It was on this week in 1998 when North America got its first exposure to one of the most popular pop-culture phenomenons of all time. Pokémon Red and Blue were released for the Nintendo Gameboy on the 28th of September in 1998 making this week the 25th Anniversary of Pokémon’s release in the west.
Pokémon Red and Blue are RPGs played from an overhead third-person perspective. You play as an un-named child from Pallet Town. You embark on a quest to collect wild Pokémon (Pocket Monsters) from around the Kanto region. You will need to trai your Pokémon to make them strong and compete against rival trainers to test your skills in order to become the strongest Pokémon trainer. There are a total of 151 Pokémon that can be captured between the two games. Although there are slightly different Pokémon available between Red and Blue the narrative plays out the same in Red and Blue.
There are three basic screens in the games; an overworld, battle screen and the menu interface. The overworld allows you to travel between towns and into the wilderness where you will encounter Pokémon or other trainers which prompts the battle screen. The ultimate goal of Pokémon Red and Blue is gain all the gym badges by defeating Gym Leaders, then defeating the elite four who are the top trainers in the Kanto Region and finally facing the current Champion.
The idea for Pokémon came from, Tajiri, the creator’s childhood fascination with collecting insects. As an adult, he was reminiscing about his childhood hobby which led to an idea.
He said in an interview by Time Magazine:
Places to catch insects are rare because of urbanization. Kids play inside their homes now and a lot have forgotten about catching bugs. When I was making games, something clicked and I decide to a game with that concept.
Development for the first two Pokémon games took 6 years. In Japan, the games were released as Pocket Monsters Red and Green. Shigeru Miyamoto decided to release two independent games that had Pokémon only available on one version and not the other. Meaning if a player wanted to collect all 151 Pokémon, you would have trade version specific Pokémon between Gameboys using the Gameboy Link Cable.
Later an updated version, Pocket Monsters Blue was released via mail order. This version contained updated artwork and new in-game dialogue. When the game was being localised for a Western release, the development team tried simply changing the Japanese names into their Western counterparts and to convert the text, however, due to the complexity of the source code this was not achievable. Instead the Western releases needed to be reprogrammed from the ground up. For this reason, the Japanese Blue version build was used as it was more stable compared to the source code for Red.
The Myth of Mew
It is common knowledge among legacy Pokémon franchise players that Mew was a catchable Pokémon through an exploitable glitch. However, it is not common knowledge how the presence of the 151 Pokémon in the game came to be. Mew was only include in the game in the final weeks of development and was intended to be an internal joke between the development team. It was never meant to be obtainable by the general public without attending very special events. It took years and many rumours before someone found a glitch that allowed you to capture the mythical Pokémon. Mew and the rumours surrounding the mystic Pokémon proved positive for Pokémon’s longevity as it created hype and much speculation among fans. This in turn led to increased sales and Pokémon original games being relevant for many years.
Release and Reception
Before its Western release, there were internal talks within the localization team about changing the Pokémon’s aesthetics to fit a Western Audience as the marketing team thought the Pocket Monsters were too cute. Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi decided against changing the appearance and saw the possible culture barrier as an acceptable challenge. Surprisingly, the North American audience received Pokémon Red and Blue positively. It was the start of what would become a multi-billion dollar franchise. By the end of the lifecycle of Pokémon Red and Blue, 9.85 million copies were sold in the United States.
Pokémon Red and Blue received mostly positive reviews on release. The aggregated score on GameRankings for Pokémon Red is 88%. Individual media outlets had mixed reviews about the two games ranging from 10/10 (IGN) to 7.2 (Nintendo Power). The challenge of collecting all 151 was seen as a major positive feature for the game. Critics also praised the multiplayer capabilities of the game. This was the common consensus among reviews. A few reviewers scored the game lower due to the primitive graphics and music which were reminiscent of early release GameBoy games from the early 90s. Despite the mixed reviews from critics, the game remained relevant and a topic of discussion years after its release.
These two games sparked a pop culture phenomenon that is still as popular now as it was back when it originally launched. The multi-disciplinary approach that Nintendo and Game Freak took to market their product was a lot of help. Pokemon plushies, toys, trading cards and other physical merchandise were released. An anime series was also released. In Japan, the series aired before Pokémon Red and Blue were released. The TV show was highly popular and furthered the craze ‘gotta catch em all’.
To date, there is a total of seven generation releases for Pokémon, the latest being Pokémon Sun and Moon. There have also been many non-generational side releases for Handhelds, Consoles and Arcade. Pokémon characters have even appeared in other franchises including the Smash Bros series. As of February 2016, more than 279 million Pokémon games have been sold globally. It is ranked the 3rd best-selling video game franchise of all time.