Pikachu and pals have had some impressive staying power. When Pokémon first exploded in the late-90s, most pundits pegged it as just another fad. That year’s Pogs or Tickle Me Elmo. 17 years and 270 million games sold later, those naysayers have been proven thoroughly wrong.
Pokémon may have become one of the most successful gaming phenomenons of all-time, but it all started with a simple, black and white Game Boy title largely created by a single visionary trying to express his obsessions in video game form. The original Pokémon Red and Blue was engineered from the ground up to be a phenomenon, but nearly failed in countless ways. Here are a few things you may not know about the games that first challenged us to catch ’em all…
1. Pokémon is the offspring of a photocopied gaming zine. Most hardcore Pokémon fans know the series is created by independent studio Game Freak as opposed to Nintendo itself. What many probably don’t know is that Game Freak didn’t start out as video game developer.
Game Freak was originally a hand-lettered, photocopied video game fan zine written by Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri. Early issues were photocopied by a teenage Tajiri, but eventually he switched to professional printing when the zine started selling upwards of 10,000 copies per issue. The underground popularity of the zine allowed Tajiri to bring other contributors on board. One of these contributors was artist Ken Sugimori, who would go on to design all the original creatures in Pokémon Red and Blue.
Copies of the magazine version of Game Freak. Note the familiar electric rat on the issue on the right.
Tired of writing about other people’s mostly lousy games, Tajiri and Sugimori would transform Game Freak into a development studio in 1989. Less than a year later, this new studio would being development of a strange little game about battling monsters.
2. Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. With its repetitive grinding, obsessive collecting and silent protagonist, the world of Pokémon would seem to be an Asperger sufferer’s dream. Well, it turns out it’s exactly that. Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri suffers from the disorder, which is characterized by social anxiety, trouble interacting appropriately with others, and a tendency to get hung up on repetitive obsessions and minutia.
Interviews with Tajiri are very rare, and he’s said to be a bit of a recluse, working on the Pokémon games alone, or with a very small group of trusted co-workers. In the few interviews he has done, he’s talked about the major, borderline creepy, fixation he had on bugs as a kid. Tajiri would devise all sorts of innovative ways to trap insects (which he would take home and watch fight) until the countryside around his suburban home was developed and paved over. With the collectible wildlife gone, Tajiri would instead focus on video games, but he never forgot those bugs that so fascinated him as a kid.
A rare picture of our bug-obsessed mastermind.
3. It took an ridiculously long time to create Pokémon Red and Blue. Ever wonder why Pokémon came out so late in the Game Boy’s life cycle? Well, Pokémon was supposed to be one of the earliest games on the Game Boy, but it took so long to develop the system that was nearly dead by the time it finally came out. Pokémon began development in 1990, but a lack of funds and resources meant Pokémon (which came in Red and Green variations in Japan) didn’t hit shelves until 1996. American audiences would have to wait even longer; the westernized Red and Blue versions of the game didn’t come out until late 1998. In other words, that Pokémon Red and Blue cart you popped into your Game Boy Color was almost a decade in the making.
4. Your rival is named after Shigeru Miyamoto in Japan. Game Freak would pitch the idea for Pokémon (then called Capsule Monsters) to Nintendo several times, but Nintendo kept rejecting the idea, as they didn’t really understand the concept. The idea wasn’t approved until Mario and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto took a personal interest in the game. Miyamoto became a bit of a mentor to Satoshi Tajiri, advising him during the long development process (it was Miyamoto’s idea to split the game into two versions).
“Split your game, or I’ll split your wig.”
As tribute to his mentor, Tajiri would include a nod to Miyamoto in the game. In the Japanese version of Pokémon, one of the alternate names for your rival is Shigeru. Oh, and one of the alternate names for the main character is Satoshi. While it may seem like Tajiri is implying that he and Shigeru Miyamoto are rivals, he claims naming the bad guy after Miyamoto was a compliment. Your rival is always ahead of you during your adventure, which is how Tajiri saw Miyamoto, always two steps ahead.
5. There were over 200 Pokémon designed for the game. There were 151 pocket monsters in the original Pokémon Red and Blue, which has been permanently burned into every Pokémaster’s head. Well, there was supposed to be a lot more of the little critters. According to Ken Sugimori, he created well over 200 Pokémon for the game, but limited storage space meant only 151 could be stuffed in. Most of the left over ‘mons would instead be used in Pokémon Gold and Silver.
6. Rhydon, Clefairy and Lapras were the first Pokémon created. So, what was the first Pokémon ever created? Pikachu, right? Or one of the starting three, Charmander, Bulbasaur or Squirtle? Nope. It was the relatively unloved Rhydon. Originally, most of the game’s creatures were going to look like dinosaurs, so the very dino-like Rhydon being the first created makes some sense. He was followed shortly thereafter by Clefairy and Lapras.
Early Pokemon concept art featuring a very Rhydon-like creature.
