When you talk to any casual fan about Pokémon, they’ll remember three things. Pikachu, Porygon seizures, and the theme song. The original theme of Pokémon has entrenched itself into pop culture, and is arguably the biggest song to come out of an anime dub ever.
But the Pokémon franchise has had a long journey since that initial success, its opening theme songs changing with the times. Even as theme songs for TV have mostly gone away, Pokémon has kept the light of them alive with no fewer than 24 songs across as many years!
Why don’t we take a look back and see how they’ve evolved in that time? It’s worth examining how music trends influenced the songs and which ones are just straight up bops. Along the way we’ll look at how the songs match up to the visuals of the openings as well, because these songs don’t exist in a vacuum and exist first and foremost to be paired with the shows.
Pokémon Indigo League
How do you begin to discuss perfection?
This is the theme song by which all Pokémon theme songs are judged. That isn’t just nostalgia talking, they hit this out of the park. The opening notes convey a sense of wonder and mystery, aided by the sights of Mewtwo and Mew. The lyrics expertly convey the core appeal of the franchise and the anime in particular; you’re traveling on a big adventure to catch as many of these creatures as you can! It should feel like cynical marketing, especially with “gotta catch ‘em all,” but it’s inspiring! It’s right up there with ‘The Fellowship’ theme from Lord of the Rings as one of the best adventure songs of all time.
But you know what this song has that the Lord of the Rings theme doesn’t? Visuals timed to the beat of the song! Let me tell you, Lord of the Rings would have won 11 Oscars for every single movie in the franchise if they started their films with opening visuals edited together this perfectly. Damn near every cut in the opening is put on the beat or matches the flow of the song. The perfect example of this is the shot just before the logo where Ash tosses the Poké Ball. The timing of that ball toss with “gotta catch ‘em ALL” is expert level.
You may think you remember this opening solely because of the song but those visuals do a lot of legwork.
Pokémon: Adventures in the Orange Islands
Pokémon could have stuck with the original opening forever, endlessly remixing it (Degrassi style, baby!) but they made the bold decision to make ‘Pokémon World’ it’s own thing and it earns major points for that. The original theme is a classic adventure song but this feels more like an adventure song specifically for the summer. It’s bouncier, breezier, and lighter but still communicates the wonder of the Pokémon world.
The visuals aren’t timed quite as well but we’ve still got shots like that one of Officer Jenny and Nurse Joy perfectly synced to the cadence of the “CROWWWDS” lyric.
Pokémon: The Johto Journeys
‘Pokémon World’ boldly broke free from the original but it still maintained the general feel. This one does something completely new. This isn’t an adventure song; this is a fun time with your friends! It’s practically a campfire sing-along song! This reflects the general shifting of what the Pokémon franchise was at the time, from a game and anime with some shades of gray to a bright and colorful, suitable for every demographic with all the edges filed off. That isn’t a knock by the by, the theme needs to be an accurate portrayal of what you’re getting and this song does an excellent job at that. It’s just not as exciting as what came before.
The editing and visuals are above average here but we’re seeing the beginning of a noticeable issue with the opening themes. They’re mixing visuals from the Japanese opening (which clearly has better animation) and visuals from the show. You’ve got this crisp and bright animation next to the softer visuals from the show. It takes you a little out of the experience of the theme, even if it’s only subconsciously.
Pokémon: Johto League Champions
‘Born to Be a Winner’
Oh I am HERE for this song. First off you’ve got the song leading with the chorus of the original theme but it’s got a solid new beat behind it. That beat drives the entire song and it only gets bigger and better as it goes. This is the feeling of adventure the first two themes gave us but with a new edge!
And man that cut when Ash and Pikachu land that’s timed perfectly to “JOH-TO” is sublime. Shame the visuals, which look so crisp and uniform, are oddly broken up with that shot at the end of Umbreon taken from the show. Why is it the only one? It’s a good shot but come on, keep it consistent!
Pokémon: Master Quest
‘Believe in Me’
This one is… fine. It’s fine! It’s biggest sin is that it’s pretty generic. Besides the two shouts of “Pokémon!” it feels like it could fit any other early 2000’s anime dub. Also we’ve got the first (and not the last) awkward shoehorning in of the title of the season. “I’m on a MASTER QUEST!” I mean, I get it. Ash wants to be a Pokémon master. I get what they’re going for but… eh.
The song also doesn’t have a strong beat behind it so I guess they decided not to care about matching the edits to the song. It’s not bad but again, very average.
‘I Wanna Be a Hero’
…I wanna be a hero? I know Ash has saved the world way more times than he can even remember but that really isn’t his focus. He’s not a hero. (And don’t you dare come in these comments and talk about Slowking and the world turning to Ash, this ain’t the movies!) He’s not trying to stop evil, corruption, or the dozens of criminal organizations that challenge children to Pokémon battles. He’s just a guy! The song itself is once again fine but generic. The editing is a little better than last time, if only for finally making all the visuals consistent.
