Did you know at one point Pokemon Red and Green were only going to include 30 different Pokemon? Or that one of the designers of Pikachu liked him so much that he intentionally made him hard to find, because he didn’t want anybody else to catch one? Or that in the middle of development all of the programmers quit at the same time, and all of the data was almost lost because nobody else in the company knew how to work with their code?
Today, Pokemon is the biggest media franchise in the world, and has taken over the worlds of Video Games, Anime, Trading Card games, and so much more. The thing is, Pokemon as we know it today almost never existed. The six year development process of Pokemon Red and Green was full of financial difficulties, bad programming, and baffling game design decisions, and if it wasn’t for a crazy series of coincidences, insane luck, and a few strokes of pure genius, well…we wouldn’t be talking about it today. In this video, I want to tell the story of Pokemon Red and Green – how they defied the odds, narrowly avoided disaster time and time again, and became the foundation for the worldwide sensation we call Pokemon.
It may be hard to imagine, but this multimedia juggernaut began as the passion project of one man. In order to truly understand Pokemon, you need to understand it’s creator, Satoshi Tajiri. However, I know this isn’t what you clicked on the video for, so I’ll try and speed-run it (which shouldn’t be hard, since these games are so full of bugs).
Satoshi grew up in a rural area near the edge of Tokyo in the late 60’s and 70’s. As a kid, Satoshi and his friends would run around collecting small critters – bugs, tadpoles, and crayfish. Although all the kids collected bugs, Tajiri was the best at it, which helped earn him the nickname “Dr Bug”.
As Tajiri got older, the area where he grew up became more developed. Trees, grass and rivers were replaced with shops and roads, and there were fewer creatures to catch. When Satoshi was in Junior high the fishing pond near his home got turned into an arcade. Proving that he was truly decades ahead of his time, Tajiri stopped running around outside and started spending his time playing video games instead. He was especially interested in Shooter games like Missile Command and Space Invaders, and anytime he had a break in school he would quickly run over to the arcade to play before hurrying back – which probably explains why he only got into a 2 year technical college. It was this passion for gaming that caused Dr. Bug to earn a new nickname – the Game Freak.
Naturally, as a fan of games Tajiri would seek out a source of high-quality gaming journalism. Unfortunately, this was the early 1980’s, and WatchMojo wouldn’t even be founded for another few decades, so Tajiri decided to do it himself. He began putting together Game Freak magazine, named after himself, and filled it with tips and tricks on how to beat video games. At first he wrote the magazine by hand, copied the pages on a photocopier, and stapled the pages together. However, the magazine didn’t really take off until 1983, when Tajiri put out an issue about the Space Shooter Xevious titled “How to Earn 10,000,000” (Ten Million) Points. This issue ended up becoming incredibly popular, selling over 10,000 copies – which may not sound like THAT much, until you realize that he’s still printing all of these copies himself. The demand was far more than Tajiri could handle on his own, so he ended up taking his magazine to a professional printer to make more copies.
Shortly after Game Freak magazine began to spread, our second major character enters the story – a young artist named Ken Sugimori. Sugimori saw the magazine in a local shop, and offered to join as the magazine’s illustrator. Tajiri agreed, and Sugimori served as the magazine’s illustrator for several years.. When Game Freak began to make games Sugimori made art for the games as well. He’s one of only 3 people who worked on Pokemon from the beginning, and his watercolor artwork is literally some of the most iconic video game artwork to ever be created, so I guess it’s a good thing he decided to cold-call some random magazine editor he didn’t know asking for a job.
Not long after this, Tajiri graduated from high school and began the Tokyo National College of Technology, where he majored in electronics and computer science. I wasn’t able to find any evidence that he applied to Full Sail and was rejected, so I’m forced to assume that he did. During this time he continued working on his magazine, but also began planning how to make the leap from writing about games to actually making them. He began by tearing apart his Famicom – (the Japanese version of the Nintendo Entertainment System), and studying the Famicom Basic programming language. It was during his time at technical school that he met the third person who worked on Pokemon from beginning to end – Junichi Masuda.
