| Arts & Culture
Video Games How the Pokémon Soundtracks Unlock a Unique Form of Nostalgia
And as we push forward into the new Paldea region in the games Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, the music will continue to capture attention.
I became a Pokémon fanatic at eight years old when my brother took me to GameStop and bought me a copy of 2006’s Pokémon Diamond . It wasn’t my first Pokémon game; we had the original 1998 Red and Blue installments, along with 2000’s Gold and Silver . But those were oldies to me, which I played on tiny Game Boy screens while guided by my brother’s well-meaning but interfering advice.
He resisted my bright-eyed idea of beating the Elite Four and Champion with a team of six Pidgey. There was little room for negotiation on picking a starter Pokémon. You can’t pick Chikorita; she’s weak to the first two gyms , he suggested . You’re better off with Totodile . Maybe so, but the ponytail-shaped leaf on Chikorita’s head intrigued me with all its sassiness. I had to have her on my team!
When we bought Diamond , it felt surreal. This is my Pokémon game , I thought. I am free to do whatever I want .
More than anything, what I wanted to do was listen to the game’s music for hours. I craved lollygagging and dillydallying, which are often unheard of in the adventure-packed and narratively linear Pokémon franchise. And in the dead of night, I brought my Nintendo DS to bed and hid it under the blankets. While my in-game avatar stood at Lake Verity, I laid my head on my pillow and listened to the game’s exquisite lake-theme score . It’s a gorgeous track, as shimmering as the pixelated lake I saw on my screen. If you close your eyes, the music feels expansive, gently rocking you along.
Now, at twenty-four, I’m still an avid fan. When I’m not replaying older games, I’m awaiting new releases, battling competitively in draft leagues with my friends, and becoming increasingly tempted to splurge on a giant Snorlax plush doll . I’m constantly customizing and training the Pokémon I battle with, like my current team of six ’mons that look straight out of a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race .
Photograph courtesy of the author
Photograph courtesy of the author
But at its simplest form, my love for the Pokémon franchise traces back to the in-game soundtracks. Since I picked up Diamond , I’ve played every game and remake, sometimes powering through the story just to get to a specific town or route so I can listen to the music: like Route 113 in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire , which sounds glossier and more synthesized than the original (although both versions have a pensiveness that pairs well with the route’s volcanic ashfall); or Reversal Mountain in Black 2 and White 2 , which has a different score in either game that matches elements of the interior caves. Black 2 ’s is my favorite, a cleansing track featuring a metallic chime and soaring flute that compliment the cool water-filled cave inside the mountain. (That said: Black 2 ’s version of Reversal Mountain’s music actually feels like it could belong in HeartGold and SoulSilver , while White 2 ’s has a lively set of horns that places it firmly in the Unova region games. But I digress.)
I often stream remixes of my favorite tracks while writing, cleaning, or commuting. When the first snow of the season hits the ground, I chill to the soothing music of wintry Snowpoint City from Diamond and remember what a mistake it was to trade my Medicham for resident Mindy’s Haunter only to discover she put an Everstone on it ; if I’m on a tight deadline, the invigorating Elite Four battle track from 2010’s Black and White plays on repeat in my earbuds, pumping my blood and itching my skin. It has this incessant, high-energy beat that matches the stakes of the battles against Unova’s Elite Four trainers Shauntal, Grimsley, Caitlin, and Marshal.
Anyway, I’ve always wondered what all this means. Am I relistening to Pokémon soundtracks as a reminder of playing the games when I was younger? Or am I remembering my in-game experiences of catching Pokémon and battling difficult trainers? Is it some form of nostalgia that comes with experiencing and being shaped by visual and interactive media at a young age?
My experience is, of course, pretty common. Plenty of my peers have similar recollections of playing video games, especially Diamond and its counterpart Pearl , late at night; listening to in-game music; and completing difficult battles against other trainers. It was actually so universal that it sparked many memes about rushing to hide the Nintendo DS when a parent was coming in the room to investigate any noise.
And online, thousands of other fans have casual interactions about particularly memorable musical moments from the Pokémon games. A loop of the Lake Verity theme hits the internet like a fiery comet every few months , leading to waves of nostalgia and Twitter threads of memories. Rousing tracks like Driftveil City’s funky score can be found in remix videos and “hand me the aux” memes, while the simple but eerie Lavender Town music led to a viral creepypasta story that remains urban legend to this day. There are more extreme examples of fan dedication, too, like composer and producer Carlos Eiene’s rearrangement of an entire game’s soundtrack with a full jazz band .
On social media outlets like Twitter, it’s common to share clips of music from the games. Quite a few accounts like @PokemonOST regularly post favorite tracks, largely from the 2002 games Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire , as well as Diamond , Pearl , and their 2009 remake, Platinum . Across the board, these are the game soundtracks that get the most appreciation online. One account, Daily Pokémon Music (@pokejukebox) , posts a bit of a wider variety. The account’s owner, Wes (@maliceguardian) , tells me he made the account to share deeper cuts from the Pokémon franchise.
Am I relistening to Pokémon soundtracks as a reminder of playing the games when I was younger?
“I wanted an account that also puts lesser-known tracks in the spotlight,” he says. Along with the classics, he highlights music from more recent games like 2013’s X and Y and 2016’s Sun and Moon . “It’s very exciting to upload tracks every day,” Wes explains, detailing his process of opening his DMs for his followers, who can then request songs for him to post. “It’s satisfying to upload someone’s request and then see lots of other people engage with it as well.”
