The story of how one Japanese man's hobby became a global phenomenon that shows no signs of stopping
When it comes to Pokémon, you are either completely aware of it and have been following the games, the anime, the movies, the trading cards and everything else, or are completely bewildered by the Pokémon mania that’s gripping the Internet right now. Regardless of which camp you are in, sit back, grab your beverage of choice and relax—we are going to take a trip back in time to the very beginning of Pokémon.
Pokémon is short for “Pocket Monsters", the original Japanese name. The franchise has its roots in a gaming magazine in the early 1980s in Japan—Game Freak, started by Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori. Tajiri was the writer, while Sugimori was the illustrator.
They soon realized that the arcade scene at the time wasn’t too hot anymore and decided to develop games themselves. This included games that were published by Nintendo on the NES and Game Boy like Yoshi and even games for SEGA like Magical Tarurūto-kun on the Mega Drive, SEGA’s console. In its time as a developer, Game Freak had its titles published by the likes of even Sony back then.
When Tajiri and Co. put forth the idea of Pokémon to Nintendo, though, the publishers didn’t really get it. However, Tajiri was given the benefit of doubt thanks to the success of Game Freak’s previous titles, and he worked under the mentorship of Shigeru Miyamoto to create Pocket Monsters: Red and Green, a game that combined the collecting and trading of monsters. And thus began a franchise that went on to become the second largest gaming franchise ever. (In case you are wondering, Mario is the largest, and it also happens to be owned by Nintendo.)
26 February 1996 marks the debut of the Pokémon franchise in the form of both those games on the Game Boy in Japan. At its heart, Pocket Monsters: Red and Green was a very basic Japanese role-playing game. You play as a Pokémon trainer travelling the world and collecting the ubiquitous little monsters (inspired by Tajiri’s childhood love for insect collection) and training them in battles with other Pokémon.
You start out with a single Pokémon (you get to pick one of three) and one aim is to “Catch ‘em all". To get all 151 Pokémon, however, you had to trade with other players. Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green were different versions, as it were, and each had a few Pokémon exclusive to it. Players could use Nintendo’s Game Boy link cable to, well, link up and trade Pokémon, as well as engage in battles with each other.
The turn-based Pokémon battles were the other major aspect of the game. Playing The Final Fantasy Legend on the Game Boy had showed Tajiri that the system could take more than just action games—there was a place for role-playing games too. And so, in Red and Green, you also travel to different Pokémon gyms and battle the gym leaders to win badges, a process that gets more challenging as you go along. In the end, you get to face-off against the best Pokémon trainers in the land, and also defeat an evil mega-corporation (Most Japanese role-playing games in the genre end up having the same basic plot, really).
Red and Green went on to sell millions of copies.
The trading and collecting mentality to get to “100% completion" is what made the games more social, as is seen in the current craze over Pokémon Go on iOS and Android. The philosophy of two games per release in the main series continues even today—Pokémon Sun and Moon release in November.
Each generation introduced more and more Pokémon, with the number up to 721 today (Sun and Moon will give us yet some more in November). The important mainline releases are Pokémon Red and Green (and Blue, a special edition released later) on the Game Boy, Gold and Silver on the Game Boy Color, Ruby and Sapphire on the Game Boy Advance, Diamond and Pearl on the Nintendo DS, Black and White on the DS, and finally X and Y on the 3DS systems. There have been multiple remakes and re-releases as well.
Pokémon Red and Green were so successful that there were several special re-releases and limited editions. One of them was Pokémon Blue, only available as a mail-order title in Japan. Remember mail-order catalogues? Yep, those were still a thing back then and CoroCoro Comics, a monthly magazine, plays an important part in Pokémon history. Even today, said magazine had exclusive information about new Pokémon in the latest games set to release this winter.
Pokémon Blue saw a full release for the Game Boy at retail along with a special edition Pokémon Yellow. Yellow also sees Pikachu (the most famous Pokémon and brand figure for the franchise) on the cover. It was inspired by the super popular Pokémon anime that aired around the same time, leading to some changes to the base game.
For one, you had to start off with Pikachu instead of picking one of the three starter Pokémon in the previous releases. While the Pokémon usually stay in their Poké Balls (Pokémon are captured using Poké Balls that you carry around—how exactly they fit in is a bit of a mystery), Pikachu behaved differently. He refused to stay inside and followed you around just like Ash Ketchum’s Pikachu did in the anime.
