Yesterday, twenty short years ago, two games were released simultaneously by a small game developer called GameFreak. Previously this developer, founded by Satoshi Tajiri, had released nine games, the most popular of which was probably simply titled, Yoshi, a Mario spinoff game for the Nintendo Entertainment System. In 1996, however, GameFreak was taking a bold chance with a video game idea that had been formulated in the mind of their founder around the time he first laid eyes on the Game Boy Link Cable.
That’s right trainers, yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of Pokemon Red and Pokemon Green, originally released on February 27th, 1996 in Japan.
However, let’s set the stage for this momentous and historic video game release by talking about the creators, and the climate of the GameFreak company at the time of the games pivotal release.
In the 1980’s two friends and fellow video game enthusiasts, Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori, self-published a video game magazine titled “Game Freak,” the title of which also coincided with Tajiri’s pen name he used on the articles he wrote for popular mainstream publications like Family Computer Magazine. The magazine was primarily written by Tajiri, with illustrations by Ken Sugimori. Taking the interests and connections they had forged as a duo, on April 26th 1989, Sugimori and Tajiri went on to found a video game developer with the same ubiquitous title as their indie magazine, GameFreak.
Their first game was released the following year, titled Quinty in Japan, but released as Mendel Palace in the United States, where it flew relatively under the radar compared to other popular releases that year like Castlevania III, Final Fantasy, MegaMan 3, and Dr Mario. The action/puzzle game was the first game developed by Satoshi Tajiri.
At the time that Pocket Monster Red and Green was released in Japan, GameFreak was operating with a handful of employees. Satoshi Tajiri had spent years lamenting the urbanization of the area where he had grown up, which had caused a marked decline in the local insect population. During Tajiri’s childhood playing outside and collecting various native insects had been a hobby among a great deal of children, however with the inclement urbanization of previously rural areas of Japan, hobbies of children had gradually moved closer and closer to the relative safety of indoors. This was a development that Tajiri lamented above all, and he had spent years contemplating a way to create a video game that would encourage children to somehow go outside, and to play together.
Enter the release of the Nintendo Game Boy (1989) and the Game Boy Link Cable (1990). From the moment that Tajiri first saw the Game Boy link cable he knew that this was the solution to his personal conundrum. In interviews, Tajiri has said that he saw the link cable and imagined trading insects with friends, as he had done in childhood, and imagined said insects traveling along the link cable. This idea sets the basic premise of Pokemon, the act of collecting and trading wild animals, to fill an encyclopedia. While developing this idea, Tajiri was also inspired by Square’s Game Boy Game, Makai Toushi Sa-Ga (1989, the Final Fantasy Legend in the United States) which showed him that more than just action games could be created to operate on the Game Boy System.
In order to expand his idea past insects and into larger creatures, Tajiri created the idea of a capsule, such as toys are dispensed from Gashapon Machines in, that could magically shrink larger monsters into a small pocket size. This led to the original title of the Pokemon series, Capsule Monsters, though the title went through several transitions due to trademark issues. Capsule Monsters became CapuMon, which in turn lost the link to the original word Capsule when it became KapuMon, until Tajiri finally settled on Pocket Monsters, or “PokeMon” for short.
Initially Tajiri faced trouble explaining his concept to the executives at Nintendo, and was concerned that his game would never move into actual production. However Nintendo decided to take a gamble on the developer, who had previously seen success with Yoshi and Mario & Wario. Nintendo’s primary suggestion was to somehow split the game into two games, so that consumers would be driven to buy essentially two copies of the same game. This innovation worked well with Pokemon, since it enabled Tajiri to develop “version exclusive” Pokemon for each game, in effect forcing players to have to trade with friends in order to complete their Pokedex, one of the primary goals of the video game.
At this time during development, one of the GameFreak programmers, Shigeki Morimoto, decided to play a prank. It was not unheard of for video game developers at this time to insert “Easter eggs” into their games, often as their own signature (see Atari’s 1979 game, Adventure featuring the digital hidden signature of developer Warren Robinett). Morimoto’s prank was simple, since he had been in charge of the development of the battle system, Morimoto inserted the innocuous code that would later be revealed to be the secret “Mirage Pokemon,” Mew. Originally, Mew was only alluded to in Fuji’s journals on Cinnabar Island as the mother of the Pokemon that through genetic experimentation and would become Mewtwo. Morimoto’s hidden Pokemon was not revealed right away.
Pokemon Red and Green were runaway successes in Japan, selling rapidly with a large number of consumers buying both versions of the game as Nintendo had predicted. After several months, as a mail-away promotion, GameFreak and Nintendo released a third edition, “Pokemon Blue,” which contained updated in-game artwork such as Pokemon sprites, new dialogue, and all 150 Pokemon. Blue sold just as rapidly as its predecessors had, prompting Satoshi Tajiri to decide to increase the hype by announcing that there had been a secret 151st Pokemon hiding under consumers’ noses all this time: Mew. The release of this information played into Tajiri’s original vision well, since the data for Mew was meant to be inaccessible to players of the game, Mew was a Pokemon that could only be unlocked by trading. It was still later before Nintendo finally arranged for Mew distribution events in Japan. By 1997 the three games combined had sold 10.4 million copies in Japan.
The outrageous success of Pokemon Red, Green, and Blue caused Nintendo to speed into Western Localization for the games, to try to capitalize on their successes in markets outside of Japan. Spearheaded by Hiro Nakamura, a handful of employees went through the entire Pokedex, renaming almost all of the Pokemon for Western audiences based on their appearance and characteristics (Fushigidane, which roughly translates to Mysterious Seed, becomes Bulbasaur, Flower Bulb + Dinosaur, and so on). Nintendo also promptly trademarked the names of all 151 Pokemon. Due to the rapid development of the games however, the source code was delicate, meaning that the games could not merely be translated directly into English. Because of this, the two original US games’ code was both based on the updated “modern” release of Pokemon Blue. To pay homage to this, instead of titling the releases “Green” and “Red,” the US releases were called “Red” and “Blue.”
To promote the games in the US Market, Nintendo allegedly poured out over fifty million dollars in advertising, fearing that the basic premise of collecting insects would be culturally inaccessible to American children. Additionally, the Western Localization team expressed concerns that the “cute monster” style of Ken Sugimori’s artwork would not be readily accepted by US audiences, asking Nintendo to have the artwork “beefed up.” Nintendo refused, considering to be a challenge worth attacking.
And of course, the rest is history. The two games combined earned 9.85 million dollars in the US, not taking into account merchandizing, and anime and movie releases. In 2009 IGN referred to Pokemon Red and Blue as the Best-Selling RPG of All Time.
This last week, my fellow trainers, has brrn the time to celebrate all of the gambles that came together to create the franchise that would be ultimately life-changing for the video game market, and for fans around the world.
To celebrate, as of yesterday, Pokemon Red, Pokemon Blue, and Pokemon Yellow are all available on the virtual console on the Nintendo 3DS at $9.99 each, so download them and relive the excitement of the games that started it all.
Happy Pokemon Day, trainers, today and always, and thanks for hanging out with us for Pokemon Week.