Pokémon Stadium

Introduction

In defiance of Nintendo’s expectations, Pokémon became a worldwide phenomenon when it debuted in the West in 1998. Realizing they had a new, venerable franchise on their hands, they decided to branch out the series as Satoshi Tajiri and the rest of Game Freak devised a sequel. One of their projects was to be called Pocket Monsters 64. True to its name, it would mark the Pokémon franchise’s console debut. Not only that, but because it would debut on the Nintendo 64, the franchise was to jump from its simplistic presentation on the Game Boy and into the third dimension. Nintendo even planned to up the ante by having the game debut on the 64DD (Dynamic Drive). This Nintendo 64 peripheral would utilize a new storage media and afford players many freedoms, including the ability to create characters. These plans ultimately fell through when it became clear the 64DD would require much more time to develop.

Responsibility of this game’s development ultimately fell on Satoru Iwata of HAL Laboratory. Putting his programming expertise to good use, he and his team converted Pocket Monsters 64 to a standard 32-megabyte cartridge. He ported the games’ unique battle system to work on the Nintendo 64. It took an entire week to read the Game Boy source code. Once that was done, he converted Shigeki Morimoto’s programming to the new console. Due to technical limitations, the final product only contained 42 out of the 151 Pokémon. The fruit of their labor, Pocket Monsters Stadium, was released in August of 1998 whereupon it sold 270,000 copies within its first month.

In February of 1999, Nintendo announced a follow-up intuitively named Pocket Monsters Stadium 2. Reception to its unveiling was positive. The original game was criticized for its anomalously high difficulty and several Pokémon being unavailable to use. This prompted Nintendo and HAL to tone down the AI for the sequel. The game saw its domestic release in April of 1999 before debuting internationally the following year. Abroad, the game was retitled Pokémon Stadium due its predecessor having never left its native homeland. It became one of the Nintendo 64’s bestselling titles, moving one-million units before the end of 2000. Did Pokémon Stadium allow the series’ traditional gameplay to make a triumphant entrance to home consoles?

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Bubsy 3D

Introduction

Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind allowed the title character to become Accolade’s mascot, being one most successful Western console games of 1993. Despite the game’s success, series creator Michael Berlyn left the team shortly after its release. Despite this, Accolade wished to keep their character’s success going, and commissioned a sequel. However, because Accolade nearly went bankrupt developing Bubsy, this new team had nothing but contempt for Mr. Berlyn’s character. They made it clear in interviews they were forced to make a follow-up and didn’t care about its quality. This apathetic team ended up making two games: Bubsy II and Bubsy: Fractured Furry Tales. Both debuted in 1994; the former on many of the same platforms as the original and the latter on the ill-fated Atari Jaguar. The little amount of care that went into these works was evident. While Bubsy II made marginal improvements to the gameplay, Fractured Furry Tales proceeded to mimic the original. Not surprisingly, Bubsy II ended up receiving more acclaim from critics.

Mr. Berlyn made it no secret that he hated both games, as he was not involved in their creation. Fortunately for him, he was about to get a chance to make a triumphant return. The second and third installments of the Bubsy series did not fare well commercially. Therefore, Accolade approached Mr. Berlyn to develop a new installment in their rapidly sinking franchise. He agreed to their terms under one condition: the new game was not to be a retread of the original. Moreover, he sought to set his sights higher by doing something the gaming world, by and large, had never seen before. His team was to explore uncharted territory by making this new installment a platforming game with a fully three-dimensional presentation. The amount of ambition that went into this game was truly remarkable. Characters models would be composed of flat, shaded polygons, it was to feature cutscenes animated by hand, and Mr. Berlyn intended to give Bubsy a true voice.

Satisfied with how the game was turning out, Mr. Berlyn attended the Consumer Electronics Show in January of 1996 in order to demonstrate the beta of their work – aptly named Bubsy 3D. While he likely intended to make waves, little did he know that he was about to receive a brutal wake-up call.