7. Clefairy was originally going to be the series mascot instead of Pikachu. Speaking of Clefairy, it was originally going to be the break-out star of the Pokémon series. It co-starred in the earliest Pokémon manga, and was going to be Ash Ketchum’s bestest buddy in the anime. Clefairy was the choice because Game Freak and Nintendo thought the character would appeal to girls and young women, but they ultimately discovered the ladies were even more into Pikachu and his chubby cheeks, so the switch was made.
Clefairy, obliterating the line between “cute” and “cloying.”
8. Mew was added by a programmer at the very last moment. Mew is possibly the most important Pokémon in the franchise’s history. Yes, even more important than Squirtle. Without Mew, the series could very well have stalled before it had a chance to get going, so it may surprise you to know the Mew was added to the game by an overzealous programmer at the very last moment.
During the final stages of development, programmer Shigeki Morimoto removed the developer debug mode from Pokémon, freeing up a minuscule 300 bytes of cartridge space. As a bit of a gag, Morimoto decided to use those bytes to slip in one last Pokemon of his own creation, and thus the mysterious Mew was born. Mew was never intended to be accessible by players; it was just supposed to be a fun little secret for the developers of the game.
When Pokémon first came out in Japan in 1996, it got off to very sluggish start. Word of mouth didn’t start to spread until rumors of a hidden 151st Pokémon began to spread on playgrounds across Japan. Some players had discovered glitches that uncovered Mew, and soon that ‘mon was being traded like cooties. Things really took off when a popular manga magazine announced a contest in which the winners could send in their Pokémon cartridge to have Mew officially unlocked. The contest got nearly 80,000 entries, and around this time, word of mouth finally reached critical mass and sales of Pokémon began to take off. So, if it hadn’t been for a last-minute Easter egg, Pokémon may never have got that all-important second wind.
9. There was supposed to be a female trainer in the game. Later entries in the series allow you to choose between a male and female main character, but the first Pokémon is strictly a broventure. Well, there’s evidence the option to play as a girl was originally considered for the game. There’s official artwork that features the lead male character Red, his rival and a mysterious female character. When Red and Blue were remade as Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen, the option to play as a female character who closely resembles the girl in this old art was included. Thankfully, the lack of a female playable character didn’t dissuade girls from playing the original Pokémon, which was almost as popular with the ladies as it was with gents.
What’s with the mysterious girl trainer’s Mickey Mouse gloves?
10. A battle with Professor Oak could have been the game’s original final boss. Professor Oak always seemed more than a little menacing, and it turns out there may have been a reason for that. There’s an unused battle against Professor Oak programmed into the game that can fairly easily be uncovered using Game Genie codes. Ol’ Prof. Oak is carrying some pretty heavy duty ammunition (Tauros, Exeggutor, Arcanine, Gyarados and an evolved, level 69 version of the starter neither you or your rival chose) leading some to believe he was originally supposed to be the game’s final superboss.
11. You may have killed your rival’s Raticate. Pokémon Red and Blue may be cute, but there’s some dark stuff lurking beneath the game’s adorable facade. Many of the Pokémon have some pretty bleak backstories, and there’s a chance the game’s main character may be a Poké-murderer.
Late in the game you meet up with your rival in the Pokémon Tower in the creepy Lavender Town. The Pokémon Tower is essentially a giant Pokémon cemetery (I told you these games get dark) and your rival/Gary asks why you’re even there, since none of your Pokémon are dead. But wait, why is your rival there?
In the subsequent battle one of your rival’s Pokémon, his Raticate, is now conspicuously absent. Maybe he just switched the ugly bugger out, but many speculate you may have actually killed your rival’s Raticate in your previous battle aboard the S.S. Anne. It isn’t explicitly stated you killed the Raticate, and the Pokémon series would like you to believe your critters merely “faint” when they lose a battle, but all those ghost Pokémon have to come from somewhere, right?
Maybe it’s for the best this thing died.
12. One of the creators of the Cabbage Patch Doll helped market Pokémon in America. Pokémon didn’t end up being a fad, but it definitely felt like one when Pokémon Red and Blue first came out. Part of the reason for that was Nintendo actually hired Al Kahn, one of the masterminds behind the Cabbage Patch craze, to plan the American debut of Pokémon. Kahn was instrumental in making the very Japanese franchise more palatable to Americans, although thankfully demands to make the Pokémon less cute and more radical and badassical were rejected by Nintendo.
13. Game Freak was originally opposed to doing a cartoon series. The whole Pokémon thing just wouldn’t be the same without the cartoon. It was the cartoon that made Pikachu a star, and of course it gave us one of the best Saturday morning themes of all time…
Surprisingly, Game Freak and Nintendo were originally against doing a TV show. Most licensed cartoons don’t last very long, and they were afraid a Pokémon cartoon being quickly canceled could create bad publicity and stall the franchise’s momentum. Considering the anime has been running for 18 seasons and 850 episodes, I’d venture to say they were being a bit overly cautious.
There you have it, a few facts about Nintendo’s unstoppable fighting phenomenon. Know any interesting Pokémon factoids I missed? Just want to reminisce about the countless hours you whiled away on the bus or at the cottage with your Pokémon pals? Let’s make this comments section the very best, like no comments section ever was.