Paul Davies is a game design consultant, editorial manager and writer who has been working in the UK games industry since the early '90s. During his career, he has edited best-selling publications such as Nintendo Magazine System and Computer & Video Games, and has contributed to countless other sites and magazines. In this special one-off piece to celebrate the upcoming release of Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee on Nintendo Switch, Paul reminisces about his discovery of Pokémon at a time when the craze had yet to leave the shores of its native Japan...
1995 through to 1999 was something of a whirlwind period for me, as a direct result of how gaming was evolving, let’s say. So much happened inside those few short years, but one thing I’ve seen that has endured beyond reasonable expectation has been this peculiar thing called Pokémon. You see, I unknowingly smuggled the first news of Pokémon – or Pocket Monsters as it was known back then – into the UK after visiting Japan in November of 1995. I'd been on a press trip to cover the Nintendo-hosted Shoshinkai show, during which shiny new Nintendo 64 (or Ultra 64, if you prefer) was officially revealed.
Of course, most of the attention was on that amazing new console – who could ignore Super Mario 64, and the rest of that early line-up? Nintendo 64 utterly dominated the December issue of Computer & Video Games magazine, which I was editing at the time. However, amid the press materials – which in those days comprised of 35mm transparencies and high-quality photographs to scan – were a few images of the Game Boy title Pocket Monsters, with two versions: Red and Green. Our deputy editor, Tom Guise, quite liked the idea of this unusual game that featured little creatures that could be nurtured and trained for battle. We ran the smallest of news pieces, largely to keep Tom happy (quiet) as much as anything else. He had a hunch. We believed in those.
All went quiet on the Pocket Monsters front for roughly a year. I returned to Japan to spend New Year with my eventual in-laws at the turn of 1997. Tamagotchi was the big thing then, and my wife and I queued for hours to collect our commemorative gold and silver editions, much to her parents’ bemusement. However, also emerging from stores were these small clusters of junior school kids clutching their battered monochrome Game Boys, sporting Pikachu winter hats while assorted ‘Pocke-mon’ (the abbreviated form of Pocket Monsters, and not officially a name yet) mascots could be seen dangling from the bags of older children. Well, it was good to see that Tom’s thing was taking off.
While I was heading up C&VG, we had a guy based in Tokyo called Warren Harrod, who – as our ‘Man in Japan’ – would mostly visit publishers on the magazine’s behalf. We were also very fortunate that Warren had his ear close to the ground, so to speak, and his eyes fixed on everything that was wonderful and emerging in the world of anime and broader youth entertainment. Even he was surprised at the speed at which 'Pocke-mon' gained momentum in the wake of the first dedicated anime series, which started in Japan in the spring of 1997.
Now, C&VG (we liked to think) was the home of cool fighting games, mind-boggling racing games and basically anything that could be considered cool in the world of gaming – stuff like Virtua Fighter 3 or PaRappa the Rapper, that kind of thing. But here was Warren literally begging me to run a feature on the Pocket Monsters craze that had gripped the Japanese nation. It was no longer just the Game Boy thing; in addition to the anime which had brought Pocket Monsters vividly to life, there was the collectable card game and all manner of must-have merchandise. At this point, the team agreed that this could be a fun thing to read. After all, we’d run stories on Tamagotchi, which we’d then seen come to the UK, and a 'Next Big Thing' was always welcome. To add to this, Warren’s article was very sweet. He’d been allowed to interview his friends’ kids playing the CCG at a 'Pocke-mon' party of sorts.
I was fortunate to attend Nintendo’s Space World show in November 1997, where the N64 game that allowed kids to talk and play with Pikachu was first shown (known as Pikachu is Fine in Japan, but you might know it better as Hey You, Pikachu). The impact was utterly astounding. Crowds of bedazzled children and their parents gathered to watch the stage presentation. I remember that the café which overlooked the Space World show floor was also rammed with people with their faces pressed against the window, keen to confirm what friends had been telling them. The look on the kids’ faces when Pikachu responded to their words was unforgettable. This felt like real magic.
After spending another incredible New Year in Japan for 1998 – where Pikachu lunch-boxes, manga, mascots and train-station snacks were now the norm – it was clear that this 'Pocke-mon' thing had become a social revolution of sorts for Japanese kids. I had also learned that Pocket Monsters was to be released in the US that year under the name 'Pokémon'. Having followed its progress for the past couple of years, I asked to speak with our Nintendo contacts during E3 1998, specifically about the series and how great it would be to make C&VG the home of Pokémon; after all, we had been pretty much the only UK magazine to give the series significant coverage and we considered ourselves to be reasonably well-versed in all things Pocket Monster.
No word of a lie, I had to explain to my Nintendo UK friends about why Pokémon was so cool, what it was all about, and the ways in which we could write about it in the magazine. For them, several months away from the US launch, Pokémon was probably just another name on a list of titles with a certain amount of allocated budget. I probably seemed a bit crazy.
I picked up both Pokémon Red and Blue as imports the day they were released. I went ahead and played this thing that had been bubbling under in the West while it raged in the East. Sure enough, the US went nuts for Pokémon, and at this stage the UK arm of Nintendo saw for themselves the potential. Sadly, C&VG didn’t get any official support, despite all of the groundwork we'd done pushing the game in the UK since 1995. Of course, the honour went to Nintendo Official Magazine, which was published by the same company as C&VG, EMAP Images. It was a real blow, but I do suspect that I had the guys at Nintendo UK to thank for putting my name forward for a mainstream TV interview on the subject, however.
This would’ve been in 1999, I guess. Fairly sure it was ITN, a breakfast news item. Basically, the questions were along the lines of ‘What is this Pokémon thing’ and ‘How long will it last?’ While I couldn’t have predicted 20 years of Pokémon passion outside of Japan, it was clear to me that it was here to stay. It wasn’t so much that it was breaking the banks of parents whose kids had gotten involved. Mainly, it was obvious that the likes of Pikachu, the mysterious Mew and darling Togepi had found their way into our hearts.
I’ll confess to listening to Japanese Pokémon songs on my way into work. I spent an entire holiday beside my wife with my face stuck in Pokémon Yellow. I had this awesome Pokémon Center Pikachu rucksack that I proudly paraded on the London underground. At work, I replaced all of my Mac alerts with Pikachu wav files – my email alert was literally 'Pikapikpika', which must have driven my co-workers crazy. I was a fool for Pokémon for a long while, but I loved it. Though I can’t excuse such behaviour at the age I am now (it was barely acceptable then), I now have my own little boy who tells me all about this thing that he’s discovered, and how cool it is, and please can he have it for Christmas.
I don’t need to tell you its name.
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