THOSE OF A CERTAIN generation will fondly remember the original Game Boy.
It may have been bulky and was less powerful than other rival handhelds but what it had was longer battery life and a number of great games including Tetris, Super Mario Land 2 and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening to help it out.
Yet this day 20 years ago saw one of Nintendo’s most important franchises released and is still going strong to this day.
During the late 90s and early 00s, it was almost impossible to escape the influence Pokémon had on both gaming and wider culture. While it became a cultural phenomenon thanks to the TV series, trading cards game and merchandise, it also became the best-selling RPG of all time.
The seventh generation games, titled Sun and Moon, are now on their way, but the originals are still to this day fondly remembered.
Note: Pokémon Red and Blue were released in Europe on 5 October 1999. This date relates to when it was first released in Japan.
Before Pokémon, Game Freak was a small development team born from conversations about bad games and what could be done to improve them.
It worked on games that were only released in Japan like Quinty, an action-puzzle game which involved flipping tiles, and Pulseman, a solid Mega Drive platformer which was eventually released in Western territories on Wii Virtual Console.
None of them set the world alight but they did show how Game Freak was willing to take existing genres and introduce its own twists.
But for Pokémon, its designer Satoshi Tajiri took inspiration from something more mundane: collecting insects.
In an interview with Time Asia back in 1999, he talked about his childhood and how his hobby of finding and catching insects influenced the game.
They fascinated me. For one thing, they kind of moved funny. They were odd. Every time I found a new insect, it was mysterious to me. And the more I searched for insects, the more I found .. As I gathered more and more, I’d learn about them, like how some would feed on one another. So I stopped bringing them home.
But I liked coming up with new ideas. Like how to catch beetles. In Japan, a lot of kids like to go out and catch beetles by putting honey on a piece of tree bark. My idea was to put a stone under a tree, because they slept during the day and like sleeping under stones. So in the morning I’d go pick up the stone and find them. Tiny discoveries like that made me excited.
What was perhaps interesting was the choice of platform. The Game Boy had been around since 1989 and while it was a success, its popularity was declining as years went on but being able to facilitate both quick games and longer playthroughs meant it was a perfect fit.
Its release could not have come at a better time as it revitalised the handheld range just when the smaller and lighter Pocket Game Boy was released.
Game Freak started working on the game in 1990 and it took six years for it to be released. Originally, it was planned there would be 50 monsters, but as the technology improved, they ended up with 150 by the end of the fourth year, according to its art director Ken Sugimori in an interview with GamesTM:
“It took about six years from the start of the concept to execution. We started the project right after Quinty was released and initially, we were aiming to have about fifty Pokémon. But every year, the technology improved so while it started at 50, by the end of about the fourth year we realised that we could do about 150 Pokémon. In that sense, I suppose we didn’t really have a set target number – it just depended on the technology we had at the time.”
While the variation of monsters was one factor for its success, the other, releasing two versions of the same game wasn’t a Game Freak idea. Instead it came from the creator of Super Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto, when the game was shown to Nintendo.
It’s funny that one of the game’s most noticeable features was unheard of at the time with the Game Boy link cable only being used for two player matches.
Pokémon was already envisioned as a game where you could trade monsters so two versions made a lot of sense. In the same interview with Time Asia, Tajiri said the focus was on communication.
“The idea I had was for information to go back and forth,” he said. “It wasn’t about competition. Even before Game Boy, there was a communication capability at game arcades – like two race car drivers sitting next to each other to compete. That’s all anyone was doing, using it to compete”.
I liked competition too. But I wanted to design a game that involved interactive communication. Remember, there was no internet then.
Relying on two versions of the same game meant you needed friends to trade you monsters not found on your version so you could complete the Pokédex, your encyclopedia you were tasked with filling.
Adding to that certain Pokémon that would only evolve when traded and completing it was impossible on your own.
When Pokemon Red and Green were first released in Japan, their unexpected success meant two updated versions, Red and Blue, were released shortly after. Those versions were later released internationally.
Laying the foundations
But what about the game itself? Looking back on it, it hasn’t aged as well as it would have hoped – navigating the world and menus is rigid and the battle system was somewhat imbalanced – but the world it created still holds up well.
Usually RPGs split up exploration into two parts: the world map, which allowed you to quickly move from one place of interest to another, and towns/areas of interest which could be explored in greater detail. While such an approach gives a sense of scale, it creates a sense of disconnect for the player.
Pokémon ignored that and used one main map that you never left. There were no loading screens as you left town or entered a cave or building, everything was seamless giving it more things in common with Zelda than Final Fantasy.
While it seems like a simple idea now, it really gave you the feeling you were in this greater ecosystem. You walked everywhere and finding monsters and people along each route made you feel like you in this vast world just waiting to be explored.
And Kanto, the game’s setting, was populated with people and trainers. As is the case with every RPG, every person has something to day, but every trainer had a personality of some kind, be it a hiker, sailor or bug collector.
In a way, this was to give you hints as to the type of monsters your opponent would use but it made the world that bit more engrossing as you weren’t facing off against cookie-cutter enemies.
The other major aspect was progression. In a way, your original aim is to complete your Pokédex, but breaking that up was becoming a world champion.
Alongside dealing with your rival and Team Rocket every now and again (and the lack of any real story), you had to face eight Gym leaders, the game’s bosses, which kept progress focused and gave you an immediate aim.
More importantly, they all dealt with a specific type that encouraged you to strategise. To give one example, the first Gym leader you face uses rock-type Pokémon.
At the very start, you can brute-force your way through battles using normal-type moves and rely on only one monster but the same method won’t get you far here since rock types aren’t hurt by standard attacks
But even before that, you must cross Viridian Forest first, which is full of bug Pokémon. Some of them can only harden which increases their defence, meaning you either took ages beating them with normal moves or use your head and start taking advantage of the rock-paper-scissors battle system the game uses.
Yet describing the battle system like that undersells it as despite its fun and cutesy exterior, it offers a serious amount of strategic planning. Since there are 150 monsters and only six slots in your team, each monster only knowing four moves, it meant there were a vast number of approaches you could take.
Yet if you delved into the stats further, you could calculate the max potential for each Pokémon – for example, you could catch three Pidgeys and each of them would have slightly different stats – giving you the best possible chance for competitive play.
Granted there were some issues which meant the battle system was somewhat imbalanced – the dominance of psychic types was later resolved with the release of Gold and Silver – but some forward thinking ensured you stayed a step ahead of your opponents.
“Argh! Almost had it!”
Yet most of the excitement and tension came from searching and catching monsters. While catching the likes of a Pidgey or Rattata was pretty easy because of how common they were, rarer Pokémon upped the stakes as you would normally spend ages looking for them.
Once you found them, weakening them without knocking them out, and watching your pokéball shake as you try to catch it is still as tense a moment now as it was 20 years ago.
And if you were dealing with a legendary with only one chance to catch it, making sure your game was saved before approaching it was the only way to avoid heartache.
Yet the best part of the series is how they never distracted you with exposition or long cut-scenes. Instead, they leave you to your own devices and let you wander around Kanto, taking things at your own pace, and facilitating individual strategies as you crafted the ultimate team. The game caters to the player rather than the other way around, something it still does to this day.
Future editions refined the series further and with it still going strong, who knows what the series will take us in another 20 years.