Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Pokemon franchise, with February 27th 1996 being the Japanese release date of Pocket Monsters Red and Green on the Nintendo Gameboy. To say the original Pokemon games were a momentous release is an understatement, as they ushered in a cultural and societal phenomenon in both the United States and Japan. The franchise has gone on to become the second highest selling video game franchise of all time, second only to Mario, and has become the most successful handheld franchise of all time. It all started in 96 with this amazing game:
One cannot tell the story of Pokemon without first mentioning the history of the developer behind it, Game Freak. Led by Satoshi Tajiri, Game Freak started in the game industry as a video game magazine featuring hand drawn artwork and writing. It wasn’t until 1989 that the team developed their first game, Mendel Palace for the Nintendo Entertainment System. From there Game Freak worked mostly on licensed games for Nintendo, including the titles Mario & Wario and Yoshi. It was around this time that Tajiri began conceptualizing Pokemon, a title that would take 6 years to complete development.
Pokemon started from simple inspirations. Satoshi Tajiri, who headed up development of the game, had been fascinated by collecting insects as a child. He wanted to design a game that gave the player the same thrill of chasing and trading unique creatures as insect collecting gave him a child. Taking inspiration from one of his favorite shows of his youth, Ultraman, he wanted to incorporate a battle system that utilized captured monsters as party allies. These inspirations, paired with an interest in the Gameboy Link Cable that was introduced early in the handheld’s lifespan, grew the idea of a monster collecting game in which players could train, battle, and trade monsters with friends. In 1990, Tajiri brought the concept to Nintendo under the title “Capsule Monsters”, who turned the idea down. After shortening the name to CapuMon and subsequently changing it to Pocket Monsters due to copyright issues, Tajiri once again brought it to Nintendo. With the help of Shigeru Miyamoto putting his support behind the idea, the game was finally green lighted for development. The 6 year development of Pokemon Red and Green was one of technical difficulties, financial woes, and many unpaid overtime hours. When the game finally released in 1996 as Pocket Monsters Red and Green Versions, Game Freak had lost many of its developers and was on the verge of bankruptcy. Despite its almost immediate international success years later, the Japanese release of the original game wasn’t the overnight success one would expect. It wasn’t until buzz about the game’s hidden 151st Pokemon that sales starting to pick up for the game, thus creating the cultural phenomenon that we know it as today.
Outside of Japan, the game released as Pokemon Red and Blue, a slightly updated version of the original game with reworked sprites and details. Each version of the game held specific Pokemon only obtainable in that specific version of the game. With the addition of Pokemon only achievable at the cost of another Pokemon and Pokemon that only evolved through trade, to obtain every Pokemon in the game required trading with another version of the game. This is where Pokemon becomes a milestone game in the social sphere of gaming; it is a game that requires players to interact and trade with others to obtain the game’s goal. While it’s inevitable that a player could just buy both versions of the game and a second gameboy, the intent of Game Freak was to promote a sense of community among gamers that fostered real loss and exchange. The developers wanted trading away special Pokemon to mean something for each player, and for their decisions and actions to have consequence in-game and in the real world.
Years ago I wrote a more humorous look at the Pokemon series as an entity of social agent, but many of the lessons the game teaches players are about community and comradeship still hold true. It’s one of the few games of the era that has cooperation built into its success, despite a big emphasis of the game being about battling other trainers. Even today, whether it be with the game or the immensely successful card game, fans are comparing and trading Pokemon just like in 1996. There are few games that have had the cultural impact that Pokemon has had and I think it’s pretty likely we’ll see Pokemon remain popular for years to come.