Ketchum was the main character in the anime. (Gotta Ketchum all, am I right? I’ll just show myself out...) Pokémon Yellow redesigned the main player character to match Ketchum from the anime as well adding the Pikachu character, along with a number of other characters in the game. Interestingly, Ketchum’s name in the Japanese version of the anime is Satoshi, after Tajiri, the game’s creator.
The popularity of the anime and Yellow, I believe, led to Pikachu becoming the most recognizable and loved Pokémon out there. Pocket Monsters’ success led to North America getting the games in 1998 for the Game Boy (as Pokémon Red and Blue). These few years in the public saw Pokémon go from a game about a hobby to a worldwide phenomenon.
It was also time for a proper sequel to the Game Boy games to go the next level and the advent of the Game Boy Color meant a new generation of Pokémon games would arrive. Pokémon Gold and Silver arrived in Japan in late 1999 and followed nearly a year later in North American territories. These games introduced many new mechanics and obviously also included new Pokémon (100 of them).
Gold and Silver also let you breed Pokémon and had a real-time day and night system. It outsold Pokémon Yellow’s record sales with 1.4 million copies combined in a week—the fastest selling video games ever at that point. At the same time, Pokémon Stadium (a spin-off for the Nintendo 64 console) was also the best-selling home console game. This cemented Pokémon as a monster (pun intended) of a franchise that would show no signs of slowing down. By 2010, Gold and Silver had sold a combined 23 million units.
Each game sold millions of copies and the next generation of Pokémon titles arrived in 2002 in Japan (and 2003 in North America) on the Game Boy Advance. Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire introduced double battles and went on to become the best-selling games on the Game Boy Advance. These two are still fan favourites and Nintendo went on to remake them for the 3DS system in 2014.
If you are familiar with gaming today, you are probably sick of the remakes and remastered versions that keep being released. If you aren’t, every generation or so, video game publishers decide to give some of their best-selling games a visual upgrade or make an enhanced release for new customers and fans of said franchises. Nintendo, no stranger to this concept, releases updated or enhanced versions of their popular games multiple times.
What usually happens is that when developers start working on a new generation of hardware, they update their game engine (at least, the good ones do—I’m looking at you, Bethesda) for better hardware. Once the new engine is available, many developers and publishers decide to update previous-generation or classic games on the new and shiny engines to create definitive editions. The Legend of Zelda series has seen multiple re-releases across new consoles and handhelds for key titles like Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.
Nintendo and Game Freak realized that people were willing to buy remakes of old games and hence started doing a steady stream of re-releases using new technology for new consoles. Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen were remakes of Pokémon Red and Green using the game engine used in Ruby and Sapphire. This trend continued with every new handheld generation getting remakes of old games in addition to new Pokémon titles.
The fourth generation of games arrived with Nintendo’s new handheld system, the DS. This system boasted a dual screen and had a new engine for the Pokémon games. Diamond and Pearl continued the tradition of adding new Pokémon and tweaking mechanics while retaining the gameplay people knew and loved. The DS also saw the release of HeartGold and SoulSilver, which used the Diamond and Pearl engine for an enhanced version of Gold and Silver from the Game Boy Color.
The Nintendo DS went on to become one of the best-selling handheld gaming devices of all time, with more than 150 million sold worldwide. No doubt, Pokémon played a huge part in this. The DS also received the fifth generation of Pokémon games in 2011 in the form of Pokémon Black and White, which went on to sell 2.6 million copies in just two days in Japan. These two games have crossed 15 million sales worldwide as of last year.
Now that the legacy platforms are out of the way, we come to the current generation of Nintendo handhelds—the Nintendo 3DS and the enhanced New Nintendo 3DS (did they learn to name devices from Apple?). The 3DS introduced stereoscopic 3D without the need for specialized glasses and this led to the first polygonal 3D graphics in a mainline Pokémon game. Pokémon X and Y are the sixth generation of Pokémon games and they were the first in the franchise to get a simultaneous worldwide release. I don’t suppose I need to say this, but X and Y are the best-selling games on the Nintendo 3DS thus far.
History repeated itself when Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire received 3DS remakes in the form of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire that bring the total number of mainline games to 25. This is just counting the mainline games and their remakes. When it comes to spin-offs, there are almost as many games as there are Pokémon. The Pokémon brand has lasted nearly 20 years in other forms of media and as a recognizable mascot for handheld gaming in general.
