The origin of the first generation of Pokémon games is a fascinating tale that involves real life bug catching
The origin of the first generation of Pokémon games is a fascinating tale that involves real life bug catching, trademark difficulties, almost losing years of work and defying the expectations of Nintendo, who didn’t understand the concept of collecting monsters.
To get the full picture, we have to go all the way back to the seventies when a child named Satoshi Tajiri developed a fascination with catching and collecting insects in a western Tokyo suburb called Machida, where Satoshi grew up.
He enjoyed exploring the rural parts, such as rice fields, rivers and forests.
On his adventures, Satoshi searched for insects, fish and other creatures.
There was something about the way they moved that mesmerized him.
He studied all the creatures he brought home and thought of new ideas of how to catch them.
For example, most of the other kids would catch beetles using honey, but Satoshi had the idea of putting a stone under a tree, because beetles sleep during the day and they like sleeping under stones.
It made finding them a breeze and as a result, Satoshi would collect more bugs than all of his friends.
Little discoveries like that excited him each and every time.
His bug catching skills also earned him the nickname “Dr.
Bug” among the neighbouring kids.
Aside from exploring his neighborhood, Satoshi was also fascinated with Ultraman on TV and in manga.
He stated in an interview with Time Magazine that if games didn’t exist, he would probably be making anime.
Satoshi also frequented the local arcade halls starting around 1978 and became hooked on Space Invaders, which got him more interested in video games.
Back then, there was barely any games media, at least not where Satoshi lived.
Therefore, he took reins into his own hands and created Game Freak magazine in 1983, around the time he started going to college.
The magazine was completely handwritten and stapled together by Satoshi himself.
It featured secret tips and tricks on how to beat arcade games and was available in specialist bookstores for ¥200.
The most popular issue managed to sell over 10,000 copies so at a pretty young age, Satoshi already had a real business going.
One of the people that bought the magazine was none other than Ken Sugimori, who would become the primary character designer and art director for Pokémon.
Ken enjoyed reading the magazine and got in touch with Satoshi to offer his services as an illustrator.
From then on, the pair collaborated on Game Freak magazine until it was discontinued.
They quickly became friends and bonded over their love of arcade games.
One day, Ken and Satoshi talked about how arcade games are often very similar and asked themselves what they would do differently if given the opportunity to develop a video game.
Some of the other people reading the fan-made magazine were programmers and had access to game development tools.
“Pretty soon I had some contributors, and we’d all get together and talk about games.
The more I learned about games, the more frustrated I became because the games weren’t very good.
I could tell a good game from a bad game.
My conclusion was: let’s make our own games.
” By the time Game Freak started developing games, Satoshi’s neighbourhood had completely changed.
A place that was once rich with rivers and forests, had now been replaced with housing facilities, office buildings and stores.
Satoshi thought about all the kids who were now unable to explore nature and collect its mysterious creatures.
It was this line of thinking that sparked the initial idea for Pokémon.
In the face of more and more urbanization, the young developer wanted to provide an opportunity for kids these days to feel that sensation of going on an adventure, exploring unknown locations and discovering the local critters and creatures.
This, combined with his favorite activities such as playing video games and watching Ultraman, laid the groundwork for the first Pokémon games.
However, his idea didn’t completely click until he saw the original Game Boy in 1989.
The link cable capabilities of Nintendo’s first handheld console seemed like a perfect fit for Pokémon.
Satoshi visualized actual living organisms moving back and forth across the cable.
Furthermore, once Satoshi saw the success of The Final Fantasy Legend, the very first RPG for the Game Boy, he was convinced that his idea for a monster collecting RPG was not only possible on the Game Boy, but that it was the only system that could bring his dream game to life.
Soon after, Satoshi and Ken officially founded Game Freak as a video game studio and development on Pokémon began in 1990.
The team kicked things off by creating a concept pitch document that contained a lot of early design sketches, as well as how the game would work.
Interestingly, it depicted quite a different version of the world of Pokémon and this makes sense, given that Satoshi and the other creators originally set out to make a more traditional RPG-like game.
For starters, the project’s original name was Capsule Monsters, inspired by both the popular Japanese capsule toys called Gashapon dispensed from vending machines and Ultraman’s “Capsule Kaiju”.
It’s this latter inspiration however that got the team into trouble trying to trademark the name and they eventually had to change it to Pocket Monsters, or Pokémon for short.
