The premise for Pokemon Red Version and Blue Version is simple and timeless. Red andBlue are a pair of RPGs about a young boy who goes on a quest to become a Pokemon trainer. Pokemon are a race of monsters/creatures that the player must capture and train to use as allies in battles with other trainers throughout the game. As the game progresses, the player faces off against Pokemon gym leaders in order to win badges. These badges let you and your team of Pokemon compete in the ultimate battle against the Elite Four, whose defeat will grant you the status of Pokemon champion. While an interesting concept in its own right, what made Red and Blue even more special was the games’ unique ability to allow players to link their Game Boys and exchange Pokemon. The secondary goal of completing your catalog of Pokemon (called the Pokedex) was as compelling as the main game and Red and Blue‘s strongest hook. Pokemon changed the videogame industry forever by reaching a new audience of players and creating a multimedia empire unmatched by any other game franchise. Pokemon is an incredible series, but what’s more amazing is how many disparate elements converged to make it all possible.
The lightning strike that would become Pokemon hit Satoshi Tajiri’s mind when Square released The Final Fantasy Legend for Nintendo’s Game Boy. Up to that point the Game Boy had been a runaway hit, but it was a system known more for action and puzzle games than anything else. What Legend proved to Tajiri was that, if done right, any genre could find a home on Nintendo’s portable. Along with friend Ken Sugimori, Tajiri began looking at the Game Boy’s unique features and experimented with how to best deliver a videogame experience unlike any other. Tajiri was an avid bug collector and arcade game aficionado in his adolescence, and he would draw heavily from his past while conceptualizing this new game.The Game Boy’s ability to link with other systems struck a chord with Tajiri, inspiring thoughts of a new type of game where players could collect and exchange things between one another. It wouldn’t be long before the seeds of what would become Pokemon began to bear fruit.
Like Nintendo, Game Freak’s origins are far less technology-based than one would think. Tajiri started Game Freak in 1981 as a fanzine devoted to gaming. Self-produced and distributed, Tajiri’s magazine had a small but dedicated following. Among Tajiri’s readers was Sugimori, who he eventually met and formed a strong friendship with. The two men linked up as business partners and transitioned Game Freak from game publication to development company in 1989. Game Freak produced several titles in its first few years, including a Japan-only Mario game for the SNES called Mario and Wario. Tajiri’s collecting/trading-idea was something special, though, and after much brainstorming with Sugimori, they presented their proposal for a game called Capsule Monsters to Nintendo. Nintendo had enjoyed working with the two before and, impressed with Tajiri and Sugimori’s proposal, agreed to fund the game’s development.
Tajiri’s vision for the game had a rock-solid core, but the finer details are what shifted most during development. The name Capsule Monsters was itself a hurdle, as Tajiri knew that players would shorten the title and Capumon just didn’t have a good ring to it. Throw in the fact that Game Freak was having a hard time trademarking Capsule Monsters and the name just had to go. After some deliberation, the name Pocket Monsters was settled upon; it didn’t hurt that it shortened well to Pokemon. Pokemon doubled for the name of the game and the monsters, and now Tajiri and Sugimori just had to figure out how many of the creatures to make. Originally, the team came up with over 200 different Pokemon, with the intention of whittling away the weaker designs and saving others for potential sequels. Sugimori collaborated with a very small team to come up with the appearance of each Pokemon, but the final design for each was done by himself. Lapras, Rhydon, and Clefairy are actually the first Pokemon that the team created! Players were originally intended to lure Pokemon through a system called Charisma and maintain relationships with the creatures similar to pets. Tajiri and company tinkered with the idea, and in the end believed that catching the Pokemon in (as previously titled) “capsules” and developing a bond more akin to allies was the better way to go. Tajiri and Sugimori were firing on all cylinders, but there was something missing and Shigeru Miyamoto knew what it was.