After graduating Masuda got a job as a programmer, but soon heard that Tajiri was looking for somebody who could make music for video games. Intrigued, he gathered all of the original music he had made at that point and went to see Tajiri. At this point Satoshi Tajri had gotten a job as a writer, but was still self-publishing Game Freak magazine out of an apartment. Although Masuda already had a full time job, he began working in the Game Freak apartment on weekends producing original music.
In the same way Ken Sugimori IS Pokemon’s art style, Junichi Masuda is the man behind Pokemon’s music. The soundtrack for Pokemon Red and Green contains some of the most recognizable pieces of video game music ever written.
But Masuda is more than just a composer – he also worked on generation 1 as a programmer, and throughout the series has served as a designer, director, writer, producer, and executive saying-stupid-stuff-in-interviews-to-piss-off-fans-er.
Shortly after Masuda joined the gang he, Tajiri, and Sugimori began development on their first original game – Quinty, known as Mendel Palace in the US. They presented the game to Nintendo, but weren’t interested in the game because they weren’t a formal game company at the time, so they ended up shopping the game around to several different publishers. After pitching to Namco they were told that they couldn’t have a contract with an individual – that’s when the decision was made to establish Game Freak as an official company.
Quinty was released in 1989, as was another game that was extremely influential to the development of Pokemon – The Final Fantasy Legend (known in japan as Makai Toushi SaGa). This game was released on the Game Boy, and showed Tajiri that the system could handle more than just action games. This inspired Tajiri to make his own Game Boy game, which he believed he could make in six months. After all, it’s just a little black-and-white handheld device – there NO WAY development would take 12 times that long, right?
Now is the part of the video where we can FINALLY start talking about Pokemon’s early development. By the way, I know that wasn’t a great speed-run time, but I blame RNG. While Final Fantasy Legend inspired Tajiri to make the game, the concept for what the game would actually BE came from a number of different places. The first piece of the concept came from the Link Cable – a piece of hardware that was originally released with the Game Boy, and allowed players to connect two consoles together. While I always thought the link-cable was so you could create a set of Game Boy nunchucks, at the time it was mostly used for linking together games like Tetris so two players could compete against one another. Tajiri, however, saw the potential for the cable to trade items between two games, rather than just competition.
In an interview in a Japanese book called “Pokedex”, Tajiri told a story of why he wanted to design a trading game. “in Dragon Quest, there’s a rare item called the Mad Cap — and Sugimori was talking about how he had two of them. I’d spent so many days trying to get a Mad Cap of my own, but I just couldn’t get one. So I just thought, “well since he has two, why can’t he give me one?” So our original idea for Pokemon wasn’t ‘we want to make an RPG’ — instead, it was ‘we want to trade.’” I, for one, find this idea totally fascinating – before they even knew what genre of game it was going to be, Tajiri decided to make a game where the goal was finding and collecting rare things and trading them with your friends.
The idea to trade *creatures* back and forth came afterwards, and had two main inspirations. The first was the time Tajiri spent as Dr. Bug – finding and collecting bugs, tadpoles, and other small animals as a child. The other inspiration was giant monster media of the time, including Kaiju movies like Godzilla and Tokusatsu characters like Ultraman.
One particularly inspirational series was Ultra Seven – an ultraman Spin-off in which the main character stores kaiju monsters in capsules, also called “monster balls”, and releases them to fight other monsters. Not only is there a clear parallel with capturing and storing Pokemon in Pokeballs, but many early Pokemon designs, such as Rhydon, Nidoking, and even Blastoise, have influences from Kaiju designs. Even the game’s original name, Capsule Monsters, was inspired by Ultra Seven.
These three influences – the link cable, bug catching, and kaiju media – were the main guiding forces for the earliest version of Capsule Monsters. Sometime in 1990, Game Freak put together a presentation to pitch their concept for Capumon to Nintendo. The amazing folks over at Helix Chamber have been able to translate and reconstruct this pitch, and it is a treasure trove of information on this early period of Pokemon development.
