VGM Entry 12: Zelda and Dragon Quest
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
Two fantasy-style games in 1986 achieved massive retail success and thereby brought the genre to the attention of the masses. These, it should be fairly obvious, were The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo) and Dragon Quest (Enix). Both games are likewise frequently cited among the most important soundtracks for the Famicom/NES. I think this can be a bit misleading.
The Legend of Zelda had a truly epic main theme, with which Koji Kondo almost certainly surpassed his work in Super Mario Bros. Whether it was the best video game song written up to that point is really a matter of personal preference; it is not as though it had no competition. Regardless, this was the first installment of Nintendo’s second major franchise gaming series, and the sort of anthem Koji Kondo was able to craft for Link had enormous marketing benefits. It’s not as though lead characters in Nintendo’s games became popular out of the shear force of the company’s good name. No one really remembers say, Professor Hector (Gyromite and Stack-Up) or Mr. Stevenson (Gumshoe). If Link was going to become a franchise character, he was going to need a theme song, and in that regard Koji Kondo pulled through once again.
What else did The Legend of Zelda have going for it musically? Well… very little. I mean, the Underground Level theme (3:18) is pretty cool–all 18 seconds of it. It reminds me of some of Uematsu and Mitsuda’s later works. But there just isn’t much else to this game. The title screen and overworld theme are variations on the same (awesome) melody. Death Mountain (3:48) sounds like it was thrown together in five minutes, and the ending theme (1:42), while catchy, is simply in the wrong game. It is Mario music.
Koji Kondo is one of the most important figures in the history of video game music, no doubt about it, but the bar had not been raised quite so high on the NES in 1986 as it had been in the home computing world. Thus The Legend of Zelda sounds great within the context of its system, but a little primitive in the larger scope of things.
The interesting thing about Dragon Quest to my western ears is that the game series was never all that hot here. I seem to recall reading at the time of Dragon Quest VIII‘s Japanese release–and we’re talking 2004 so I may be very much mistaken–that the game franchise had sold more copies than Final Fantasy. At any rate, it is important to recognize that this series was huge in Japan. The original Dragon Quest formalized nearly every stereotype of traditional RPGs. This video should make that fairly clear, and it’s pretty significant to note that this was not a product of Eastern adventure/RPG traditions. Yuji Horii took his inspiration from the Ultima and Wizardy series on the Apple II, and it’s at this point that the two genres really diverge. Japan would become the centerpoint of both Eastern and Western traditions, and just a Legend of Zelda served as the quintessential starting point for the modern adventure game, Dragon Quest permanently defined the RPG.
Like The Legend of Zelda‘s overworld theme, Dragon Quest‘s title theme became a series staple, but “Overture March” took quite a while to grow on me. A good many other ears might hear delicious nostalgia, but its quality does not immediately jump out at me. It’s really how Koichi Sugiyama continually developed and improved upon it in future games that makes the original fun to revisit. The rest of the soundtrack was, like Ultima III and Ultima IV, perfectly well suited for the RPG experience, and wider distribution meant that Sugiyama would be much more influential in standardizing this approach. I would be shocked if “Unknown World” (1:40) did not heavily influence Nobuo Uematsu. It could be a chiptune take on a Final Fantasy VII track, and it’s quite pleasant. Still, and unlike Kenneth W. Arnold’s works, the original soundtrack does have its flaws. The combat music (2:22) is terrible, grating on the ears on the first listen let alone after the constant encounters one expects in an RPG.
But in setting the standards for the series he would faithfully continue to compose for the next twenty five years (the man is now 81 years old and still making music), Koichi Sugiyama also set the standard for what RPGs should sound like. The standard was already in practice, as I hope I have shown, but the enormous influence that the Dragon Quest series would have on video games in Japan probably prevented a lot of deviation from this norm in the future. And much to Koichi Sugiyama’s credit, the music definitely improved over time. Dragon Quest II, released by Enix in January 1987, less than a year after the series debut, would retain the original’s best tracks while replacing the obvious duds with significant improvements.
By Dragon Quest III (Enix, 1988), Koichi Sugiyama had firmly established himself as one of the best RPG composers of the 1980s. His emphasis on continuity and improvement of past works rather than wholly original soundtracks allowed each game to feel both refreshing and entirely familiar. In the cases of the best tracks, the changes are barely even noticeable. “Overture March” in Dragon Quest III begins almost identically to the original for instance. The melody is a little more staccato, and that’s it. If it’s not broke, why fix it?
I don’t know that I would call either The Legend of Zelda or Dragon Quest great soundtracks. The Legend of Zelda contained an especially great song, but I feel like allowing one song to carry a game was beginning to be a cop-out by 1986. Dragon Quest formed a more complex whole, and it’s definitely closer to excellence, but I feel like it still lets the shortcoming of the NES get the better of it at times in sound selection for what were certainly wonderful melodies. It’s also got the Combat theme to deal with, and such a reoccurring flaw is hard to ignore. Koichi Sugiyama would continually improve, and Koji Kondo too would be stepping up his game before the Famicom expired, particularly with Super Mario Bros. 2 in 1988.