The Definitive History Behind Pokémon Red and Blue (1996)

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Satoshi Tajiri’s Beginnings

The creator of the Pokémon phenomenon was a boy at heart living a dream. Born in 1965 in Machida, a suburb of Tokyo, Satoshi Tajiri was someone who was absolutely enthralled with the outside and more importantly, insects. He loved hunting for them in ponds, rivers, and forest, and was constantly figuring out new and interesting ways to catch them. His passion was so great that his friends started to call him Dr. Bug jokingly with his dream job being an entomologist. But his childhood merriment wouldn’t last for long as by the late 70’s the fields and ponds Tajiri frolicked in while he was a kid were paved over for apartment buildings and shopping centers. However, his passion had already switched over to his future career, video games. While in high school he grew attached to these and ended up missing a ton of his classes, nearly failing to graduate as a result. His parents thought that he was a delinquent because of his past time but Tajiri didn’t care and continued to indulge himself within the world of video games. He frequented one arcade so many times that the owner gave him one of their full-sized Space Invaders cabinets for free, in admiration of his devotion to the medium. But, even still, his parents didn’t believe in his dream and made him go to the Tokyo National College of Technology so that he could become a repairman and follow in his father’s footsteps. But Tajiri, as usual, thought differently and sought out a different path of his own accord.

Luckily there was a contest around the corner that was willing to give him the chance of a lifetime. SEGA was sponsoring a contest for young programmers, hoping to find a new an enticing concept that they never had thought of before and Tajiri thought he was the right man for the job. Taking apart his very own Famicom and seeing how it ticked he soon had a grasp of a video game consoles infrastructure and was able to whip a concept that he thought would knock the socks of the contest’s judges. His concept was called Spring Stranger, involving a dancer navigating through a treacherous maze. It won him the top prize and a trip to SEGA itself at the ripe old age of 16. He was floored by this response. His love of video games had never been acknowledged in such a grandiose way and it proved that this industry was his calling. But Tajiri had only designed a game, he still had no experience actually coding one. As a compromise, instead of making a game he would make a magazine that would celebrate the medium in more ways than one. It would be something that would only be for the most hardcore of gamers, filled with tips and tricks to get you through the latest games. It was just the magazine for game freaks if you will. And so, Game Freak was born. Working out of his apartment, he’d write and staple together every single copy by hand and personally deliver them to dōjinshi shops, where other small time creators would send their works. Tajiri’s magazine slowly picked up in sales but wasn’t taking off like he wished. That is until he met one Ken Sugimori, a fan of his work after finding one of his magazines in the many shops around Tokyo. Sugimori thought he could improve Tajiri’s work with his art and he wholeheartedly agreed, cementing the classic style the magazine would be known for. As the years went on their team began to grow and Tajiri was beginning to notice something, something deeply wrong with the gaming industry. He felt that most of the games they were covering were lacking a certain quality to them that major developers such Nintendo and SEGA had in spades. Tajiri alongside Sugimori sought to fix this by developing their own games

Purchasing the requisite hardware needed for development and studying the Family Basic programming language intensely, Tajiri learned quickly and had a grasp of how to develop games in mere months. Taking this new-found knowledge to heart, the two converted Game Freak into a development studio on the fly and pitched their first project, an action based puzzle game called Quinty. After being picked up by Namco the company quickly went to work on the project, small as they may be. Game Freak only had four employees at the time, Tajiri, Sugimori, a programmer by the name of Yuji Shingai, and a budding composer that had recently joined their company, Junichi Masuda. Sugimori would provide the games artwork while Tajiri and Shingai programmed the game all by their selves. Releasing in 1989, the game was a modest success and proof for Tajiri that this was without a doubt his calling. And this success was attracting the attention of the biggest name in all of gaming, Shigeru Miyamoto himself. Miyamoto took the fledgling developer under his wing, becoming a mentor of sorts to Tajiri and giving him access to the most well-known franchise in all of gaming, Mario. Their partnership would produce great puzzle games such as Yoshi and eventually the cult classic Mario and Wario. With his head in the clouds, Tajiri decided to shoot big for his next project as Nintendo’s latest console was inspiring to no end. The Game Boy had just recently come out and was taking Japan over by the day. But there was a problem. The system seemed ill fit for games such as Quinty and action games just didn’t work on such a small screen. That was until Square proved him wrong by releasing The Final Fantasy Legend, a nearly fully featured Final Fantasy right in the palm of your hand. If Square had the power to do it surely he could do the same. And an interesting idea had crossed his mind.