In this early document the game is described as similar to a “gashapon” – basically a fancy japanese vending machine selling figurines. These days the genre of “Gatcha” games, inspired by gashapon, is everywhere – there’s a good chance you saw an ad for one before watching this video, and I’m pretty sure I can’t actually call myself a Youtuber until I’ve been offered a sponsorship by Braid: Meadow Pigeons. However, at the time the concept was pretty novel.
This document also reveals that player would befriend and capture Pokemon by increasing their Charisma stat, rather than wearing the Pokemon down in battle. This shows that the player character was originally intended to have their own stats that leveled up over time, as well as the stats of their Pokemon. In fact, early on the player character actually took an active role in the battle, but this was later changed to keep the focus on the Pokemon themselves. In addition, it seems that enemy characters (and perhaps even the player) may have been intended to…whip their Pokemon. Whips can be seen in the early concept art for the Capumon pitch, but even in the final game there are several NPCs, such as Team Rocket Grunts and Sabrina, who are carrying whips. Yikes.
Using your Charisma wasn’t the only way to collect Pokemon, either. Money would have played a much more significant role in this version of the game – each Pokemon would have had a monetary value assigned to them, which you could use to buy the Pokemon at shops. If you traded a Pokemon with your friends, whoever was trading the lower valued Pokemon would have also had to pay the difference! Depending on who you ask, this feature either got scrapped because “It just felt wrong to trade money for a living creature”, or because it took up too much space in the game’s memory to assign them monetary values. Given how the rest of the game’s development goes, I’m inclined to believe the latter. However, there are still some remnants of this in the final game – you can buy a Magikarp from a salesman, and in the Game Corner you can exchange coins you win from the slot machines to buy Pokemon.
Aside from these differences, the game in many ways closely resembles the finished product. The map is pretty similar, and the concept art for battles and Pokemon stats isn’t too different from the final game. This document also includes early art for 31 different Pokemon, most of whom made it to the final game. Some were dropped, and others were significantly redesigned. Gyarados, for example, wasn’t always a sea serpent, and used to look like a sand worm from Dune. However, for the most part the Pokemon that did exist were pretty similar to their final designs.
Which makes it even more shocking that this original pitch was actually REJECTED by Nintendo. As far as I was able to find, this was for two main reasons. The first was the name – they were worried that they wouldn’t be able to trademark “Capsule Monsters”. This issue was easily fixed, however, by changing the name to “Pocket Monsters” instead – Pokemon for short. The second issue seemed to be that they simply had trouble understanding the concept, and found the game too confusing. Reportedly Game Freak actually pitched and was rejected by Nintendo several times, and this may have spelled the end for Pokemon if it wasn’t for one man – Shigeru Miyamoto.
Miyamoto is kind of a big deal – at this point he had already helped design Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros, and The Legend of Zelda, so his opinion at Nintendo definitely held some weight. Tajiri was introduced to Miyamoto through a mutual friend – Tsunekazu Ishihara (the current president of the Pokemon Company), and it turns out that Miyamoto was actually a fan of Tajiri’s previous game, Quinty. After meeting Tajiri, Miyamoto reportedly became something of a mentor to him. Although Pokemon was originally rejected by Nintendo, Miyamoto took an interest in the project because he thought that using the link cables to trade Pokemon between different devices was a unique experience that couldn’t be found on any other console. He eventually pitched the game himself, and the idea was finally approved. The initial release date was set for December of 1991 – around 4 and a half years before the games would ACTUALLY be released.
Although their game was now approved, Game Freak soon ran into another issue – money. Quinty had only been a modest success, and they wouldn’t have enough money to finish the game. Enter Gunpei Yokoi, creator of the Game Boy. Yokoi was introduced to Tajiri by Miyamoto, and when Game Freak couldn’t continue working on Pokemon he assigned them to work on existing Nintendo franchises. The first game he assigned to them was “Yoshi”, which became a Tetris-like puzzle game for the NES. The game ended up being unexpectedly popular, selling half a million copies on it’s first day, and giving Game Freak a much needed financial boost.