As early as 1991, Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo had been playing around with the idea of a three-dimensional game starring his company’s own mascot, Mario. A mere five years later, he and his team were bringing this vision into reality in the form of a game named Super Mario 64. Mr. Berlyn realized after seeing its beta that his own game was vastly inferior to Nintendo’s offering. Indeed, Nintendo had stopped at nothing to ensure Super Mario 64 was as polished as they could make it, and delayed the game’s console, the Nintendo 64, to June of 1996. This was a luxury Accolade didn’t have. To make matters worse, another developer named Naughty Dog was about to enter the console business by having their own 3D platformer, Crash Bandicoot, debut on the PlayStation. This would ensure direct competition between it and Bubsy 3D.

Mr. Berlyn, realizing he couldn’t take what he learned from watching the Super Mario 64 demonstration, vowed to use the little remaining time to make Bubsy 3D as good as possible. The game was released in November of 1996 – five months after the domestic release of Super Mario 64. Despite being seen as an overall worse effort than Super Mario 64, Bubsy 3D managed to receive mixed reviews, earning acclaim from sources such as GameFan, GameZilla, and derision from others, including Next Generation and Electronic Gaming Monthly. Despite this, PSExtreme was particularly enthusiastic about the game, giving it 93% and their “Gold X Award”. The reviewer in question compared it to a Warner Brothers cartoon. Against the truly fearsome Nintendo, how has Mr. Berlyn’s effort fared in hindsight?

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Bubsy II

Introduction

The year 1993 marked the debut of Bubsy the Bobcat. Released for both the Super NES and Sega Genesis, Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind was seen as the Western equivalent of Sonic the Hedgehog with its hip protagonist and high-speed gameplay. After winning a “Most Hype for a Character of 1993” award from Electronic Gaming Monthly, Bubsy proceeded to garner a fair amount of critical acclaim. Critics were especially fond of its level design, graphics, and the title character having a definable personality. Super NES owners passingly familiar with Sonic the Hedgehog were especially excited about playing Bubsy, for it would be the closest they could come to playing the rival console’s premier game. Even before Bubsy saw its launch, Accolade, the developer behind the game, set their sights high for what they wanted to be their flagship franchise and began drafting ideas for a sequel.

However, production of this game was handled by a different team with no input from creator Michael Berlyn. To make matters worse, this new team was openly hostile to Mr. Berlyn’s character. Accolade had spent beyond their means in order to promote Bubsy, which included creating a pilot for an animated series that was never picked up. They even attempted to reverse engineer Sega’s cartridge copyright protection in order to avoid having to pay any licensing and publishing fees and making Bubsy a console exclusive. Sega ended up suing Accolade, though the judge ruled in the latter’s favor on the grounds that they wrote a majority of the cartridge code themselves and it was intended to be a cross-platform game from the beginning.

As a result of their expenditures, Bubsy nearly bankrupted the company. It paid off in the end when the game sold well, but the damage had been done. The team behind this game freely admitted they hated working on it and that they didn’t care if what they created was a quality product or a complete mess. Such was the extent of this team’s resentment for the character that they would sarcastically repeat Bubsy’s lines to annoy one another. Mr. Berlyn once mentioned that during a visit to their office, the team had even gone as far as stringing up Bubsy dolls from the office ceiling as though they were executing them. Another had been stabbed through the head with a pencil. The sheer apathy that went into this product can even be seen in the game’s title. While the original game’s formed an elaborate pun on a famous film, the sequel was simply named Bubsy II.

Bubsy II saw its release in 1994 for the Sega Genesis and Super NES, before receiving a port for the Game Boy the following year. The public, unaware of the turmoil surrounding its inception, proceeded to give Bubsy II mostly positive reviews. Many outlets claimed that whatever issues plagued the original game were excised in this installment. Did this new team, despite their best efforts, manage to churn out a quality product worthy of standing alongside the greatest 2D platformers of its day?

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Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind

Introduction

Video game designer Michael Berlyn got his start in the industry as an implementer working for Polarware. The first game of note he worked on was a piece of interactive fiction entitled Oo-Topos. Released in 1981, it was well-received among PC gamers, and he would continue his work on other adventure titles with Polarware before joining Infocom in 1983. Around this time, a company named Accolade was founded in San Jose, California by Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead. They saw their revenues increase with each passing year after releasing several acclaimed games for Amiga, Apple II, and the PC, including Test Drive, HardBall!, Law of the West, and Psi-5 Trading Company. Mr. Berlyn would join this company by 1990, and the first game he designed for them was Altered Destiny. However, it received a fairly lukewarm response, generally passed over in favor of Sierra’s output.

