Games currently playing: Brave Frontier, Kingdom Hearts: Unchained, Pokémon Black, Tales of Link, Phantom of the Kill
It’s time for a new theme on Whimsically Theoretical! This article will mark the beginning of a new series that I will be writing, called “Across the Generations”, where I will compare similar themes across different games within a video game series! Today we are going to be talking about one of the most exciting themes in Pokémon: the Gym Theme! As the music that plays when you first enter an institute that, at least in the story mode, contains the most coveted and sought-after items in the game—the badges!—this theme carries a very strong sense of optimistic triumph and urgency, but certainly in the most hopeful way.
Pokémon Red / Blue / Yellow
As the first of its kind, the gym theme from RBY has a very special place in the canon… However, its complete lack of bass—to someone that THRIVES ON BASS—is slightly, okay maybe more than slightly, upsetting! I would say this theme fits well in the first couple of gyms, where the main character is just beginning, and the stakes are not that high yet. But later on in the game, I just feel that it does not hold the amount of promise and hope in the face of earning a SHINY NEW BADGE that I would expect.
Yes, I understand that the first generation of Pokémon came out when the chiptune and music-making technology was not at its peak quality, but in comparison to other tracks on the same soundtrack, I just wonder why they left out any sort of bass in the epic gym theme. Sorry, RBY Gym Theme, I know you have tons of fans out there, but unfortunately I am not one of them!
Pokémon Gold / Silver/ Crystal
With the addition of BADASS BASS, and some pretty nifty snare drum-like effects, the GSC gym theme is still my favorite. Granted, my love for this theme probably has everything to do with the fact that in 2nd grade, Gold Version was the first Pokémon game I ever played. Nonetheless, this version of the theme makes me so happy and sometimes still gives me goosebumps. I absolutely love the dramatic leap of about three and a half octaves that occurs between just the first two notes in this version of the theme. There is so much syncopation, and tons of beautiful counter-melodies going on in this version. Chiptune at its very finest! What’s not to love!?
Pokémon Ruby / Sapphire/ Emerald
I can certainly appreciate the leap of quality between GSC’s and RSE’s gym theme, in terms of instrumental timbre: the apparent difference in instrumental sounds is quite astounding, as you can now distinctly tell which sound is supposed to be which instrument. Woo hoo for advancing midi technology!!
The initial theme is being carried by a trumpet (0:00-0:18), then switches gracefully to a French horn (0:19-0:27). While the beginning doesn’t strike me nearly as hard as GSC’s version, I definitely love the slight change in tone in the middle section, where the heavy percussion pulls back a bit (0:19), and we are left with some nice syncopated arpeggios in the strings underneath the French horn playing the main melody (0:19-0:27). The strings then seamlessly take over the melody (0:27-0:34), accompanied by some hyper-treble sounds (0:31-0:34), and then it loops back around.
I love the variance of intensity in this version, as its calm section does a nice job of building up the anticipation, rather than slowing the momentum.
Pokémon Diamond / Pearl / Platinum
Now we branch into a triple-subdivision march-like theme, into the gym of Gen IV. From the get-go, I’m not digging how the opening melody now consists of longer and noticeably more boring notes (0:00-0:03), rather than the short and snippy melodically dancing opening we heard in the previous three gens. It’s likely that the composer was trying to branch out a bit, but it just does not excite me as much as before.
When we arrive to the middle section (0:28), my internal rhythmic clock just becomes confused: are we still in triple time or have we switched to duple? The timpani sound would tell us that we are still in triple (0:34-0:36), though the piccolo/flute sounds would tell us we are now in duple (0:29-0:32)… What time signature are we in now?? Y U SO JARRINGLY SWITCH BACK AND FORTH!? Rhythmic clashing is probably one of my very top-most pet peeves when it comes to anything musical. When done intentionally, i.e. different instruments playing different rhythms for purposes of intricate and creatively interwoven lines, that can be one of the most beautiful things.
But when it’s unclear what a time signature is, particularly in a piece that sounds like it is a march—a style that is supposed to have a very definite beat—it is simply off-putting. When I am making my way through puzzles and other trainers to hopefully obtain a badge, I need my glory music to be steady!
There are also lots of instances where part of the theme is dragged out a bit, compared to the previous versions (0:08-0:10, 0:25-0:28, 0:44-0:58). While the RSE Gym Theme pulls back a bit while still keeping momentum, the dragging out of the melody in this version causes the intensity to s-s-stutter and s-s-sputter and nearly s-s-stop…
Too harsh? Maybe. Let’s move on.
Pokémon Black & White
Not as orchestral as its predecessors, our Gen V theme brings back some killer electronics and an awesome bass line. While in Gen IV’s theme, we had a few melodic extensions of the melody (which I did NOT like), Gen V’s breakdown and drum fill between the intro and initial melody is startling, but in such a pleasant way (0:04-0:08)! I love love LOVE this unexpected, jazzy, syncopated break.
The rest of the track also does not disappoint—the single horn (0:08-0:16), then horn duet (0:17-0:25) playing the main theme while accompanied by punchy syncopated percussion (special shoutout to the China cymbals!!) and electric guitar sounds is just wonderful. The pronounced chord progression during the middle section continues to be held together with tight and crisp percussion. In the other versions, this section noticeably calmed down (which wasn’t a bad thing!), but I actually quite like how the percussion stays consistent throughout this whole theme.
It does not seem this version is as much an experiment of genre or instrumentation, which I actually like very much!! It incorporates some very nice electronic sounds (namely the electric guitar), and is the most rock-oriented theme so far. I’m not always a big fan of rock music, but in this context I think it works brilliantly!
Pokémon X & Y
This theme is definitely more orchestral-sound heavy, and disappointingly also almost completely void of any interesting percussion. Booo!!! China cymbal, where did you go?? T^T
While there is still some subtle syncopation, in the same places as it appears in Gen V’s version, it is simply not as pronounced—i.e. NOT WITH AWESOME PERCUSSION AND BASS TT^TT—so it does not nearly stand out as much to me. I’m certainly a fan of holding back super punchy elements for only the most important parts in music, but to me, the gym theme is supposed to be more punchy than not, creating the whole triumphant, optimistic environment that makes you just need to succeed!
I do have to say that the quality of the sounds, and how well the timbres and harmonies blend together is just marvelous—probably the best of any gen so far, which makes sense as it is the latest one. This theme just isn’t valiant enough for me—the horns are pretty majestic, but I just need that percussion! XD Compared to the rest of the soundtrack though, which is also fairly orchestral-sound heavy and not so percussion-based, I suppose this gym theme fits in well enough.
So there you have it! My thoughts about the six gym themes. I did not include any of the gym themes of the remakes/sequels (Fire Red/Leaf Green, Heart Gold/Soul Silver, Alpha Sapphire/Omega Ruby, or Black 2/White 2)—let me know if you’d like to see those games’ themes included in the next “Across the Generations” review!
Which Gym Theme is your favorite? Let me know in the comments! ^_^