However, even a successful game like Yoshi wasn’t enough to finance the development all by itself. In total, Game Freak ended up releasing 6 games in the time it took them to develop Pokemon Red and Blue. These games helped keep the company afloat, but resulted in Pokemon having to be put on hold several times. In addition, although these games sold well enough to keep the company from going out of business, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for Game Freak. In fact, the entire development process was full of financial difficulties. There were times when Tajiri wasn’t able to pay himself and had to rely on his father for financial support, and the lack of funding led to a lot of issues within the company.
According to an interview with Time Magazine, 5 employees once quit at the same time when they found out how dire the financial situation was. The Satoshi Tajiri Manga also includes an incident in which all three programmers quit at the same time. I wasn’t able to determine whether these two sources are referring to the same event or two different instances, but even a single mass employee walkout would have been difficult to deal with for the tiny development team, particularly losing all of their programmers at the same time.
Luckily, Junichi Masuda had some experience as a professional programmer and was able to pick up some of the slack, in addition to creating the music for the game. However, this transition wasn’t perfectly smooth – at some point while trying to figure out the existing code, Masuda caused the Unix workstation containing all of their data to crash. No one at the company was familiar with Unix, and if they weren’t able to recover the data it would probably have meant the end of Pokemon, since the company wouldn’t have had the time or money to start over. This is why you always back up your important data!
Luckily, they were able to recover the data, and development on the game was able to continue. However, losing all of their programmers in the middle of the project could be part of the reason why Generation 1 is so full of bugs (and I don’t just mean Caterpie).
From this point on, the timing of things starts to get a bit fuzzy. Based on the information I have it’s easy to piece together many of the events that happened throughout Gen 1’s long development, but it’s basically impossible to determine when these different events happened. Because of this, we are going to be taking a bit of a detour and using something called the Internal List as a rough timeline for how the games were developed.
What is the internal list? Basically, it’s the order that the Pokemon are listed in the memory of the Game Boy cartrtidges themselves. The internal list order has lots of oddities, such as members of the same evolution line being separated from eachother (sometimes by dozens of spots), and even includes gaps where Pokemon that once existed were removed. There is enough room in the internal list for 190 Pokemon, but only 151 made it into the final game. These gaps in the memory are actually responsible for the famous MissingNo. glitch, which occurs when the game tries to load data from one of these empty slots.
Why do we care about the internal list order? Because there is strong evidence that the order of the internal list closely corresponds to the order that each Pokemon was designed and programmed into the game. For example, Rhydon – often claimed to be the first Pokemon ever designed – fills the #1 slot in this list, and other Pokemon that we know were designed early (either due to interviews or concept art), such as Clefairy, Gengar, Lapras and Nidoran, all appear early on in this list.
Knowing the order that the Pokemon were designed in not only opens a window into how the creature design philosophy changed over the game’s development, but into the mechanics as well. For this next section I’m going to be moving chronologically through the internal list, and taking detours as interesting developments come up.
As mentioned before, many early Pokemon were inspired by Kaiju, and the early section of the internal list is chock-full of Kaiju-esque designs. This early section also contains many Pokemon that were designed to serve a specific, practical purpose in the world. According to Ken Sugimori, some of the earliest concepts for Pokemon were that they would serve a specific purpose to help people. For example, Rhydon was designed as something of a workhorse, Lapras ferried people around on its back, and Clefairy was meant to be a pet.
Thanks to Pokemon researchers like Dr. Lava and the Helix Chamber, we also know many of the Pokemon that were removed from the internal list. For example, in this early development period, some of the missing Pokemon include Gyaoon and Omega – two more Kaiju-esque Pokemon that clearly resemble Godzilla and MechaGodzilla respectively. The last unique thing about this era of Pokemon is that they were created when the company was still young, and all of the designs would have come from Tajiri and Sugimori themselves. This gives this group a more uniform look without the wide range of designs we have come to expect from Pokemon.
