then I didn’t yet understand the limitations of video games, so anything seemed possible. I still vividly remember, in one retroactively hilarious example, spamming my starter sword in front of an NPC for five minutes trying to impress him enough to give me the powered-up White Sword he had sitting out. (In reality, you just need five heart containers. Oops.)

Nintendo / Aramil (YouTube)

The graphics were simple but vivid. The game design, as we all know looking back, was arguably revolutionary. And Koji Kondo’s music is legendary in its own right, still being listened to, remixed, and remastered by fans and developers alike.

Somehow it’s that music, and the perfect sound effects that accompany it, that takes me back most readily. I’ll hear just the first few notes of that incredible, evocative title theme and I’m back in 1987, puzzling over the adventure ahead with nothing to guide me but cryptic NPCs, a beautifully illustrated manual, and boundless curiosity enabled by the endless free time of a fortunate childhood.

Zelda’s soundtrack isn’t long or complex; aside from that title theme, the famous overworld song, and the closing credits, most tracks aren’t even a minute long. The underworld track loops in a mere 20 seconds, yet may be the most memorable piece of dungeon accompaniment I’ve ever heard. Iconic, and perfect fuel for my younger self’s imagination. The sound effects, too, were so crunchy and enjoyable. The tinking up of a big rupee score, the meaty KRRRR-SHING of firing the beam sword, the funny little “buh!” Link emitted when injured, those super bit-crushed roars you’d hear as you neared a boss…it’s all gold, just like the cartridge that housed it.

It’s interesting to note, however, that we’ve just been listening to a slightly impoverished version of the game’s sounds. The Legend of Zelda was originally designed for the Famicom Disk System, hardware which enjoyed an additional sound channel over the Western NES console. The video above compares the two versions, and you’ll notice the FDS audio enjoys an additional richness that alters the sound quite drastically in some cases. Overall, though, I prefer the version I grew up knowing, even though it’s less sophisticated. Nostalgia’s often funny like that.

That’s all the Music we’ve got this Morning, so I hope that’ll tide you over ‘til tomorrow. If not Zelda, I bet you have games or other media that transport you back to a more formative age, too. I hope you’ll be so kind as to share those in the comments, and we’ll see you again tomorrow!

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