The making of Pokemon Red and Blue: How Game Freak changed the world

(Image credit: Game Freak)

Well do you? No need to play coy – you know what we're talking about. Do you want to be the very best? Like no one ever was? The thing about Pokemon's many elements is that they’re all interconnected, and just seeing screenshots or the logo is often enough to send that opening G power chord ringing out in your head, to evoke visions of Ash turning his cap backwards in the anime or to remind you of that shiny Charizard card you just couldn’t get for love nor money back in the day. Pokemon launched on a worldwide scale not just as a video game but as a multimedia offensive. Supported by a TV show, merchandise and other products following the huge success of its original Japanese launch, there was just no way it could fail. It was everywhere and in the late Nineties, you could barely move without seeing Pikachu’s beaming little face somewhere.

But while that might have been the start of the phenomenon as we know it, our story begins earlier. Well, a lot earlier – all the way back in 1990, in fact, or even earlier if you want to track the origins of the most important people behind the franchise. “Mr [Satoshi] Tajiri was the founder of Game Freak and I was a friend of his when I was a student,” recalls veteran Game Freak artist Ken Sugimori, the art director and character designer on pretty much all of the games and who has been responsible for official art assets. “We used to play video games together and that’s how we started this company – Mr Tajiri started a company and I joined. Back in 1983, Mr Tajiri started selling this little booklet for ¥200 and it was sold only in very specialist bookstores. It talked about strategies for arcade games because, at the time, there were no home consoles. A few people would visit these stores and see the book, and I was one of them. As we talked, we became friends and discussed how arcade games were often very similar – if we were developing them, what would we do differently? When we started, some of the readers were programmers and they had the skills and access to the hardware – that’s how we started in producing video games. Then Mr Masuda joined and our first game was Quinty.”

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Quinty, or Mendel Palaxe as you might know it, was a simple action-puzzle game released for the NES in 1989, its completion heralding the start of something much bigger, much more ambitious in scale, something that we know today as Pokemon. The vision started out small, originally targeting a creature count of around 50 monsters but with that number growing steadily as new ideas were hatched and improved hardware and coding techniques emerged around them. In fact, it sounds as though the team always had more ideas than would be possible to fit into the memory capacity of a Game Boy cartridge. “From the inception of the idea to the completion of Red & Blue took a total of about six years, so a long time!” smiles current producer Junichi Masuda, whose involvement on earlier titles was mainly in coding and penning the music of the original games, later taking on directorial and production duties on every mainline release. “We started by creating loads of different Pokémon designs, then we reduced that down to the favourite 150. That took a lot of effort. After that, once we were happy with our designs, we started working on the moves they could each use. This process probably accounted for around three of those six years. It was quite the task! There wasn’t an initial plan of which Pokemon would get which moves – we designed the Pokemon then designed the moves, then decided which would fit well together as a gradual process.”

Masuda goes on to confirm our suspicions that the team was dreaming far bigger than what a cartridge could accommodate, but it wasn’t just a question of storage – it was a case of the ideas being beyond the realms of what the Game Boy hardware could do. “It was difficult. The thing we wanted to focus on at the start was communication and trading but it was difficult to do that as we could only transfer small amounts of data between two consoles,” he explains. “Communication itself was a big challenge – the technology just wasn’t there but we really wanted to do it, so we fought to get it in there. That was an overriding theme – it was a fight against capacity, a fight against what we could fit onto the cartridge. We had designed these 150-odd Pokemon to get in as well. But then we had the problem of movement, so we came up with the idea of the map tiles being the things that moved while the character was animated in place. With these ideas, we found ways to squeeze as much in as we possibly could. I like the Game Boy as a machine but trying to work with all these challenges and make a game that anyone could get into and enjoy was difficult.”

Bear in mind that we’re still talking about the original Japanese releases of Red & Green at this point – localisation hadn’t even been considered, and the studio ran into some serious issues when tasked with preparing the game for release outside of Japan. “Originally, it was kind of based on how people feel about and view different colours. The clearest split for us was between red and green but when we started thinking about abroad, it was clear that wasn’t the case. In America in particular, it’s red and blue that are considered ‘opposites’, if you will,” Masuda reveals, although there were somewhat more pressing issues standing in the way of taking the game abroad, which is what led to the gap of over two-and-a-half years between Japanese release and US launch, not to mention another year to reach Europe. “With the capacity problems mentioned earlier, one thing that we found is that English takes up more space on the cart than Japanese. We had no room! Everything was so full on that cartridge and there was little space to implement English at the time we created it. So we had a lot of memory problems to solve – things like changing Pokemon names and even the name entry screen, which was all designed in Japanese. To change that to accommodate English was really difficult and something we hadn’t considered when first designing the game. We really had to spend a lot of time working on all of this.”