Based on documents like the Capumon pitch document, we have a pretty good idea of which Pokemon were created early, and we also know that Pokemon had to be put on hold to develop Yoshi and other games. The second section of the internal list includes Pokemon that were designed after this hiatus, and there was a clear shift in the design philosophy. Specifically, the new Pokemon had something that the early designs were missing – types. While types may seem like an intrinsic part of Pokemon, the earliest Pokemon weren’t actually designed with types in mind, because they didn’t exist yet. However, the developers realized that they needed an additional system to distinguish monsters from one another – otherwise monsters would simply be “weak” or “strong”, which would lead to a very shallow battle system. The addition of types allows for much more variety in gameplay, inspired a wider range of Pokemon designs, and ensures that even strong Pokemon have weaknesses that can be exploited (except for Psychic types).
This second era of Pokemon designs includes several Pokemon that were clearly designed to be embodiments of their elements, such as Graveler, Magmar, and Electabuzz – even Arbok could have been envisioned as an embodiment of poison during this stage. This section of the internal list also includes the three legendary birds, which Helix Chamber has theorized were the first Pokemon that were designed to be dual-typed. This seems like a pretty reasonable theory – these Pokemon were clearly designed to be both “Bird” type (which was later removed and combined with the “flying” type) and elemental, which makes them distinct from any of the Pokemon that came before them. It’s even possible that these birds were originally going to be the ONLY dual-typed Pokemon, and that having multiple types could have been part of their “legendari-ness”.
This era of designs was also the first to include new members of the team – Motofumi Fujiwara and Shigeki Morimoto – which led to a greater variety of styles among the Pokemon designs.
The third era of Pokemon designs probably began around late 1993 to early 1994, following a hiatus in which Game Freak released the games Mario and Wario, Nontan to Issho: Kurukuru Puzzle, and Pulseman. This era has two main distinguishing factors – a further exploration of the “evolution” mechanic, and the addition of designer Atsuko Nishida.
By looking at the Pokemon designed up to this point, the only Pokemon that have a clear evolutionary relationship are the Nidoran lines – with male and female Nidoran evolving into Nidoking and Nidoqueen. While there are some Pokemon that ended up being related – such as Ghastly and Gengar, or Graveler and Golem – these Pokemon are separated from each other in the internal list, and their designs are distinct enough that it’s likely the decision to make them evolutionary relatives was made later. It’s possible that evolution was originally intended to be a gimmick specifically for the Nidoran line, and all of the other monsters were meant to be standalone creatures.
This all changed during Stage 3, when for the first time in the entire internal list we begin to see evolutionary lines in which the members are all next to one another, and are very clearly designed as evolutionary stages. Towards the beginning of this era we mostly see self contained lines, such as the Vulpix and Pikachu lines, and towards the end we see Pokemon that were added as additional evolutions or pre-evolutions of pokemon from previous stages, including Machop and Ekans. This stage also experiments with HOW Pokemon can evolve by introducing Pokemon that evolve with evolutionary stones, like Jigglypuff, and branched evolutions, with Eevee and the Eeveelutions.
The addition of a female designer – Atsuko Nishida – also had a big influence on the designs of this era. Up until this point all of the Pokemon had been designed by male designers, and had more of an emphasis on tough looking monsters. As part of the focus on trading and collecting the designers created a wide variety of designs – weird Pokemon with multiple bodies, mechanical Pokemon, etc – but they didn’t have many cute designs. That’s when they decided to bring in Nishida, to design more cute ‘mons.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of adding Nishida to the design team. For one thing, she has gone on to become one of the most prolific Pokemon designers of all time, having more confirmed designs than anyone other than Ken Sugimori himself. She has also designed some of the most iconic Pokemon of all time, including most of the Eeveelutions (although not Eevee themselves), and the most famous Pokemon of all – Pikachu. She also designed a number of other incredibly important Pokemon, which we will talk about later, but for now let’s take a brief look at how the series mascot, and one of the most recognizable characters of all time, came to be.