A common RPG trope, checking into a hotel or inn, was detailed in the concept pitch.
Of course, players can still go to a Pokémon center in the final game and heal their Pokémon, but it doesn’t offer a room for the player to rest in.
Another clear difference from the final games are the shopkeepers.
This drawing depicts the main character trying to buy a Lapras from a shopkeeper, who can be seen keeping Pokémon in cages.
While there’s an opportunity in the Gen One games to exchange Pokémon for tokens at Celadon City, it’s certainly not possible in the Poké Marts.
The document also features a Charisma stat, being able to trade multiple Pokémon at once, and an emphasis on collecting items like you would Pokémon.
Additionally, the included sketches show a “talk” option when facing a trainer, as well as the total amount of HP and TP each Pokémon has during battles.
TP was probably a precursor for PP and most likely stood for Technical Points.
The drawings also depict the ability to sell your Pokémon for gold, the currency that was used before it was switched to yen.
Not only that, it’s likely that an early idea was to assign a gold value to each Pokémon, as well as an intelligence stat, as evident in this sketch.
Surprisingly, the concept pitch also includes a female version of the protagonist, something that was introduced for the first time in Pokémon Crystal.
Speaking of the protagonist, an early idea was to let the player character participate in battles.
The original player sprite can be seen holding a whip and has a tougher looking physique.
“At one time, the protagonist would fight as well.
But then we asked ourselves ‘If you can fight on your own, what’s the point of having Pokémon?’” The fact that features such as buying Pokémon from shopkeepers and the player participating in battles were cut from the final game, is also a result of the team deciding to treat Pokémon more like friends instead of pets.
It was also around this time that Game Freak started to lean more towards the Pokémon collecting aspect and less towards creating a more traditional RPG.
“When we were writing the text for the Pokédex, we started talking about how fun it was to collect Pokémon.
We felt a story about a boy traveling to fill up his Pokédex was more appropriate for modern times than a tale of a hero battling an evil villain.
” An early sketch of the Kanto map can also be found inside the document and reveals early landmarks based on the real life Kantō region in Japan.
These landmarks were later reworked into locations such as the Pokémon Tower and Saffron City.
Fun fact: Pallet Town is based on Satoshi’s hometown Machida.
The Pokéball, referred to as Monster Capsule in the document also looked quite differently from the final version.
Its white and red colors are switched and the button is located on the bottom instead of the side of the ball.
Based on the sketch, it’s speculated an early idea might have been to shrink down Pokémon to fit inside their Pokéballs, instead of being absorbed by a beam of light.
Ken Sugimori, who led the design team, and Atsuko Nishida started drawing loads of different Pokémon designs.
Atsuko is actually the one who came up with the design for Pikachu, the three starter Pokémon and many others.
Ken always finalized each design and drew every Pokémon in multiple angles to make it easier for his colleagues to get a good understanding of all the Pocket Monsters and render them the correct way.
Both artists kept sketching more and more Pokémon, a lot more than the 151 that ended up in the games.
The concept document confirms that over 200 different Pokémon were considered and were in various stages of completion.
Developers at Game Freak later confirmed in interviews that multiple Pokémon were indeed scrapped and that the total number was reduced to their favorite 151 designs.
This took a lot of effort according to Junichi Masuda, who worked on the original games as a composer, programmer and designer.
To facilitate this and make sure everyone at Game Freak was happy with the designs, the studio organized popularity polls every so often where all the devs were able to provide suggestions and offer feedback.
The general look of all Pokémon also went through some changes.
At the start of development, most designs had a rather consistent look to them, often resembling Dinosaur like monsters so it’s no coincidence that the first three Pokémon ever designed were Rhydon, Clefairy, and Lapras.
Lots of designs were also created with specific roles in mind, because early on, the devs envisioned Pokémon living alongside humans to help them with specific tasks.
Along the way, the developers discovered that battles were rather boring if there’s only weak and strong Pokémon.
It was clear they needed to introduce more variety in the designs and find a way to make battles more engaging.
Therefore, “types” were introduced to the game’s concept midway through development and now the artists started to think about designs based on specific types such as water and fire.
It simultaneously added some much needed strategy to the combat.
Furthermore, it gave the team the idea to begin the player’s journey by letting them choose a starter Pokémon that’s either water, fire, or grass type.
