Three years later bitches
Soundtrack Review: Pokémon Sun & Pokémon Moon Super Music Collection
Composed & Arranged by: Minako Adachi, Go Ichinose, Hideaki Kuroda, Jun’ichi Masuda, Tomoaki Oga, & Hitomi Sato
The new Pokémon games are all kinds of revolutionary. After the series’ migration to 3DS in its sixth generation left many fans feeling like only the aesthetic of the game had changed without much attention to the key game mechanics and creature catalogue, Game Freak has reinvented many of the common elements that had previously been staples of the franchise. But for this reviewer, it wasn’t the absence of HMs, the unabashedly quirky new monster designs, or the shift to a more sophisticated graphics style that left the biggest impression. What was most exciting for me, as a musician, was the totally overhauled sound design work.
While it’s true that the previous games in the franchise, Pokémon X & Y, allowed for a technically higher quality sound and variety of timbres thanks to the shift to a higher-capability system, the actual compositions themselves were often lacking. Shota Kageyama, who joined the composition team starting with Pokémon HeartGold & SoulSilver doing mainly arrangements and has composed for the series ever since, was the lead composer for X & Y, and while his music certainly has some degree of charm, his composition style is frankly quite boring. He uses almost offensively bland textures, has a focus on “crowd-pleasing” chord progressions that come across as cheesy and displays in his work a general lack of interest in dissonance that makes his tracks a complete snoozefest for listeners with musical backgrounds. Not every piece Kageyama has written is boring, of course, and a more romantic and simplistic style is often necessary for that classic Pokémon sound. But there are ways of being catchy and appealing without resorting to the unremarkable style that Kageyama so often utilizes, and it can be a bit frustrating when he relies on the same timbres and styles for piece after piece while his contemporaries produce more interesting work.
Kageyama, however, left Game Freak following his work on Pokémon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire to form his own company, and so Sun & Moon contains none of his work other than a few tracks that are reused from the previous two games. Stepping up as lead composer this time is Minako Adachi, who is the first female composer to hold such a position in a Pokémon game--she and co-composer Hitomi Sato have both worked on previous games in the series, but neither have served as head of the team. In addition to those two women, we also have Pokémon head honcho Jun’ichi Masuda composing several of the battle tracks (as per standard) and veteran composer Go Ichinose returning after a strange absence in the franchise’s sixth generation. Ichinose has been a staple of the sound team since the Pokémon Gold & Silver days, so naturally it’s great to have his signature sound back. These four composers’ work makes up the bulk of this score, with newcomer Tomoaki Oga composing mainly for the cutscenes of the game and Hideaki Kuroda once again performing instruments in a few tracks and doing a bit of arranging.
Sun & Moon, despite being an effort of so many musicians, flows so well on an album that you might think it was the work of a single person. Indeed, there are multiple leitmotifs scattered throughout the score, and they tend to make certain tracks an amalgamation of styles; for instance, Adachi’s “Lillie’s Theme” is arranged several times by not only the composer herself (“Staff Credits”), but also by Sato (“Lively Lillie!”) and Oga (“Steely Lillie!”, “Mother and Daughter”). Likewise, Jun’ichi Masuda’s little rise-and-fall motive for the Tapu creatures which guard the islands shows up in all sorts of tracks. In this way, it maintains a consistent style, more so than maybe any of the other games’ scores.
Ichinose composes notably fewer tracks here than he did in previous games, but they’re unmistakably his style and inject the album with the sense of classic Pokémon that X & Y so sorely lacked. It’s the fun instrumentation and cheerful bounce of pieces like “A Captain’s Trial Begins!” that so effectively epitomize Pokémon’s musical heart--Ichinose later arranges the track into “Battle! (Island Kahuna),” which gives the otherwise tense track a highly playful edge, and ultimately makes it a truly fitting successor to the long-running Gym Leader tracks. Ichinose seems to take a particular joy in fondly channeling the days of Gold & Silver. He certainly recalls that game’s rival themes in his rhythmically intense tracks for Gladion, the sort-of rival Sun & Moon pits the player against several times. And the bizarre, distinctly Eastern percussive tendencies in “Konikoni City (Day)” and “Konikoni City (Night)” would certainly be right at home in Johto alongside “Violet City” and “Azalea Town.” Unlike the aforementioned Kageyama, Ichinose understands that a simple melody can be extraordinarily effective as long as it’s executed properly. If it sounds like I’m damning the man with faint praise, that’s certainly not my intention. After all, there’s nothing formulaic or predictable at all about his hilariously bizarre “Battle! (Ultra Beast)” track, which is so outrageously unconventional that I have to rethink my entire idea of the man’s character. And of course, it’s this most veteran composer who ultimately brings us home in “The Battle at the Summit!,” which again seems like both a new work and one that invokes a classic Pokémon style, its flighty strings contrasting quite nicely with its low brass.