Pokémon is much more than just games though. Over the past two decades, it has evolved into a social and media phenomenon. The franchise ended up with a hugely successful and long-running anime from 1997 in Japan, with more than 900 episodes (!). And the anime has its own spin-offs—Pokémon Chronicles, Pokémon Sunday and more.
The anime follows Ash Ketchum (remember him?) as he works his way up the ranks in Pokémon leagues across different regions. Outside of the anime on TV, there have been 18 movies and a few full-length TV specials. Speaking of movies, Legendary Pictures just announced a live-action Detective Pikachu movie that will begin production in 2017. Yes, a spin-off Pokémon game only released in Japan is getting a live-action movie.
Seeing how big the franchise has become, we have seen tons of Pokémon references in pop culture, from TV shows like The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory to video games like Civilization V, Grand Theft Auto V and even Minecraft.
Outside of the big and small screens, there was a trading card game that was also a huge success for the brand. The card game, in turn, saw multiple versions and releases all over the world (yes, again).
The brand grew so big that there were even Pokémon theme parks, or Poképarks, in Japan and Taiwan. There are themed cafés called Pokémon Cafés across the world and dedicated Pokémon stores that sell exclusive merchandise. It’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t at least heard of the franchise in some form.
Things are a bit different for Pokémon and the brand in India. Nintendo hasn’t had much of a presence in the country, which meant consoles and games have always been difficult to acquire without jumping through import hoops.
The anime and the movies, however, were brought over and made their debut on Cartoon Network in India in 2003. This is what really introduced the Indian public to the franchise. The anime was even dubbed in Hindi and eventually Tamil and Telugu. Debuting nearly six years after the original episode aired in Japan, India and the subcontinent were finally officially exposed to Pokémon in all its glory.
This brings us to what’s happening in the latter half of 2016. Niantic, the developer of Ingress, worked with The Pokémon Company to release Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game for smartphones and tablets. As you may know by now, if you haven’t been living under a rock, with Pokémon Go, you actually go outside and catch Pokémon in real life, as it were.
The game uses your device’s GPS to correlate your location in the real world and the location of various wild Pokémon in the game world, and when you are near one, you can whip out your phone or tablet and scan the surroundings—the app will superimpose the Pokémon on to the view of the world through your camera, hence “augmented reality".
Pokémon Go, like pretty much every main Pokémon game, has been supremely successful so far with over 30 million users, but the impact this game has had on gaming, Nintendo and even politics is staggering.
In just a few weeks, we have seen it used in a political campaign by US presidential candidate Donald Trump, news reporters getting interrupted as colleagues walk across the camera while playing and even criminals using location data from Pokémon Go to plan crimes.
While it isn’t available in India yet, many have resorted to registering accounts from other regions to get their fix, as Nintendo’s stock market valuation soared above even the likes of Sony, gaining $9 billion in just five days after the release.
Pokémon as a franchise is very important for gaming in general, but especially for handheld gaming. While Japan, and the world, moves to mobile and the traditional handheld console market shrinks, Pokémon has consistently been selling millions of copies.
I would go so far as to say the reason we still have portable consoles is because Pokémon kept people wanting more each generation. Pokémon’s only real competition in the handheld gaming space is in Japan in the form of Yo-Kai Watch, but outside Japan, Pokémon is still king.
And with Pokémon Go taking the world by storm, the franchise may finally have settled into the mobile space as well. It has earned $35 million in revenue already without launching in two of the biggest smartphone markets: India and China.
This brief history of Pokémon is an important lesson on many levels. You see how a small hobby for a single person when coupled with the right artist and director can lead to a global phenomenon that shows no signs of stopping. You know how there are people who buy a gaming console just to play one or two game series like FIFA or Call of Duty? On the portable side of things, the parallel exists where people buy handheld systems just to play Pokémon games.
I have already seen a drastic increase in game sales for Nintendo platforms after Pokémon Go released on various online retailers and in local import stores. I can’t imagine just how big things will get once Pokémon Go is released worldwide and more people start going out of the house to hunt for mythical pocket monsters. Pokémon is here to stay, so you might as well get used to it and take a crack at catching ’em all.
Mikhail Madnani is a freelance games journalist, website and design consultant, and Final Fantasy X super fan. He enjoys black coffee and Japanese RPGs, preferably together, and also manages Beautiful Pixels where well-designed apps are showcased.