Shortly after this project saw completion, he became burned out on the adventure game genre and wanted to try something new. The answer came in the form of a game Sega had released in June of 1991 in order to compete with Nintendo: Sonic the Hedgehog. With Nintendo having dominated the console gaming industry for the entire third generation, Sega proved a formidable opponent. Sonic the Hedgehog was the embodiment of the era’s zeitgeist. He had a hip attitude and his gameplay was lightning fast compared to the slow, ostensibly out-of-touch Mario. Mr. Berlyn was so impressed with Sega’s game that he ended up playing it fourteen hours a day for a whole week. Already, he was figuring out how he could implement his own take on this game. Within the next few years, Accolade had created the lead character for Mr. Berlyn’s vision: a bobcat named Bubsy.

The game, named Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind, was to be released for both the Sega Genesis and Super NES in 1993. Accolade stopped at nothing to extensively promote their game. Director John Skeel sought to create a game as fast as Sonic the Hedgehog, yet as deep as Super Mario Bros. It would be easy to pick up and play, but difficult to master. He was even intended to be voiced in the game proper. His catchphrase “What could possibly go wrong?” was derived from a quip courtesy of the development team. They even commissioned a pilot for an animated series that aired later in the year, though the show was never picked up for any further episodes.

Nonetheless, as a result of Accolade’s marketing campaign, anticipation for Bubsy reached a fever pitch. The character even won a “Most Hype for a Character of 1993” award in the publication Electronic Gaming Monthly. When Bubsy was released, it received positive reviews from nearly every review outlet at the time. Though not as popular as Sonic the Hedgehog, critics enjoyed the level design, graphics, and the sheer amount of personality possessed by the title character. It was especially enjoyed by those who had a Super NES, as for it would be the closest they could get to playing Sonic the Hedgehog themselves without a Sega Genesis. In an era that saw no shortage of quality 2D platformers, does Bubsy stand to this day as a pinnacle of the genre?

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Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand

Introduction

By the time Nihon Falcom was slated to make a fourth installment in their highly popular Ys series of action RPGs, a significant number of their staff members had quit. Though the team drafted a rough outline for Ys IV, they had no resources with which to develop it. They were then left with no choice but to outsource the project to other companies. Of the developers they approached, only Tonkin House and Alfa Systems saw their interpretations of Ys IV to completion. Both versions, Mask of the Sun and The Dawn of Ys, debuted in late 1993 for the Super Famicom and PC Engine respectively. They received fairly positive reviews, though The Dawn of Ys ended up being the more acclaimed game despite Mask of the Sun eventually being declared the canonical Ys IV.

Shortly after both games were released, Nihon Falcom, having hired new talent, now had the resources with which to continue the series on their own. In December of 1995, they released Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand for the Super Famicom. Although fans were initially ecstatic that the series’ original developers regained creative control, the game was ultimately met with a cold response. Was Ys V worthy of such a backlash or is it a game misunderstood due to differing opinions of what the series should entail?

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Zombie Nation

Introduction

In February of 1987, a company named KAZe was founded. Headquartered in Aoyama, Tokyo, the company sought to enter the rapidly growing video game market. They quickly turned their attention to the Famicom. Nintendo’s home console had revitalized the North American gaming scene after its devastating crash in 1983. Owing to the console’s success, one could expect any game released on the platform to sell reasonably well. There was only one major obstacle standing in the average developer’s way: Nintendo themselves. The company had researched what led to the North American gaming industry’s crash, or the Atari shock as it was called in Japan, and imposed strict limitations on how much help they could receive from third-party developers. If a game didn’t receive Nintendo’s Seal of Quality, it had no chance of seeing the light of day on their platform. On top of that, when considering international releases, only five of a given third-party developer’s output could be released abroad.

Even with these strict limitations in place, KAZe managed to launch their inaugural title, Hooligan Tengu, in December of 1990. The game saw its international debut the following month in January of 1991 under the name Zombie Nation. Despite being released on a popular platform, Zombie Nation was left to fall into obscurity. Only when a certain internet personality highlighted it in 2007 did Zombie Nation achieve any kind of notoriety. With thousands of titles passing through its ranks, did KAZe’s first game get the company off to a strong start?

