The Origin of the Pokémon Phenomenon

videogametriviaBack in 1990, few people knew Game Freak. Started in 1982 by Satoshi Tajiri as a video game tip magazine, in 1989 they released their first video game. Called Quinty in Japan, it was for the NES and did well enough that it was brought to the US under the name Mendel Palace.1 Thinking about what game to make next, Tajiri saw Nintendo’s Game Boy and the Link Cable accessory that allowed two people to connect and play together. He envisioned a game in which you could collect creatures and trade them with your friends. He brought a pitch for this game, then called Capsule Monsters, to Nintendo in the fall of 1990. They approved it and agreed to finance development, starting on a half-decade long journey.2

As you’ve probably realized, Capsule Monsters eventually became Pokémon Red and Green (Blue in the US), which came out in Japan in 1996. Even today, 6 years is considered a long time for a game to be in development – for a game to be in development that long back then was very unusual.3 There were many reasons for this delay. Game Freak released 7 games in addition to Pokémon between 1990 and 1996, of which only two were for Game Boy. Their equipment wasn’t great, and they weren’t good about backing data up – sometimes they lost as much as a month’s of work in a crash.4 Game Freak was also woefully understaffed, with only four programmers, two of whom also pulled double-duty with another aspect of the game creation.5 Pokémon underwent a lot of changes during development, with the staff continually asking themselves if a particular concept was as good as it could be.6 For instance, the dual game mechanic was not in from the start – it was suggested by Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario, as a way of encouraging trading and letting siblings each have something different.7 8

No one thought Pokémon would be successful at first. The Game Boy was in its sixth year of life, making it a very old console, and a last minute delay bumped the release to February, one of the worst months for video game sales. Red and Green didn’t sell incredibly well at first, unlike most video games that have most of their sales in the first couple weeks. But it kept selling. Sales increased, and a year and a half after the game came out, it made it to the top of the weekly sales charts.9 As its popularity became apparent, proposals for tie-ins and merchandise started flooding in. The Japanese Blue version – which had upgraded graphics and bug fixes, both of which were carried over to the English releases, as well as a unique set of exclusive Pokémon – was released as one of these, a cross-promotion with a magazine.10

This long development process caused problems in the future. When Nintendo decided to bring over Pokémon, it turned out that the code was so much of a mess that they couldn’t simply replace the Japanese characters with the English alphabet – much of the code had to be rewritten.11 And when Nintendo wanted to release the N64 spinoff Pokémon Stadium, which would let people battle with their Pokémon on TV, there was no documentation of the battle code, so it had to be reverse-engineered by the team at Nintendo.12 The first generation of Pokémon games was notoriously glitchy, as well. One Pokémon, Mew, which was supposed to be a secret, showed up accidentally in some Japanese copies.13 The Missingno glitch in international copies was well known enough that Nintendo Power, the official Nintendo magazine, felt obligated to address it.14

The process of taking Pokémon out of Japan was long and involved, but very interesting. At first, no one thought it would be popular in the United States. Pokémon is a role-playing game, specifically of the Eastern subgenre, which puts it in the company of series such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. These series had traditionally not done as well in the United States. However, Nintendo believed that kids around the world were similar enough that a series that was such a hit in Japan would do well in the United States as well. To overcome the potential stumbling block of the genre, Nintendo decided to bring over the entire Pokémon franchise in a coordinated fashion.15 The clever names – a key part of the appeal of Pokémon – underwent at least one revision.16

The turbulent start of Pokémon did not prevent it from being successful as time went on and its potential was realized. Pokémon today is the second best selling video game series, losing only to Mario himself. The 20th anniversary is coming up next year, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Perhaps we can all see this as a lesson for ourselves – initial struggles shouldn’t make us stop!

1 Kohler, Chris. Power-Up, page 238-239










11 Kohler, Chris. Power-Up, page 245




15 Kohler, Chris. Power-Up, page 245


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