Pokemon takes off!

(Image credit: The Pokémon Company)

Some of this could be seen in the game at the time, with character limits on menu terms, character, creature and item names and even a few attacks. Space, both on the screen and on the cart itself, was at a premium, hence these unusually short chunks of text, as seen elsewhere in the game actually, as Masuda highlights. “Another example is the Pokédex. In the original Japanese versions, you just had one screen and everything was displayed there whereas in the US and European versions, it had to be changed to have two screens with the names and details of the Pokemon. Doing all these great changes took a long time, so that was what contributed to the delay. We never expected things to be so popular abroad, either – we had no idea this would be such a phenomenon so that was really amazing. But yes, it took a long time to make all the changes needed to get the game into different markets.”

After all this extra work, Red & Blue released in the US towards the end of 1998. With the anime, the trading card game and more toys games and other assorted tat with the Pokémon logo slapped on it releasing alongside it, the buzz was huge and with no European launch date so much as hinted at by Nintendo at the time, would-be Trainers would have to go out of their way to grab import copies of the game – some indie game stores even imported these in bulk to sell through at a premium. “Back at school, a friend of mine had brought back Pokemon from America, where he had gone on holiday,” recalls Joe Merrick, webmaster of Pokemon fansite – a resource many like-minded Pokémaniacs have been using for well over a decade. “It hadn’t been released here, though the anime was running on Sky and so when he showed the game, I was intrigued, watched the anime and pestered my mother to import the game.” 

Surrounded as it was by a hype machine on a peerless scale, you might think that this wasn’t a matter of quality – for those who weren’t fans, the choppy, low-budget animation of the TV show and hoards of cheap collectible junk certainly could have suggested as much, at least. Despite its seemingly low production values, the anime series was entertaining in its own way, luring in new fans with its colourful characters and easy-to-follow stories, but the games have always been superb. “I think the quality had to be there,” muses Merrick. “Without it, people wouldn’t have felt encouraged to play the game. While Red & Blue were a bit buggy, they had a solid foundation, and were complete fun to play causing a lot of people to jump in. However, the factor of the anime and cards also had a huge impact to the reach of Pokemon. Many people didn’t play the games and just focused on the cartoon or the cards, but like the games, the quality definitely had to be there for it to take off.”

But take off it sure as hell did, the multi-limbed approach meaning that there was always something going on in the world of Pokémon – game development may be time-consuming but when you’ve got new TV episodes dropping, trading card sets being released, toy lines coming out and Arceus-knows what else helping to fill the gaps between the mainline video game releases, it’s easy to maintain a high-profile media presence. “We do have various staff involved in different things and we always think about these when developing a game,” confirms Masuda. “We really want to think about how we can develop beyond the game and widen things once it’s finished. For the card game in particular, we’ve got Creatures Inc. working on the game itself and we discuss with them how best we can expand on the game there and how the new Pokemon we’re creating might fit in with their plans.” He goes on to explain the difficulty in such coordination between multiple teams and companies, especially when game release dates can’t be easily altered. “As we develop the game, we get the TV, TCG and animation teams in to play it so that they have a better idea of what the world, the characters and the Pokemon are like,” adds Sugimori. “We’re all creating the characters and the settings together so that they’re consistent across movies, games and trading cards.”

Pokemon Yellow arrives

(Image credit: The Pokémon Company)

As was to be expected, sequels to Red & Blue came thick and fast, but not before Game Freak could establish something that would go on to become almost traditional for Pokémon releases – a third game to complement the original pair of releases, originally in the form of Yellow (or Special Pikachu Edition, to give it its full title) which bridged the gaps between Red & Blue versions and was tweaked to tie into the events and characters of the anime. Crystal, Emerald and Platinum all filled similar roles in their respective generations, although it stopped there – Black & White didn’t exactly lend themselves to the naming conventions of this trend (honestly, who would buy Pokemon Grey?) and got direct sequels instead, while X and Y were long rumoured to get the trilogy treatment with Z, although all the stuff that has emerged that follows legendary Pokemon Zygarde has instead found its way into 2016's Pokemon Sun & Moon.

