20 Years of Pokémon, Part One: The Beginning

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I can’t believe it has been 20 YEARS since the release of the original Pokémon games. Well, that’s mainly because outside of Japan it hasn’t been. While the franchise began in 1996 with the launch of Pocket Monsters Red and Green in Japan, the American release didn’t happen until late 1998 and we filthy Europeans had to wait an extra year on top of that for our Pokémon fix. In any case, since Nintendo has made the decision to celebrate 20 years of Pokémon this year, I shall do the same with this special series of articles. I don’t know how extensively I will be covering the series or if I will review every main game (doubtful, as I haven’t even played all of them), but I definitely have a lot to say about the first generation in particular, its impact and how I look back at it almost two decades later.

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Satoshi Tajiri in 2016

The beginning is generally a good place to start a retrospective from, so that’s where we’re going. Way back in 1990, Satoshi Tajiri got the idea to create a game based on his childhood hobby of bug collecting and give kids living in cities the opportunity to experience the kind of joy he got out of the hobby as a child, having also been inspired by the link capabilities of Nintendo’s then-new Game Boy handheld. In the late 80s, Tajiri and artist Ken Sugimori worked on the independent gaming magazine Game Freak and eventually turned it into a game development company, creating titles such as Quinty (Mendel Palace outside Japan) and Jerry Boy (aka Smart Ball) for the NES/Famicom. As an aside, I could’ve sworn I owned a copy of Quinty for the Famicom, but I don’t seem to have one — I may have given it to a friend of mine when I asked him to gut a Famicom cart to create a shell for my Famicom to NES adapter, as the artwork on the Quinty cart makes it look like some weird anime shovelware thing. Hm, now that I think of it, I probably did that. Welp. I hope he kept the PCB. (Good, he did. Update coming later. Goddammit I thought I gave him one of those shitty Dragon Ball Famicom games I have laying around)

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The Famicom cart for Quinty, art by Ken Sugimori.

Anyway, back to the actual topic at hand. Game Freak pitched the concept that would become Pokémon to Nintendo soon after Tajiri came up with the idea, and although Nintendo didn’t quite understand what they were going for, the company saw potential in the concept and Shigeru Miyamoto himself took Tajiri under his wing. At this early stage, the project was known as “Capsule Monsters” but the name was eventually changed to Pocket Monsters for trademarking purposes. Development of the game took six years, a number of employees quit, and Game Freak nearly went bankrupt in the process. When Pocket Monsters was finally done and saw release in Japan, nobody really expected it to do particularly well. After all, by 1996 the Game Boy was practically dead, and there was no reason to believe that a weird RPG abour catching monsters would do much to change that. The idea to release two versions of the game came from Miyamoto, as he thought it would help with the trading aspect if each version had slightly different monsters. Of course, he would soon be proven right.

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Sometime in 1996, I was reading through a gaming magazine that had a monthly feature where they’d show charts of the top 10 most popular games in places like the UK, USA and Japan. While most of the games on these charts were the usual big-name releases for the PlayStation and occasionally the Saturn, one month there was this Game Boy game called “Pocket Monster” (sic) that I had never heard of at the top of the Japanese chart. “Okay,” I thought, “that’s some weird Japanese thing that we’ll never see over here.” Wouldn’t have been the first time some Japanese oddity was ranked high on their charts, and I didn’t think much of it at the time. Then, “Pocket Monster” stayed in the top 3 for months and months, obviously selling obscene amounts in Japan (over ten million copies by the end of 1997) and reviving the Game Boy as a platform, and by the time it had been there a while I wanted to find out what the deal with the whole thing was. However, there was nothing about a possible western release or anything like that.

By early 1998, Nintendo magazines such as the Official Nintendo Magazine in the UK had begun to give at least a bit of attention to Pocket Monsters, or “Po(c)kemon” in short. Even then, though, it was seen as a weird Japanese thing with some sort of stadium battle game for the 64DD (the ill-fated disk drive add-on for the Nintendo 64 that never saw release outside Japan) and some really strange stuff like this N64 game where you took photos of the critters and another one with a microphone peripheral that let you talk to the yellow rat apparently called Pikachu, which seemed to be the mascot of sorts. By this stage it was obvious to even the dimmest of Nintendo kids (that’d be me) that Pocket Monsters was absolutely huge in Japan (and had also gotten a bit of negative international attention when an episode of the animated series had given viewers epileptic seizures) and was coming to the west as well, but it still seemed like something that would never catch on outside Japan. The Game Boy games themselves got barely any attention at this point, and even the coverage about the N64/64DD games had more of a curious “let’s see what’s popular in Japan, oh those wacky Japanese amirite?” vibe than anything else, and even Official Nintendo Magazine writers had trouble telling Pikachu apart from Eevee. No, really. One of the early looks at Pocket Monsters Stadium for the 64DD (which was later canned in favor of a cartridge release) showed a screenshot depicting Eevee, and it was identified as Pikachu despite looking nothing like the yellow rodent. Good job, lads. And this was before they became totally incompetent and started writing the magazine for 5-year-olds.

