Books: the history of Pokémon game development is published in Russian. We publish an excerpt

Next week, the Bombora publishing house is going to release a work on another franchise — The Pokémon Generation. How the game saga that gave us Pikachu was created.” This is the story of the development and development of the cult Pokémon series, which covers not only games, but also anime, manga and many other projects.

The book was written by French authors Alvin Haddadène and Loup Lassinat-Foubert. The Russian edition is due to be released on December 19.



Pokémon was released in Japan in 1996, and since ordering the game at the beginning of the decade, the market has changed a lot. The release of Pokémon scheduled for 1991 was supposed to coincide with the peak of sales of the Game Boy launched in April 1989. However, by the beginning of 1996, the portable console had already been on the market for seven years, and games for this medium had practically ceased to be developed. Nintendo has already taken up the future Game Boy Advance, although it finished it much later than planned — in 2001.

Pokémon revived the console that lived out its last days and kept it on the market thanks to the release of the Game Boy Color, a more powerful model with a color screen. The numbers speak for themselves: Pokémon came out in the year of the double decline in Game Boy sales, and thanks to it they jumped sharply.

The number of copies of the Game Boy sold for each fiscal year (from April to March) worldwide:

  • 1989-1990: 3.9 million
  • 1990-1991: 8.1 million
  • 1991-1992: 10.6 million (peak before the first recession)
  • 1992-1993: 7.8 million
  • 1993-1994: 7.4 million
  • 1994-1995: 5.6 million
  • 1995-1996: 4.2 million (right before the release of Pocket Monsters)
  • 1996-1997: 7 million (Pocket Monsters release a month before the start of the fiscal year)
  • 1997-1998: 10.3 million
  • 1998-1999: 13 million
  • 1999-2000: 17.4 million
  • 2000-2001: 18.8 million
  • 2001-2002: 4.7 million*

* Nintendo data has been collected and analyzed by specialized journalist Oscar Lemaire and is provided here with his kind permission. — Author’s note.

As a result, 118.69 million Game Boy consoles of all models, including Color, were sold, and at least 50 million of these sales can be attributed directly to Pokémon.

The influence of Pokémon has also revived the frozen production of games for this console. According to Nintendo, from April 1997 to March 1998, about sixty games for the platform were released in Japan, and almost thirty in the West. The next fiscal year brought one hundred releases in Japan, and the next two years brought up to one hundred and fifty. In 2000, immediately after the appearance of Pokémon in the West, at least two hundred games for the Game Boy were released in Europe and the USA.


Proximity to failure

February 27, 1996 Pocket Monsters: Green and Pocket Monsters: Red got off to an uncertain start, failing to meet the expectations of all project participants. Even though Nintendo was pessimistic, it was still hoping to raise a fuss by releasing “smaller” cartridges — 230,000. The figures disappointed the company: almost 110,000 copies of the game were sold in the first week, mainly among adults: RPG fans who were curious to see the latest work for the Game Boy in the genre, as well as those who were intrigued by the original concept of releasing two versions of the game at the same time. The second week turned into a disaster: less than 10,000 cartridges found buyers, and the game dropped out of the top ten bestsellers. This is where game sales trajectories usually end. However, Pokémon was waiting for a huge social effect.

Saving hearing

Founded in 1977, the Japanese magazine for children aged 7-15, CoroCoro Comic, is one of the most widely read children’s publications and is similar to a mixture of Le Journal de Mickey and Super Picsou Géant*. According to calculations, this voluminous edition of several hundred pages published in the middle of each month is read by every fourth student. The magazine is full of comics and articles on topics discussed by the guys at recess: sports, hobbies and, of course, toys and video games. Nintendo, like all console manufacturers of that time, worked closely with the magazine and advertised Pocket Monsters in the games section of the February issue.

While sales of Pocket Monsters in stores plummeted, a mysterious rumor appeared in the March issue of the magazine that several players had miraculously discovered Mew, the secret 151-th Pokemon. Under normal conditions, it was really impossible to get this creature, but if you used a couple of bugs that the game was teeming with, there was a chance to “sleep” it and catch it. This news was followed by a surge in sales: the game broke the 20,000-copy bar every week and entered the top ten best-selling software. This is curious: as a rule, sales fall sharply in the second week and continue to slow down slowly and steadily from each following week.

* French magazines. — Approx. trans.

The Savior of Pokemon Mew

Initially, this truthful rumor confused Nintendo — the company did not know how to react. The Game Freak and Creatures team decided to take advantage of this opportunity. They entered into a partnership with CoroCoro Comic for the April issue with the aim, according to Tajiri, “to introduce the guys to Mew.” The number began with the presentation of the first manga adaptation of the video game: Pokémon Pocket Monsters. This comic by Kosaku Anakubo, which remained in production even in 2015*, contains a lot of jokes. His hero is a young and stubborn Red, who sets out to explore the world in order to become a Pokemon master in the company of a clumsy and hot—tempered Clef. Pikachu is a cousin of Clefairi here and does not play such an important role as in other future adaptations of the saga.