Masuda’s tracks have been generally following a downward trend since the original games, which is quite disappointing, but somewhat understandable, since Masuda is a game designer first and a musician second. Still, this is the first game in the series where I actively got tired of his style. Both the “Battle! (Trainer)” and “Battle! (Wild Pokémon)” tracks feel like they’re just going through the motions, and, other than a really neat little screeching section in the former, don’t add any noteworthy new ideas to the canon. “Battle! (Solgaleo / Lunala)” is the only track that’s produced entirely by Masuda on this album, and it’s mostly disappointing. The little figure that begins the track is a surprising use of retro timbre, but it quickly wears out its welcome as the line is repeated again and again, with little to no development at all. It wouldn’t be so disappointing if this wasn’t the same guy who delivered incredibly catchy, nuanced compositions like the intense, rhythmically varying “Battle! (Dialga / Palkia)” or the incredibly unique “Battle! (Ghetsis)” which is, to my knowledge, the only video game music that consists only of timpanis playing tritones while a synth choir moans the villain’s name. The only one of his tracks that comes close to emulating those other, more exciting endeavors is “Battle! (Tapu)” thanks to its odd chanting and catchy motive mentioned above.
Meanwhile, Sato, whom I have to admit is a long-running favorite of mine among the various Pokémon composers, also delivers tracks in her style that has been so prevalent in the games since Pokémon Diamond & Pearl. Her signature style is bubbly, energetic, cheery, and slightly scattered; and a large portion of her music in Sun & Moon certainly fits that bill. It’s the nonstop attitude and surplus of grace notes demonstrated in “Vast Poni Canyon” and “Burnet’s Lab” that endear me to her style. She also has penchant for melodies which are improbably memorable, like the trumpet line in “Heahea City (Day),” and which bring a smile to my face. And I’m always struck by how much Sato surprises me in her compositional intricacies--just listen to “Ten Carat Hill,” whose initially mellow and pleasant chord progression devolves into a no-holds-barred B section with a really manic drums performance that loses the beat entirely for a while. Or take for instance the quirky “Malasada Shop” cue, where she uses a borderline Mariachi style combined with hilarious male vocals to produce quite a catchy and fun track. But really, Sato is such a great fit for this franchise because of her excellent sense of playfulness. The highlight of her tracks this time around are her sweet and smiling “Hau’s Theme” and Ichinose’s subsequent arrangement in “Battle! (Hau)” that just shouts “I want to be your friend!”
But it’s Adachi who takes MVP this time around, producing a massive quantity of high quality music that’s almost unprecedented. What I hadn’t realized prior to this score was how distinct and unique her musical style is, and how deep her interest in composition is. I complained about Kageyama’s textures being occasionally bland or boring, and it’s precisely the opposite for Adachi. Her first major cue on the album, “Alola Region Theme,” features a large choir chanting in something resembling Hawaiian after an instantly memorable melody opens the piece. This idea goes on to serve as the basis for other tracks, notably “My Home” and “Staff Credits,” and it’s a truly heartfelt and adventurous melody without being trite or predictable. A theme for the first island, heard at its most basic in “Iki Town (Day)” and “Iki Town (Night),” is astoundingly infectious, especially when strummed on ukulele in “Hau’oli City (Day),” and though it bleeds into a large portion of the first quarter of the album (and game), it never really overstays its welcome. These two motives make for a really nice little introduction to the world of Alola.
It’s not until later that Adachi reveals her more musically unique tendencies, first heard perhaps in her music for the villainous Team Skull. Japanese rapper KYOtaro provides vocals (mostly the Japanese word for “skull”) for these tracks, and they’re all incredibly catchy and fun to hear. “Battle! (Team Skull)” is a great example of Adachi’s unique style, with its initial rap/hip-hop beat giving way to a more traditional Pokémon battle structure and idea. “Battle! (Team Skull Boss)” is probably the highlight of this bunch, though, with a beat so sick that you hardly even notice the repetition of the main idea. Again, Adachi shows great mastery in taking a simple musical idea and making it interesting and fun. Even better than the Team Skull music are the various themes for the Aether Foundation, represented mainly by a little lilting string figure heard first in “Aether Paradise.” The amount of mileage the composer gets out of this idea is astounding, and it is most effectively used in “Battle! (Aether Foundation).” Here, Adachi seems to take a wicked delight in using the motive on more accented strings, which are now highly dissonant and raw. Her textures here again are simply incredible, opening on an awesome piano and drums introduction and including harpsichord with the ensemble. “Battle! (Lusamine)” and “Showdown! (Lusamine)” are personal favorites, giving an effective impression of tension and, especially in the latter, chaos and insanity with the use of such techniques as an out-of-control piano glissando which bangs up and down the instrument’s range.
Adachi has so much more to offer than I could cover in this kind of space, though. The gleefully off-kilter “Acerola’s Trial” is worth a listen, with headphones, for its terrifyingly effective sound design alone, and more traditional and memorable melodies such as those found in the composer’s “Malie City” and “Seafolk Village” tracks ensure that she really does have something for any listener. Considering the amount of work produced here is nearly double the work she had for the previous entry, she shows a highly impressive body of compositions. The same can be said for the album as a whole, which I’d argue is the strongest the series has had since Pokémon Black & White, maybe even before that. It comes highly recommended from this reviewer and I hope Game Freak’s decision to release the soundtracks digitally pays off for them.
Ten Noteworthy Tracks:
18. Battle! (Hau)
45. Hau’oli City (Day)
58. Battle! (Team Skull)
68. Battle! (Island Kahuna)
72. Ten Carat Hill
107. Battle! (Team Skull Boss)
117. Battle! (Aether Foundation)
122. Battle! (Lusamine)
130. Vast Poni Canyon
138. Showdown! (Lusamine)
What are some of your favorite pieces from this game? Comment below!