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Ys IV: Mask of the Sun

Introduction

After Nihon Falcom released the first three installments in their Ys series of action role-playing games, the installments proved popular enough to make appearances on nearly every active console from the Nintendo Famicom (NES) to the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis).  Even if it was virtually unknown in the West, the series’ domestic success ensured the inevitability of a fourth installment.  Unfortunately, the success this series enjoyed came at something of a cost. After the release of Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, a substantial chunk of Nihon Falcom’s staff members quit, thereby depriving the company of the resources needed to produce a sequel. They were in such dire straits that they couldn’t even provide a full script for the game. Their contributions were limited to providing a vague outline and composing the music. They handed off what they could get done to Hudson, the company that published the highly praised compilation Ys Book I & II.

As Hudson collaborated with Alfa Systems on a game entitled Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys, Nihon Falcom pitched the idea to other studios so they could create versions for other prominent consoles. One such developer was Tonkin House, the company behind the SNES port of Ys III. Another was Sega, with whom Nihon Falcom had entered a partnership to port their output to the Mega Drive (Genesis). They even allowed the Korea-based developer Mantra to develop their own version of Ys IV. Mantra had released a highly successful version of the series’ second installment named Ys II Special, which greatly expanded upon the source material and included more secrets than any other version of the game. However, Sega’s version was canceled before it could get off the ground and although Mantra considered the offer, they ultimately declined.

Other than The Dawn of Ys, only the version developed by Tonkin House was making significant headway. Their take on the series’ fourth installment was named Ys IV: Mask of the Sun. Though both developers pushed for a release in late 1993, Tonkin House cut Husdon and Alfa System at the pass by releasing Mask of the Sun one month ahead of The Dawn of Ys. It was released to a fairly lukewarm reception with Famitsu, the most widely read gaming publication in Japan, awarding it twenty-five points out of a possible forty. Was Tonkin House able to do Nihon Falcom’s increasingly venerable series justice?

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Pokémon Gold and Silver

Introduction

Between 1990 and 1996, a company named Game Freak worked on a game dubbed Pocket Monsters. The company began its life as a fanzine written by Satoshi Tajiri and illustrated by Ken Sugimori. It became a developer when Mr. Tajiri, unsatisfied with the poor quality of the games he discussed, decided to throw his hat in the ring. The project hit many snags along the way, with five employees quitting and Mr. Tajiri taking no salary, instead having live off his father’s income. They received help from members of Ape, Inc., the company that famously produced Mother and its sequel – passion projects of copywriter Shigesato Itoi.

The long development cycle had profound implications for everyone involved. By 1996, Nintendo’s inaugural portable console, the Game Boy, had begun showing its age. While a collection of highly regarded games debuted on the platform, they were eventually seen as watered-down versions of console experiences. This didn’t matter to enthusiasts at the time, for they felt it to be an acceptable tradeoff for being able to bring a game with them at all. It was when gaming entered its fifth console generation that this proposition became less defensible. The experimental 3D titles of the PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64 made the monochromatic Game Boy seem less impressive by the day. Nintendo executives were ready to declare a loss after Pocket Monsters saw its release in 1996 – even after splitting it into two versions. The critical reception seemed to confirm their apprehension, as the few reviews written about it were lukewarm with Famitsu giving it a score of twenty-nine points out of a possible forty. In light of these circumstances, no one could’ve predicted that this relative newcomer would singlehandedly revitalize the Game Boy when Pocket Monsters began selling by the millions.

Despite this success, Game Freak was hesitant to localize Pocket Monsters. Indeed, the idea of releasing it internationally didn’t cross the minds of the development teams. It wasn’t until the then-president of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi, told them “Release this in America!” that localization was unavoidable. However, there was one slight problem: Game Freak didn’t have people to spare to create a port. As such, they found themselves in a precarious position between having to choose between focusing their attention on the sequel or develop an English version. Not wishing to stop the momentum Pocket Monsters had gained, they elected to begin developing the sequel immediately, believing “overseas development is just a dream within a dream”.

