Recently I’ve been playing or revisiting a few Legend of Zelda games in preparation for a large ranking article about the series. What’s remarkable about the series is how consistent it is - Zelda is practically its own genre of game, the only other similar franchise I can think of is Okami. And at the same time, each entry has its own identity. As much as Zelda adheres to a pretty standard formula in terms of gameplay, individual games feel different from each other, delivering their own unique experience.
Music is a big part of crafting those unique experiences. Let’s take a look at each Legend of Zelda game’s take on perhaps the most important track of all, the one you listen to the most, the Overworld Theme.
Here’s the one that started it all. I like to think of this song as the national anthem of gamers. It’s one of the most iconic BGMs in all of video games, and unquestionably the most famous track in the Zelda franchise. And deservedly so - there’s something about this song that encapsulates the spirit of adventure. It’s catchy, it’s motivating, and it’s encouraging all at once. There’s no better background tune for fighting monsters and saving the princess, which is probably why it’s stuck with the series to this day.
Zelda II is an incredible game that doesn’t get the love it really deserves. Sure, it’s like a completely different game compared to the first and it’s really fucking hard, but it’s still an amazing game by NES standards. It’s kinda like a grown-up version of the first game, and the overworld theme helps emphasize the way it departs from the original. We’ve got that classic lead-in, but then the main theme shifts into something much more RPG-like - bit more down-beat and mature than the peppy, energized NES theme.
A Link to the Past was a return to the style of gameplay from the original game, with very few elements of Zelda II carrying over. But this was now the SNES, and the potential of what a video game could be felt limitless. The story is bigger, the dungeons are bigger, and of course the overworld theme is bigger too. The SNES’s muffled, honky horn and tuba synths turn the NES tune into something more epic and foreboding, while the melody itself retains its adventuring atmosphere.
Out of the overworld themes that are based on the original NES theme, instead of being an original composition, the one from Link’s Awakening is probably my favorite. It’s just so good, which is probably why they chose to reuse it in the Oracles games. At first, it’s pretty similar to the NES theme: very upbeat, meant to get you pumped for adventure, but then around the 30 second mark it alters its course into a completely new, dashing, swashbuckling interlude... that I might actually like more than the regular Zelda theme. Shhh, don’t tell anyone.
Ahh, Ocarina. My old childhood friend. The theme for Hyrule Field is permanently burned into my brain, just like the Crossfire commercial or the dialogue from the 1995 Casper movie (starring Christina Ricci and Bill Pullman!). As much as I love this game, it doesn’t have one of the better overworld themes. The classic theme is replaced with a very downtempo, atmospheric song more befitting of unobtrusive background music. The whole thing sounds very Star Fox-ish. Not an overworld theme you’re likely to ever hum to yourself, but still good in its own right. (Besides, we all know OoT isn’t lacking in other iconic music.)
Oh yeah, now we’re fuckin’ talking. Nintendo probably got some feedback after OoT that went something like this: “You made this amazing, ground-breaking game, but where the hell is that famous Zelda song?” They fixed this blatant oversight in Majora’s Mask and gave us one of the best iterations of the main Zelda theme out there. This overworld theme is so goddamn amazing you might be tempted to go looking for the 30 minute extended version on Youtube. It’s got the classic tune and everything that comes with it, but the arrangement and the N64’s improved sound turns it into something both exciting and endlessly listenable.
With Wind Waker, we’ve returned to an original composition instead of the usual Zelda overworld. This song is very similar to the feel of OoT’s overworld - it’s subdued, understated and unobtrusive. It’s a song you can listen to for hours (which you will, considering how much sailing you’ll be doing) without it getting annoying. For whatever reason, though, I find this one to be a bit more palatable than OoT’s. Perhaps it just fits the concept of sailing leisurely across the ocean, with the breeze and mist in your face, watching the sun rise and fall.
Four Sword Adventures is weird, I know - literally nobody has ever asked for a multiplayer Zelda, and yet we’ve got several of them with another on the way. But it’s actually an incredibly fun game if you can get the people together to play it. Its overworld theme is also quite good, resembling ALttP’s for the first 40 seconds and then diverting into something moodier and more dramatic before the repeat. This overworld doesn’t try to do anything different, but if you want some standard Zelda theme, here it is.
The handhelds like to stick to the original Zelda overworld theme, with Minish Cap delivering a faithful and fairly enjoyable rendition. Capcom developed both FSA and MC, so perhaps that’s why both games stuck close to the classic theme instead of wandering into something new. Either way, this is an excellent version of the song and perhaps the best on a handheld if you’re not into LA/Oracles’ slightly different take on it.
I never pass up an opportunity to say I hate this game on TAY, so: I hate this game. But, this is actually a pretty good overworld song. Continuing the pattern started with OoT and WW, TP goes with a original song for its overworld - something that fits its tone and themes a bit better than the peppy, pumped-up Zelda classic. I really love the beginning of it, and after some subdued OoT/WW moments, it kicks into something more interesting around the 0:40 mark. Overall, it is pretty similar to OoT’s overworld, but more interesting to listen to.
Phantom Hourlgass is the direct sequel to Wind Waker, and its overworld theme borrows a lot from its predecessor. But I actually think this one is a little better, with a bit more of an adventurous feeling to it. It would probably be better matched with the sailing mechanic in WW than the automated steamboats of PH, but oh well.
Okay, I really really love this one. I mean, I think this is actually my favorite Zelda overworld out of all of them, including those based on the classic theme. Spirit Tracks is such a fantastic game, as out of place as all the train stuff is in a series that’s ostensibly medieval-inspired, and this song is just so great. It would fit perfectly into the soundtrack for Wind Waker, being very reminiscent of Dragon Roost Island and its title theme. But instead of being just one location’s BGM, it’s the entire overworld, and you get to fire your cannon and chug along to the next stop to this song through the whole game.
And now we arrive at the very first orchestrated overworld theme in Legend of Zelda, with Skyward Sword. (Yeah, Zelda didn’t get orchestrated music until 2011.) In much the same way that WW’s overworld meshes perfectly with sailing across the ocean, this song is the perfect backdrop to flying across the sky on a Loftwing, watching painted floating islands come into focus as you get closer. This game remains kinda controversial among the fan community, but I don’t think anyone could argue that this song isn’t beautiful.
So, I have not yet played this game, and when I started this article this was the only overworld theme I had actually not yet heard. Having just listened to it from beginning to end, I can say it’s a solid addition to the lineup. It starts out pretty similar to the ALttP overworld (again), which should be no surprise considering this is a sequel to ALttP. Then around 0:45 it suddenly sounds a bit Pokemon-like before transitioning into a beautiful quiet interlude before the theme begins again. Not my favorite overworld, and not even my favorite rendition of the classic overworld, but still wonderful.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane with all seventeen current Zelda titles - with the exception of Four Swords, which had no overworld and thus no overworld theme. The best thing about Zelda is that it’s this never-ending story, a world that’s being perpetually fleshed out forever in the future, with new details and new heroes and new history. All of those games will come with their own interpretation of the “main theme,” like a little microcosm of the game itself. I can’t wait to see what Tri Force Heroes and Zelda Wii U have in store from us, including their music.