Nintendo’s legendary developer had the perfect idea for Pokemon; split the game into two. Miyamoto knew that the game would have a great appeal to children and that the trading aspect would result in many families buying multiple copies. In an effort to bolster the desire to engage in trading and make the experience even funner, Miyamoto posited that creating two versions of the game, each with some different Pokemon, would do the trick. Tajiri agreed, and the game became two titles; Pokemon Red Version and Green Version. When the games hit Japan, Miyamoto’s suggestion was spot-on; Pokemon sold millions of copies and the two variations caused a frenzy amongst players to trade with one another. Nintendo had not just a hit, but a veritable phenomenon. The only question that remained was whether or not Pokemon‘s appeal could translate to players abroad.
Preparations for Pokemon to come to the US were meticulous and calculated. Nintendo poured bushels of cash and resources into marketing for the games, believing that Pokemon would need a strong push to find its audience. One of Nintendo’s more brilliant ideas was branding the games with the ingenious tagline/challenge “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!”, which perfectly conveyed what made Pokemon special. Still, there was hesitation on the part of the Western localization team, who feared that the “cute” nature of many of the creatures would not be appealing to American gamers. The localization team suggested re-designing the Pokemon to be more menacing, but Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi disagreed, feeling that the games could be successful as they were if handled properly; what was wildfire in Japan could surely be in America, too. The translated versions of Redand Green prepared for the US were based on the code from Pokemon Blue (a modified follow-up to the original two games), which is perhaps partially the reason why NoA decided to name the games Pokemon Red Version and Blue Version when they debuted in 1998. For all the trepidation and debate internally at Nintendo, when Pokemon finally landed in the US it went from a hit at home to an international superstar.
It’s easy to take Pokemon for granted now, but its impact both on Nintendo and the videogame industry is uncanny. Gaming always had a social aspect to it, but Red and Bluetook it in a new direction. Like baseball cards, kids everywhere found new pals and forged friendly rivalries through their new mutual interest. What’s particularly special about Pokemon is just how engrossing the series became across multiple genres of entertainment. The trading card game, cartoon show, toys, and movies all captured the attention and imaginations of people as much as the games themselves. What’s more, the longevity of Pokemon is equally impressive; 15 years after Red and Blue were released in the US, Pokemon’s popularity continues unfazed, to the point of being nearly self-perpetuating. What Tajiri and Sugimori touched on with Pokemon is as timeless as Super Mario or Mickey Mouse. Pokemon crosses generations of players in a way that few franchises of any sort can. Grown men and women play Pokemon games just as much children; heck, some people play with their children. Pokemon‘s positive messages about friendship, respect, diligence, and harmony with nature also set Red and Blue apart from many other games of its era.
Sadly, the original versions of Pokemon Red Version and Blue Version are only available on the Game Boy. Nintendo has failed to release either game on the 3DS’ Virtual Console up to this point, and there’s little indication that this will change anytime soon. While we keep our fingers crossed for wireless Red and Blue Pokemon trading, Nintendo did release spectacular remakes of the two games for the Game Boy Advance. CalledPokemon FireRed Version and LeafGreen Version, the two games are wonderfully faithful recreations of the originals and perhaps more accessible to recent series adopters.
Of course, I can’t talk about Pokemon without mentioning a couple of the more enigmatic aspects of the first two games. Missingno is one of the more bizarre occurrences in the series’ history, a glitch Pokemon only available through a complicated exploitation that might wreck your save file! There is also a very eerie and persistent rumor about Lavendar Town and its haunting music. The original version of the tune was changed from the Japanese version of the game, purportedly because it caused deaths. We also can’t forget the most enticing but hard to obtain Pokemon of all, the lovable Mew, who was highly sought after but only available through Nintendo promotions. (In a world without WiFi, Pokemon promotions like that meant physically getting yourself to a Toys R Us to get hold of rare Pokemon!) The Pokemon cartoon show saw Pikachu become the face of the franchise, a face so beloved that he warranted his own, special version of Red and Blue calledPokemon Yellow Version: Special Pikachu Edition. Pikachu would follow your trainer around like he does Ash on the show! All this minutiae only serves to enrich the legacy of an incredible franchise; seriously, go play some Pokemon if you never have!
Pokemon Red Version and Blue Version released for the Game Boy in 1998. Developed by Game Freak, published by Nintendo.
Pokemon Red Version and Blue Version are available on the Game Boy. Remakes of the original two titles are available on the Game Boy Advance and are called Pokemon FireRed Version and LeafGreen Version.