For over three decades now Nintendo has produced timeless classic after timeless classic; and I’m not just talking about games, I’m talking about MUSIC. Who can forget booting up Punch-Out!! In 1987 and listening to that engaging chiptune boxing theme? How many players got hyped to play Star Fox 64 in 1997 thanks to the triumphant MIDI brass notes that play through the game’s intro? When was there NOT an absolutely stellar (I apologize for no puns) orchestrated track playing at any point of Super Mario Galaxy in 2007? Nintendo was just delivering great music pieces nonstop, and it just seemed to be getting more and more impressive.

And then 2017 came. We got two absolutely massive titles. First was Breath of the Wild, the most groundbreaking Zelda game since Ocarina of Time. It could be seen as the most grandiose Zelda in a lot of ways, most noticeably its scope. Yet despite the large size of the adventure, rather than composing proper music to accompany the journey, we get “ambience” instead. Apparently, the sudden crescendo that used to signify Link’s arrival at Hyrule Field isn’t immersive enough anymore. No, the player will be much more enraptured by being able to hear sounds like Link’s footsteps and birds chirping a little better by getting rid of the music.

What a HORRIBLE decision! Music should absolutely be playing throughout most, if not all, of the adventure. It helps set the tone and atmosphere of the area the player is in. The most you can expect to hear while exploring the fields of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild are a few minimalist piano notes here and there; minimalist, of course, referring to the minimal amount of effort put into composing these “pieces”. I was given some hope by the phenomenal tracks that played over the first and final trailers for the game, though those hopes were soon dashed, and it turns out that the final trailer music never even made it in. That isn’t to say that Breath of the Wild doesn’t have any proper tracks; it has some passable town themes and a couple standout boss tracks, but the vast majority of your playtime will be devoid of these, rendering most of the good tracks in the game fairly unmemorable due to the lack of exposure they’re given. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Hyrule Castle, arguably the highlight of the entire game, is also the one overworld that actually has a robust theme playing in the background. Hearing the glorious rearrangement of the franchise’s main theme interspersed in the piece really drove home how much the music feels missing from the rest of the overworld.

“…minimalist, of course, referring to the minimal amount of effort put into composing these “pieces”.

In the same year we got Super Mario Odyssey, the most hyped Mario since Super Mario 64, and the first ambitious 3D Mario game since the Galaxies(don’t even get me started on 3DBland and 3DBored), so I was looking forward to the soundtrack. Galaxy and Galaxy 2 collectively have what is, in my view, the greatest OST of all time. And that’s in any form of media, not strictly video games. Both trailers managed to impress with their music, so I was optimistic. I wasn’t expecting a soundtrack that focused on orchestral music like the Galaxies, but that’s fine; I can get behind a jazzier soundtrack, I just want prominent music pieces with real effort and passion put into them to draw me in.

Well, similar to Breath of the Wild, the trailer music turned out to not be indicative of the OST’s quality as a whole. Jump Up, Superstar and the Cascade Kingdom themes are the only two truly great pieces in the game. Outside of those tracks the music in Odyssey ranges from mediocre to simply decent, and even to NONEXISTENT! Because once again, Nintendo decided to step away from a more robust soundtrack in favor of “ambience”. There are WAY too many points in the game where there’s nothing but silence. This is Mario, people. Where’s the catchy music that gets stuck in your head for days? Music is completely absent in large portions of areas such as the Sand Kingdom and Wooded Kingdom. And for what? They don’t even have Breath of the Wild’s excuse of trying to listen for wildlife to catch; there’s really no good reason. Granted the music isn’t as absent as in Breath of the Wild, but it’s still a notable step in that direction.

Now, I don’t personally believe that these monster titles, each with so much effort clearly put into it, wound up with lackluster soundtracks due to laziness. I do believe that they’re just experimenting with how to approach music in their games. But it does come across as lazy when compared to the music we’ve gotten in the past, and I hope Nintendo realizes this experiment is botched.

Nintendo, you really need to put some heart and soul into the soundtracks for your games again. Not just one or two pieces to bludgeon us over the head with like Jump Up Superstar; an entire OST of quality pieces. Music can add so much life to a game. Good theme music can make an otherwise bad level good. It can make a good level great. Sacrificing such a key component of a video game in some misguided and failed attempt at immersion is a trend that I hope won’t continue.

  • Xenovent

    I remember the first time I encountered this minimalistic music attitude was from Xenosaga. Xenogears was no stranger to great music, and all of Yasunori Mitsuda’s works were grand. But for this project, according to what I remember, he was the one that thought “less is more” in giving us only music for cutscenes but letting free roam go silent. What we got was music washed out by vocal action and a lot of footsteps. I’ll never understand what they were thinking since most of the music from games I love gets ingrained from when we’re exploring an area, not cutscenes.

    • William

      I wish I could provide an opinion on Xenosaga’s music but I never played it. I will say that having the music washed out by the vocals in that game is kind of amusing when considering that the exact reverse was an issue in Xenoblade Chronicles X.