An early drawing also showcases a Pokémon hatching from an egg, something that was later introduced in Pokémon Silver and Gold.
When all the 151 Pokémon designs were finished and approved, they started brainstorming about all the attack moves each Pokémon could use.
There wasn’t an initial plan of which Pokémon would receive which moves.
Instead, the team came up with the moves separate from their Pokémon designs and then gradually assigned moves that would fit well with each Pokémon.
Just this process of designing the Pokémon and their moveset alone took about three years to complete.
Nowadays, we’re used to getting yearly Pokémon games, but Satoshi and his team were coming up with the popular formula of exploring mysterious areas, collecting Pokémon and fighting your way through all the gyms for the first time ever.
Additionally, the team back then was much smaller compared to the 150+ employees working at Game Freak now.
Junichi remembers how only nine people worked on the original games.
“We could hardly even be called a company at the time.
We were just almost like a college club or something, where people who were interested would just gather and hang out.
They’d come to work whenever they want, leave whenever they want.
Some people would be sleeping over, because they worked so hard into the night.
” Something the team focused on from the very beginning was interactive communication.
Most other developers were using the Game Boy’s link cable to compete, but Satoshi saw it as a way to exchange data between players.
While he likes competition too, he explained that the concept of one-on-one communication is very Japanese and he wanted to translate that to a video game.
Implementing trading would unfortunately become one of the most challenging aspects throughout development, since it was only possible to transfer tiny amounts of data between two Game Boys.
Junichi admits that the technology just wasn’t there yet, but Game Freak fought to make it happen anyway.
A staple of Pokémon games is that every generation has at least two versions, but this idea actually didn’t come from Game Freak themselves.
The developers were thinking of how to make trading more attractive for players, but couldn’t immediately come up with the right idea.
When Satoshi went to Nintendo to talk about their progress, none other than the creator of Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto, suggested creating two separate cartridges with exclusive Pokémon to catch so people would be motivated to trade with each other.
Rare and Legendary Pokémon that are more difficult to catch were also included for the same reason.
With an emphasis on interactive communication and shifting from treating Pokémon as friends instead of pets, it’s no surprise that Satoshi explained that he’s careful about violence in video games, which is why Pokémon faint rather than die.
When a Pokémon runs out of HP, Satoshi was very careful in communicating to the player that the Pokémon is still alive through the animation, the text on screen and sound effects.
“I think that young people playing games have an abnormal concept about dying.
They start to lose and say, “I’m dying.
” It’s not right for kids to think about the concept of death that way.
They need to treat death with more respect.
” There was one extremely stressful moment during development that could have destroyed years of work and perhaps even prevented Pokémon from ever releasing.
The original games were developed on Unix computer stations that crashed fairly frequently, but the devs learned how to deal with it without ever losing important data.
Except for one time after about four years of development when they had to deal with a very bad crash.
Nobody at the studio knew what to do or how to recover the data that had all of the Pokémon, the main character, the map and pretty much everything else that was created until that point.
Junichi recalls thinking that if they can’t recover the files, they would be ruined.
After contacting the old company he used to work for, asking people online for help and reading multiple books about the Unix machines, Junichi and the rest of the team eventually figured out how to recover the data.
The soundtrack, sound effects and Pokémon “cries” were all composed by Junichi.
To accomplish this, he used his Commodore Amiga computer at home and converted his creations to the Game Boy with software he had written himself.
With only four available sound channels to work with, Junichi had to get extra creative to compose a memorable and fitting soundtrack for the first Pokémon games, as well as unique cries for each Pokémon.
Near the end of development in 1996, the team started to get really worried about releasing their games on the Game Boy.
The console was almost seven years old at that point and it was clear that, at least in Japan, the Game Boy was on a steep decline.
It was so bad in fact, that when the team talked to friends in the game industry, their friends would sound surprised and comment that it’s probably not going to sell very well.
Even Nintendo had its doubts about the project and didn’t expect much from it.
Earlier on in development, Satoshi was even told that Nintendo didn’t really understand the concept of the game and the appeal of collecting monsters.
Furthermore, there was a notion in the Japanese game industry that role-playing games created by a Japanese company may not sell well overseas so Game Freak wasn’t even thinking about releasing it outside of Japan at the time.
