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Pokémon's Music Master: The Man Behind The Catchiest Songs

Coinciding with the release of the soundtrack for Pokémon Black and White 2 on iTunes, we recently had the opportunity to speak with Pokémon series composer and director Junichi Masuda about his history with the franchise. We've spoken with him in the past when he answered our burning questions about the series, and in our in-depth interview after the release of Pokemon X/Y, but were excited to burrow in and discuss his impressive work composing the music of the Pokémon series for almost 20 years.

Which pieces of music from before your time with Pokémon would you like to point out for fans? Do you have a favorite track from the earlier Game Freak days?

Outside of Pokémon, it would probably be some of the tracks from Pulseman. Also, Yoshi's Egg (called "Yoshi" in the U.S.) had some tracks I liked. Specifically in the opening, the icons dance in tune with the music that's playing. That's something I really wanted to do and programmed on my own and added to the game without really clearing it with anyone else.

Other than Game Freak's work, what are some of your favorite game soundtracks of all time? Who are your favorite game composers?

I played a lot of other games on Nintendo platforms, so stuff like Xevious comes to mind. One soundtrack that really impressed me was that of Metroid for the Famicom Disc System. Of course the setting and the gameplay were awesome, too, but at the time I had never really experienced sounds like that in my house before and it left a strong impression. One interesting thing to note is that it was actually Hirokazu Tanaka, the current president of Creatures, Inc., who did the music for the game.

You can listen to the classic title theme to Pokemon Red/Blue above.

Can you talk about your process a little bit, do you sit down with the goal in mind of writing music or do you just wait for inspiration to strike as you go about your day?

One of the important elements is that I have to be alone. Most of the time when I'm with other people, I'm usually talking, so it's kind of hard to hum a new song [laughs]. Also, when it comes to gameplay ideas and musical ideas, I find that I have to separate the two. I can't think of both simultaneously. I'll choose to think about one or the other for a full day. Once I have that focus, the inspiration will come at times throughout the day. But that focus is what's important.

When it comes to the actual process, I think everyone's different, but for me, it just kind of starts in my head. I can't play the piano to try and come up with a new sound, for example [laughs]. Often, I think of the melody first, and then come up with the bass and the drums all in my head. Sometimes I'll have the whole song in my mind and I'll just sit down at the computer and all I have to do is enter it in.


What is your favorite track from all of the Pokémon games, what stands out to you?

That's a tough question, but it would probably be the symbolic melody that first plays in the intro sequence. Also the music at the title screen. Some other examples of tracks I really like are the ones from Pewter Town, or Cynthia's theme. I think I really worked hard on those songs. I probably wouldn't be able to make them now. It's kind of like when you're making food and it turns out amazingly well, but you can never reproduce it.

Above: Cynthia's battle theme from Pokémon Diamond/Pearl.

Can you describe your mood and the setting in which you composed the music for the first Pokémon game?

Of course I worked on the music at our office, but a lot of my composing for the first game was done at home. I had a Commodore Amiga computer at home on which I would create music. I even created a converter program for it, so I could bring the music I created into the office and play it on the Game Boy. I also had a lot of instruments at home, and we didn't have any at the office. I had like five keyboards (even though I couldn't play them) and synthesizers at home, so it was much more suited to creating music than the office.

In terms of mood, well, we spent around six years before completing the game, so, near the end, I was really just eager for it to be finished. I was already working on other projects, but would get requests to make certain songs and creature cries for Pokémon. I also had to make a lot of changes to reduce the byte size of the sound and music files so it would fit the limited space we had for the game, so it was a lot of work.


Above: The music from Viridian Forest/Diglett Cave in Pokémon Red/Blue.

Do you remember composing the Viridian Forest/Diglett Cave piece for Red/Green/Blue? It is so striking and a little bit frightening, what were some of your inspirations for this track?

In Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue, Pokémon were perceived as scary. These days, people don't really think of Pokémon as scary creatures, but in the original games, we kind of thought of them as monsters, so I tried to make the music a bit scarier in places like forests and caves. I felt that fit the atmosphere better. With Viridian Forest, I really wanted to differentiate it from the music that played in towns and on the typical routes. I adjusted the programming to make the song loop in different places to create an eerie and mysterious sound. I didn't really have any particular musical inspiration for it, though. Really, I was just playing by feeling. I'd listen to the song in the game, then go back and make changes to the data, listen to it again, and keep repeating this process until I liked what I had. Rather than finishing the song outside of the game and simply implementing it, I would create the base and then arrange it in the game as I went along.