Pokémon: Advanced Challenge
Now THIS is more like it. That guitar adds so much! The lyrics are back to feeling more like Pokémon. Dreams! Rising to the challenge! Friendships! This theme is proof that Pokémon openings are far better when the lyrics reflect the show. I know someone in the Pokémon music office (I imagine there’s just 100 Jigglypuff plushies in there) has dreams of one of these openings taking off on the pop charts and wants to make it as generic as possible with as few references to Pokémon as possible to do so. That’s a mistake. This isn’t some generic anime that has a song about love or whatever and never mentions the title in the song (looking at you basically every anime opening ever.) This is a gigantic franchise! Let the song be unabashedly about the series!
The power is back in the editing as well! Should almost every opening time its music to Ash tossing a Poké Ball? Yep!
Pokémon: Advanced Battle
We are on a roll! Great instrumental, good singer, and those lyrics really hone in on the battling aspect of Pokémon. What really makes this one work is that, “from the stars and the ancient past” lyric. Hinting at the mystery of the Pokémon world adds a richness and wonder to any opening theme and it breaks up all the lyrics about battling. Also I’m just a sucker for “Ooooowhoaaaa” in songs.
This one feels like they had the clips they wanted to use in the opening and gave it to whoever wrote the song because they all fit so damn well!
Pokémon: Battle Frontier
Uh, well that roll was short. Also, this song is way too short! It has no time or room to build! Not that it has much to work with, it’s an extremely weak song which isn’t helped by needing to get “BATTLE FRONTIER” in there somewhere. It worked for Advanced Battle because those two words are cool. Battle is cool, obviously, but the word frontier is wasted on a song like this. If this was more of an adventure tune like the original opening it might work but this is just generic filler music. The first opening that falls into the “below average” category.
Pokémon: Diamond and Pearl
‘Diamond and Pearl’
I take it back! Give me ‘Battle Frontier’ back! When you start a new era of Pokémon you need your opening theme to hit hard and this is beyond weak. Working in the lyrics “it’s a new game” and “DIAMOND AND PEARL” does it zero favors, nor does the speak-singing. These openings, both in their music and visuals, are quickly becoming forgettable.
Pokémon: DP Battle Dimension
‘We Will Be Heroes’
We’ve got a stronger singer this time but the song has no energy driving it! On paper the lyrics are fine, even if someone at the Pokémon office does not understand, once again, that Ash and company aren’t heroes. Also this theme just isn’t exciting. A Pokémon theme song NEEDS to be exciting! Come on, you’ve got a shot of the team on jet skis! How is this boring?!
Pokémon: DP Galactic Battles
‘Battle Cry – (Stand Up!)’
Okay, we’re back on track! Great singer, sense of adventure, a chorus echoing the lyrics (always a good move) and that killer drumbeat! A drumbeat that the editor smartly timed a lot of the clips to. I dig it! It also smartly only busts out the “GALACTIC BATTLES!” at the very end, which more of these seasons with awkward titles should do.
Pokémon: DP Sinnoh League Victors
‘We Will Carry On!’
At this point I need to ask, why are we even bothering with an intro? Sure Galactic Battles was okay but the songs are so short they don’t use that short time properly. 30-second intros can be done, OK K.O! did an amazing opening song in 20 seconds! This song though is just some mindless Disney Channel level butt rock.
Pokémon: Black and White
‘Black and White’
I wish this had more of that male singer. It sounds like he’s trying to do an ‘80s ballad impression (a little Michael Bolton) which would have been INCREDIBLE for a Pokémon theme but instead we go for a passable if generic vocal. I think there’s a lot of potential in using the “black and white” concept for a song (good and evil in the Pokémon world is a thing!) but then I remember. It’s Pokémon. We’re not wrestling with deep moral and ethical questions about good and evil here.
Also the choice of a CG opening is… a choice! It’s certainly unique for the franchise but if the show isn’t CG what’s the point?
Pokémon: BW Rival Destinies
Look, I love some butt rock. ‘Phenomenon’ by Thousand Foot Krutch is a killer song but you need more OOMPH in your song to pull it off! Pokémon is one of the biggest franchises on the planet! It needs a better song than one you’ll forget five seconds after it ends. Embrace the butt rock! Let these singers really go for it!
Pokémon: Adventures in Unova and Beyond
‘It’s Always You and Me’
I didn’t know Christian Kids Rock was a genre the Pokémon series would try and tackle but here we are. What hath God wrought? I guess I can give it a point for its commitment to not have even an inkling of edginess? Honestly I’m so distraught by these openings at this point I’m just trying to find anything good I can.