Fortunately, one man was willing to step up to the plate: Satoru Iwata, the president of HAL Laboratories. Joined by Teruki Murakawa, the Assistant Department Manager of the plan production headquarters, he began working on a version of Pocket Monsters tailor-made for Western languages upon obtaining the source code. It is highly unusual for a company president to perform extensive analyses of the source code, yet it was through Mr. Iwata’s efforts that Pocket Monsters saw an official release abroad under the name Pokémon. Because there was little faith in the games to find an audience in the United States, it came as a complete shock when they proceeded to become bestsellers there as well. Pokémon was to the late nineties what Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were to mid and late-eighties respectively – a truly inescapable phenomenon that united kids from all walks of life.

With Pokémon having fared well both domestically and abroad, Mr. Tajiri and the rest of Game Freak faced an enormous amount of pressure to succeed. Within a few short years, the games inspired an anime series, multiple manga stories, and a treasure trove of spinoffs. Even so, fans across the world were waiting with baited breath for an official follow-up to the titles that started it all. Nintendo first announced the existence of a sequel in 1997, calling it Pocket Monsters 2: Gold & Silver. However, 1997 passed without a release for these games. It wasn’t until March of 1998 when the company announced a delay, though the games were now called Pocket Monsters: Gold & Silver, having dropped the number from the title.

After a year passed with no official word, Nintendo of Japan’s website updated with new information with a revised release date in June of 1999. Even better, these games would be compatible with the Game Boy Color.

It is largely due to the overnight success of Pokémon that this machine was created. As its name suggests, the Game Boy Color was an upgrade to the original Game Boy, rendering compatible titles in color. It stood out from other handheld consoles in that it was backwards compatible. This allowed the Game Boy Color to launch with a sizable library from the onset.

The release date for Pocket Monsters: Gold & Silver was ultimately delayed again to November 21, 1999. Six months later, the game had sold 6.5 million copies domestically. With the franchise’s popularity transcending cultures, it was a question of when the localized games would make their international debut – not if. The games debuted in Australia and North America in October of 2000 before being released in April of 2001 in Europe. Keeping in line with their predecessors’ naming conventions, they were dubbed Pokémon Gold and Silver in foreign markets. As a contrast to their predecessors’ reception, Pokémon Gold and Silver were critically acclaimed upon release in addition to faring well commercially. Pokémon fever had well and truly set in with Pokémon Stadium being the bestselling console game in North America and Pokémon Gold and Silver dominating the handheld market. Most of the people who played both sets of games insist that they are major improvements over their predecessors. Were these games able to iron out the flaws holding back the original, thus allowing the series to fully grasp its potential?

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Ballz

Introduction

Street Fighter II: The World Warrior took the world by storm when it debuted in arcades in February of 1991. The competitive fighting game had existed since the mid-eighties, but Street Fighter II codified the genre. Countless enthusiasts formed long lines around the arcade cabinets, which eventually collected over two-billion USD in gross revenue within the next four years, meaning roughly nine-billion quarters were spent to play this game. Not surprisingly, when Capcom created ports for the prominent platforms of the fourth console generation, they became instant bestsellers.

In the wake of this overwhelming success, many developers saw potential in the exciting, new genre. One such developer was the San Francisco-based PF Magic. Their game was to be released on the Super NES, Sega Genesis, and 3DO. Tapping into the often sophomoric zeitgeist of the nineties, they titled their fighting game Ballz. Just to hit home that subtlety was off the table, the opening of the game stated “To be the champion, you gotta have Ballz!” Predictably, Nintendo wasn’t pleased and demanded the wording be changed for the SNES port. This version states “You gotta play Ballz!” The Genesis version was originally going to have online multiplayer support, which would have been made possible with the Edge 16, a planned modem adapter for the console. The plans for peripheral were scrapped by the time Ballz saw its release in 1994. Despite this setback, Ballz was released to a fairly warm reception. Famicom Tsūshin awarded it twenty-eight points out of a possible forty, Electronic Gaming Monthly gave the Genesis version a 6.2 out of 10, and GamePro wrote a positive review, praising its balanced gameplay and humorous sound effects. How does Ballz fare when compared to the countless other classic fighting games released around this time?

