While Nintendo may have found its start as a company making toys and playing cards, pretty much everyone who thinks about the company today does so because of its history-making video games. Starting with arcade games in the mid-'70s and launching its own home console in the early '80s, the company has created many of the video game industry’s best-known and longest-enduring franchises. From Mario to Zelda, Pokémon to Metroid, Nintendo has managed to create games that were so enthralling they have demanded generations of gamers to return to their worlds.
One of the strongest aspects of many of Nintendo's biggest releases is their soundtracks, which in many cases were not only memorable but also helped to set the tone for your adventures, even if the graphics of early games couldn't capture their full majesty quite yet. Today, we're going to look at some of the tracks that defined the feel and energy of their Nintendo series.
Hyrule Field Theme - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
While the original Legend of Zelda as well as A Link to the Past both share an overworld theme that sets a light-hearted, adventurous, and momentum-driving tone while exploring their respective worlds, I feel like the Hyrule Field theme from Ocarina of Time is probably the series' strongest track for setting the tone of what a Zelda overworld design is all about.
The track starts with a beautiful twinkling gentle section, reminiscent of birds chirping at sunrise. It’s optimistic and inviting; come and see this big huge expanse of the explorable world out in front of you. It's OK, come and have a look around.
From there it transitions into something more reminiscent of the previously mentioned Legend of Zelda and Link to the Past overworld themes, it’s light-hearted and grand, designed to make the player feel like they’re already taking great steps forward on an impressive journey, pushing them forward to make progress without haste. However, what sets this theme apart from those which preceded it is that if you stick around exploring for a couple of minutes, the pieces start to layer on these slightly more discordant chord progressions, layering in more ominous and creepy noises. This is partly done in response to player action, and part to the changing time in the game world, but it layers in a sense of impending mild peril. This overworld you have found your way onto might not be entirely safe, and you’re going to need your wits about you to survive.
As the first Zelda overworld theme to really adapt, mixing optimism, scale building confidence, and impending fear for what you might yet have to overcome, it really captures what the Legend of Zelda game series is often about.
Wild Battle Theme - Pokémon Red / Blue / Yellow
While we've singled out the Wild Battle theme from the original GameBoy trilogy of Pokémon games, we could probably have put any of the specific battle themes from the game on this list, as they all serve the same purpose to varying degrees.
At its core, the Pokémon series is about a young child leaving home to try and capture a huge variety of wild magical monsters, fighting other trainers and their creatures along the way. The game starts off with a very light tone about making friends and collecting encyclopedia data, but the wild battle theme is really the first time the player gets told that imminent danger is coming their way.
For many portable gamers, Pokémon may have been their first experience with an RPG featuring random battles, and due to the nature of collecting monsters from across the map, players not only didn't know when they would encounter a creature but also what they were going to encounter. That's a nerve-wracking experience, and the Wild Battle theme emphasizes that.
It opens with a dramatic, almost alarm-like melody that disrupts the otherwise calm and gentle overworld theme, giving a stark warning that something is approaching, and putting the trainer on guard. Then, once it kicks into the main melody, it keeps a fast melody with strong regular punctuating beats, keeping its speedy tempo forefront in the player's mind. Sure, it's a turn-based battle that's not particularly fast in practice, but the pace of the soundtrack helps to emphasize a sense of consistent action and energetic movement that reminds the player of how this fight might feel if it were happening in real-time. It invokes the energy of how the battles played out in the show and helps fights to feel more dynamic than they were in reality.
The track builds upwards, getting more grand and triumphant sounding as it progresses, helping to reinforce the idea that the fight is escalating over time, and helped make what was essentially text boxes and largely static images feel like fights with world-ending consequences.
The trainer and gym leader battle themes in the game follow much the same structure, simply escalating in scale, but the fact that wild battles catch you off guard with their alarm style introduction helps them to stand out as a track that defined the Pokémon series going forwards.
Overworld Theme - Super Mario Bros.
While Super Mario Galaxy has the most impressive soundtrack out of any Mario game to date, with tracks like "Gusty Gardens Galaxy" setting a grand sense of scale that really feels at home with that game's galaxy-spanning adventure, we can't deny that the original Super Mario Bros. captured the overall feel of the series best with its opening track.
The Overworld Theme from Super Mario Bros. does a couple of things that we would argue capture the feeling of a Mario game better than most tracks in the series. It opens the game up on a track that is light and cartoonish, with a playful vibe and not one ominous-sounding note, to set the context for our platforming hero's role in the world without a word of plot. Sure, he's jumping on creatures and destroying them, but even without knowing he's doing this to save a princess who was captured, the lack of any somber notes tells us Mario is the hero. This isn't meant to be taken as murder and his actions are not to be read as mean-spirited; he's just a nice person off on a quest, specifics be damned.
Beyond that, it has lots of rises and falls in terms of note tone, mimicking the pacing and frequency of Mario's jumps on that opening level. It teaches the player that frequent jumping around is going to be needed, and roughly how long a jump will last, which is really useful information for the player.
This opening track is the epitome of Mario. He's the cartoonish, light-hearted hero whose platformers usually stay away from too much scary content outside of boss fights and caverns. He's the family-friendly kids' cartoon of platformer mascots, and this track helps emphasize that from the series' first moments.
While these are just a handful of tracks that we felt defined their Nintendo series, we would love to hear in the comments if you have any tracks you think sum up what makes their Nintendo series great. If nothing else, it's hard to deny Nintendo sure knows how to use music to set the scene in their games.