It is no small feat to build a cohesive musical framework for a long-running series, especially when there is no guarantee from the outset that any given series will live a long life. By now, of course, it’s obvious that Pokémon isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The 7th-gen flagship title, Pokémon Sun & Moon, demonstrated the series’ staying power even when critics found its predecessor X & Y and successor Sword & Shield lacking in certain key areas.
And yet, even when certain games in the series lack quality story, combat, or mechanics, I have found that the Pokémon franchise always stands strong in its music. As I stated at the outset, maintaining cohesion is no small feat. It is an even greater feat, however, to maintain a balance between tradition and evolution. In Nintendo 3DS Pokémon Sun & Moon Super Music Complete, a mammoth four-disc soundtrack, we witness that balance in action. And as much as I have adored the music of other recent Pokémon titles, I am convinced that Pokémon Sun & Moon balance tradition and evolution in their music better than all prior entries in the series.
Gamers familiar with Pokémon will remember that each place takes place in a fictional “region” loosely based on the geography, culture, and history of a real-world location. In the case of Pokémon Sun & Moon, the game’s region “Alola” is based on Hawaii. For the Game Freak Sound Team, this would translate to the exciting and challenging task of bringing together traditional instrumentation from the region, modern concepts of the tropical-island musical genre, aspects of modern American culture, and the familiar melodic and electronic soundscape of Pokémon into a single space. That, my friends, is a tall order.
However, they did it. Jun’ichi Masuda, Go Ichinose, and the rest of the team brought together a full, dare I say epic, soundtrack. The triumphant sound of the Pokémon main theme arrives with full force in the opening “Title Screen” music, and the new “Alola Region Theme” pairs nicely with it. Both have a high-quality synth orchestra, as well as fantastic choir vocals led by the venerable Lisa Ooki (aka “Risa Ohki,” who made the ’90s FF vocal collections Pray and Love Will Grow so wonderful). After establishing such a strong introduction, the game (and soundtrack) ease into a more ambient island sound. The day and night versions of “Iki Town” (tracks 9 and 10 of disc 1, respectively) feature studio-recorded guitar and ukulele work. The difference is noticeable, even though the synths are so high quality that they can sometimes fool the listener into thinking it’s all recorded work.
Thanks to the game’s plot with the Aether Foundation and Ultra Wormholes, the team had room to expand to other exciting soundscapes as well. For example, the exploration theme “Infiltration” (disc 3 track 21) brings together distorted guitar and other rock aspects with a fast-paced string ensemble worthy of being compared to some of the better instrumental tracks in NieR: Automata. This brilliant string work pairs with more crystalline, ethereal synths in the character theme “Lusamine” (disc 3 track 6), giving the player and listener a taste of what machinations may await as they come to understand this particular character better.
Then there are the more interesting tracks, those that are something of an acquired taste. If you’ve played the game, you can guess that I’m talking about Team Skull and Guzma. In “Team Skull Appears!” (disc 2 track 2), the b-boy vibe, complete with spoken word samples, is something I’d expect more from Persona or Danganronpa. The first time I heard this track in Sun & Moon, it felt jarring. Over time, I’ve quite come to enjoy it!
My favorite pieces to listen to, however, are not the tense battle themes. As with many other Pokémon soundtracks, what I find most enjoyable about Sun & Moon are the town themes and the exploration themes (routes, etc). I also have a soft spot for all forms of the character Lillie’s theme (“Lively Lillie,” “Lonely Lillie”). If I had to choose top entries from the town and exploration music, which I find difficult to do, I might select “Mahalo Trail” and “Malie City.” But honestly, they’re all good. Quite good. There is a constant balancing and rebalancing between so many forms of music, and it’s impressive to witness.
“Impressive?” Well… maybe even a bit daunting, if I’m being honest. This soundtrack sports over 170 tracks, with roughly one tenth of them being shorter “jingle” melodies. Even these are high quality, though! “Obtained an Item!” (disc 1 track 16) is the typical item jingle, but now on a ukulele! How cute!
Did you see that? That paragraph above this one? Even as I try to make sense of my own words, I find myself pointing back to other aspects of the soundtrack. It is huge, it is overwhelming, and it is extremely high quality. It may not have the big music budget that its counterparts in the realm of Final Fantasy or NieR get, but it makes up for it with solid composition and thoughtful voicing. Nintendo 3DS Pokémon Sun & Moon Super Music Complete deserves to be recognized and remembered, both as a great entry in the series and as one of the best OSTs of 2016. Additionally, those averse to importing a four-disc set from Japan should know that this soundtrack is also available digitally through iTunes and other services.