According to Nishida, she was given very few guidelines when designing Pikachu. She wasn’t told to make it cute, or a mouse – in fact, she doesn’t even really consider Pikachu to BE a mouse. The only instructions she was given when originally designing Pikachu was that it should be an electric type that evolves twice, and that the final stage should look strong. Based on these instructions, I think we can safely call the design a complete failure. After all, Pikachu only evolves once, and while I love Raichu it’s not exactly the toughest looking Pokemon. However, it turns out that during development Pikachu actually had a second evolution, named “Gorochu”. Gorochu is described as having fangs, horns, and looking like a God of Thunder. We actually know what Gorochu’s back sprite looked like, and artist Rachel Briggs came up with this concept for what it may have looked like originally.
Why didn’t Gorochu make it to the final game? Storage limitations. We will talk more about this later, but throughout it’s development Pokemon ran into issues regarding limited space on the GameBoy cartridge. One of the ways they got around this was by reducing the number of three stage lines, and having Pokemon that only evolved once instead. We can still see the effects of this by examining the internal list – Gorochu’s spot remains empty, and there are a number of other slots where evolutions, pre-evolutions, or middle-stages were removed from the index.
Part of the reason Pikachu was made to be so cute may be because Gorochu was meant to look so powerful. Nishida had a trend with her designs where she would intentionally make the pre-evolutions of Pokemon look different from the final form, so that it’s a surprise when it evolves. She may have wanted to make Pikachu look cute, so that it was a shock when it turned into a horned god of thunder.
To make Pikachu as cute as possible, Nishida worked with Koji Nishino (who was the inspiration for Snorlax). Nishino became an unofficial “cuteness supervisor”, and gave suggestions to Nishida on how she could make Pikachu cuter. Although she had to work hard to earn his approval, once she arrived at the final design he loved it so much that he wanted to keep it all to himself. That’s why Pikachu has such a low encounter rate in Viridian Forest – Nishino wanted to make it difficult to find so that other players would have trouble getting one. Unfortunately for Nishino, but very fortunately for Pokemon as a whole, the plan completely backfired. Among players Pikachu was treated as the first rare Pokemon in the game, and people started writing articles about how to catch one, which ended up making Pikachu even more popular!
I mentioned earlier that some three stage evolutions had to be cut down due to memory limitations, but limited storage was actually a recurring problem during Pokemon’s development. Limiting the number of characters that can be used to name Pokemon and the player, and limiting the number of moves each Pokemon can learn to 4, were all done to avoid running out of space. Surprisingly, one of the biggest features that led to memory issues was nicknaming the Pokemon you can catch. At several different points Game Freak had to choose between allowing players to give their Pokemon nicknames, or some other feature, and every single time they chose nicknames. This is why you can only have a single save file on each cartridge – they could either have nicknames or multiple saves, and they chose nicknames.
At one point, towards the end of development, they even had to make a choice between getting rid of nicknames or cutting the number of Pokemon down to only 30 – and they chose nicknames! Luckily, Shigeru Miyamoto was able to step in and give them access to GameBoy cartridges with additional storage, which allowed them to include the 151 Pokemon that we know and love AND nickname them too.
Alright, let’s get back to the internal list. Stage 4 mostly consists of adding additional members to previous evolutionary lines, such as Haunter to bridge the gap between Ghastly and Gengar, and Magikarp to evolve into Gyarados. This might also be around the time Gyarados got redesigned into its current form. A few interesting things to note from this era – we see Pokemon being added specifically for plot reasons, such as Snorlax and Mewtwo, and we can also disprove the long-standing theory that Butterfree and Venomoth were switched. I’ve always thought that this theory made a lot of sense, but since Caterpie, Metapod and Butterfree are all right next to each other in the internal list it’s pretty clear they were intended to be a single evolutionary family.
Towards the end of the internal list we finally get the Starter Pokemon – Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle, all of which were designed by Atsuko Nishida. While she didn’t design all of the starter evolutions, she did design Charizard, which makes her the designer of probably the two most recognizable and iconic Pokemon of all time!
