On my old blogs, which have all gone out-of-commission at one point or another, I’ve often made “Top 5” (or Top 10 when I’m free) posts, especially in and around the subject of video game soundtracks. After all, I find the OSTs of every video game to be inseparable from the entire experience, so much so that one game has often won over another for my “Best game of the year” simply on the basis of their soundtracks.
For example, the Legend of Zelda: Windwaker is my favourite game in the series because its soundtrack resonates very well with the game’s overall theme of adventure and seafaring. Take, for example, the OST “Ocean”, which plays while Link sails aboard the King of Red Lions across the waters in-game with nothing but the vast ocean in sight.
And don’t even get me started on the absolute masterpiece that is Jeremy Soule’s various compositions for the Elder Scrolls series. Just an example, the opening theme of Morrowind itself has been around for 15 years and is still the best title theme I’ve ever heard.
The same goes for anime. Where an entire anime’s plot has devolved into absolute hogwash *coughs* Sword Art Online *coughs*, I find that its OST can salvage it entirely. Here, I point to “She Has to Overcome Her Fear”, a fantastic, inspiring and empowering soundtrack for an otherwise increasingly terrible anime.
Without further ado, and stopping myself short in the middle of ranting, I will begin the countdown for this particular list.
Pokemon OST: Top 5 Best Legendary Themes
To start off, I will define some terms in order to set the limits around what can be chosen. Firstly, I am dealing only with main series games, which means that games such as Pokemon Colosseum or the Mystery Dungeon series will not be included. The ‘vs Rayquaza’ theme in Red/Blue Rescue Team is amazing, and so is the ‘vs Primal Dialga’ theme in Explorers of Darkness/Time/Sky. However, those are topics for another post.
I am also very aware that soundtracks, especially for Legendary Pokemon (along with Elite Four, Champions, etc.), have been remixed as we move from generation to generation. I will make a differentiation between the versions if they play a big part in my decisions, but will generally address the different variations as a single soundtrack. This is because the remixes do not usually touch on the basic tune, changing only the instruments and sometimes, the tempo.
As with all encounter themes, while the soundtrack should be taken as a whole, it is actually the first 20 seconds that count the most. More specifically, the grip of the music is the first 3-5 seconds as your screen fades into the battle scene and you meet your encounter. After all, this isn’t some Skyrim soundtrack for your exploration needs, but an encounter music.
5. Vs Entei from Heart Gold/Soul Silver (Generation IV)
Heart Gold and Soul Silver were extremely generous towards the 3 Legendary Beasts – Suicine, Raikou and Entei – and gave theme each a variation on the theme found in Gold/Silver/Crystal.
Suicune’s theme featured bells, the xylophone and the plucking of high-pitched string instruments. The first 3-5 seconds are distinctly pitched higher and are sharper sounding than the other 2 beasts’. I would even go so far as to say that the warning sound (i.e., the sharp alarm-like sound) is ear-piercing. It is fitting for the Water-type of the trio, who represents the rivers and renewal. Raikou, on the other hand, features the electric guitar, though still pitched quite high. I would say it is about a perfect-fourth or fifth lower than Suicune’s in general, around the bottom of the Alto 1 range. It also has muted cymbals, i.e. the sound made when a cymbal is struck while being in contact with something else. This is the closest to the original 8-bit version, as expected of the Electric-type, who represents storms and lightning.
We then move to Entei’s theme, which cannot be understood on its own, but together with its siblings. Very distinctly is how the tempo slows down, and the pitch correspondingly drops after the first 3 seconds. If you listen closely, the rhythm almost resembles that of the heavy, prideful footsteps of a large creature. Where Suicune is a leopard, lightning-quick and nimble, and Raikou is a tiger, vicious and unpredictable, Entei’s soundtrack identifies it as a proud lion. Deeper-toned drums feature more prominently, and after the initially dip in both pitch and rhythm, they never really pick up again. The entire soundtrack is befitting of Entei and gives that feeling of an arrogant, self-important and haughty lion – the head of its pride – stalking around with its full-maned head held high.
