When Junichi Masuda originally composed the chiptune tracks for the sensational Game Boy pair Pokémon Red Version and Green Version in the 1990s, I doubt the thought ever crossed his mind that on the cusp of the franchise’s 20th anniversary, his work would be rearranged and performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a renowned venue that has previously hosted the likes of Queen and Elton John? Well, that’s what happened on 20th December 2015 with the European debut of the Pokémon Symphonic Evolutions tour at London’s Eventim Apollo.
In complete contrast to what may be someone’s pre-conception about the audience of a symphony concert, a wonderfully diverse collection of Pokémon fans found themselves gathered outside the venue before doors opened; some smartly dressed for the occasion while others were clad in cosplay or adorned with whimsical memorabilia (with one person’s Shuckle-shaped hat being a particular stand-out).
Shortly after entering the venue and fighting the swarm of eager fans surrounding the merchandise stand to buy a commemorative poster, my brother and I found our seats and were met with the series’ mascot Pikachu cheerfully signalled the start of the festivities on a large projector above the stage. The title screens of every main series game from Red/Blue through X/Y scrolled across the screen (with the exception of Black 2/White 2; for an undisclosed reason) as the master of ceremonies detailed the order of service to a crowded audience.
It wasn’t long before the familiar scene of a grey-scale Pallet Town appeared and the first musical arrangement whisked me back to that fateful Christmas in 1999, when my world was changed forever after unwrapping a Gameboy Colour and Pokémon Red Version. As my ears were gently seduced by the orchestra’s beautiful recreation of the tracks that played the main stage of my childhood, following Red’s journey through Kanto ignited a nostalgic fire in my heart; sending me back to the days of my maiden voyage with Tiny-thing the Blastoise and trading with friends on the playground with link cables.
As opposed to reciting the series’ classic tracks verbatim, the event’s set list was adorned with musical ensembles collecting multiple songs into a single themed piece, such as the rapturous “Born To Be A Champion” that recalled Red’s battles against the Gym Leaders and conquest of the Pokémon League by combing the games’ various battle themes and even the iconic low-health jingle; with the orchestral performance providing a whole new perspective on the already dramatic pieces. Through a compilation centred around the titular “Ecruteak City” and the “Songs of the Towers” that explored the historic city’s connections to the Johto region’s lore, my interest in this oft-forgotten aspect of GameFreak’s role-playing game series was rekindled by the oriental piece and the mysterious essence it embodied; making me yearn for the tale of Ho-Oh and the legendary beasts to be revisited in the future.
In contrast however, there were some songs that were clearly selected purely for their musical potential as opposed to their significance in the franchise’s history, such as the tranquil “Falling Ash” that utilised the Hoenn region’s soot-covered Route 113 as a centrepiece, which ended up feeling out of place considering that moments like the climax at Sinnoh’s Spear Pillar and the mythos surrounding Diamond/Pearl‘s creation trio were curiously absent from the concert.
Fortunately, a great deal of attention was dedicated to what I consider the series’ pinnacle of writing; the emotionally charged tale of Natural Harmonia Gropius; the leader of Team Plasma in Black/White. The popular anti-villain’s story was recounted over a number of tracks collectively embodying the character’s development throughout the story; with the gradual increase in pace and louder, more threatening notes accompanying the on-screen unfurling of N’s involvement in the story, before ending with the sombre and tear-inducing “Farewell” that made up the original games’ closing moments. Clearly not satisfied with the amount of tears already welling up in our eyes, the shift to the sixth generation started with the sombre sound of “An Eternal Prison”; a more subdued and emotional peace recalling Kalos’ ancient war and the tragedy it inflicted upon AZ that momentarily rises to a threatening roar as the power of AZ’s Ultimate Weapon is demonstrated on the visual backdrop.
Perhaps the greatest part of the evening through, was the atmosphere bought to the Eventim Apollo by so many fans celebrating a series so dear to them, which was demonstrated through the likes of enthusiastically (and comically) playing along to the Who’s That Pokémon? slides before the main event, cheering on Red’s starter selection and singing along to the encore performance of the anime’s original English theme. By bringing loyal fans together with a stunning orchestral re-imagining that perfectly captures the essence of the series they love, Pokémon Symphonic Evolutions was an experience to remember and the perfect way to lead into this year’s 20th anniversary celebrations.
(P.S. Junichi Masuda – hopefully there’s now excuse for the next game not having an orchestral soundtrack? =3).
While no other European dates have been announced at time of publication, you can keep an eye on news and upcoming performances on the tour’s official website.