January 2019 in Summary: Into the Thick of Things

Hope all of you are doing well in this new year so far! Now that the Oscars are around the corner, I’ve been running around attempting to see and review all of the nominations. As a result, when it comes to reviewing games, I had to make a lot of last-minute changes. I intend to complete everything I set out to do in short order, though.

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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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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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