4. Vs Rayquaza from Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire (Generation VI)
I am slightly apologetic for giving my favourite Legendary Pokemon such a low spot on the list. Rayquaza is the trio master of the weather trio in Hoenn, the other two being Groudon and Kyogre. To understand why the soundtrack fits well, one must understand the kind of character Rayquaza has been bestowed with across games.
Groudon is the Continent Pokemon, and Kyogre is the Sea Basin Pokemon. In legends, both were said to be responsible for creating Earth the way it is today. However, unlike its trio brothers, Rayquaza does not deal in earth-ly (or water-ly?) matters. It is known as the Sky High Pokemon and is referred to in legends as the Lord of the Skies. Its demeanor matches its title. From the original Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald, to the Mystery Dungeon series, to the remixes in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, Rayquaza is depicted as an extremely lofty, arrogant and proud creature. It thinks of itself as above every other creature, both physically and in terms of its power. Indeed, this is backed up by its omnipotent strength. After all, in competitive Pokemon, a new tier “Anything Goes” was created to accommodate Mega-Rayquaza, who broke the Ubers tier the moment it entered.
The first 5 seconds of the encounter theme is particularly characteristic of this Pokemon. Four slow, heavy and powerful ‘gongs’ which sound like they are backed with drums – the coming of the Lord of the Skies. Like in all games, and the art that depicts Rayquaza, he soars through what seems like the exosphere, and bursts through the clouds, a ray of light accompanying. Since he appears during clashes between Kyogre and Groudon, the earth is often enveloped in erupting volcanoes and violent storms. His coming brings, at first, a ray of light into the darkness and his roar powerful enough to stop the other 2 in their tracks.
In Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, the other 2 of the trio have their own soundtracks, but includes a lot more instruments (as compared to the originals). Rayquaza doesn’t have that. His theme is just stronger, more powerful, as if more resolute and overpowering. There is nothing internally conflicting about his theme, unlike the other 2, just a sense of pure authority and leadership over them. The overall theme is deep, tenor 1 and 2, sometimes going to bass. It shows that Rayquaza is not a force you want to awaken or mess with.
3. Vs Arceus from Diamond/Pearl/Platinum (Generation IV)
Arceus, the God of all Pokemon, is said to be the one who created them. There is very little to be said beyond that – he is the Almighty One in Pokemon. Shame it is that a 10 year old can catch him, eh?
Out of all these themes, even the ones above it, this is probably the most unique of them. For one, while I have not transcribed it, I can hear that there is not a huge variation in notes. For the most part, the theme relies heavily on percussion instruments. The first 8 seconds – the opening – is slow-paced, but features heavy beats that increasingly builds towards…silence. It is ominous, suspenseful, the way you’d imagine an encounter with the God of all Pokemon to be like. Paired with Arceus’s stare (have you noticed he’s always animated to look down upon you?), the intentionally spaced-out drum beats that follow almost seem like the earth-shaking steps that Arceus would take towards the player.
Following which, with bars of 4, the second pair double the time of the first pair by adding drums, we continue that way until an instrument comes in. However, the instruments stays at bass, with an almost groaning, growling sound. Instead of the jumpy rhythm, in say, the Raikou theme, each note is dragged out. The way I interpret it is: the drums that doubles every 2 bars before halving again are the heartbeats of your player character as he/she takes in that they are facing Arceus, and the instruments come from Arceus himself.
It is unique because it seems to be a theme that very carefully considers which Pokemon it is covering – Arceus. There need not be any fancy tune to it, because the most prevalent part of the encounter should be how nerve-wrecking yet awe-inspiring it is to face up against the God of all Pokemon.
2. Vs Giratina from Diamond/Pearl/Platinum (Generation IV)
If you think I praised Arceus highly, you probably did not see this coming. Giratina is my second favourite Legendary Pokemon and Arceus is actually no where even in the top 10. What can I say? I often like the evil character more in every show and game. Even then, Giratina is still on a tier of its own. It can be said to be the Devil of the Pokemon game, and at the same time, it is not.
Giratina is the Renegade Pokemon, that was cast into the Distortion World by Arceus. His theme fits very well into the idea of distortion. He is, after all, a Pokemon with the power to distort the very fabric of time and space. The first 10 seconds itself should give you a good idea of that. Those aren’t sounds you can make on an instrument, and can only be synthesised. Still, the closest that I can think of is probably the viola (because it’s clearly deeper than the normal range of a violin), tuned intentionally off-tune and played with an extremely uneven, but slurry beat.
