Music is integral to the fabric that makes up the grand tapestry that is The Legend of Zelda franchise. Many of the games use music as a mechanic, oftentimes requiring certain songs to be played at certain times. As such, legendary composer Koji Kondo has created some of the absolute best soundtracks in all of gaming. With all this in mind, as a huge fan of the series, I challenged myself with the question of what the 10 best songs in the whole series are. It hasn’t been an easy list to make, especially since certain entries could very easily have their own 10 songs on this list, but the following songs are, to me, the best music the series has to offer for a variety of reasons.
10. Minish Woods (The Minish Cap)
The series is no stranger to forest settings, and this isn’t the last forest-themed song we will be seeing on this list. Oftentimes, grassy areas are among the first challenges players come across in a Zelda adventure, and in The Minish Cap, players are treated to a tune that perfectly encapsulates the feeling of being a kid exploring a nature-ridden place. It’s mysterious and catchy as all hell, and to me it stands out for just how perfectly it puts the player in Link’s shoes. You head to the Minish Woods shortly after gaining the power to shrink down to the size of a pinhead, and Link has to make use of this ability to get through the area. It reflects the joyous but mystifying feeling he has when given this power.
9. Title Screen (The Legend of Zelda)
It’s tough to put yourself in the shoes of someone back in 1986 popping the original game into an NES for the first time, but this does an adequate job of transporting anyone who hears it back to that time period. Video gaming was in its infancy, and developers were throwing everything they had at the wall in hopes that it would stick. This resulted in the original Legend of Zelda, a game Shigeru Miyamoto created as a way to give players the experiences he had as a kid exploring caves in Japan. And this title song, an easygoing, slowed-down version of the theme song that is nearly as iconic as world 1-1 from Super Mario Bros, assured players that this game was the real deal. That it would transport them to another land and allow them to get lost searching for secrets and rescuing a princess. This song set a high bar for the rest of the music in the series.
8. Village of the Blue Maiden (Four Swords Adventures)
As I’ve touched on before, Four Swords Adventures is an often overlooked entry in the series since it is level-based instead of being one interconnected world. People who decline to play it are seriously missing out, and a big reason for that is the soundtrack. This track comes in the game’s strangest level, where you must investigate disappearances around town by navigating between the light and dark worlds. It is odd without being scary, adventurous while being somewhat foreboding, and it’s an unforgettable, more subdued song from one of the series’s hidden gems.
7. The Dark World (A Link to the Past)
A Link to the Past is a classic to pretty much anyone who plays it, and that’s because, like many SNES sequels, it took the foundation laid out by the previous NES installments and made everything better, more refined, and memorable. This track comes after the game’s first third, where the player is falsely led to believe they’re near the end of the game after completing the game’s first three dungeons. The player confronts Agahnim and is transported to the Dark World, a dark reflection of Hyrule populated with tough monsters and eight dungeons to conquer. The song perfectly encapsulates that feeling of having the rug pulled out from under you. It almost has the feeling of a military march, with a heavy emphasis on percussion, and also uses strings to create a feeling of being brought to an entirely new place that you’re unfamiliar with. Like most of the songs on this list, there are plenty of fantastic remixes of the song done by both fans and Nintendo, but the original remains a catchy, unique, and engrossing song.
6. Tarm Ruins (Oracle of Seasons)
Oracle of Seasons isn’t likely to be anyone’s favorite game in the series, but it’s a rock solid, well-designed adventure that complements its simultaneously released sister game, Oracle of Ages. Its story is simple and gameplay fairly straightforward, with the cool twist of being able to control the seasons to affect the geography in various areas. Of course the soundtrack as a whole is rock solid, but Tarm Ruins stands out because it is so thoroughly unlike anything else in the game, and arguably the series. It’s catchy as all hell, and… not creepy, but it hints at a great mystery of some sort. It feels hypnotic in the way that many scenes in Twin Peaks: The Return do. It gives you a unique feeling of being lost in a strange area with nothing to guide you but your wits and courage. The accompanying gameplay is pretty standard fare, but the area of Tarm Ruins has always been memorable for me due to this insanely good 8-bit tune.
5. Tal Tal Heights 8-bit version (Link’s Awakening)
Link’s Awakening is in many ways perfectly representative of what makes the series so beloved, and also unlike anything else therein. It uses the classic Zelda formula to deliver a strange adventure that takes place inside the dream of a giant sky whale. As such, players recognize many elements like the dungeons, heart pieces, and items you obtain to help progression. The reason I chose Tal Tal Heights over Ballad of the Wind Fish is that, to me, it perfectly summarizes the game as a whole. It sounds similar to other Zelda songs, but is undeniably its own thing, with a sense of urgency not present in other areas of the game, which is fitting since Tal Tal Heights is where you confront the final boss and reawaken the Wind Fish. It shows how the game is unmistakably Zelda, but still different from the other games.
The remake’s version is solid as well, but I think the classic 8-bit version is more confident. I found much of the music in the remake to be understated, and while Tal Tal Heights does stand out in the game, it lacks the boldness and real sense of pace the original has.
4. Midna’s Lament (Twilight Princess)
Many people love Twilight Princess, and while I’m certainly a fan of it, it’s not my favorite in the series (in a ranking of the games, I’d place it somewhere in the middle). To me, one of the weaker parts of the game is the soundtrack. Whereas other games have song after song that gets stuck in your head, I struggle to recall too many from Twilight Princess. That being said, this song is a highlight, coming at a low point in the story where Midna, Link’s sidekick in the game and one of the series’s most well-executed characters, has been mortally wounded by Zant. Link, meanwhile, has been permanently turned into a wolf. Things don’t look great. You must rush to Hyrule Castle to seek Zelda’s aid in healing Midna. It’s a haunting song that makes amazing use of the piano, an instrument that isn’t as prevalent in the series as one might think. It puts players in the mindset that things are capital B Bad, and they desperately need to do something about it if the story is to have a happy ending. Like the following tunes on this list, it uses music to tell its story in an extremely effective way.
