We all have that one game music track which instantly takes us back to being a kid again every time we hear it. N64 Jamesy discusses why the original Pokémon game’s Viridian City tune really hammers home pure nostalgia.
Pokémon – it’s a word that means different things to different people, filling some with joy and others with dread. Whether you loved it or loathed it, there was no getting away from the fact that in 1999, a revolution had swept across the nation’s schoolyards.
Pokémon Red and Blue
Groups of kids huddled around Game Boys watched the popular ones go for it in battle with the monsters they’d caught in-game, while the less fortunate kids were relegated to lookouts and kept an eye out for teachers. Game Boys and Pokémon cards had been banned in our school, and these “shows” were like high-end drug deals, all part of the excitement.
I was one such lookout, which meant that for me, what happened on those handhelds was limited to an audio experience. I really enjoyed what I heard, though it wouldn’t be a game I’d play properly myself until well after I received Pokémon Stadium for Christmas 2000.
I borrowed a copy of Pokémon Blue and a Game Boy Color from some friends, and spent much of early 2001 playing what was, at the time, an immense game. Most afternoons after school, my good friend Karl and I always ran the short distance to his house and spent what felt like an endless amount of time playing our copies of Pokémon together, with the volume turned up to max. God knows how many batteries we went through.
It was totally worth it. Junichi Masuda had created a masterpiece in the first game’s soundtrack – a real treat for the ears. Nearly all the sounds here were bursting at the seams with 8-bit nostalgia. Early on in the game, after I reached Viridian City, I knew I’d found a firm favourite.
The song Viridian City, and the other sections it featured in – Pewter City, and later Saffron City – lasted roughly one minute before looping and starting over. The early part kicked off with three relatively intense notes, followed by a short melody so simple you could pick it up and play it on any simple instrument without much trouble. It looped four times in the first half of the song, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it just carried on like this.
The second half is where this track really came alive, with 8-bit sound effects that gave a sense of bells chiming. The higher notes each part of this section ended on really packed a nostalgic punch. Going further into the game there were more top, top tracks that worked so well with their simpler approach, but they didn’t capture me like Viridian. It never got old, no matter how often I heard the track.
Eventually, I beat Giovanni, the Viridian Gym Leader, and there was nothing else to do in the game other than take on the elite four. I suddenly found the music that bit more poignant. It was the same track, but it had begun here and was ending here, and the high notes did a great job of capturing the finality of this point in the game; there was a tinge of sadness. I completed it and over the years, I went on to try out other Pokémon games from each generation – Silver, FireRed and Platinum, but I otherwise grew bored of the series quite quickly.
With a little help from an old friend
The early part of 2013 involved three weeks of treatment with round trips to a hospital some distance away. To keep my mind occupied during mam’s radiotherapy, I opted for my Game Boy Advance SP, which I’d never really put away, alongside the Pokémon Blue which I’d recently found.
I’d gotten into the game so much during these trips to the hospital that I started to play it at home too, and over the course of the next fortnight I’d made it as far as Saffron City. Listening to that familiar tune once again got me thinking a lot about when I was a kid, and the things my mam and I did together which I might never have gotten the chance to do again; because at that point I didn’t know which way this cancer fight was going to go. Things like playing Master System games and, when I was really young, playing football in the yard every summer.
Seeing her so ill like that made me realise she wasn’t going to be around forever, and that those days as a carefree kid had gone for good. I’ll admit all these emotions hit me at once like a ton of bricks and it broke my fucking heart. Maybe it was the release I needed in that situation, which to me shows the power of a truly great VGM track to relive memories, game-related or not. Thankfully, later that year, she was given the all clear.
The original version of Viridian City is still, to this day, one of the most nostalgic things I’ve heard in gaming, and despite everything it was later associated with, it’s still a joy to listen to. There have been other versions of this VGM, such as in FireRed/LeafGreen, Silver/Gold and HeartGold/SoulSilver, but while the reworking of the tune also provided a nice update as well as some warm feelings, none of them came close to the simplicity of the original.
N64 Jamesy’s take
Sometimes true greatness lies in simplicity. Eliciting memories of being a carefree kid back in the 90s, Viridian City epitomises everything about why we played older games in the first place. It’s why I still find this simple, powerful track, and the way it stays with you after all this time, an amazing audio experience that will always be close to my heart.