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Pokémon Red and Blue

Introduction

Growing up in the 1970s, a boy from Machida, Tokyo named Satoshi Tajiri enjoyed collecting insects. Such was the zeal for his hobby that other children called him “Doctor Bug”, and he initially wanted to become an entomologist. As he grew up, he became fascinated with an entirely new pastime: arcade games. He was enthralled with Taito’s 1979 arcade hit Space Invaders, though he played many others as well. Throughout his teenage years, his parents thought their son a delinquent, a perception exacerbated by him frequently cutting classes. He nearly failed to graduate from high school, prompting his parents, who were convinced he was throwing his future away, to take action. His father attempted to get him a job at The Tokyo Electric Power Company, but the boy declined. He eventually took make-up classes and earned his diploma. He didn’t attend university, instead opting to complete a two-year technical degree program at the Tokyo National College of Technology, majoring in electronics and computer science.

In 1981, Mr. Tajiri had begun writing a fanzine he named Game Freak. It was handwritten and stapled together. The content focused on the arcade scene, offering tips on how to win or achieve high scores. Certain editions even listed any Easter Eggs contained within the games. The fanzine proved to be fairly popular in his area; the edition in which he wrote about a game named Zabius sold 10,000 copies. It caught the attention of one Ken Sugimori, who found it being sold at a dōjinshi shop. As someone who had an affinity for art, he asked Mr. Tajiri if he could help make the fanzine even more of a success. Suddenly, Game Freak now had an official illustrator. As more people contributed to the fanzine, Mr. Tajiri decided that most of the games he discussed were of a poor quality. Therefore, he and Mr. Sugimori drummed up a simple solution: make their own games.

Mr. Tajiri had been interested in making his own game ever since he discovered the medium. After receiving a Famicom, Nintendo’s first true home console to use interchangeable ROM cartridges, he dismantled it to see the inner workings. He later submitted a video game idea in a contest sponsored by Sega and won. From there, he studied the Family BASIC programming package, which allowed him to grasp how Famicom games were designed. With the desire to head in a new direction, Game Freak the fanzine ended in 1986. Three years later, Game Freak the video game development company arose in its place. The duo wasted no time pitching their first game to Namco: Quinty.

Known as Mendel Palace when it was exported to North America, Quinty combined action and puzzle game elements. The player character is placed on a 5 by 7 grid of floor tiles. The player must flip tiles to defeat the enemies that seek to collide into their character.

Though satisfied with their first product, Mr. Tajiri wanted to create something a little more personal. As he grew up, the areas around him became progressively more urbanized. As a result, many incent habitats were lost. Moreover, with the rise of home consoles, children began playing in their homes rather than outside. Not wanting to let the joy he felt catching and collecting creatures die, he sought to make a game capable of encapsulating that wonder so he may pass it on to others. His idea for this game began forming in 1990. The previous year saw the release of Nintendo’s Game Boy console. In an era when portable games traditionally consisted of static images on a LCD screen, the Game Boy took the world by storm. The idea of a portable albeit monochromatic Famicom was unheard of, yet the reality couldn’t be denied.

As soon as he observed the Game Boy’s ability to communicate between consoles, Mr. Tajiri knew that this game was destined to debut on the handheld platform. When he thought of people using the link cable required for multiplayer sessions, he imagined bugs crawling back and forth between them.

The original name of this game was to be Capsule Monsters. Mr. Tajiri had taken inspiration from the gashapon, a variety of vending machines popular with children that dispense toys encased in a plastic capsule. The characters in his game would carry capsules containing monsters that were released upon throwing them. Because Mr. Tajiri had difficulties trademarking the name “Capsule Monsters”, he tried to make it into a portmanteau, “CapuMon”, before changing it to Pocket Monsters.

Mr. Tajiri was a bit nervous upon presenting his idea to Nintendo, believing they would reject his idea. Indeed, when he pitched the idea, they didn’t fully understand the concept. Nonetheless, they were impressed with the promise he had displayed in his first games and decided to explore it. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of two of Nintendo’s successful franchises, Mario and The Legend of Zelda, began to mentor the up-and-coming developer, teaching him as the game was being created. Pocket Monsters ended up taking six years to produce. For most of the development process, there wasn’t enough salary with which to pay Game Freak’s employees. Over these six years, five employees quit, and the company faced an impending bankruptcy numerous times. Mr. Tajiri himself didn’t take a salary, living off his father’s income. Fortunately, he and his team received help from an unexpected source.

