Zelda, past and future: An interview with Koji Kondo and Eiji Aonuma

Since his work as director of the landmark Zelda game Ocarina of Time, Eiji Aonuma has lent his creative talents to every major Zelda title since, and has played a huge role in developing every 3D Zelda game. Koji Kondo is a legend among composers, and has created some of the most iconic game music of all time, including the main Zelda overworld theme and the Mario theme. Together, Aonuma and Kondo are two of the biggest names responsible for making the Zelda series what it is today.

We had the chance to interview both of them on the day of the Zelda 25th anniversary concert in Los Angeles, and discussed the Zelda series' past and future. People sometimes say that you should never meet your heroes, but that’s not the case here – both Aonuma and Kondo could not have been friendlier or more genuine when talking about the series they've devoted a good part of their lives to helping shape.

Above: Eiji Aonuma (left) and Koji Kondo

GamesRadar: When you sat down to compose the Zelda overworld theme, did you ever think that you'd be working on the same series 25 years later?

Koji Kondo: Not at all!

GR: How does it feel to have your music played at an event like the 25th anniversary concert?

KK: I'm very happy and very honored.

GR: How has your experience been composing music for Skyward Sword?

KK: Actually, I only composed one song for the game... (laughs)

GR: Oh, which one?

KK: When you first power the game on and you let it sit, and you see the movie that tells the history and backstory of the game – it's the song that accompanies that.

GR: So how was it working with other composers on a series that you've worked on for so long?

KK: With each new Zelda world that we create, we always try to add new elements to the music that we use to portray those worlds. So with each new game, it's really nice to be able to bring in some of the younger composers and bring new staff to each game to allow them to bring in some of their new ideas and compose in a way that helps create a new feel for each game.

This time around in particular, because we're using a full orchestra on many of the songs, and because we're trying to create a very grand-sounding soundtrack to match the grandness of the sky world in the game, I think it should feel very nice and fresh for people.

GR: Speaking of full orchestra, when you first started, there were so many constraints on what game music could be. Is it easier or harder for you to compose without those limitations now?

KK: I think each method – the more primitive hardware with limitations and the newer hardware with the greater degree of freedom – each method has its own challenges. When we were working with limited notes, the challenge really was what can you add to the music within that limited note structure to make it sound robust and more full, and that was the challenge back then.

Whereas now, when you have this ability to use any instrument, you have to be able to focus on and look for that main pillar and main theme, and how do you then leverage the freedom that you have in a way that will create the music you want without it feeling like it's gone too far. How do you distill down what's available to you in a way to create music that really suits the themes and scenes that you're creating music for.

GR: So are there still principles you keep in mind when composing videogame music compared to other types of music?

KK: I think one of the big differences between movies and games is that with movies, the music is generally always trying to convey an emotion or a feeling of the moment in the movie. With games, you have moments like that, particularly in things like cinema scenes, but a lot of what you're doing with game music is trying to create music for the experience that the player is having. That can include things like the battles, and things like that, and how you bring emotion to those moments, as well as creating the environmental music or background music for the different areas of the game that the player is in. I think that's one of the biggest differences.

GR: Decades later, the Zelda overworld theme and the Mario theme are still two of the most iconic pieces of videogame music of all time. Do you think it's harder now for game music to set itself apart now that it's not always so different from other types of music?

KK: Back in the early days of videogames, we were limited by the number of notes we could use in each song, and we were also limited by memory and how many songs could be included in a single game. So as a result of that, players would hear the same song over and over again, and I think that's perhaps what helped people remember the song, is the frequency that they were hearing it.

Now as the technology has evolved, we're seeing much more freedom with the music. We're able to include more instruments, we're finding more melodies and themes, and of course the arrangements are changing and there are many more songs in each game than there were back in the NES days.

So what we've tried to do as a way to help our music stand out and help people remember it is look at ways to keep the same song but change the arrangement, so even though the song is different you'll still hear the same theme within different songs throughout the game as a way to help people remember it.

Eiji Aonuma: One of the themes in Skyward Sword is that you'll not just explore the world, but you'll explore certain areas of the world multiple times over the course of the game. So because you're going back into these same areas and hearing the same themes from those areas each time you go back, maybe in a slightly different way, it'll help the music kind of sink in and you'll remember it a little better maybe.

Above: Koji Kondo has composed music for both the Mario and Zelda series for over 25 years, from the first Super Mario Bros to Super Mario Galaxy 2

GR: If you had to pick between the Zelda overworld theme and the Mario theme, which is your favorite composition?

KK: I like them both! When I think about composing the songs back then, I think the Zelda song was much more difficult to compose, so taking that into account, maybe that would be my favorite…

…But of course personally, I like jazz music as well as latin music, so on a personal level I think the Mario theme is one that I enjoy more.

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