Once players finished Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver they were able to unlock the music from the original games, why haven't you included this option or unlock in later releases?

The original Gold and Silver titles never actually got a soundtrack, and that was something the sound team kind of regretted. Red and Blue, Ruby and Sapphire, and others all had soundtracks, but there wasn't a good place to hear the original Gold and Silver tracks, so it was really a special case that the sound team put them in as a bonus for HeartGold and SoulSilver.
 

 

Above: The trainer battle music from Pokemon Red/Blue. 

Do you ever feel chained to the musical tone that you set in the first games or do you feel free to reinvent the music of Pokémon with each entry?

The whole sound team, me included, doesn't really have any firm rules for what the tone needs to sound like, so technically, we are free to do what we want. With that said, with the history of the series, everyone on the team definitely has an idea of what Pokémon should sound like in their head, and they try to stay true to that for the most part. I'm probably in the best position to shake things up, so that's why I'll occasionally do things like the gym battle music in Pokémon X and Y, where it doesn't really sound like what some people might feel Pokémon traditionally should sound like. I try to expand the possibilities for everyone by doing things like that.

However, one thing we really do try to be careful with is not making the music too complex in places like the Pokémon Centers or the main towns in the games. We want them to have an identifiable melody.

Another thing we try to do is have variety in how the music sounds from place to place. People spend a lot of time playing these games, so we try to mix it up as they progress.

Is it difficult capturing the essence of Pokémon music on modern platforms, considering the technological limitations that shaped the sound of the early games are mostly absent?

Actually, I think that since the series has been around for 18 years now, everyone on the team has a good idea of what Pokémon is and what it should be, so it's not so difficult to create music that captures that essence. One thing that I do have to remind the team about on occasion is about the battle music. In Pokémon, it's not a battle between Trainers--it's a battle between Pokémon. I think that's something that differentiates Pokémon from a lot of other RPGs and I make sure that it's reflected in the music. For example, in a battle with a wild Pokémon, the player may end up catching and befriending the Pokémon they are up against, so it's important not to make the music create an atmosphere that sounds too scary or dangerous. It's a fine balance to strike and we have to be very careful.

Have you spent much time discussing music with Nintendo's Koji Kondo? Did he have any feedback on your work with the Pokémon series?

I've met him a few times. Once, when we were at the Nintendo headquarters – and I think this was back around the time of the first Stadium game – I remember we were talking about how sound effect artists really need to know how to program to do a good job. No matter what sound you come up with, in the end it had to be programmed into the game, so we both agreed it's important to have that knowledge. I haven't really spoken to him specifically about music, though.

Above: One of Masuda's favorites, the music from Pewter City in Pokémon Red/Blue.

How involved were you with the orchestrated adaptations of your music that appeared in the Smash Bros. games and in their Smashing Live concert performance/CD? Were you able to see your music performed live by an orchestra?

I really wasn't involved that much in the rearranging of the songs. Of course I would review the final music and give my OK, but I never really want to say "no" to these things. When I make the music, I pay attention to how they will sound in the games, so I don't feel like I should give a lot of direction for the orchestral rearrangements. For example, people will often ask me what songs they should select, but I always reply that I want them to choose. I'd rather they pick tracks that they really like or can do well than give direction about that.

For the 10th anniversary of Pokémon, we actually had a concert put on by an orchestra for songs from the original games. These were rearranged by Shigeaki Saegusa, who is a composer that handled the music for Z Gundam, which is a favorite of mine. It was awesome to hear songs that I had created rearranged to also sound like Saegusa-san's work. I was really blown away by it.

Can you talk a bit about your experience juggling the responsibilities of being both a game director and a composer?

Well, game directors are all about creating games, and sound is really just one part of the game, so the top priority is figuring out what the game itself will be. As a composer or music director, you have to really think about what kind of songs and sounds you need to fit certain situations or fill in gaps. You'll find a part that feels like it's missing something and have to come up with a song to fit it. The same type of process exists on the game director side, but instead of thinking about songs with which to fill the gap, you'll think of gameplay situations – for example, you might say, "let's have the player ride on a Pokémon through this area." Just ideas like that.

I find that I can't think about both game design and come up with new music at the same time, so if I'm working on both, I'll choose which I will focus on at the beginning of the day and stick to that.

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