The Development of Pokémon

He had seen two children playing with their Game Boy’s in the park, with their systems interconnected by the recently released Game Boy Link Cable. Tajiri didn’t have a clue what they were playing but a thought crossed his mind. He remembered the days of his youth when he caught bugs and shared them with his friends while exploring hidden and unknown areas with them. He imagined insects crawling across the cable between the two systems, transferring themselves between each game. As he continued to ponder the capabilities of the Game Link Cable, his idea grew. Link Cables had been used to generally promote competition between others but Tajiri sought a different approach alongside that, one that encouraged players to connect with one another and help each other out. Drafting his concept together, he began to draw more from his youth, taking the idea of Gashapon toy capsules, collectable balls that held toys inside them, to heart. Tajiri came up with the idea of collectable, tradable, evolvable, battling monsters. He would call it Capsule Monsters or CapuMon for short. As him and Miyamoto were close at the time, Tajiri was able to get a meeting with Nintendo’s board of executives and present his case. It was rejected outright. This confused Tajiri at first, as he thought that they just didn’t understand the concept of the game. In reality, the name Capsule Monsters was trademarked and he needed to come up with a new one that was all his own. After sometime the parties involved settled on Pocket Monsters as its name and the project soon went underway.

At first, it seemed like a guaranteed hit. While Shigeru Miyamoto may have been helping guide for the fledgling developer, they already had a dream team of their own. Taijiri would, of course, lead the team as the main game designer and director, helping bring his fantastical world out of his imagination and into reality. Drafting the scenario such a game would be a task in and of itself so he brought writers Ryosuke Taniguchi, Fumihiro Nonomura, and Hiroyuki Jinnai to help speed the process along. Ken Sugimori took on the role of Pocket Monsters art director, but this massive game needed more designs then he could keep up with. So, alongside him were a talented team of artists and designers ready and willing to get the job done. Atsuko Nishida, Motofumi Fuziwara, Shigeki Morimoto, Satoshi Oota, and Rena Yoshikawa. These would be the people to design Tajri’s Pocket Monsters, 151 of them to be exact, with the final designs being made by Sugimori himself. Kohji Nisino and his team also played an important role as lead map and parametric designer who created the fundamentals of the games battle system and how the world truly worked. But while the other departments had a wealth of creators, the sound and programming departments, the most important of the bunch, were severely lacking in man power. Both were helmed by Junichi Masuda with the former only having Takenori Oota, Morimoto, Tetsuya Watanabe, and Sousuke Tamada to help out while the later was run by Masuda exclusively. The entirety of the games soundtrack was his creation, made on a Commodore Amiga that converted the tracks to the Game Boy using a program of his own design. Utilizing the four channels of the Game Boy he was able to create intricate melodies and cries for the varied creatures all on his own. The especially important main theme was just created with white noise made to imitate a snare drum.

