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SUPERJUMP

Finding Community Through Pokémon Music

A community of kind-hearted posters and cover artists builds camaraderie in the comment section

I didn’t start appreciating the music of Pokémon until 2010. The music had always been in the back of my mind when I’d play — themes like the spooky Lavender Town or the heartfelt Ecruteak City were unforgettable — but the gameplay normally took center stage.

Source: Twitter.

That changed with Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver. Released for the Nintendo DS as part of the fourth generation of the series, it brought players back to the Johto region for full remakes of Pokémon Gold and Silver. The 10-year time-lapse since the original games were released meant they warranted a touch-up.

The DS, compared to the Game Boy on which the originals dropped, was capable of processing 3D graphics, supported wireless communication (for all those trades you’d make), and offered backward compatibility with the Game Boy Advance games by way of the system’s second cartridge slot.

HeartGold and SoulSilver used those features modestly. 3D was limited to a handful of scenes, like when the player encountered the box art legendary Pokemon Ho-Oh or Lugia. The second slot was helpful for transferring monsters caught in the preceding generation and was a welcome addition given how many games were required to fill the Pokédex. Wireless communication was possibly the biggest addition, with the Global Trade Station largely removing the need to be within spitting distance of a friend with a copy of the game.

But maybe most importantly, the games took full advantage of the DS’s upgraded sound capabilities. The music in HeartGold and SoulSilver were entirely rearranged from the originals. In my estimation this was a huge deal — Cerulean City and Fuschia City, for example, could now have their compositions reinstated after being removed from the original games. Every track had varied instrumentation, and, for the first time on a Nintendo handheld, could be played back in stereo right from the built-in speakers.

As slick as the production was, my appreciation came from the inclusion of a key item called the GB Sounds. After collecting 16 badges, players could revert the music to a facsimile of the original chiptunes. The melodies would still take advantage of the better DS processing while closely resembling the source music in sound quality. This meant in-game actions wouldn’t interrupt playback as was the case in the original games.

Even though Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen offered remixes of original music, HeartGold and SoulSilver’s takes brought back a wave of nostalgia I hadn’t yet experienced with Pokémon. These rereleases arrived when I was in high school, ten years removed from playing the originals.

Like so many other 17-year-olds, I was brushing up on newfound life responsibilities like driving to sports practice, holding a part-time job, and applying to college. At the same time, I still fancied my childhood amusements. Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver allowed me to relive old experiences through my new lens, and the music was a big part of that.

I haven’t had the same sentiment playing more modern Pokémon rereleases. Sure, I still get giddy at hearing some of the new tunes, but I hardly have the same fondness. These days, I’m most reminded of yesteryear through the internet’s modern musical time machine: YouTube.

The Pokémon franchise recently turned 25. Source: Nintendo.

Shared Experiences

Shuffle through songs from any Pokémon soundtrack on YouTube and you’re bound to run into some heartfelt comments. “I was bullied as a child well into my teens because I play Pokémon. I have no regrets about playing this game,” reads one posted six years ago by R0ckG1r7. “Listening to this brings back so many memories playing this game. I will forever miss my childhood. I wish I could go back to relive that moment when I first picked up my Game Boy and played this game,” wrote user hgshutter on Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire’s Verdanturf Town theme. Another comment by user Some Schmuck is a reminder that, “It’s okay to cry, and it is perfectly okay to have others see you do it.”

Regardless of the point of entry to the series, Pokémon has been targeted towards children for decades. The games often serve as an introduction to role-playing games, which are built on fundamental childhood subjects like simple math and reading.

Unlike so many of YouTube’s comment sections, the comments under Pokémon music uploads usually follow thoughts about the innocence of childhood and personal growth. It’s a refreshing alternative to posts about difficult boss fights or other intrinsic video game moments. As a series, Pokémon has those — meeting and beating Red for the first time in Pokémon Gold and Silver was thrilling — but the focus tends toward shared experiences beyond the game world.

The camaraderie is due in part to the escapism that Pokémon provides. Each game generally creates an idyllic world in which people and Pokémon live harmoniously, free from the hyper-commercialization and political tension of reality. Even when the games touch on darker concepts like death they do so with reverence, dotting the in-game landscape with monuments and shrines to fallen creatures.

Though the games have their share of memorable characters, Pokémon worlds are simplistic, and when viewed in hindsight, appear to resonate with our childhood experiences. You might not remember many details about a funeral when you were eight, but you’ll likely hold onto the feeling of grief that pervaded the room. Or, trips to a local resort might seem silly in retrospect, but the excitement of spending time with family members remains a crucial piece of the memory.

That same thought process surrounds Pokémon. Remember the first time you heard the Verdanturf Town music and thought that despite sounding peaceful, there was a hit of melancholy about it? Or how the nautical rhythm of Vermillion City became the soundscape for frequent visits to see if the S.S. Anne returned to the harbor (it never did)? These shared game experiences root themselves around our own lives, from lunch table conversations about the game to playground rumors about what was possible.

Nostalgia is real

For Jone Ruiz, a guitarist who covers video game music on his YouTube channel, gaming music is driven by nostalgia. “Pokémon music and other video games have the same effect of identifying something — a place, character, or situation. In the case of Pokémon games, people spend many hours in a specific place, and the music is more internalized, which means the nostalgia is more significant.”

Ruiz began playing guitar more than 20 years ago in his native Puerto Rico. He came to the U.S. to study for his master’s degree in guitar performance at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, after which he settled down with his family and began teaching guitar lessons full-time.

His experience with Pokémon games slightly predates the guitar, first playing the series right around the time Pokémon Stadium was released on the Nintendo 64.

“A friend of mine borrowed the game in school, and sadly, I lost the game,” Ruiz remembered. “He was bugging me all year to return the game, but he never knew I lost it. My dad was able to buy the game to return it, but instead of getting it to him, I spent the whole summer playing the game on the N64 with the controller adapter.”

Those experiences helped build Ruiz’s fondness for the series. Though the first video game music cover he posted to YouTube was from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, he’s since expanded to covering other series, including Pokémon.

Pokémon music has its own personality,” said Ruiz, adding that while Zelda’s music tends to focus on characters, Pokémon highlights towns and routes. “Sometimes Pokémon music feels like background music, while in Zelda, some games focus on its melodies. But this Pokemon ‘background’ music often has its complexities, and I love it when making the arrangements. It gives me many liberties when choosing what notes to play.”

As one of the newest forms of media, video games have just recently entered the nostalgia cycle. Some of the longest running series like Mario, Sonic, and The Legend of Zelda are in their relative infancy, the oldest among them not even 40 years old. But the games are quickly becoming a social currency, telling stories of newfound fandoms that walk in step with life changes.

Sometimes those life changes are personal. The same people who grew up playing Super Mario Bros. can introduce a new and improved rerelease to their children. The friends who once battled Pokémon using link cables can now do so wirelessly from around the world.

Other times, players can reflect on once solitary memories in the comfort and relative anonymity of YouTube. The site, particularly with respect to Pokémon soundtracks, is a time capsule that archives the series’ greatest hits set to a backdrop of “remember when?” comments.

Finding camaraderie in internet comment sections is rare. Negative news and hyper-competitiveness tends to bubble to the top no matter which site you visit. But the comments on Pokémon soundtracks maintain an innocence about them as they reach back towards a simpler time.

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Brandon Johnson

Brandon Johnson

Forever hunting for my new favorite music sample. Founder of tripleot.com & abrandbox.com. 🌴🦩