It's somewhat ironic that one of Nintendo's most obscure consoles is so strongly aligned with one of its most instantly recognisable brands, but understanding why the Pokémon Mini wasn't quite as successful as it probably should have been is relatively easy; it was marketed poorly, the games were too expensive for what they were and compared to Nintendo's Game Boy Advance - also released in 2001 - its tiny monochrome screen felt like a relic from a bygone era. However, this diminutive little device actually boasted some pretty groundbreaking ideas and in the years since its release its has been busted wide open by industrious homebrew coders who have managed to get it to perform tricks never thought possible.
On paper, the logic behind the creation of the Pokémon Mini seems foolproof, ingenious even. Pokémon had gone global a few years previously and it was clear that there was a massive market for associated merchandise. The Pokémon Mini was conceived as a product which could straddle the divide between video games and toys; it offered interchangeable cartridges, a 96 x 64 monochrome LCD and physical gaming controls, yet it was far more portable than the existing Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance systems - more akin to Bandai's famous Tamagotchi range, in fact.
Because of this, the Pokémon Mini was marketed as a plaything rather than a console - just as Tamagotchi was - and this is what perhaps limited its commercial aspirations; instead of complimenting Nintendo's existing hardware in game stores, the system and its games were often confined exclusively to toy outlets. Price was another sticking point; while the console itself was cheap - it sold for around $40 (£30 in the UK) - the games cost $20 / £15 each, and while this was less than your typical Game Boy Advance title, it was a lot to ask when you consider how limited the software was.
That's not to say that the system wasn't without merit, of course - in fact, as a piece of tech it was, and still is, incredibly interesting. A real-time clock was included - quite a selling point in the days before mobile phones became so commonplace in school playgrounds - and an infrared port (no doubt inspired by the one on the Game Boy Color) allowed for connectivity between consoles. The device could detect when it was being shaken, and there was even a rumble feedback feature which was put to good use in some of the games.
The black and white screen might sound disappointing for a handheld released in 2001, but it was streets ahead of the one on the original Game Boy in terms of quality. A single AAA battery powered the device and offered an impressive 60 hours of use. However, perhaps the most striking aspect of the system was the fact that it actually used cartridges - something which set it apart from the hordes of Tamagotchi clones which had flooded the market a few years beforehand. Officially the smallest games console ever produced by Nintendo, it measures 74mm x 58mm x 23mm and weighs just 70g - that includes the battery and game cartridge.
Only 10 games were ever produced for the Pokémon Mini, and every single one has a Pokémon theme - even the obligatory version of Tetris, which is arguably the console's best piece of software. Development duties were largely shared between two Japanese studios - Jupiter and Denyusha - and despite the slavish desire to incorporate Pokémon into every title, the overall standard is quite high. Pack-in title Pokémon Party Mini contains eight mini-games which encourage high-score chasing, while Japanese exclusive Pokémon Breeder Mini is a virtual pet game which apes the concept behind the aforementioned Tamagotchi series. Pokémon Puzzle Collection and its sequel are largely as you would expect, while Pokémon Shock Tetris mixes the famous Russian puzzler with 'mon collecting.
Pokémon Pinball Mini is perhaps the only real stinker in the whole library, as it's not really a game of pinball at all - instead, you use a Diglett to push a ball towards a series of targets. Even this weak title is still mildly entertaining in short bursts, and that's a good way of summing up the appeal of the Pokémon Mini in general; like Bandai's famous virtual pet keyring, the console was intended to be carried around in your pocket and taken out for quick gaming sessions or multiplayer challenges with your like-minded friends - it was never supposed to supplant the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo's main handheld focus at the time.
Pokémon Mini existed as a viable commercial entity for roughly twelve months, with the final game Pokémon Breeder Mini hitting Japanese shelves at the conclusion of 2002. In the west, the system and its games were dramatically discounted by the stores which had bothered to stock them, and could be found in bargain bins everywhere for the next few years. The device could well have been forgotten entirely were it not for the fact that Nintendo included some Pokémon Mini titles in its 2003 GameCube release Pokémon Channel. In order to factor in some game demos and an all-new exclusive release - Snorlax's Lunchtime - Nintendo had to create a GameCube-based emulator for the Pokémon Mini. This allowed hackers to better understand the console and create their own emulator, and this eventually led to a flash cart being produced for the console, and with it, a host of homebrew tech demos and ports - including rudimentary versions of R-Type, Zelda,Sonic and the Nokia classic Snake. Some particularly resourceful individuals have even fitted backlights to their consoles, making it possible to play in darkened environments.
Despite Pokémon Mini being sold off cheaply after its short lifespan, the system has steadily become more and more collectable as the years have rolled by - hardly surprising given its Nintendo connection, and the enduring popularity of the Pokémon series in general. A fully boxed system could set you back as much as $100, while some of the more desirable games cost even more than that. Unboxed systems are naturally much cheaper, but be wary of cosmetic damage - these devices were aimed at kids and were intended to be carried around a lot, and as a result many second-hand examples display battered cases and scratched screens. Despite these levels of punishment, the Pokémon Mini is a pretty robust system - something that is in keeping with Nintendo's other handhelds from the period.
It's tempting to see the Pokémon Mini as something of a creative dead end; an prime example of how Nintendo's overriding desire to milk its popular franchises can result in embarrassing commercial failures. In truth, no one really noticed that the Pokémon Mini had flopped at the time because it was kept so separate from the rest of the gaming industry, and the Game Boy Advance was selling like hotcakes. However, looking back at the system now - with its cute design, old-school monochrome screen, adorably tiny cartridges and surprisingly expansive toolbox of features - it certainly ranks as an interesting piece of Nintendo history, and the efforts of homebrew coders have given it a new lease of life.
Did you pick up a Pokémon Mini back in 2001, or have you purchased one on the cheap since then? Perhaps this is the first time you've ever heard of the console? Let us know your thoughts and memories by posting a comment below, and don't forget to check out the rest of our growing Hardware Classics series.