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Oh yeah, they are practically identical. Also, this is a nice scene. As goofy as the cartoon often was in the early days, it had its moments.

Nintendo was somewhat apprehensive about releasing Pocket Monsters in America. It was thought that these cute Japanese critters wouldn’t appeal to American players, so the localization people at Nintendo of America made requests for the monster designs to be changed into something more aggressive and less cartoony and therefore more palatable to the American audience (probably resembling the artwork seen in popular comic books at the time… sorry, I just slightly threw up in my mouth there). What, the fire-breathing dragon and the giant turtle monster with water cannons (or the plant dinosaur) were not good enough? Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo’s big boss at the time, politely told NoA to pound sand (as did producer Tsunekazu Ishihara), and so it was that Pocket Monsters made its way to US soil on September 28, 1998 with all the original art intact and only minor changes to the script, accompanied by a massive marketing campaign that allegedly cost 50 million dollars.

Of course, it wasn’t called Pocket Monsters anymore. Since that title was deemed too similar to the existing Monster in My Pocket toyline, the shortened “Pokemon” form was used instead and given a pointless acute accent on top of the E for… some reason. Maybe it was easier to trademark that way, I don’t know. In any case, Pokémon was released once again as two separate versions: Red and Blue. Pocket Monsters Blue in Japan was an updated version of the original Red and Green cartridges, with graphical improvements (slightly better drawn Pokémon sprites, for one) and various fixes and changes to the gameplay. These fixes were quite welcome, as the original releases were absolutely riddled with bugs (not bug Pokémon, there’s only a few of those in this generation) and glitches.

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The original Pocket Monsters Red and Green sprites. Some of these are actually better than what we got (check out Parasect there), but others look like they have problems.

The western Red and Blue releases retained the improvements from the Japanese Blue, but the Pokémon distribution was based on the initial Red and Green versions. This caused some minor inconsistencies in the script that led to some confusion, but nothing to really worry about. Despite NoA’s initial doubts, Pokémon Red and Blue became gigantic hits in the US and sold another ten million copies, also moving a lot of Game Boy Color units as the release of the new handheld happened to be just a couple of months after Pokémon’s launch. What better way to play this fantastic new game than with Nintendo’s new and improved Game Boy model? (Being original Game Boy games, Red and Blue didn’t even really use the GBC’s capabilities, but that’s beside the point)

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Later on, you could also buy a variety of tastefully decorated Game Boy Color special editions. This is possibly the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen, although I do like the fact the power light is the center thing of the Poké Ball.

When Pokémon Red and Blue finally showed up in Europe a year after the American release — translating the game into various European languages most likely took some time, especially if extensive reprogramming to accommodate various special characters was required — they sold about as well (VGChartz says ~9 million copies, but they’re known to pull numbers out of their asses) as they did in previous markets and Pokémania was now well and truly a global phenomenon. I will go over the actual game in detail in the next part of this retrospective, as I have plenty to say about it and don’t want to make this article any longer and more rambling than it already is. Anyway, as bad as the Official Nintendo Magazine (or Nintendo Official Magazine, as it was known by then) generally was at the time, their Pokémon coverage leading up to the European release was absolutely fantastic. They devoted a couple of pages each month just for Pokémon, introducing all the monsters to European readers (there was a poster of the original 150 at one point, plus a comic version of the first episode of the cartoon which was also debuting in Europe around that time, sneak peeks at upcoming Japanese stuff, that kind of thing) and generally drumming up hype for the release in late 1999. It worked a treat, and kids like myself knew what all the important Pokémon were and what the Master Ball should be used for long before we played the actual game.

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Yeah, that sounds about right. Thanks, Professor Oak! I’m not sure why NOM started posting these obviously fake “tips” in their Pokémon section, but I’m going to assume Dave got one “IS IT TRUE YOU CAN GET MEW IN THE TRUCK IF YOU BEAT ELITE FOUR 66 TIMES” letter too many and just snapped.

Before I end this introductory chapter, let’s talk about the Pokémon name for a bit. I’ll admit I personally like Pocket Monsters better, always have (a name with some form of “monster” in it is always going to be cooler than one without), and think the more subdued Japanese logos used for the games (with the colors changing to match each game) look cooler than the loud and cartoony yellow and blue one used in the west since 1998. However, I completely realize that Pokémon is a hell of a lot more effective as an international brand name than Pocket Monsters. It’s short, catchy, and easy to pronounce no matter where in the world you are. Well, aside from the slight issues the pointless acute accent has caused for clueless American parents over the years, leading to all sorts of butchered pronunciations along the lines of “Pokey-man”. The logo, while I’m personally not a huge fan of it, is also highly distinctive and instantly recognizable by anyone, which certainly doesn’t hurt. Nintendo’s marketing people clearly knew what they were doing back in the late 90s.

Next: well let’s talk about the actual game I guess

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