We’re also long past the visuals and editing that bother to match the opening song and it’s a shame. I know the anime is a disposable product meant to prop up the games and franchise as a whole but man, the lack of care in the editing is a little sad. We’ve certainly come so far from the very first opening.
Pokémon the Series: XY
‘Pokémon Theme (Version XY)’
Oh. Oh my god. Oh my GOD. It’s good. No, it’s great. No, it’s INCREDIBLE. I’m saved! You may think it’s only because of nostalgia but let me tell you, they could have done that original song dirty. No, they pulled out all the stops and gave that classic a new lease on life. They pick up the pace and give it a harder rock sound. It’s still only 30 seconds but they use every moment to its fullest extent.
This extends to the visuals which, for the first time in a long time, perfectly match the song. When the chorus hits and the song picks up they toss endless battle shots at you! It’s epic! It pumps you up! After so long it finally feels like a Pokémon theme song again in music and visuals.
Pokémon the Series XY: Kalos Quest
‘Be a Hero’
Welp, it was nice while it lasted. Look, Pokémon, I need to explain to you that Ash is just a kid on a quest to make friends and catch Pokémon. Stop trying to make “be a hero’ happen. It’s never gonna happen! The song itself is back into generic land but that singer going ham on “heeeeROOOOO” did make me smile. It’s total butt rock and I’m here for it. As much as the hero thing doesn’t fit Pokémon the visuals of the opening do sell that FEELING and that deserves some points.
Pokémon the Series: XYZ
Stadium rock for a Pokémon opening? I’m kinda here for it! If Ash was a wrestler I could easily imagine this as his entrance theme. It certainly stands out from previous openings, even though it doesn’t utilize its 30 seconds well enough. Ash seemingly tapping his feet to the beat is glorious, even if the rest of the visuals aren’t well timed to the song.
Pokémon the Series: Sun & Moon
‘Under The Alolan Sun’
I. Love. This. Opening. It’s the second best Pokémon opening, just behind the original. It’s so fun! It matches the slice of life comedy vibe that Sun & Moon did so well. More than that it feels inviting in a way so many of these themes haven’t been. The original theme made you excited to go on a journey but this one makes you want to live on the island with these characters!It’s that shot of everyone dancing alongside their Pokémon that does it. How can you not groove along and smile with that? Then we’ve got those crossfade shots of everyone with their Pokémon that takes it over the top. This is how you start a new era of Pokémon!
Pokémon the Series: Sun & Moon – Ultra Adventures
‘Under The Alolan Moon’
A new genre for these openings, which I’m all for, but the problem is that it feels like the song is ramping up to the big chorus but before it can get there the song just ends. The beat is fine but after the fun of the ‘Under The Alolan Sun’ opening this pales in comparison.
Pokémon the Series: Sun & Moon – Ultra Legends
‘The Challenge of Life’
The drums make this song! It feels big yet keeps the fun of the first Sun & Moon opening. It even sneaks in some of the grand feeling that only the Pokémon world has. I can’t say this is a song I’d put on repeat on its own but it sets the tone for the series pretty damn well. Plus that shot of Ash jumping into the water at the top is just damn cool.
Pokémon Journeys: The Series
‘The Journey Starts Today’
Pokémon, but what if it was sung by Imagine Dragons? The first half is bland but once we hit those “Whoaoaoaoa” I can’t help but want to clap along. It’s not a memorable opening by any means but as a kid I can imagine getting into it. That tracking shot that starts with Pikachu helps a lot.
Pokémon Master Journeys: The Series
‘Journey to Your Heart’
That guitar riff! Holy hell, this song does not mess around with its 30 seconds. A powerful hook, rockin’ beat, and engaging lyrics. Look, “journey to your heart” is kind of a meaningless phrase but damn if it doesn’t get you pumped! It’s so anime. It’s so Pokémon!
The editing of the opening visuals matches the song. We start with a calm shot of the team looking over a cliff at sunset but then as the drums kick in we get that jeep flying into the air! Majesty, action, and not too long after we’ve got Ash dancing! It’s so cute and it matches the song!
I’m glad we could end this look back through the Pokémon openings on such a high note. The Diamond & Pearl through Black & White era was easily the roughest but the last few series have managed to get back some of that original Pokémon theme song glory.
I’d be lying though if I said any theme managed to stand up to the original though. They knocked it outta the park from the jump. I can only imagine how intimidating it is for any band to come in and try and add to the Pokémon legacy after that, especially with it now being watched by many corporate overlords. It’s honestly a bit of a miracle we could get something as good as ‘Under The Alolan Sun’ from a franchise as big as Pokémon.
Still, anytime a new Pokémon theme drops I always give it a listen. The ones that manage to capture the magic of Pokémon are some of the most special and fun opening themes out there.
Also if anyone from the Pokémon music office is reading, please release a full three-minute version of ‘Under The Alolan Sun.’ The world needs it!