Speaking of the starter Pokemon, their development is actually pretty interesting. In the internal list the members of the Squirtle and Charizard families aren’t grouped together, but actually alternate – the order is Charmander, Squirtle, Charmeleon, Wartortle, and Charizard. After Charizard is a MissingNo. Spot where you would expect Blastoise to be, except Blastoise was actually designed much earlier on. This empty spot actually contained a different Pokemon, which was Wartortle’s original evolution. Blastoise, similarly, may have had a different pre-evolution (although Helix Chamber only recovered the back sprite, so that’s speculative). In either case, it seems that at some point towards the end of development it was decided that having two different sets of turtles was redundant, and Blastoise was combined with the Squirtle line that we know today.
It’s also just surprising that these Pokemon are so late in the index list, because that implies that the decision to let players choose from 3 different starters was made pretty late in development. I wonder how players got their first Pokemon before that?
The very last Pokemon in the internal list are the Bellsprout and Oddish families – two version exclusive Grass type lines. This is the only place in the internal list where Pokemon were clearly designed for the purposes of being version exclusives, and they may have been added because the designers simply wanted the two versions to be more different from each other.
Interestingly, Pokemon wasn’t originally designed as two different versions. Instead, Tajiri actually wanted each cartridge to have a unique ID that would determine which Pokemon could be found on that cartridge. He wanted every different cartridge to feel unique, and also wanted to encourage trading by limiting which Pokemon each player could find. However, this was not only a difficult programming challenge, but one major flaw of this system is that it’s invisible to the players – they may not even realize that certain Pokemon were missing from their cartridges!
Saving the day once again, it was actually Miyamoto who came up with the idea to have two different versions with differently colored cartridges. This would make the differences immediately clear, and would encourage players to trade Pokemon between the two versions of the game.
Having different versions of the game wasn’t the only decision designed to encourage players to trade. From the very beginning, trading was the core concept for the game, and this core concept affected all areas of development. This is partly responsible for the wide variety of different Pokemon designs – different players will like different types of Pokemon, and might be willing to trade for them. They also added Pokemon that can only evolve by trading, and made it so that traded Pokemon gain experience faster, so trading can actually give your Pokemon a competitive boost.
We are nearing the end of Pokemon’s development, but there’s one major aspect of Pokemon that we still haven’t touched on – the battle system. While it’s clear from the earliest prototype artwork that Pokemon was intended to have an RPG battle system, the specifics changed a lot over the development period. As we mentioned earlier, originally the player themselves was going to be involved in the battles (possibly with whips). Early on in development there was also a sort of “ante” system, where the winner of a battle could take Pokemon from the loser – this was scrapped because players didn’t like giving away the Pokemon they had spent so much time raising, so now the loser just gives money instead.
The most shocking thing about the battle system, however, is that it almost had to be scrapped entirely. According to Shigeki Morimoto, although battles were planned from the very beginning of the game (as can be seen from the earliest concept art), they were implemented very late. Morimoto ended up being the lead programmer behind the battle system, but in an interview in a Japanese Pokedex book he admits that he didn’t find the battle system very interesting, and thought it would be a pain to program. Game Freak nearly ran out of time to implement the feature, but Nintendo insisted that they wanted battles in the game, so they had to make it work.
At first, the battles were just something that the players watched on the screen, without interacting. You would see a battle happen, then find out who won or lost. When they presented this version of the game to Nintendo they were told that it was too boring. They made the battles interactive, but even the interactive battles were pretty different at first. The designers wanted to avoid having too many numbers in the battle, so they tried using text instead of health bars. When you took damage you would get messages like “Nidoran poked you with it’s horn. It didn’t seem to hurt that much”. Game Freak was eventually able to get the battle system implemented and working with the link cable, but from what I can tell it seems like they cut it pretty darn close – and to be totally honest, calling the end result “finished” is being pretty generous.