Pokémon Red and Blue

Pocket Monsters was going to be a massive project unlike anything Tajiri and Game Freak had made; so massive that it nearly bankrupted the company. Tajiri could barely pay his employees enough to meet ends meet, with five of them leaving throughout the development process. He ended up forgoing a salary and working 24 hour days just to keep his team together, with his father’s shadow looming over him, waiting to see if his dream could become a reality. Luckily enough Creatures Inc, a Nintendo subsidiary founded by Mother creator Shigesato Itoi, was more than willing to help keep costs down. Tajiri’s dream wasn’t dead yet, it would only truly be killed if the game didn’t sell well. Releasing on February 27, 1996 as Pocket Monsters Akai and Pocket Monsters Midori, a decision that was made on behalf of Miyamoto to drive up sales, the two games would revolutionize and revitalize the slowly fading Game Boy. The two were separate experiences but were inherently the same. Each would follow a young boy named Red or Satoshi, a name that could be chosen that was made in admiration of the creator himself. This boy would also have a rival who would be one step ahead of him throughout his adventure named Blue, or Shigeru in honor of his mentor whose shadow he was always chasing after. After picking your choice of starters, Charmander, Bulbasaur, or Squirtle you take off to catch all 150 Pocket Monsters and defeat the Elite Four. Your journey would take you throughout the Kanto region, fighting fellow trainers, collecting Gym Badges, and dismantling an evil organization bent on conquering the world. It was a story that had been told time and time again but not with such an interesting twist as the Pocket Monsters. From Pikachu to Snorlax there was something for everyone to enjoy. The game was filled to the brim with 150 of these unique and intriguing creatures that players could battle with different types for each one of them. Fire, Water, Grass, Electric, these were just some of the many types that were available. This rock-paper-scissors gameplay mechanic made Pocket Monsters a unique beast that no one had ever seen before. Its battle system was simple yet complex at the same time. Anyone with some effort could master it. But curiously enough, when you defeat a fellow trainers Pokémon or fell one in the wild they faint, they don’t die. This is because of Tajiri’s own policy against senseless violence and the fact that he wanted children to treat death with more respect. Kanto, the region you explored was also expansive as well, being one of the largest that the Gameboy could muster. Spread out around it was a plethora of TM’s and HM’s to collect, little discs that let you teach your monsters new moves. These HM’s along with various fishing rods along with a bicycle to traverse to the land, helped you find new areas that weren’t accessible until then. Even Tajiri’s idea of insects crawling across the Link Cable came into play as players could trade monsters with each other and even battle for fun. Pocket Monsters Akai and Midori were Satoshi Tajiri’s dream come alive. Fighting with bugs was replaced with Pocket Monsters. The jars used to catch them were replaced with the iconic Pokeball and the many variations within the species were just as diverse as they were when he was a child.

A Nation In The Palm Of Their Hand

While the two versions seemed like a feat in an of itself, the sales were pretty modest at first. The Game Boy was an aging console whose time in the spotlight was slowly fading away and Akai and Midori were just releasing on the tail end of its lifespan. No one would buy such a game for an outdated console, right? The results would surprise you. Pocket Monsters Akai and Midori were the ones to beat all the odds, selling 10.4 million copies in its home country of Japan, a feat that even Nintendo sometime struggled to do. Pocket Monsters was a sensation. The simplistic joy of catching and battling with your favorite monsters was addicting to say the least. Some franchises had attempted to bring a collectable aspect to the forefront of the gaming industry but none had done it just as well as Pocket Monsters. Something about the well-crafted monster designs, easy to understand combat system, camaraderie that came with trading and battling with friends just fit perfectly with each other. No game since the arcade days had ever encouraged social interaction quite like this. But there still were some kinks in the system. Pocket Monsters Akai was selling but Midori wasn’t even on the same level. Rampant glitches, some god-awful sprites, and graphical oversights plagued Midori to no end, and that just wasn’t going to cut it. So, the team quickly whipped a third version within a year, Pocket Monsters Buru, with improved graphics, sounds and several bug fixes. A superior version for a superior experience. But there was one catch to this experience that had been hidden away from the public. A secret 151st Pocket Monster, Mew. Added in as an in-house prank by character designer and programmer, Shigeki Morimoto, nothing was to ever meant to come of the little critter but Tajiri had other plans. Leaking Mew’s existence to the popular gaming magazine CoroCoro, Game Freak had whipped the nation into a frenzy yet again to entice players and keep interest alive for years to come.

