ver since The Legend of Zelda was released in 1986, its soundtrack has been beloved, despite having its grand score replayed by the NES’s warbly 8-bit sound chip. Play the theme from one of the game’s many outings, and you’ll see a tear appear in the eye of any nearby gamer. That’s how integral the music is to Nintendo’s game series.
In this blog post, we’ll analyse the main musical themes from the last two Zelda games using AI music tagging, and see how these capture the essence of each game.
Breath of the Wild soundtrack
Released in 2017, Breath of the Wild (BotW) was a massive success, both critically and commercially. The game’s soundtrack, composed by Manaka Kataoka and Yasuaki Iwata, was a departure from the lively, adventurous soundtracks of previous games. Instead, the soundtrack was piano-led for the first time and leant heavily into ambient sounds. This was a perfect fit for the game’s setting, 100 years after a terrible event, with nature reclaiming the once-stately temples and castles of the game’s fictional kingdom of Hyrule.
Because of the game’s open-world style, the player can spend as much time cooking new recipes with gathered ingredients and pursuing low-stakes side-quests as fighting bokoblins and the game’s big bad, Ganon.
Having the soundtrack being a lower-energy, ambient affair with gentle piano motifs was born out of necessity as much as anything. BotW’s sound designer Hajime Wakai remarked in a 2019 interview that a more energetic soundtrack could have provoked unwanted emotions. “We would end up forcing a feeling of intensity onto players. The music would be all stirring and dramatic, but then the player would think: ‘hold on a minute, all I did was throw away a mushroom.’”
When we analyse BotW’s main theme with AI, we can see the primary mood is ‘Calm’, which reflects the majority of gameplay. This is combined with Romantic, Mysterious and Inspiring moods. While we can probably chalk up the Romantic moods to the particularly melodramatic style of the franchise, Mysterious and Inspiring are the two other moods you’d expect to see, given the enormity of the game’s map and the player’s gradual exposition of the story.
The main theme’s energy is also medium with a ‘Cinematic’ use case tag. This sets the tone for a game where players lose themselves repeatedly in a Studio Ghibli-inspired world.
How is Tears of the Kingdom's soundtrack different?
Tears of The Kingdom is BotW’s long-awaited sequel. Manaka Kataoka returns as lead composer, but unlike Breath of the Wild, which embraces minimalistic, ambient textures, Tears of the Kingdom’s soundtrack employs larger ensembles, more complex harmonies and more bombastic melodies, at least in its main theme.
This makes it a more traditional, pre-BotW Zelda score in some senses. We can detect this with the Use Case, Energy and BPM classifiers, as shown below.
Within the first five minutes of Tears of the Kingdom’s gameplay, you’ve lost your clothes and your sword and are performing one of the most daring high-dives since Goldeneye. An ‘Adventure’ use case tag, a high energy tag and a fast tempo perfectly mirror in-game events. It’s a far cry from the gentle cinematic sound of BotW, where you start the game waking up from a century-long nap and spend a decent amount of time acquiring a pair of warm trousers.
The main theme from Tears of the Kingdom is treading new ground instrumentally, too. Its use of saxophone is a first for the series. And when we drill into the genres for the Tears of the Kingdom main theme, we return an unusual result. The AI can detect “elements of Jazz”, which may reflect the theme’s use of sax.
In summary, while the two main themes share similar moods and many of the same musical themes, the music from Tears of the Kingdom points to a bigger, more hectic experience from start to finish. And that is demonstrated in its more exciting gameplay, receiving an aggregate 95/100 score on Metacritic, with one reviewer calling it “the most purely fun Nintendo game in a decade.”
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