In 1989, a company named Ape, Inc. was founded. Their first product, released in the same year, was Mother – a passion project of famed copywriter Shigesato Itoi. Though it would be some time before it saw an official release abroad, Mother remains to this day a beloved classic in its native homeland, possessing an intergenerational appeal few other games had. The team stuck with Mr. Itoi when creating its sequel, Mother 2. When the programmers began running into problems, Satoru Iwata of HAL Laboratory stepped in to salvage the project. The game was released to a warm reception in 1994. Unlike its predecessor, Mother 2 would receive an official Western localization, under the name Earthbound. Though initially a sales disappointment, Earthbound would receive a fair bit of retroactive vindication, and is now considered one of the best games ever made.

The Ape team was dismantled in 1995, and one of its former members, Tsunekazu Ishihara, with Satoru Iwata’s assistance, founded a new company in its stead: Creatures. Many of the same people who helped develop Mr. Itoi’s were about to take cues from Mr. Iwata by saving another struggling project. They invested in Mr. Tajiri’s idea, allowing his team to complete the games. In exchange, they received one-third of the franchise rights. Pocket Monsters took such a long time to develop that Mr. Tajiri had assisted in the creation of two Nintendo games in the interim: Yoshi and Mario & Wario. He even directed a game for the Sega Genesis named Pulseman alongside Mr. Sugimori.

After a long, arduous development process, Pocket Monsters was at last released domestically in October 1996. Upon completion, few media outlets paid it attention. This was reflected in how Famitsu, the most widely read video game publication in Japan, awarded it twenty-nine points out of a possible forty. In the six years between Mr. Tajiri conceiving the idea for Pocket Monsters and its release, the industry evolved to a point beyond recognition. Nintendo had a fierce, new competitor in the form of Sony’s PlayStation console, and they themselves had launched the Nintendo 64. Both consoles began experimenting with three-dimensional gameplay and every franchise attempted to make the leap. In the face of the medium’s experimental direction, any game retaining a 2D or side-scrolling presentation was doomed to fall by the wayside regardless of its quality.

As a result of these factors, the Game Boy itself had rapidly declined in popularity. Despite having sold more than 100-million units worldwide, the platform was but forgotten by 1996. The only person interested in releasing anything for the portable system was Mr. Tajiri himself. Nintendo, on the other hand, was prepared to declare Pocket Monsters a loss long before the project saw completion. Therefore, nobody could have predicted the game to not only sell rapidly, but singlehandedly save the Game Boy as a platform. One of the reasons Pocket Monsters sold as well as it did was due to Nintendo’s idea to produce two versions of the game: Red and Green.

In the face of this success, it was only logical for Nintendo to export Pocket Monsters to the West. In order to make this release successful, Nintendo is said to have spent over 50-million dollars to promote the games. Before their release, the Western localization team was highly skeptical about the concept. Believing the “cutesy” art style of Pocket Monsters wouldn’t appeal to Americans, they wanted them to be redesigned and “beefed up”. This was overruled by Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of Nintendo at the time, who regarded the games’ possible reception in the United States as a challenge to face. On the eve of the games’ launch, an anime series premiered, bearing what was to be their localized name: Pokémon – a romanized portmanteau of its domestic title. In September of 1998, two versions of the game, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue debuted in North America before receiving an official release the following October in Australia. The European gaming community wouldn’t receive a port until October of 1999.

Whatever reservations the localization team may have had about the series’ overseas success were fully assuaged when these games began selling by the millions. It is nearly impossible to overstate how much of a phenomenon Pokémon was in the late nineties. It could be thought of as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers for a new generation of children – a truly inescapable work beloved by children from all walks of life. As a sign of the renewed interest in portable gaming, Nintendo released the successor to the Game Boy, the Game Boy Color, the very same year Pokémon debuted abroad. Having not only defied all odds and resonated with enthusiasts of varying backgrounds, but also breathed new life into Nintendo’s line of handheld consoles, how well do Pokémon Red and Blue stand the test of time?

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