VGM Entry 21: Zelda II and Metroid
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
You’re going to see Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo, 1987) on a lot of “best of the NES” soundtrack lists. I considered skipping over it, since I’m not a big fan myself, but I suppose a famous score ought to be addressed whether I care for it or not.
Zelda II brought a completely new soundtrack to the table, sharing nothing in common with the original Legend of Zelda save a passing nod at the beginning of “Hyrule Overworld”. (The track list on this compilation is “The Adventure of Link” (0:00), “Hyrule Overworld” (1:22), “Danger” (2:17), “Village Theme 1″ (2:53), “Village Theme 2″ (4:07), “Palace” (4:27), and “Ending” (5:57), if you’re curious.) This departure is not a surprise in itself; Nintendo oddly chose to give Akito Nakatsuka rather than Koji Kondo the job, so we’re dealing with a different composer here. Zelda II was also a much more extensive soundtrack than the original, featuring 13 full-length songs if I’m counting correctly.
There is no obvious reason to dislike the soundtrack. “Hyrule Overworld” is catchy, no doubt, and “Palace” is a particularly noteworthy song. Zelda II has a few gems, and more thought went into it than many contemporary video game soundtracks out there. But is it really anything special? The simple fact that it wasn’t bad might have stood for something a few years prior, but by 1987 I expect a bit more. Most of Akito Nakatsuka’s compositions are pretty simplistic, not all that memorable, blandly arranged, and generally fail to capitalize on any of the system’s unique potential. I am rather inclined to believe the music was popular merely due to its having the name “Zelda” attached to it.
Another game which receives, I think, a little more praise than it deserves is Metroid (Nintendo, 1986). My complaint here is not nearly so well founded, especially considering it was, I’ll admit, a great soundtrack, and Hirokazu Tanaka, unlike Akita Nakatsuka, had a long and meritorious career in the video game music industry. (Nakatsuka’s only other claim to fame to the best of my knowledge is Excitebike (Nintendo, 1984).)
But Metroid and Zelda II are remembered in different degrees. If Zelda II makes all the lists, Metroid always seems to top them. The problem here can be seen in which tracks are well remembered. “Brinstar” (1:40) is probably the most famous song in the game, followed by the title theme (0:00). But “Brinstar”, much like “Escape” (4:09) and “Victorious” (5:18) in this video, are pretty standard fair. Catchy songs, better than most; I’ll grant them that. The best on the NES? Well, they’re at least worth considering as candidates. But if these are the songs Metroid is best remembered for, something went wrong here. What you hear at the beginning of the intro, as well as in “Norfair” (2:34) and “Kraid’s Lair” (3:17), is a bit more indicative of what I think Tanaka was aiming for, and the brief “Bridge” (7:33) at the end of this video is probably the most revealing track.
Tanaka was trying to bring the world of Metroid alive through music. He wasn’t just writing background pieces; he was integrating music into the gameplay environment, and that was no easy task on the Nintendo. To quote an interview with Hirokazu Tanaka conducted by Alex Brandon and published in 2002:
“…sound designers in many studios started to compete with each other by creating upbeat melodies for game music. The pop-like, lilting tunes were everywhere. The industry was delighted, but on the contrary, I wasn’t happy with the trend, because those melodies weren’t necessarily matched with the tastes and atmospheres that the games originally had. The sound design for Metroid was, therefore, intended to be the antithesis for that trend. I had a concept that the music for Metroid should be created not as game music, but as music the players feel as if they were encountering a living creature. I wanted to create the sound without any distinctions between music and sound effects.”
The introduction and “Bridge” pull this off wonderfully, and “Norfair” and “Kraid’s Lair” suit the vision admirably as well, but the majority of the more popular tracks from Metroid are nevertheless Tanaka’s poppier pieces. I wish I could write this off as fan failure to appreciate, but the truth is the other more obscure tracks, “Tourian” and “Mother Brain”, are excluded from garudoh’s compilation for a reason. They missed the mark, and they just weren’t all that good. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting Metroid was anything short of a great soundtrack, but it was nevertheless a little short of what it strove to be, and many of its redeeming qualities rest in the residual traces of precisely what Tanaka was trying to weed out.
Metroid deserves an honorable mention on any list of NES soundtrack greats, but it’s not top ten material. I think it has too many faults for that, and Tanaka himself would contribute to a better NES score on Mother a few years later anyway.