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Pokémon Red & Blue – A Look Back At The 20-Year Journey To Catch ‘Em All

by Kyle Hilliard on Dec 25, 2016 at 12:00 PM

Between Go, Sun & Moon, and Pokkén, 2016 was a huge year for Pokémon. Some may have found the franchise for the first time this year, but Pokémon began with the Japanese release of Pokémon Red & Green in 1996. We're looking back on the development and release of the original Pokémon for a better understanding of its continually growing legacy. This feature originally appeared in issue 276 of Game Informer magazine.

Pokémon is a massive franchise. The series is celebrating 20 years, and more than 200 million Pokémon games have been sold over the course of its two-decade tenure. The Pokémon Company has become one of Nintendo’s most important partners and the two are celebrating the Pocket Monster legacy in 2016 by finally, after years of fan demand, releasing the original Pokémon games, Red, Blue (and Yellow) on 3DS Virtual Console.

Originally released in Japan in 1996 as Pokémon Red and Green, the series took two years to make its way to North America. The game was developed by Game Freak and directed by Satoshi Tajiri, who is credited as the main inspiration, creator, and driving force behind the original games and the -Pokémon franchise.

Tajiri has cited a handful of important influences on the ideas that fostered the creation of Pokémon. As a child, Tajiri collected bugs and insects, a popular pastime for Japanese children. In a 1999 Time magazine interview, Tajiri’s father said his friends used to call him Dr. Bug. This is where the core idea of collecting Pokémon came from. The mechanic of collecting Pokémon in Pokéballs came from the popular Japanese television show, Ultraman, who kept creatures in small capsules to be produced for combat when he  needed them.

Junichi Masuda worked on the first Pokémon games as a composer and programmer, but today works as a producer and director on assorted core Pokémon entries. He spoke with Gamasutra in 2009 about another important aspect of Pokémon: the trading. “When Mr. Tajiri went to talk to [Nintendo], Mr. Miyamoto actually suggested, ‘How about creating different cartridges? There are different Pokémon on each cartridge, and people are willing to trade the Pokémon.’”

The original Pokémon games were in development for six years – an incredibly long development period even by today’s standards. In a recent Pokémon Company video discussing the development of those games, Masuda reminisced about the difficulty of the project. “I remember my computers always overheating and breaking down on me,” Masuda said, “I would work hard to fix them, and eventually we managed to complete the first Pokémon games, but I think I went through four computers by the end.”

For more on the legacy of the original Pokémon release, head to page two.

Broken computers weren’t the only barrier nearly preventing Pokémon from releasing and becoming the franchise it is today. In a 2010 Iwata Asks interview with Pokémon Company president and CEO Tsunekazu Ishihara and programmer Shigeki Morimoto, Ishihara said the game was actually completed in October of 1995, but its release was pushed back. “We missed the end of year sales season and finally released the games at the end of February of the following year – the very worst time of year to release games!” It was also believed by many at the time that the Game Boy had completed its lifecycle by 1996.

Pokémon proved the Game Boy still had legs, but both Ishihara and Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata attribute the game’s massive success and unexpected sales to a surprising source: a specific Pokémon. “I think one reason is the power of word of mouth,” Ishihara told Iwata. “In 1996, people weren’t writing their own Internet blogs, but word steadily spread about how much fun Pokémon was. There was also the small matter of Mew, the Pokémon that Morimoto-san contrived as a kind of prank.”

Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow
Pokémon Red and Green released in Japan in February 1996. The game went through a protracted localization process, and in September 1998, Pokémon Red and Blue released in North America. The North American version of the game featured some improvements and changes, so as a result, Japanese players could order a re-localized version of Blue through the mail. It was not sold in stores. Pokémon Yellow was an improved version of Pokémon Red, Blue, and Green with a focus on Pikachu and released in Japan in 1998 and North America in 1999.

Mew was added in to the game very late in development, despite the debug team widely demanding the game no longer be tampered with. It also didn’t help that the cartridge was nearly full thanks to all of the abundant content. Mew was added in anyway, without specific plans for reveal. Despite the efforts to hide the 151st Pokémon, a difficult-to-recreate bug made it show up in some people’s games, which created widespread rumors and excitement. “It looked like we planned all of this, but that wasn’t the case. So although it caused all sorts of problems to many concerned, fortunately enough it ended up having a positive effect,” Morimoto told Iwata.

Once the rumor started spreading, Nintendo partnered with the Japanese publication CoroCoro Comic to hold a contest to distribute Mew to 20 players. 78,000 players entered the contest, and the winners had to send in their game cartridge to receive Mew. “The monthly sales we’d had up to then began to be equaled by weekly sales, before increasing to become three then four times larger,” Ishihara told Iwata.

Between the three versions of the game, Red, Blue, and the Japan-exclusive Green, the franchise’s cardinal entry went on to sell more than 20 million copies across the world. The Game Boy game was the starting line for what has turned into a ubiquitous multimedia powerhouse of video games, anime, movies, toys, and card games. The franchise entered the mobile space this year with hugely successful Pokémon Go and saw its fastest-selling release with Pokémon Sun & Moon. If 2016 was any indication, the pocket monster juggernaut shows no sign of slowing down.