The sounds that follow, apart from the muted cymbals, are all synthesised sounds. I am, of course, digging myself a grave here because my hearing is very inaccurate when it comes to non-instrumental sounds. Still, at one point, I can point to high-pitched, metallic ringing sounds, followed by the sound of bubbling, like liquid in a cauldron. The actual tune of the music, even if following an even tempo, seems to have a hurried feeling towards it. Behind it, you hear a very low, almost messy beats, like if you were to strum the double-bass on its lowest key (it’s distinctly a string-sound). All of these play into the theme of distortion.
There really is very little to say about it. I wouldn’t say it is as unique as Arceus’s theme, but to bring across the idea of a Distortion Pokemon that well requires an excellent theme. They could’ve easily went with anything that had a slightly ominous feeling and left the distortion part out, but they went all the way with it. Now, if only they could be so kind as to give Darkrai even a theme of its own.
Still, this theme isn’t No.1, because following the release of Diamond/Pearl/Platinum, certain remade games mentioned previously, remixed a theme so well I could not help but give it the top spot.
1. Vs Ho-Oh from Heart Gold/Soul Silver (Generation IV)
I have no affinity for Ho-Oh as a Pokemon, preferring Lugia as a kid. However, this theme is some next-level beautiful. It fits Ho-Oh as a Pokemon, as well as the entire lore around it. Firstly, for westerners who aren’t aware, Ho-Oh is the Japanese way of saying 凤凰 (feng4 huang2), or the Chinese phoenix. In Pokemon, it is known as the Rainbow Pokemon, but really, it’s a bloody phoenix.
Furthermore, for those unaware, Johto, the region where you encounter Ho-Oh, is based off the Kansai region in Japan. This is the cultural centre and historical heart of Japan that features multiple historical sites. In the game, Ho-Oh and Lugia both used to live in the Burned Tower, but then separated, with Ho-Oh roosting instead at the Bell Tower. In real-life, the Burned Tower is modeled after 金閣 (kinkaku-ji), which was set on fire by a monk in 1950. The inside of the temple was covered in gold and on the top was the golden statue of a phoenix, or Ho-Oh.
How is this important? Pay attention to the first 8 seconds of the encounter theme – it takes a lot of inspiration from traditional east-Asian music and instruments. The strings sound very similar to the 古筝 (Guzheng), a 16-26 stringed zither with movable bridges. This instrument stills forms a major part of every Chinese orchestra today. I can’t really tell what the woodwind instrument is, but I can say that the sharp wooden percussion is either the 木鱼 (Muyu) or 拍板 (Paiban). The former is an instrument often used by Buddhist monks. This is relevant as the reverence of the phoenix in east-Asia in ingrained in the Buddhist culture. In 8 seconds alone, the theme captured the essence of the inspiration behind Ho-Oh.
For 5-6 seconds after, there seems to be a hollow, percussion sound. Considering that, in the game, to find Ho-Oh, you have to climb the Bell Tower (which is a pain in the ass), this can easily be understood as the sounds you hear inside the tower as Ho-oh sits atop it. Throughout the rest of the theme, each note struck seems to have its own echo. While this may sound weird to the untrained ear, as a Chinese who was force-fed a healthy portion of Chinese traditional music as a kid, I can tell you that that is very typical of such music. I never truly figured out where it came from, since the strings, woodwind and percussion instruments all have a certain degree of echo. However, this seems to be a method of keeping within the general theme of Ho-Oh’s origin.
At parts, you can hear the 萧 (Xiao) and 笛子 (Dizi), both common woodwind instruments. Please note that Chinese woodwind instruments are made of bamboo and while Dizi is loosely translated to ‘flute’, they are different in material and playing. The Dizi is a transverse instrument meant to be played perpendicular to how a western flute is played. Again, this theme manages to be both a battle theme and a piece of traditional music at once.
As a side note, from 0:08 to 0:18, I was weirdly reminded of the Halo OST, ‘Covenant Dance’. I guess this is the result of playing Halo for 2 hours a day as a child, beating all levels on Legendary by the time I was 10.