Pocket Monsters had truly taken the country by storm. Children’s conversations and livelihoods were filled to the brim with finding new Pocket Monsters, battling friends, and discovering new locations. The children of Japan were enthralled by this new experience in their lives and Game Freak sought to establish that fact more clearly. In April 25, 1998, the first Pocket Monster Center was opened up in Tokyo, specializing in Pocket Monster merchandise. As time went on, even more side content became readily available in the wake of the franchises release. Manga, spin off games, a trading card game and even a fully featured anime with its own unique cast and story to tell became a common occurrence in the land of the rising sun. It even lead to Pikachu become the accidental mascot of the series, a fact that has remained true for many years. If the Pocket Monsters franchise hadn’t been declared a phenomenon already then these multimedia projects just cemented that fact. But this was just in Japan, what of the rest of the world? North America and Europe were their next targets and they were all set to unleash the series onto the world, however, they soon kept hitting snag after snag.

At first they had problems with Game Freak themselves. As the localization began they attempted to change the Pocket Monster’s iconic designs, as they feared their cute demeanors would not appeal to western gamers, even though, at times, the developers truly thought they were creating monsters themselves. Thankfully, the localization teams relented in this aspect and moved on only to find another problem, the games code. It soon became apparent that it would be impossible to alter the games text from Japanese to English and other languages in the state that it was in. The source code was so fragile due to the games lengthy development time that they needed to completely reprogram the game from scratch. Laying the groundwork, they started from Buru and just split the games into two while keeping the same distribution of Pocket Monsters intact. This caused the game to be delayed for two years. Even more troubles plagued the team. Once again copyright slapped the series in the face again. They need to change the name to make sense but still have the same meaning. Combining Pocket Monsters into one word, their answer was Pokémon. The phenomenon had its true name and was set to conquer the world. But before they could reach the states the anime would enter into the lives of the nations children first, and they were hooked. Throwing out the glitched Midori and giving them their translated names Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue were finally unleashed onto the world. The franchise soon exploded in popularity across America. Kids on school grounds everywhere weren’t playing basketball, they were playing Pokémon. Selling a mammoth 31 million units worldwide, Pokémon had become one of the best-selling franchises of all time in one fell swoop, not bad for a small studio and a bug crazed designer. Gotta Catch ’em all was what every kid was thinking. It was a phenomena that no one had quite seen before.

Pokémon Yellow

Generation 1, as many would call it, wasn’t even done yet. In celebration of the anime’s first movie, Pokémon: The First Movie, Nintendo had Game Freak craft a sequel to their past titles that would align more with the anime. Their creation would be Pokémon Yellow, released in 1999. Unlike Red and Blue which had their own set structure between the two, Yellow instead tends to follow the path of the anime with specific moments and set pieces’ references. Best of all was your traveling companion, a Pikachu of course. Pikachu was different from your typical Pokémon. He had a wide range of expressions from happy to angry and even walked behind you outside of his Pokeball like the anime. That wasn’t even the half of it. The game supported an enhanced color palette thanks to the Game Boy Color and even let you catch every Pokémon in the series so far, making this version a must own. Otherwise Pokémon Yellow still mostly played the same. All the characters and Pokemon that fans had come to adore were all neatly compacted into a single disk for any and all to enjoy. The trading card game latched onto America as well and just like the games was even more popular outside of Japan. Pokémon even started to develop its own competitive scene with the video games and trading cards alike and to this day is one of the most deep and satisfying experiences out there. It was Pokemania and the world was encapsulated by it just like being in there own little Poke Ball. The merchandise, the anime, trading cards, manga, and the games themselves had captured the eyes of the world for all to see. There was nowhere to go but up and one man was about to help them get there.

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