“Who do you support?”
It’s not the kind of question I’m used to hearing from a bouncer. Then again, I don’t often find myself in a grimy football pub on a match day afternoon, a few hundred meters from the stadium. Apparently Manchester United were playing a team that wears blue (Chelsea? Everton?) in what I later discovered was the FA Cup Semi-Final. This was a Big Deal for some, and I’d found myself in exactly the sort of pub you expect these ‘some’ to flood after the match and partake in a good evening of incoherent shouting accompanied by a healthy dose of kicking the shit out of anyone who supports the other team – or, perhaps worse, no team at all.
I wasn’t there for the football, in case you hadn’t guessed. I had no interest in the goings on of Wembley Stadium, and was only fleetingly aware that anything was happening at all (chiefly because I knew the latest Doctor Who companion was set to be revealed at half-time). No, my interests lay across the road, in the slightly-humbler Wembley Arena, where the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were gathering to offer their rendition of the Zelda franchise’s greatest hits as part of a series of concerts entitled ‘The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses’.
My friends and I were meeting in JJ Moon’s beforehand, principally because it was the cheapest looking pub we could find on Google Maps. It reportedly billed itself as a gastropub, by which I presume they meant gastroentiritis. The closest thing to a menu was a black-and-white smartphone photo of one, helpfully printed (two-sided!) on A4 paper. It didn’t even quite take up the full page. An auspicious start, if ever there was one.
We huddled into the corner, averting our eyes from the rutting alpha males staring intently at the assortment of TV screens, then averting them further from the bored wives picking at their fish and chips and sipping warming pints. These were not our people. There were a few clusters of other Zelda fans dotted around, exchanging furtive glances – a Triforce hoodie here, a Master Sword tattoo there. Some sort of age-old tribal instinct had kicked in – or perhaps just vivid flashbacks to teenage angst – and the Nintendo nerds seemed to hide themselves away, presenting as small a target as possible for the football fans necking cheap lager and turning redder by the second.
Sitting and watching other concert-goers skulk away to make the short trek to the venue, we worked through our ‘Classic’ burgers, savouring that unmistakably-microwaved texture as we argued about operating systems and coding languages while around us the crowd’s mood ebbed and flowed with the match. There was an undeniable feeling of relief when we finally shuffled out, awkwardly ducking to avoid blocking anyone’s view of that all-important ball, and began to fall in with our own crowd.
Wembley Arena is one of those identikit mass-market venues built primarily to feature X Factor alumni and Disney On Ice. It’s an odd sort of place to find a full orchestra, but then I suppose this is an odd sort of occasion for an orchestra anyway. I can’t say I’ve been to many philharmonic concerts, but I can’t imagine they usually see the orchestra backed by a stadium-sized screen, or find their crowds dotted with cosplayers in green tunics.
We weren’t cosplaying. I made that very fucking clear to my friends from the outset. I don’t do fancy dress at the best of times, and barely tolerate Halloween. I’ve paid £30 for this fucking ticket, I’m not blowing another 30 on pointy ears and a plastic sword. Lots of other people were though, the innumerable Links interspersed with occasional attempts to get more creative – a fairy here, a Sheik there, and, best of all, an Old Man – y’know, “It’s dangerous to go alone!” and all that shit.
I was struck by how muted the early atmosphere was. The seated crowd had none of the rampant energy of a normal gig nor were they exhibiting the sunny enthusiasm of your average Comic-Con. People were just sitting quietly or politely queuing for merch. Nobody was drinking a beer while they waited, which I’ve always taken as a sure sign of an event just waiting to go wrong.
When things finally kicked off, it was hardly less awkward. As the orchestra tuned up, the conductor awkwardly bowed to a smattering of applause before he led them into a rendition of the franchise’s main theme, accompanied by a medley of footage from across Zelda history. An American producer took to the stage to let us all know how excited he was to be there, before ceding to the stage to a short, intensely awkward pre-recorded video from Shigeru Miyamoto. Series producer Eiji Aonuma and composer Koji Kondo would later appear in similarly staged green-screen clips, their mannered Japanese given stuttering translations as they mumbled something or other about the power of music.
Each performance was accompanied by footage, usually from a single game at a time. The ‘Gerudo Valley’ theme was paired with Ocarina footage, for example. Often we were given a selection of themes from a single game, with similarly diverse footage from each. Some were carefully crafted to mine maximum nostalgia, others to sell games – was anyone really thrilled for five minutes of Tri Force Heroes footage beyond the game’s marketers?
On paper, all of this should have been awful. And yet. And yet… there’s just something to that Zelda magic, some irrepressible sense of wonder that taps deep into my bitter, wretched, cynical heart. I flash back to taking turns defeating Ganon in Ocarina with my then-best friend, aged 8. To those first moments exploring the vast oceans of Wind Waker or the cinematic vistas of Twilight Princess. To my Master’s degree, skipping library days and delaying my thesis to swoop through Skyward Sword, losing hours at a time while my then-girlfriend watched on, bemused and tolerant.
I can chart the eras of my life by Zelda games, associating each with some differing cocktail of teenage angst or childish enthusiasm. The choral refrains of the ‘Song of Time’ still have the power to make my jaw drop, while even in a heaving hall of sweaty strangers, Skyward Sword’s ‘Ballad of the Goddess’ leaves my eyes welling up. There’s a power to this stuff, entirely disconnected from the basic quality of the music (excellent as it is). It plays on some sort of primal power of association, tapping directly into those sappy, sentimental parts of my brain I normally keep safely out of the public eye. I’m powerless before it, unable to resist its charms, utterly, unfailingly un-objective on the matter.
Making our way to the Tube station afterwards, handfuls of lingering football fans offered plaintive chants, seemingly unaware that this was not their crowd, that they no longer held the majority. My first instinct was derisive, but I stopped myself. Whatever tribal, us-vs-them part of our lizard brains these team sports tap into, my night had been no more rational, no more sophisticated. I couldn’t tell you how the orchestra played. I couldn’t comment on the conductor, or even the compositions. It was Zelda. They had me from the start, and I never had any say in the matter.