In the mid-nineties, an epidemic spread across the world. First discovered in Japan, it soon spread across the pacific, consuming vast areas of America. We were powerless to stop it. No cure was to be found. Before long, it broke America's shores and hit Europe with similarly devastating effect. The worst affected were children, contracted through playground encounters commonly known as 'trading.' Symptoms included crazes, compulsive behaviour, fights breaking out between best friends (better known as 'battling'), and terrible fashion sense. This was Pokémania.
To find a cure to the virus – which rages to this day – we have to go back to where it all began. Not in the mid-nineties, but earlier still. To the late eighties, and an unassuming man in Japan known as Satoshi Tajiri. Satoshi had grown up in the country, spending his childhood chasing and collecting insects. He noticed that children in the bustling cities didn't have the same opportunity as he had, and began to formulate an idea for a game.
Taking inspiration from the then-brand-new Game Boy link cable (imagining insects travelling up and down the wire) and the Gashapon toy capsules as portable storage units, Tajiri came up with the idea of collectible, trade-able, evolvable, battling monsters. He presented his idea to Nintendo under the title Capsule Monsters.
Nintendo didn't like it, so Tajiri went back to the drawing board to revise his plans. Due to copyright issues, the name had to be changed – first to CapuMon and then the now-familiar Pocket Monsters. The concept was pitched again and, with the captured interest of Shigeru Miyamoto, was finally green-lit for development.
Development of the title took a demanding six years. Low budgets nearly resulted in the bankruptcy of Tajiri's company Game Freak, with several staff leaving and long, unpaid hours for those who remained. Game programmer Shegeki Morimoto added in the 151st Pokémon – the hyper-elusive Mew – and it was decided that this should be hidden and only available via a public event.
Pokémon Red and Green Versions were finally released to sale on February 27th, 1996. Initially sales were modest, but the discovery and highly exclusive distribution of Mew through CoroCoro magazine soon whipped buyers into a frenzy. With a highly competitive metagame and many elusive monsters to find, evolve and trade, Pokémon became a cultural phenomenon. A third edition was quickly made available – Pokémon Blue Version – featuring improved graphics, sounds and several bug fixes.
It wasn't long before the franchise expanded outside the games. The official Pokémon Trading Card Game came first in October of the same year. With the same compulsive collectability – unique artwork, ultra rare holofoil cards and special editions boosting desirability - and a highly competitive game, the TCG stormed in sales in the same way the games had. The epidemic had taken hold.
Several manga adaptations and inevitably a televised anime series followed, telling the story of a young trainer on his way to collecting the eight badges of the Kanto region, whilst evading the villainous (and often hopeless) Team Rocket. In a nod to Tajiri and Miyamoto, the hero was named Satoshi and his rival Shigeru. Satoshi's companion Pikachu was the true star of the show though, the enormous popularity of the Electric-type mouse Pokémon quickly placed him as the franchise mascot and most instantly recognisable character.
The localisation team originally pushed to have the designs changed – fearing that 'cute' creatures wouldn't go down well with Western audiences.
The craze did not go unnoticed by Nintendo of America, and the decision was made to bring Pokémon to the West. The localisation team originally pushed to have the designs changed – fearing that 'cute' creatures wouldn't go down well with Western audiences – but fortunately the suggestion was rejected and the original designs remained. The anime came first on the 7th September 1998, renaming the hero Ash Ketchum and rival Gary Oak. Sporting the slogan Gotta Catch 'Em All! and the signs of a collectable storm brewing, it sent fear into the hearts of parents' bank accounts across the nation.
The games themselves hit on the 30th September that year, by which time the epidemic was already taking hold. The Red and Blue versions received in America were a culmination of the Red, Green and Blue versions present in Japan, featuring Blue's improved features with the Pokémon distribution levels of Red and Green. The Trading Card Game soon followed in January 1999, published by hobby gaming veterans Wizards of the Coast. Local and national tournaments of both the games and the cards ensured that the juggernaut would not stop any time soon.
The franchise exploded – it was soon impossible to find anything that didn't feature the yellow mouse. Toys, t-shirts, bedspreads, socks, backpacks, fast food, stationary... nothing was spared. It became a global phenomenon that has rarely been matched before or since. Playgrounds rang with the sounds of acted-out battles and cards being traded, and rumours of how to catch Mew in-game.
Oddly, one of the most popular creatures was never intended at all. Glitch Pokémon Missingno became the games' anti-hero and an important cult character. This jumble of broken data would replicate hundreds of the sixth item in your bag, but produced all manner of bizarre side-effects when captured. Corrupted save files, transportation to broken areas commonly known as Glitch Cities and occasional game crashes and resets landed it a respected – if feared – place in the series history.
Meanwhile, back in Japan, the games received their first 3D adaptation: Pokémon Stadium on N64. The game only included 42 Pokémon, not the full roster of 151, and demand for a full version soon resulted in the announcement for a 64DD expansion. The 64DD was a commercial flop, so the project was canned and instead a standalone sequel was created as Pokémon Stadium 2. To confuse matters, Pokémon Stadium was never released outside Japan, and instead it was Stadium 2 that released globally under the name Pokémon Stadium.
The anime series hit controversy in both regions, with several episodes taken off-air. Most infamously, the episode Electric Soldier Porygon featured strobe-like flashing effects, resulting in several hundred Japanese children suffering seizures. It picked up the unfortunate record of “Most Photosensitive Epileptic Seizures Caused by a Television Show” in the Guinness Book of Records, and was later satirized in a scene on The Simpsons, and has never been officially re-broadcast anywhere in the world.
A fourth edition of the main series games was created – Pokémon Yellow Version – taking several cues from the anime. Here the player would begin with a Pikachu who would usually travel outside of its Pokéball and could be communicated with, expressing various emotions depending on the situation. Like the anime, Pikachu could not be evolved, and Team Rocket's Jesse and James would also make occasional appearances. Other than these (and an enhanced colour palette on Game Boy Color), the games were largely identical to the previous editions, setting the standard for 'enhanced editions' in the generations to follow.
The anime also received its first movie – descriptively titled Pokémon: The First Movie – in 1999, and would begin to bridge the gap towards a new generation of games. Second generation Pokémon Togepi had already played a prominent role in the series, and the legendary Ho-oh had even made a brief cameo in the very first episode, but the movie would finally introduce several more to eager fans and begin to tie up the first generation saga. With the promise of an epic duel between the two greatest legendaries, and an exclusive promotional Mew trading card to boot, Pokémon: The First Movie grossed $31 million in its opening weekend, for a short time holding the record for Highest Grossing Opening for an Animated Movie.
The time had come for a new generation of Pokémon to take centre stage. On November 21st 1999, the highly anticipated Pokémon Gold and Silver versions would be released to the public. With 100 new Pokémon and a whole new region to explore, it was time to start catching 'em all once again.
Stay tuned to Nintendo Life for part two of this brief history of Pokémon, coming soon.