Checking the Score: The Champions’ Ballad

Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.

The Legend of Zelda has been known for its expert use of music since the original graced the Famicom and NES back in the mid-eighties. Whether it’s the infamous main theme that strikes fans right in the heart with a nostalgic Biggoron’s Sword or the fabled instruments the player controls like the Ocarina of Time or the Wind Waker, the history of Zelda games is steeped in music. It’s odd, then, that music seemingly plays such a minor role in Breath of the Wild. Link has no instrument to control, and the soundtrack is intentionally sparse and atmospheric – a stark contrast to past games, which often hit their players over the head with opulent themes. Even though this absence has been a sore point for many fans, Nintendo decided to give Breath of the Wild’s second, and most substantial, piece of DLC a slightly more musical focus. Heck, it even addresses music right there in its title: The Champions’ Ballad.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

In this story DLC, after the player overcomes the taxing Divine Beast Tamer’s Trial, Link is tasked with unearthing twelve separate shrines that pertain to the four Champions from the main game: Daruk, Mipha, Revali and Urbosa. Near each of their Divine Beasts, Link encounters the Rito (i.e., the giant bird-person) Kass, a traveling minstrel who plays the accordion across Hyrule, attempting to relearn his teacher’s forgotten songs. For each set of shrines, he plays a song that guides Link to their hidden places, and after Link returns to each Divine Beast to defeat its boss once again (these bosses are essentially identical to the ones fought in the main game), Kass plays another verse of the song that elicits memories of each Champion and their interactions with Zelda. Though these songs swell along with his accordion and carry a certain apocalyptic weight with them, the stories told and the returning bosses fought generally feel like the DLC simply treads old ground.

Oh Kass, you lovable dolt – why do you keep abandoning your children to pursue a music career?

Throughout this journey, musical scores from the main game pop up all over again. The Shrine Battle theme still buzzes with an electronic discord that calls upon images of an ancient computer short circuiting. Music in the Gerudo Desert trudges along to the plucks of stringed instruments, eliciting the feeling of shuffling through sand under the blistering noonday sun. Rito Village’s theme soars along subtle woodwinds married with sweeping string arrangements and a flamenco-like guitar pattern, and the whole piece creates a breezy (but determined) melody that reaches for the sky. Goron City’s music bumbles clumsily with gaudy brass instruments and heavy-handed percussion that both immediately recalls former themes associated with this tribe, and a certain dizzy, childlike joy. The aquatic Zora’s Domain plays a tune lush with crescendos and small bell-like flourishes, and the subtle synth that leads the way feels enticing yet cool to the touch. Even with the DLC’s supposed musical focus, all of these overt themes and ambient music that plays along while traversing across the open world were present in the original game, and there’s very little fresh music to be heard. There’s one song, however, that is not only new to The Champions’ Ballad, it’s one of the best in the series’ storied history – the final boss Monk Maz Koshia’s theme.

The entire song, and the encounter with Maz Koshia itself, plays upon player expectations of what has come before, and molds it into something new – this is what much of the DLC at large accomplished. The song is rooted in the Shrine Battle theme and follows its syncopated synth pseudo-bass line to a “T.” It pulses forward, beginning just as Maz Koshia springs to life: something that none of the other previous 143 Sheikah monks in the game had bothered to do. At first, this bass line is accompanied by a skittering, feverish piano riff – the instrument of choice throughout most of the soundtrack. It’s quickly met by precise and terse synthetic percussion, which propels the piece forward with even more purpose. More wordless technobabble pops up, further cementing its connection to earlier Shrine music, but soon the song picks up the tempo and brings in desperate sounds from throughout the main game. Woodwinds reminiscent of both Kakariko and Rito Village’s themes come into the mix, strings from Zora’s Domain join the party, and quick musical statements from previous boss battle themes jump in and out of the song. String plucking motifs remind the player of Guerdo Town and it isn’t long before the airy precision from Goron City’s music comes along for the ride as well.

The track continues to evolve in phases, introducing staccato woodblock beats and lightly-executed cowbell bits into the fold as Maz Koshia multiplies himself in an effort to confuse the player. A quickly paced four-on-the-floor beat eventually jolts the final stage of the fight forward, where Koshia grows into a giant, indomitable version of himself. Piano riffs like those heard throughout the game come and go, along with all of these other regional flourishes, and the pieces bind together to form a hectic, purposeful and altogether memorable tune for the game’s greatest boss battle. If you want to hear this gem without diegetic gameplay noises cutting into the mix, here’s an unsullied version of Maz Koshia’s theme for your listening leisure.

Bits and pieces from all of these places and more come together to form Maz Koshia’s theme

This interweaving of themes has been done in Breath of the Wild before – Tarrey Town’s evolving musical score comes to mind – but this cranks the dial up to eleven. The game’s score was primarily handled by Manaka Kataoka, who is best known for her work on the Animal Crossing series and her contributions to the delightful soundtrack of Spirit Tracks. She brought an extremely subtle musical touch to the entirety of Breath of the Wild, and though this deft hand isn’t what many fans wanted, it’s exactly what a game like this calls for. Small tunes flit in and out of the game as Link explores every nook and cranny of this desolate Hyrule, but big musical numbers come into play at just the right times. Treasured themes of Zelda past are buried in many of her intricate compositions – the Temple of Time theme plays ever so deliberately (and slowly) at this ruinous location, the main theme can be heard in a disconnected set of notes while Link rides on horseback, and so on. This carries over to The Champions’ Ballad by-and-large untouched, but this DLC acts as a refinement of what Breath of the Wild accomplished, and its music mimics this sentiment. What is heard in The Champions’ Ballad is familiar yet adventurous, expected yet satisfying – but when its last musical hurrah kicks in in the form of Maz Koshia’s theme, oh boy: we hadn’t heard anything quite like that, even in older Zelda games.

Koji Kondo, the famed composer responsible for most previous Legend of Zelda soundtracks, sat this game out. His flare for theatrical, over-the-top songs helped push the music in those games to their limits, using a maximalist mindset to make some of the most iconic tracks in the industry. That simply wouldn’t have worked with Breath of the Wild or its DLC. Manaka Kataoka, with the help of composer Yasuaki Iwata, decided the best way to compose for a game as subtle as Breath of the Wild was to dive into minimalism wholeheartedly. The light piano flourishes present throughout the game pluck at hidden emotions with a curious and playful attitude, changing deliberately from day to night. When boss battles and town themes come in, however, a more solidified track takes its place. These two proved they could play at Kondo’s game of grand and bombastic tunes once they tackled Moz Koshia’s theme, and showed they know when and where to play their cards. It will be interesting to see how Nintendo handles music and sound going into the next Zelda game, which long-time producer Eiji Anouma claims will continue Breath of the Wild’s focus on freedom and exploration. It’s likely to keep a similarly light touch, as its soundtrack and sound design have both been nominated for awards across the industry, but it would be nice to see Kataoka and Iwata try to incorporate more grand music in there from time to time. The future for the Zelda franchise is bright and its music will continue to evolve alongside it.

To dive even deeper into the wonderful world of video game OSTs, be sure to read our complete Checking the Score series.