Each game, while still rooted in the core structure used in Red & Blue, has made great strides in terms of improving quality of life for players, which can make it hard to go back to those older games after being spoiled by so many minor improvements in more recent ones. “I look back on them fondly, for sure, but replaying them is a tricky proposition,” Merrick tells us in discussion of returning to the original games today. “So often when I go back to play them, so many of the modern conveniences in it are just not there and make playing a slog. For example, in Pokemon Red, Blue and Yellow, you had no idea what a move did in-game unless you had an external guide. Sometimes playing the old games without the conveniences and features of modern games just causes me to think, ‘How did we play these games?’ Once I erase that from my mind, though, I can still enjoy and play through them happily.”

Even then, it’s not just these minor convenience tweaks, with each new generation expanding the strategic aspect of the game, not least with every new generation bringing with it a whole new selection of Pokemon. “The reason why there are about 100 Pokemon added per game is not that we can’t come up with the ideas, especially when we have new staff – everyone can come up with unique ideas,” Sugimori explains. “The number is set by the duration of the project. Plus, if you added like 300 or so new monsters, that’d just be too many – we have to think of the balance of battles.” The same is true of introducing new types into the mix, which is why only three new ones have been added to the initial 15 since launch. “By adding even one more type, it definitely makes the gameplay more complicated so when we did that, we had to really look into the battle balance,” Sugimori tells us. “With new moves, there’s an infinite combination. If we can solve that problem, we can always add more types – it’s not impossible.”

Cultural impact

(Image credit: The Pokémon Company)

Having been on board since the very beginning and been more attached to the series than most thanks to his ongoing hard work with, Merrick is as well-placed to discuss the significance of the series as anyone else you might care to mention – he has dealt with the franchise in all its guises on a pretty much daily basis, with a weekly workload that is pretty staggering for a fan project. “Sometimes it’s as little as five hours, others it is pretty much 155 hours,” he laughs. “It all depends on what is going on in the franchise. As time has gone on, not only have I focused more on the quality of the site, but more stuff is happening in Pokemon. In past years, I would typically have a lot of times where I had nothing to do; as I have a policy of never skipping more than one calendar day in a row on the news updates, it got tricky to a point of having to contrive reasons to update. Now, though, I rarely have this issue. In 2015, I updated on 331 of the 365 days, and on the other days I was typically working on something else.”

There’s so much to love about Pokemon that it saddens us to hear the blinkered views of those who base their opinion of the franchise on the colourful promotional material and frankly ropey cartoon that emerged while it was still young enough to be considered a fad; before the franchise had even had a chance to prove itself and long before it had evolved into one of the complex RPG series made. 

“People think that Pokemon is a game for children but I believe that’s a misunderstanding,” says Sugimori, and we’re inclined to agree – look beyond the presentation around it, peer deeper into its near-bottomless strategic complexities and you’ll find an RPG deserving of far more respect and credit than it often gets. But while some can be harder to convince of the series’ merits, those who are comfortably on the Pokémon Express make up an expansive player bases that spans every age group and demographic imaginable, as you probably saw recently when Pokemon Go brought fans of all ages out of the woodwork in search of virtual creatures in the real world. “The community is by far my favourite thing about Pokemon,” Merrick tells us. “Aside from a few elements within it, it’s one of the friendliest communities around. People go out of their way to help others to find Pokemon. The game by design, has mandated to get people together to battle and trade, and it has continued to do that. There are people alive today because their parents met due to Pokemon and that is utterly incredible to me.

“Its impact back in the Nineties was phenomenal,” he closes. “It was everywhere and everyone was playing it. I honestly never thought we’d see anything like that again. Then, Go happened and once again, Pokemon was everywhere. Whether or not we’ll see an equal of that again? It’s hard to say. The industry is far more volatile these days than it was back in the Nineties, and far more saturated. Yo-Kai Watch, while huge for a few years in Japan, has diminished and, just hasn’t taken off over here. I am unsure if we’ll ever see a series permeating so many facets of media at once and be a phenomenon like Pokemon ever again.” 

This feature first appeared in Retro Gamer magazine issue 161. For more excellent features, like the one you've just read, don't forget to subscribe to the print or digital edition at MyFavouriteMagazines.  

Luke Albiges is a veteran video game journalist, having worked in the industry for over 20 years. In that time, Luke has been the Editor of Play magazine, Associate Editor of Retro Gamer, and Games Editor of games™. He contributed to countless gaming books and bookazines in that time as well, but he decided to leave the glamorous print journalism life behind to take on the role of Editor for TrueAchievements.