If I wasn’t limiting myself to one song per game, this list could have very easily been made up of songs entirely from the beloved Nintendo 64 entry. But to keep things interesting, I can only choose one, and although Forest Temple isn’t necessarily my favorite song from the game (that would probably be Gerudo Valley), I think it is so unexpected that it stands as the best track. The Forest Temple is the first dungeon players reach once Link becomes an adult and sees how Hyrule has fallen since Ganondorf took over during Link’s seven-year slumber. One might expect a mysterious, upbeat song like Minish Woods since the dungeon is forest themed. Instead, what players are treated to is something supremely unsettling and creepy. It feels like it would belong in a Silent Hill game, with its use of a flute and what can only be described as gasps cut short creating an atmosphere that manages to intrigue while it makes the player’s skin crawl. It’s a big part of why I consider the Forest Temple to be one of the best stealth horror levels in any video game.
But it is also a thematic reflection of Link being thrown into adulthood. When you’re a kid, you have no concept of growing old. It mostly just…happens. One day you’re in high school, the next you’re working a job that you hate in the middle of a pandemic. For many, becoming an adult is a sharp change, and it can be a very scary thing. The Forest Temple perfectly demonstrates this since it is just so out-of-nowhere disturbing. In a game filled with amazing songs, it stands out for being entirely unique and unexpected.
2. The various renditions of Clock Town (Majora’s Mask)
I never shut up about how much I love Majora’s Mask. To me, it is video game storytelling at its absolute best. Using the unique premise of repeating the same three days over and over again until you can stop the moon from falling, it uses its grounded-fantasy setting to explore some really dark themes like human mortality and making the most of your time on this planet. Its central hub, Clock Town, is a small but shockingly dense area, packed with interesting characters and sidequests for you to take on. The main song that plays there is already catchy enough, but it’s the way that it changes over the course of three days that makes it stand so tall.
The first day, it’s fairly relaxed, with an easy going beat. People in town are going about their lives as usual, mostly oblivious to the moon that’s creeping ever closer. The second day, it’s a little faster, but still relatively easy going. Speaking with the townsfolk might reveal some of them to be uneasy about the moon, but they’re still mostly doing their thing. The third day, the moon looms large over the town. The song speeds up significantly, with an underlying bass line giving it an eerie and uncomfortable sense of unease. What was once a familiar and fairly easygoing song has turned into something frantic and desperate, and the townsfolk reflect this. People consider leaving town, others want to stay as a form of defiance, and then during the final hours, the song becomes something else entirely, an eerie tune that feels like you’re staring down eternity.
Point is, this is the way the game gets the player in the mindset of its cast. The music has this subliminal effect on them that makes them feel the effects of the moon getting closer and closer to Clock Town, and it drives them toward finding a solution. It is storytelling entirely through sound, and it’s absolutely brilliant. I can’t think of many other games that manage to make its music this important to the story. Except for, of course…
1. Main Theme (The Wind Waker)
To me, The Wind Waker is the best rendition of the classic Zelda formula, throwing the player into a vast overworld with plenty to see and do, and it has a unique twist on the age-old story. See, Ganondorf in the game yearns to bring Hyrule back up from under the ocean. He wants to have things the way they used to be, not the way they are. It makes him far more sympathetic than he has ever been, and it gives the formulaic story an extra wrinkle. It’s not just about saving the world. It’s about connecting with people, learning from the mistakes and events of the past, and moving on from it to form a new future. It’s a compelling narrative, and this song is used brilliantly to convey that theme through song.
The first time you hear it is immediately upon booting up the game. It plays right on the title screen, and it’s a fantastic introduction, sounding almost Celtic with an upbeat and catchy tone. It lets the player know that they are in for an unforgettable adventure, and sets the tone for sailing the seas.
The other time in the game you hear this song is during the end credits. Ganondorf is defeated. Peace has returned to the Great Sea. Link has saved his sister and princess Zelda, giving the world a chance to grow into its own thing instead of according to the whims of Ganondorf. Link bids farewell to the people on his home of Outset Island in order to explore uncharted lands with Zelda and her crew. As Link sails away, his sister runs to the end of the dock and yearns to call out. Instead, she simply waves goodbye to him. She doesn’t cry, but the expressive art style makes it clear that her eyes are watering. It’s because she understands that Link and Zelda are the foundation the future will be built upon.
It’s an entirely bittersweet ending to a magnificent game, and during the credits the title theme plays. Suddenly, it’s not a song that ushers in feelings of adventure. It becomes this wonderfully melancholy song that makes the player reflect on the journey they just ended. It makes them think about all the people they helped along the way, and how Link cannot stay there any longer. It’s upbeat, because people forming their own path and leading their own lives is something to be celebrated, but it’s also sad because, like in the real world, Link has left the only life he has ever known for uncharted waters, leaving all those he cares about behind. It drives home the coming-of-age themes the game touches on beautifully, and stands tall as the best song in the franchise because of how wonderful it is and how it reinforces its game’s themes.
There we have it folks. The Zelda franchise has no shortage of absolutely amazing songs to listen to, and I’d love to hear your own picks. Like the series as a whole, everyone has their own favorites for different reasons, and I think that’s a very special thing.