That comradery is certainly part of the appeal, as it points to a larger online community of Pokémon fans. But scrolling through replies and quote Tweets speaks to a larger impact. Users who haven’t played Pokémon in years are reminiscing about their childhoods, sharing memories of certain battles. More speak to picking male or female avatars and later customizing options for hairstyles and outfits, something I really enjoyed as I explored my genderqueer and LGBTQ+ identities. (It’s notable that the upcoming games, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet , supposedly won’t lock hairstyle or clothing options behind genders , meaning players can customize however they’d like regardless if they pick the male or female avatar.) And other fans tweet about missing childhood and waking up early of their own volition to play Pokémon without a worry in life.
This raises a host of questions about the connections between relistening to Pokémon soundtracks outside of their respective games and nostalgia, as well as larger cultural phenomena of relistening to visual-media soundtracks. Frank Lehman, an associate professor of music at Tufts University, extensively explores the latter in his work, often questioning the effect music written for visual media has on its listeners.
“One of the early theories of why we have music in visual media is that there needed to be something to stitch the images together and mark the passage of time,” Lehman says, explaining that the music we hear while we watch movies or play video games can increase immersion and give us a sense of temporality and atmosphere.
Throughout our conversation, Lehman and I connect over consuming visual-media soundtracks outside of their contexts, treating them as similar to other instrumental music. “If you know the text that this music comes from,” Lehman notes, “relistening can activate positive feelings that you had from your original experience and allow you to appreciate aspects you hadn’t noticed before.”
This reminds me of a tweet from Daily Pokémon Music, which had a few replies from fans who just noticed new details in a track. To a clip of music from the most recent franchise installment , Pokémon Legends Arceus , someone had written a reply about unexpected “Eurobeats,” noting that they contrast the rest of the game’s palette and timbre. The music accompanies your battle against the Origin form of legendary Pokémon Dialga or Palkia; it’s a thrilling, bouncy track that you wouldn’t mind dancing to at the club. But the person’s comment about how the score stands out from the rest of Legends Arceus ’s sound is important. In the game, during a stressful battle or exciting moment, it may be difficult to hear the complexities of a certain piece of music. Relistening to the song alone, however, can shed light and increase our appreciation for craftsmanship behind the soundtrack.
And that can also lead to greater nostalgia. “Game music can oscillate between low-intensity, everyday music and highly emotional, charged music,” Lehman says, “and if you put that together with repetition, which breeds familiarity and preference, you’ll have strong factors that lead to nostalgia.” That becomes a sort of currency online, where fans of a franchise like Pokémon can exchange memories and build connections through their opinions of the soundtracks. In that case, it’s interesting that so many tracks from Pokémon games are meant to be ambient—they set the mood and evoke a connection with a given location or character, but they’re not necessarily distracting enough to take away from gameplay experience.
Yet so many tracks from the games have taken a life of their own outside of their original context. Music like Lake Verity’s theme and Driftveil City’s score become memes because they stand out as more than just one part of the game’s atmosphere. In some cases, music from Lavender Town or Route 216 in Diamond and Pearl capture the essence of their in-game location or action so well, they’re the most identifiable aspect of it. Players may not remember the exact details of, say, the story plot in Lavender Town or how you get through the blistering snowstorm on Route 216, but the music immediately transports them to those places.
A surprising moment comes near the end of my chat with Lehman. He tells me about a lesson on video game music in his current class. A student mentioned the recent Pokémon Legends Arceus game and how the score for a certain character suggests a connection to someone from another installment. I immediately figured the student was referencing Volo, a merchant in the game, who is slowly revealed through the game’s plot and an ever-developing musical theme to be both the ancestor of Champion Cynthia from Diamond and Pearl and a villain intent on using the legendary Pokémon Giratina to destroy the world.
As Volo announces his true intentions to the player , the music intensifies into sharp tones and dissonant screeching. When he challenges you to a battle and reveals his first Pokémon—a Spiritomb, famously the first Pokémon that Cynthia uses—the battle music becomes a rearrangement of Cynthia’s approach theme .
Yet so many tracks from the games have taken a life of their own outside of their original context.
After you defeat Volo, he releases Giratina for a battle. Its music is a more chaotic rendition of its Platinum score: Giratina’s original music is already quite rambunctious, featuring these sort of clashing sounds that feel like time slowing down or something being rewinded. It works well as a sinister boss-battle theme, matching Giratina’s role as the ruler of the Distortion World and a satanic figure of the Pokémon world.
At the surface level, all of this is sort of a funny connection. Cynthia is widely thought to be the hardest trainer you battle in any Pokémon game, a character whose almost-Gothic musical cue instills a sense of dread in players . There’s one meme about players who have nightmarish memories of accidentally stumbling into a house in Black and White only to be practically ambushed by Cynthia’s music and pummeled in battle with her. They laugh and reminisce now, almost in a nostalgic-masochistic way. But the slow musical reveal of Volo’s heritage is a sophisticated development, a sort of reward to fans who’ve played Diamond and Pearl . It may spark memories of battling Cynthia for the first time, bringing fans back to the battle.
That’s where this clicks for me. Pokémon soundtracks were most likely meant to enhance the gameplay, give players a sense of time and space, and push plots and actions. Instead, for people like me, they’ve become the centerpiece of the experience, special and nostalgic in their own right. When I hear a theme, I’m inspired to pick up an old game and replay—not necessarily to recapture what it was like to play Pokémon when I was kid, but rather to find a novel way to enjoy the games as an adult. Part of that means hearing something new in the soundtrack too; maybe there’s a cue I never noticed (although I’ve replayed many of these games so much, I doubt it).
As I, along with many other fans, push forward into the new Paldea region in the games Scarlet and Violet , the music will continue to capture attention. With Paldea likely based on the Iberian Peninsula, it’s possible that much of the games’ soundtracks will be inspired by Spanish and Portuguese music, like Sun and Moon ’s connection to Hawaiian music. It’ll be exciting to discover new favorite tracks and memorable musical moments from the games—and, in turn, find connections to past Pokémon adventures.