It’s safe to say that both Game Freak and Nintendo weren’t expecting all that much from Satoshi’s Pocket Monsters.
Selling a million units for example would defy their wildest expectations.
After six long years, Pokémon Red & Pokémon Green were finally finished and released on February 27, 1996 in Japan.
That day, the whole team went to different stores to see how the games were doing and they could tell it was actually selling fairly well.
Of course, without social media or the internet as we know it today, they didn’t know if people were actually enjoying it and what the exact numbers were for copies sold.
Pretty soon however, the developers saw deposits from Nintendo coming in, hinting Red and Green were selling even better than they expected.
Not long after, newspapers articles were saying how Pokémon was becoming the new big thing with kids and its popularity quickly started to accelerate from there.
“It wasn’t until later when you started seeing, “OK, there’s going to be an animated series.
Oh, there’s going to be a card game.
Now there’s a manga weekly publication.
” When those things expanded into this multimedia thing in Japan, we really started to feel like, “Oh wow, this is a big deal now.
”” The overwhelming success of Red and Green gave Game Freak the opportunity to develop an improved version called Pokémon Blue and was made available exclusively for subscribers of CoroCoro Comic in October 1996.
It removed a number of bugs and featured graphical changes such as overhauled tilesets, new sprites for all the Pokémon and more.
Unsurprisingly, Blue was used as the basis for all the localized versions and the American one is responsible for Switching Pokémon Green with Pokémon Blue.
“Originally, it was kind of based on how people feel about and view different colors.
The clearest split for us was between red and green but when we started thinking about abroad, it was clear that wasn’t the case.
In America in particular, it’s red and blue that are considered ‘opposites’, if you will.
” Localizing Pokémon was by far the biggest technical challenge Game Freak had to deal with and this all came down to capacity.
Squeezing all 151 Pokémon into the original games was already a difficult task and they had to use clever techniques to make everything work on the cartridge.
Unfortunately, the team discovered that English takes up more space than Japanese.
Junichi admitted they hadn’t really considered localization during development so changing things like Pokémon names, the name entry screen and the Pokédex, which were all specifically designed in Japanese, was far more difficult and time-consuming than anticipated.
Before the games would take America by storm, the animated Pokémon TV show was released weeks prior and proved to be a smart strategic move to get people excited about Pokémon as a universe.
After eight years since development officially began, Pokémon Red and Blue were finally released in North America and soon in the rest of the world, turning Pokémon into a global unforeseen success.
In 1997, it was already the best selling game in Japan, surpassing even Final Fantasy 7 with 3.
65 million copies sold.
The games duplicated that achievement in the United States in 1999 by selling 6.
1 million copies.
Estimated total worldwide sales reached over 31 million copies for the first generation of Pokémon games alone.
An important contributing factor for these numbers is the fact that lots of people were buying both versions available to them.
What began as a way to motivate players to trade, turned into an unexpected financial boost.
Junichi Masuda recalls the ridiculous amount of product review requests of companies that wanted to make Pokémon merchandise once the games were available overseas.
And while the games certainly generate a lot of money, even to this day, it’s the merchandise that catapulted Pokémon to the highest-grossing media franchise of all time.
The global success of the Anime also prompted Game Freak to create yet another version of the first generation of games called Pokémon Yellow.
It was made with the purpose to more closely resemble the TV show and featured elements like Pikachu as the only starter, your rival receiving Evee, Team Rocket and more.
Game Freak learned invaluable lessons during those first six years of developing Red and Green, which were both very liberating and very challenging.
Even though the studio had to work on other projects to keep the lights on, the initial freedom as a young company allowed them to not care about things like sales and investors, resulting in the team solely focusing on being as creative as possible and considering every single idea that came to mind.
Despite numerous aspects potentially holding the original games back, it managed to thrive way beyond Game Freak’s and Nintendo’s expectations.
Satoshi’s original vision of exploration and monster collecting obviously struck a chord with both kids and adults and continues to do so today.
“When you’re a kid and get your first bike, you want to go somewhere you’ve never been before.
That’s like Pokémon.
Everybody shares the same experience, but everybody wants to take it someplace else.
And you can do that.
Receiving a bicycle as a present, catching bugs, and going fishing — I realized that all of these experiences that I felt were just mine were shared by all kids.
I guess that’s why people all around the world embraced it.”