I don’t go to a lot of music shows, but being a child of the 90s, this one was a bit special. Debuting at the Pokemon World Championships in Washington DC in 2014, Symphonic Evolutions is in the middle of a nationwide tour of the US (and then some), and it’s amazing. As an (allegedly) full-grown adult, I admit to going three times in three different cities. The show features music from all six generations of Pokemon games (plus a couple surprises at the end), with full orchestras synced to visuals from the games. Featured is a wide variety of tones and moods, from heart-pounding battle themes to calming credits music to roads paved with adventure to jaw-dropping story moments.
Each generation’s movement gets three to four pieces, each of which can be a single track from the game or a medley with a common theme. Most movements feature a common theme as well, with Gen 2 being all about the legends and notable locations of the Johto region, Gen 5 following the core story with N and Team Plasma from start to finish, and so on. There’s a total of twenty-three pieces, counting the overture, intermission, and encore, so instead of doing a Top Ten I’m doing a Top Seven (about a third of the show). For folks yet to go to the show and wondering what to expect, here’s my personal list of the best of Pokemon: Symphonic Evolutions.
7. The Lake Guardians (Gen 4)
This wins the award for Biggest Surprise of the Show for me. I’m not a huge fan of the music in Sinnoh, but I think the battle music for the Lake Spirits is fairly solid. This piece was par for the course at Symphonic Evolutions, as the theme of the night seemed to be “take the thing and give it more oomph.” But this was not one of the pieces I expected to get oomphed. With a tense tone and fast but light percussion, this made Uxie, Mesprit, and Azelf seem a lot more menacing than they actually are. And I love it.
6. The Day I Became King (Gen 5: Coronation Day, Black/White Opening, Unova Pokemon League, Route 10)
Pretty much the entire Gen 5 movement is just N-feels: The Musical, and this was one hell of a way to kick it off. If you’ve played Pokemon Black and White versions, you may remember how Coronation Day was a fairly ominous and somber piece. Now it’s been upgraded to full-on “brace yourselves, we’re just getting started.” When I first heard the title, I thought it was just going to be an extended version of Coronation Day (N being the aforementioned king and all that) but the inclusion of the Pokemon League theme and Route 10 seemed to be intertwining the idea of “becoming king” with the player becoming the Champion. At first I thought this was a bit of an odd combination of songs to be throwing together for the same piece, but they really make it work. Also, the Black/White opening is a perfect adaptation of what was already a great title theme.
5. Professor Sycamore (Gen 6)
I’ll admit I’m a bit biased on this one because Professor Sycamore is one of my favorite characters in all of Pokemon, but this really is a fantastic bit of music. Sycamore’s theme in the games is delightfully character-fitting: relaxed, smooth, and very French. But running with the trend of “add more oomph,” this piece amps it up to something almost Pirates of the Carribean-esque. Complete with castanets, this nautical-themed reimagining turns the good professor into an adventurer on the high seas, complete with one of my favorite mid-song key changes in a long time. If you’ve ever wanted to know what Sycamore would sound like as a swashbuckler, look no further.
4. Routes of Sinnoh (Gen 4: Routes 201, 206, and 209)
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Diamond and Pearl Soundtrack. Yeah, I say I don’t like the Sinnoh music that much and then I go and put two Gen 4 pieces on this list. That’s the magic of symphony, I guess. Something that I’ve come to notice about the route music in most Pokemon games is how it grows and changes along with you. The first couple routes are always happy and innocent, then evolving into more exciting and adventurous themes later on, before slowing down to something equally triumphant and mournful as you reach Victory Road. Routes of Sinnoh condenses this trend down perfectly, managing to encompass The Journey through the music of the roads you travel. There are actually two pieces on this list that I feel musically encompass Pokemon as a journey in two very different ways…
3. Born to Be a Champion (Gen 1: Trainer Battle, Gym Leader Battle, Champion Battle)
…and this is the other one. If Routes of Sinnoh was a perfect kernel of The Pokemon Journey through its connective tissue, then Born to Be a Champion is The Pokemon Journey as musically told through the meat of the games: the battles. The Gen 1 Trainer Battle theme has been a favorite of mine for well over a decade, and the orchestral version serves it well. I’ll admit I wasn’t that pleased with the Gym Leader Battle music when I first heard it as just a demo clip, but hearing it in context with its lead-in makes it work a lot better. The piece builds to a solid climax with the Champion Battle music, followed by a brief reprise of the Trainer Battle theme, before settling down with a few brief strains of Welcome to the Hall of Fame. And yes, it’s quite a nostalgia-bomb.
2. N-counter (Gen 5: N’s Castle, N’s Battle Theme)
The castle bursting out of the ground at the end of Black and White is still hands-down my favorite plot twist in any Pokemon game, and having an amped-up version of the castle’s interior music synced to that scene is absolutely heart-pounding. If you like the version of this song from the new Super Smash Bros., you’ll probably love this one. N’s Battle Theme is one of the few pieces that adds electronic percussion, but it doesn’t detract from it at all. All in all a fantastic tribute to, in my opinion, the greatest climax in any Pokemon game.
1. “…” (Gen 2: Dragon’s Den, Vs. Champion Lance/Vs. Red)
What would I even call this piece out loud? “Dot Dot Dot?” “Ellipses?” “Red’s Silence?” Either way, I think the folks releasing the demos on YouTube were right to save this for last because if you weren’t already pumped as hell before you heard it, you definitely were after. I listened to the demo on loop more time than I can count, and the piece in its entirety is a thing of absolute beauty and awesome. This is a piece that centers on lead-ins to heavy drops, with a chilling string crescendo at the very beginning and one of the most gloriously heart-pounding buildups I’ve ever heard linking the Dragon’s Den segment to the Vs. Red segment. Gen 2 has a very special place in my heart, and the chance to do a literal “climb a mountain and fight yourself” sidequest against the player character from the first games (I actually thought it was Ash when I was a kid, because he leads with Pikachu) was one of the things that made it so awesome to me. To have that experience come alive again through this music was an absolute thrill.