The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is perhaps the most compelling argument yet for "Video Game as Concert Piece." As a game, it is a smartly designed interlocking series of puzzles, an ever-more-complex world filled with hidden secrets and challenging combat that unfolds with a uniquely Zelda-y sense of joyous excavation. But as a concert piece... oh, boy.
I am, as I have admitted before, not a "Zelda guy." I could never have written a review as far-reaching, comprehensive and lucid as Stephen Totilo's splendid Kotaku review. I also couldn't have put together a piece that points out the game's maddening flaws as humorously (and, I must admit, accurately) as Tim Rogers did.
But I can talk about the music. To offer a correction to an earlier version of this post, it seems that Koji Kondo isn't as responsible for this music as I thought. Due credit to Hajime Wakai, Shiho Fujii, Mahito Yokota and Takeshi Hama, all of whom contributed. Anyhow—I'm certainly not going to say that the themes in this game are "better" than past Zelda games (particularly Ocarina of Time, as chronicled by Cruise Elroy's Dan Bruno). But when taken as a whole, the score is one of the most far-reaching, interestingly developed and gorgeous series of musical themes I've heard in a game.
Recorded with a full orchestra (though the occasional sampled MIDI instrument does turn up), the Skyward Sword score is lush, ambitious, and human sounding. Instrumental soloists, particularly some of the woodwind players, all have their moments to shine, and the reprisals of old Zelda classics like "Zelda's Lullabye" and "Inside a House" sound terrific when performed by human beings.
I've written in the past about how dialogue-free games tend to use music more effectively than current-gen "talky" games, and Skyward Sword is a prime example of this. To reiterate my opening thesis, this is a Video Game as Concert Piece, a work that is as much about its ever-shifting, ever-more-complex musical themes as it is about its puzzles, gameworld, or story.
So far in this series, I've highlighted three musical examples from each game. But darn it, Skyward Sword gets four. Here are they are:
Let's listen to this one first, shall we? The most easily recognized tune from the game, the "Ballad of the Goddess" is the main heroic theme from Skyward Sword, and with good reason. From the first trailer I saw for the game, I was struck by how immediately iconic it felt, how it conjured feelings of adventure, purpose, and more than anything, of motion. I really dig this version as well, which presents the theme in a lighter context, pushed by a more delicate but no-less-driving rhythmic bounce.
Is this theme actually better than Kondo's original theme for The Legend of Zelda? I don't know. That's a really stupid question! But "Ballad of the Goddess" is a great example of a hero's theme done right. It's a strongly melodic anthem the boldness of which remains all too rare in modern video games.
Link's blue robot-ish companion Fi is graced with a lovely theme. Throughout the game, we hear several variations on it, and this one is my favorite. It recalls nothing so much as Thomas Newman's standard-setting work on The Shawshank Redemption, and if that ain't a compliment, I don't know what is.
When the orchestra creeps in for the second pass, ever-thickening counter-melodies layering on top of the lush string arrangement… this kind of piece is proof that a full orchestra will always convey emotion more effectively than an army of perfectly programmed chiptunes. (Sorry, chiptunes. I still love ya.)
This piece kills me. Go away, stupid oboist. With your stupid ridiculously gorgeous melody/counter-melody-thing. Yes, this isn't even actually an oboe solo (he/she has a flute doubling the part), and the bassoon deserves equal props for laying down some ridiculously beautiful whole notes. There is also like a 5% chance that this is an English horn, since sometimes the two can sound so similar that I get disoriented. Or maybe I'm disoriented by all the prettiness...
Are you sensing that I have a hard time talking about this piece? I do. It slays me. I've reached the limit of my ability to describe it - just listen to it and then go fall in love with someone, okay?
Skyward Sword is a game about flight, and so it needed at least one theme that specifically conjured aerial grace. The "Loftwing Theme," written to introduce the giant flying birds ridden by the citizens of Skyloft, is just that—a light, bouncing theme in 6/8 time, which is better known as the unofficial time signature of flight. But the reason I love this track is that it is a flying duet between a flute and… a trombone.
There are a scant handful of video game soundtracks that feature show-stealing instrumental soloists. Violinist Martin Chalifour stole the show on Garry Shyman's Bioshock and Bioshock 2 soundtracks, and the bass clarinetist and bassist on the L.A. Noire soundtrack also had their moments in the sun.
But as nice as the flute solo is, it's the trombonist who steals the show for me—something about his/her entry is so unexpected and lovely; it's so unabashedly old-school Disney, and perfectly captures the slightly ungainly grace of those silly Loftwing birds. The resulting duet with the flutist eloquently conjures the Loftwing's dancing duet with the sky.
This piece, much like the entire score, is a leaf on the wind—watch how it soars.
The entire Skyward Sword soundtrack is stupidly great. You can also listen to the whole thing on any of several YouTube channels, and it's easy to find piano transcriptions and downloads all over the place. Its musical score is an instant classic, as far as I'm concerned, and my favorite part of a great game.
We'll have more of the best video game soundtracks of 2011 soon. Happy holidays!
"The Best Game Music of 2011" is a multi-part series highlighting the best video game soundtracks of the year.