Now with all of the major features implemented we are finally nearing the end of Pokemon’s development, and although the games have already been delayed by over 4 years they are on-pace for an October 1995 release. Tajiri sends the prototype version of the game to Tzunekazu Ishihara, one of the producers, and breathes a sigh of relief that his work is finally complete.
That is, until he gets a phone call from Ishihara a few days later, basically telling him that the game had no soul, the plot was confusing, and he should completely rewrite it. Tajiri spent six months frantically rewriting the entire story of the game by himself from scratch, and when he was finished the game was finally released to the world (or, more accurately, Japan) on February 27th, 1996.
Pokemon’s initial sales figures were…less than great. For one thing, nobody was really interested in the GameBoy anymore. It was a seven year old console at that point, and sales were way down, to the point where even strangers were telling Tajiri that he had missed the boat. Not only that, but their release window was far from optimal – because of the last minute story rewrite they missed the 1995 holidays, and their initial orders from retailers were smaller than they expected. Far from being a smash hit, their weekly sales figures barely kept them in the top 10. Even after everything they had gone through, Pokemon would still need one final miracle to really break into the market – and that miracle was Mew.
Mew, the mysterious 151st Pokemon, is mentioned in the game in passing, but wasn’t actually supposed to appear in it. However, after debugging the game (which apparently took more time than any other Nintendo game up to that point), the debugging tools were removed. The developers were told not to touch a single byte on the cartridge, but Shigeki Morimoto realized that there was just barely enough room to add one more Pokemon.
At first, almost nobody even knew that Mew was on the cartridge, and it was thought to be impossible to actually get one in-game. Luckily, Pokemon Red and Green were a glitchy mess, and through random chance some players were able to accidentally trigger an encounter with Mew. As the months passed Mew became something of an urban legend, with rumors of how to get one spreading like wildfire.
Game Freak realized that they couldn’t ignore the rumors forever, and Mew was officially confirmed in the May 1996 issue of Corocoro comics. Not only did this magazine reveal Mew’s existence to the the world, but it also included a Giveaway offer in which 20 participants would be able to add a Mew to their Pokemon cartridges. This giveaway ended up being a huge success, with over 78,000 people entering, and gave Pokemon the momentum it needed to really take off. Before long they were selling as many copies each week as they used to sell in a month, and that number kept growing to be three, then four times larger. By the time they finally reached #1 in weekly sales, the game had already been out for a year and a half. At this point Pokemon was already a huge success in Japan, and there was only one major hurdle left – the international market.
We now know that Pokemon ended up becoming incredibly popular all around the world, but at the time this was far from guaranteed. Although Game Freak had some international success with games like Yoshi and Mario & Wario, they were worried that a game with so much text would be a hard sell for American kids. This fear was not unfounded – even games like Dragon Quest, which were incredibly popular in Japan, were having trouble breaking into the American market.
Furthermore, there were technical issues with porting the games. Japanese words, such as names, typically require far fewer characters than English words, so they had to update the programming to handle these longer words. The final problem was the Pokemon designs themselves – there was a theory at the time that games with cute characters weren’t well received in America, so Nintendo of America tried to change the designs and the art style completely. The only examples I was able to find was this artwork for the redesigned Charmander family, but according to interviews they tried to redesign Pikachu to look like a “Tiger with Huge Breasts”, or basically a sexy cosplay version of Pikachu.
Luckily for us, Game Freak rejected the redesigns – although not for the reasons you may think. Ishihara actually says he though the redesigns were interesting and he appreciated the cultural differences, but figured that if Pokemon was going to fail anyways (due to the text issues) they might as well keep the graphics the same. Whatever the reason, however, I think we can all agree that they made the right decision – I doubt a busty tigress would’ve gotten their own Macy’s Day Parade Float for one thing.
Of course, when Pokemon did finally launch in America in September 1998 – more than 2 and a half years after debuting in Japan – they were an instant smash hit. Since then this franchise has gone on to have incredibly successful trading card games, anime, augmented reality games, and even Hollywood films, and none of it would have been possible without this little team giving everything they have, and overcoming countless obstacles over 6 years to make it happen. The rest, as they say, is history.
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