There are few games I’ve played in my lifetime that have stuck with me and have even influenced me to a degree. The Sonic games were the first I ever played, I learned patience by playing Mario Bros and Baldur’s Gate introduced me to the world of storytelling. As important as those titles are to me, none of them have been played as consistently over a span of twenty years like Pokémon. I’ll never forget booting up my copy of Pokémon Yellow on my purple Game Boy Color and beginning a journey that has lasted a life-time (I still have my 20-year old cards). To date, I’ve played every possible generation of Pokémon. I know I’m not the only one. Pocket Monsters have been a phenomena that have taken over the world and have remained a staple of pop culture since their debut over twenty years ago.
Naturally, as Sword and Shield drew closer to their release date, PokéFans everywhere began speculating about the game’s content. What new changes would be brought to the new region? How familiar would this new generation be on a new console? After spending quite some time with the game, it’s both refreshingly new while still maintaining a familiar presence long-time fans will find comforting. While gameplay is one reason for this familiarity, a lot of it is actually due to the game’s music. From wild Pokémon battle themes to the Gym Leader theme and everything in between, this new generation keeps familiar melodies in place while giving them a modern sound.
We open our story on the sleepy town of Postwick. Just as in all the previous games, our protagonist is gearing up for their very first Pokémon adventure. Postwick’s main theme feels like a mashup of all the previous starting town themes we’ve heard before. It keeps the slow tempo we’ve come to know and love of our home town while referencing familiar melodies to create something new. Postwick’s theme feels reminiscent of New Bark Town and Littleroot’s themes from Gold/Silver and Ruby/Sapphire, respectively. All these town themes have historically been slower tempo with an almost lullaby melody — most likely to represent our awakening as Pokémon trainers and ease us into the game. Postwick feels no different as we scurry around town meeting the new professor and running errands before we begin our journey.
Once we receive our starter Pokémon, we’re off into the wild to catch and train our team as we take those first steps towards becoming a Master. What’s Pokémon without wild battles as we attempt to train? Across all generations, we can still hear the familiar melody and baseline of that very first generation. We can still hear that baseline in Sword and Shield’s Wild Battle Theme, with even a generous helping of Generation 4 (Diamond/Pearl) and 5 (Black/White) thrown in there. It actually makes a lot of sense to hear familiar themes from those previous generations, as composer Junichi Masuda worked on the OST for Generations 2 through 5 and has now made a return for Generation 8. The melody’s composition evokes feelings of optimistic struggle. It’s a melody that goes hard with bass, yet has the light tinkle of synths to represent the ebb and flow of battles. A battle could be going our way one minute, yet turn against us in the next.
Wild Pokémon battles are one thing, but fighting against a Gym Leader is something completely different. With this new generation, we now battle Leaders in a stadium filled to the brim with spectators. Not only is this a completely new setup than we’re used to, but it feels like the stakes are higher because of our surroundings. If that wasn’t enough pressure, the new Gym Leader theme is taken to the next level with contemporary composition that is thoughtful of its setting. Pump up the jams, because a flurry of synths, percussion (the bongos are a great subtle touch) and bass drops await challengers. While the theme is strong enough to stand on its own, it truly shines in the setting of the arena. The crowd chanting for you while the bass drops is enough to give one goosebumps. The composition is enough to give you a taste of what it would be like to actually play in a giant arena for real and shows a genuine attention to detail towards the subject matter. Club Pokémon is open, so bring the glow sticks.
While battling and training to become the best are at the heart of Pokémon games, we’ve also come to expect storytelling from the franchise over time. I truly believe that Sword and Shield have some of the best story ever experienced in the franchise. As we know, Legendary Pokémon and the legends surrounding them are usually major storytelling pillars in the franchise. As we set off on our travels, we learn the lore of the Galar region and how its legends are honored. As we listen to the story told of the Legendary Hero who defeated an evil with only a Sword and a Shield, the music that plays in the background adds incredible depth to the lore. This Legends Theme is slow in tempo, yet commands respect with its melody. By utilizing the melodic structure of the Sumblering Weald Theme — the area where we first encounter our chosen Legendary Pokémon–it makes a connection to that legendary encounter to tie everything together. Additionally, the harpsichord featured as the main instrument adds additional depth to the lore as a reference to the Galar region’s real world inspirations — the UK and Northern Europe. It’s a beautifully-constructed orchestral piece that fuses symphony with synth in a way we’ve not seen before for the Pokémon games.
Whether you’ve been a fan of Pokémon for twenty years or you’re just now beginning your journey, Pokémon Sword and Shield carry the history of previous generations with them in a way we can hear and feel. This new soundtrack is familiar without being a copy and paste of the games that came before it. Instead, the composition utilizes old themes as a springboard into a new generation. This new soundtrack pays homage to the games that came before it as a way of honoring the franchise’s history. While utilizing synths as a throwback to the retro feel of previous generations, this new soundtrack thoughtfully composes a musical history of the franchise’s games. With a mixture of beautiful orchestra and synth sounds, we can hear the past mixed with the present. We’ve come a long way, but only time will tell where Pokémon will lead us in the future.