Learn how Game Freak made the world want to "catch 'em all!"
By Robert Marrujo:: What many considered to be a flash in the pan upon its release in 1998 has transformed into a piece of pop culture with the sort of staying power afforded only to a select other few like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. Pokémon is just that endearing and enduring a franchise. Read on to learn the origins of this beloved series, and continue to join us for the rest of the week as we celebrate all things Pocket Monsters.
Like Nintendo, video game developer Game Freak’s origins are far less technology-based than one might think. Satoshi Tajiri started Game Freak in 1981 as a fanzine devoted to gaming. Self-produced and distributed, Tajiri’s magazine had a small but dedicated following. Among Tajiri’s readers was a man named Ken Sugimori, whom he eventually met and formed a strong friendship with. Sugimori would go on to became the main illustrator for the magazine, but as time passed, Tajiri eventually decided to end the venture in order to focus on learning game programming. The two men linked up as business partners and transitioned Game Freak from game publication to development company in 1989.
The company’s first game was Mendel Palace, an NES action-puzzler. While not the most amazing title, Game Freak had nonetheless caught the attention of Nintendo, specifically renowned designer Shigeru Miyamoto. Miyamoto took Tajiri under his wing, becoming something of a mentor to the fledgling creator and also giving him access to a couple of Nintendo franchises to develop games around. From this deal came puzzle game Yoshi and a Japan-only Mario title for SNES called Mario and Wario. Things were looking up for Game Freak, but something had been percolating in the background of Tajiri’s mind that was going to forever change things for him and Nintendo.
The lightning strike that would become Pokémon had hit Tajiri’s mind in 1989 when Square released The Final Fantasy Legend for Nintendo’s Game Boy. Game Boy became a runaway hit when it launched, but it was a system few envisioned as being a proper host for anything more than action and puzzle games. Squaresoft clearly felt differently, and so too did Tajiri, who felt that Legend proved that, if done right, any genre could find a home on Nintendo’s portable. In the years following the establishment of Game Freak as a development studio, Tajiri and Sugimori began looking at Game Boy’s unique features and experimented with how best to deliver a video game experience unlike any other.
Tajiri was an avid bug collector and arcade game aficionado in his adolescence, and he would draw heavily from his past while conceptualizing what would soon become Pokémon. Game Boy’s ability to link with other systems struck a chord with him, inspiring thoughts of a new type of game where players could collect and exchange things between one another. When pre-development work began on Tajiri’s collecting/trading-idea, the friends knew that it was something special, and after much brainstorming, he and Sugimori presented their proposal for a game called Capsule Monsters to Nintendo. Nintendo had enjoyed working with the duo before and, impressed with their proposal, agreed to fund the title’s development.
Tajiri’s vision for the game had a rock-solid core, but the finer details were what shifted most during development. The name Capsule Monsters was itself a hurdle, as Tajiri knew that players would shorten the title and “Capumon” just didn’t have a good ring to it. Throw in the fact that Game Freak was having a hard time trademarking Capsule Monsters and the name just had to go. After some deliberation, the title Pocket Monsters was settled upon; it didn’t hurt that it shortened well to Pokémon. Pokémon doubled for the name of the game and the monsters, and now Tajiri and Sugimori just had to figure out how many of the creatures to make.
Originally, over 200 individual Pokémon were created for the game, with the intention of whittling away the weaker designs and saving others for potential sequels. Sugimori, who was a skilled artist, collaborated with a very small team to come up with the appearance of all the different Pokémon, but the final design for each was done by himself. Despite all the love for fan-favorites like Charizard and Pikachu, Lapras, Rhydon, and Clefairy are actually the first Pokémon that the team created! Players were initially intended to lure Pokémon through a system called Charisma and maintain relationships with the creatures similar to pets. Tajiri and company tinkered with the idea, and in the end believed that catching Pokémon in (as previously titled) “capsules” and developing a bond with players more akin to allies was the better way to go. Tajiri and Sugimori were firing on all cylinders, but there was something missing and Shigeru Miyamoto knew what it was.
Nintendo’s legendary developer had the perfect idea for Pokémon; split the game into two. Miyamoto believed that the game’s core collecting concept would have a great appeal to children and that the trading aspect would result in many families buying multiple copies, as a result. In an effort to bolster this potential desire to engage in trading and make the experience even more fun, Miyamoto posited that creating two versions of the game, each containing different Pokémon, would do the trick. Tajiri agreed, and the game became two titles; Pokémon Red Version and Green Version. When the games hit Japan, Miyamoto’s suggestion was spot-on, as Pokémon sold millions of copies and the two variations caused a trading frenzy amongst players, blossoming into an outright phenomenon. The only question that remained was whether or not Pokémon’s appeal could translate to players abroad.
Preparations for Pokémon’s trip to the US were meticulous and calculated. Nintendo poured bushels of cash and resources into marketing for the games and its accompanying cartoon, toys, and merchandise, feeling that Pokémon would need a strong push to find its audience. One of Nintendo’s more brilliant ideas was branding the titles with the ingenious tagline/challenge “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” which perfectly conveyed what made Pokémon special. Still, there was hesitation on the part of the Western localization team, who feared that the cute nature of many of the creatures would not be appealing to American gamers. In their eyes, Pokémon needed more of an edge.
The localization team suggested re-designing the Pokémon to be more menacing, but Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi disagreed, feeling that the games could be successful as they were if handled properly; what was wildfire in Japan could surely be in America, too. The translated versions of Red and Green prepared for the US were based on the code from the Japanese version of Pokémon Blue (a modified follow-up to the original two games), which is perhaps partially the reason why Nintendo of America decided to name the games Pokémon Red Version and Blue Version when they debuted in 1998. For all the trepidation and debate internally at Nintendo, when Pokémon finally landed in the US it went from a hit at home to an international superstar.
It’s easy to take Pokémon for granted now, but its impact both on Nintendo and the video game industry is uncanny. Gaming always had a social aspect to it, but Red and Blue took it in a new direction. Like baseball cards, kids everywhere found pals and forged friendly rivalries through their newfound mutual interest. What’s particularly special about Pokémon is just how engrossing the series became across multiple genres of entertainment. The trading card game, cartoon show, toys, and movies all captured the attention and imaginations of people as much as the games themselves. What’s more, the longevity of Pokémon is equally impressive; 20 years after Red and Blue were released, Pokémon’s popularity continues unfazed, to the point of being nearly self-perpetuating.
What Tajiri and Sugimori touched on with Pokémon is as timeless as Super Mario or Mickey Mouse. Pokémon crosses generations of players in a way that few franchises of any sort can, so much so that now, many people are trading the titular creatures with their own children. Pokemon’s positive messages about friendship, respect, diligence, and harmony with nature also set Red and Blue apart from many other games of its era, and has continued to do so all the way through to Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. Amazingly, Pokémon itself might not even exist today if not for the diligence of then-programmer Junichi Masuda; the games were notorious for overheating computers during development, and if he hadn’t kept switching PCs in response, they might never have ever been released!
Thankfully, the original versions of Pokémon Red Version and Blue Version are finally available on the 3DS Virtual Console. Nintendo has been plugging away to bring the entirety of the Pokémon Game Boy library to the 3DS Virtual Console up to this point, with Pokémon Crystal the latest and last title to hit the service. No mater what, do yourself a favor and experience these first two, amazing installments of the Pokémon series any way that you can!