Sunday, July 12, I was fortunate enough to attend Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions in San Jose, California, after months of waiting patiently in anticipation. I’ve been to The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses three times (and will be attending the Master Quest performance in San Francisco this August), so this wasn’t my first rodeo as far as video game symphonies go, but I was eager to find out how the music of the Pokémon series– experienced almost entirely on Nintendo handhelds– would transfer to symphonic sounds. The Legend of Zelda has featured orchestrated music in its more recent titles, and the soundtracks for most Zelda games would easily rival most cinematic music produced today, making it easy to see how the franchise could earn an entire symphonic production dedicated to its music. With Pokémon, on the other hand, most people– fans of the series or not– may find more difficult to imagine being produced by woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings.
I’m happy to report that Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions proved that even a mostly handheld-centric series can inspire some of the most beautiful symphonic pieces that even some of today’s most blockbuster consoles titles don’t achieve.
The symphony followed the Pokémon series chronologically, singling out some of the most iconic pieces of music from each generation of games. I was personally the most excited to hear music from Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow, as well as from Gold/Silver/Crystal, because those games were at the core of my childhood, along with the Pokémon anime; all personal bias aside, the movements dedicated to the first two generations of games were the most impressive to me, because of how much more of a drastic difference in sound and quality there is between the 8-bit tunes of the original Game Boy titles versus the loud, grandiose translations of those songs into the orchestral masterpieces I heard.
Much like Symphony of the Goddesses, each song within the symphony is accompanied by prerecorded gameplay on a large screen above the stage of each game the song was originally featured in, which made for some great reactions from the crowd to the action on the screen that was perfectly timed and coordinated with the music coming from the orchestra. As the strains of the first song of the night, the Pallet Town theme, opened up the symphony, footage of Red walking around his room played on the screen, but as he went downstairs, someone on the floor below the balcony where I was seated yelled, “WAIT, what are you doing, check the PC! There’s a free potion!” eliciting loud laughter from the audience. The only outburst of the night perfectly encapsulated the passion and the deeply sentimental attachment so many Pokémon fans have to the games, whether they started playing in 1996 or in 2014. As the Pallet Town theme played on, the crowd cheered for their favorite starter as Red was shown choosing between Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur in Professor Oak’s lab, ultimately deciding on Charmander (my personal favorite starter of all-time), which caused a big cheer from the audience.
The most impressive piece of the night came from Gen 1: a powerful rendition of Team Rocket’s Hideout and Silph Co., which sounded like it belonged in an action film. The recording included here really doesn’t do it enough justice– I can’t quite describe how satisfying it was hearing the tension of infiltrating Team Rocket’s hideout transformed into such a massive, loud, sophisticated masterpiece.
I highly suggest watching this video, which is an audio recording of the first movement of the symphony, dedicated to Gen 1; while admittedly not the best recording (the previous two videos I’ve linked to are of better quality), you can hear how pumped up the crowd was watching the footage of battles between Red and Giovanni, Red and the gym leaders, and the final fight with the Elite Four. I would argue this movement was the most powerful and nostalgic of the night simply because some of the most iconic music of the Pokémon series (as well as some of the most iconic Pokémon themselves) come from Gen 1, and there was a lot of history in this first part of the show.
Gen 2 is, fittingly, my second-favorite series of Pokémon games, and the musical focus of this second movement was on Ecruteak City and the Burned Towers, and completed with the epic battle with Red atop Mt. Silver. The songs in this movement were particularly elegant, punctuated with sounds from traditional Japanese music, which is especially strong in the theme of the Burned Towers. I felt like Gold/Silver/Crystal could’ve had more time dedicated to them, and was left wanting more music from the trilogy of games that introduced Pokémon into the modern era of colored-screen handheld gaming. Gen 3 (Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald) was an absolutely beautiful movement and really impressed me; it was perhaps a turning point musically, in both the series of games and the symphony, because the Game Boy Advance allowed for a greater range of sounds than the Game Boy and Game Boy Color, and it was reflected in the sweeping beauty that came from this movement.
Admittedly, as I grew up with Pokémon and watched the series transform, I grew unhappy with how outlandish some of the Pokémon started looking, and how futuristic the overall appearance of the regions and trainers became, which I felt was straying too far from the game’s original concept of being based partly in reality and fusing real-world animals with the fantastical aspects of Pokémon. While I enjoyed the music from Gens 4 (Diamond/Pearl/Platinum) and 5 (Black/White) and would highly recommend looking up more videos of these performances so you can experience them for yourself, I recognized most but not all of the music. This wasn’t unpleasant for me, and it actually gave me a greater appreciation for the later gens, which I played but didn’t finish. However, Pokémon X and Y rekindled an interest in the series for me, and one of my favorite pieces of the night came from this movement– the Kalos Gym Leaders’ theme came out of nowhere toward the latter half of the Gen 6 music, beginning with an incredible pumping beat, which was overlaid with a synthesized piece and combined with the music of the orchestra, successfully recreating the digital music of the 3DS games in a hybrid electronic/symphonic tune. You can hear this particular piece at 09:18 of the video below (but listen to the whole movement!), though you won’t be feeling the strength of the beat in your chest and the bottom of your seat like I did in the theater!
Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions was a particularly emotional show, not only due to seeing your childhood replayed (quite literally) in front of your eyes, along with all of the memories attached to each game, but just hours before the show started, the news of the passing of Satoru Iwata had dropped like a bomb and I wondered if it would be mentioned at some point during the evening. The show’s encore was introduced tearfully by producer Jeron Moore, as he dedicated the performance of the finale of Pokémon X and Y to Mr. Iwata. I was moved to tears more than once during the symphony, reflecting on how huge a part of my life Pokémon has been, and remembering struggling to beat Brock and Misty with a Charmander, watching my Eevee evolve into Umbreon one night in Goldenrod City, elementary school days of secretly trading Pokémon cards during recess, and high school lunches spent playing LeafGreen on my Game Boy Micro. The show concluded with an audience sing along of the Pokémon anime theme song, and it was just awesome hearing everyone in the crowd unabashedly joining in and singing the lyrics of a theme many of us heard every single day after school and committed to memory. I heard a recording of this performance from another city that was done with a guest vocalist, who also performed the X and Y finale, and while I can appreciate the beauty of her voice, she drowned out the orchestra a bit. I’m glad that the crowd was free to work together to stay on tempo with no vocalist at the San Jose show.
If you have the opportunity to attend, drop all prior engagements and go. Really. If you have someone in your life who shares the same fond memories of Pokémon– i.e., your best friend in a world you must defend– or who would appreciate the incredible performance of some of the most beloved video game music of any franchise, bring them with you. I know I would love to be able to see this show again! It really doesn’t matter if you’ve played every game in the Pokémon series or if you’ve only played a few, Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions truly bridged the gap between the now multiple generations of Pokémon fans and created a gorgeous symphonic evolution of sound. A write-up does no justice to how beautiful every single piece was in this show. Oh, and make sure you bring your 3DS, because this was a jackpot for StreetPasses!