The second brainchild of the partnership is the opportunity to get a legendary Pokemon. Nintendo and CoroCoro have organized an exclusive contest that allows twenty randomly selected readers to send their cartridge with the game and receive a Mew, and with a certificate of authenticity. The effect was stunning: 78,000 participants registered. Word of mouth in all its glory! Pokémon was gaining momentum, masterfully promoted by advertising and Nintendo’s side products with Creatures. Every week more and more copies were sold, and the game turned into a real phenomenon.

Taking into account all the released versions of the game (Green, Red, Blue and Yellow), more than eight million first-generation Pokémon cartridges were sold in Japan.

Pokémon Red and Green sales in Japan by week. The Famitsu/Enterbrain data is collected and analyzed by Oscar Lemaire and is provided here with his kind permission

* The comic was published until 2019. — Editor’s note.

Unusual birth of Mew

Officially, Mew was not supposed to be part of the first generation of Pokemon. It was going to be added to the game only after testing by the Nintendo teams, erasing the debugging tools and freeing up space for it. It is believed that programmer Shigeki Morimoto created this Pokemon and added it to the game at the last moment with the blessing of the Game Freak team members, who, as avid gamers, adored such hidden surprises. Only when some players “accidentally” discovered Pokemon, Game Freak and Nintendo realized the scale of this phenomenon, which caused the first major commercial stir in the history of video games.

This story still raises questions, given several unclear points. On the one hand, the appearance of a Mutu in the game presupposes the existence of the first Meu from which it originated. The texts of the game do not specify this directly, and the story of his birth differs in each game, but the pun is obvious even in the original language (MyûTsu). The fact that Mutu is a DNA variation of Mew fits perfectly into the plot of the game. It is much more surprising that the first registration of a Pokémon—related trademark dates back to May 9, 1990 (according to the Japanese Trademark Registration Bureau), and it was Mew who received it – many years before the registration of the rest of the franchise elements! The Japanese Bureau confirmed the registration on March 31, 1994. Mew was recorded as part of a future video game and possible spin-offs by Game Freak, Nintendo and Creatures, although the latter company did not yet exist. Even though the last detail seems funny, it’s hard to believe that this is an administrative error. Was the name registered for a completely different, non-Pokemon-related game project? Perhaps Mew was destined for an important role in one of the first versions of the game, but then the idea was discarded? It’s impossible to say for sure. Anyway, there are reasons to believe that the hype around Mew was carefully planned: from the release of the game and the “accidental and shameful” discovery of Pokemon by some players to the confirmation of its existence in CoroCoro magazine, only a month passed, and this was followed by the distribution and publication of the manga. The combination of circumstances strongly looks like a publicity stunt, especially if you recall the career of Satoshi Tajiri (who knows best that a good rumor about the game can help
sell thousands of magazines and attract attention), not to mention the support of an experienced Ishihara advertiser.

Even if we do not hear another official version besides this trick of otaku friends, which suddenly turned into a driving force for the sales of the game, we agree that such a wonderful story could not do without embellishment. Only one thing is clear: it was a masterstroke on the part of Nintendo, Game Freak and Creatures.


The origin of the phenomenon

Pokemania according to plan

In April 1996, Pokémon sales finally took off, and Japanese children began to embrace “pokemania”. The communicative and viral aspect of the game played a role. In addition, the cartridges could only save one batch, so each player had to purchase their own copy. Throughout 1996, Nintendo helped Pocket Monsters reach even greater heights. A second partnership with CoroCoro Comic was organized, this time giving Mew to a hundred players. The magazine was again bombarded with letters and counted more than 80,000 participants of the action. The Nintendo stand also distributed Pokemon to 700 players at the summer festival in Tokyo. Finally, since July 4, 1996, Pokémon has been actively advertised in the weekly TV program Tokyo TV 64 Mario Stadium, which devoted half an hour to the latest Nintendo games and its new Nintendo 64 console.

Requests for a license for Pokémon side products were received twenty times a week and were considered by the Creatures board of directors, competently created for such a situation to allow Game Freak to perform the functions of a developer without fuss. Ishihara, who has shown himself to be an ideal leader throughout the development of the game, fully took over the protection of the interests of the franchise and skillfully screened out offers. A clear rule has been fixed: products should be inspired by games (and not vice versa) and are appropriate for the Pokemon world, where children dreamed of becoming trainers. Nothing would force Game Freak to introduce inappropriate elements into the main game in order to create a good side product.

Pokémon Blue: Japanese version

Ishihara made sure that Tajiri and the team could work at their own pace while he dealt with the use of the Pokémon brand by Nintendo and its partners. It was necessary to forge iron while it was hot and respond to the enormous demand that arose, which Ishihara and Nintendo coped with with a bang. Work began to boil over several projects at once. Game Freak, for its part, was hard at work on a game known as Pocket Monsters 2*. Fired up with optimism again, Nintendo announced on its website the release of the game at the end of 1997 and made plans based on this date. The first ads promised players a Pokedex of at least 250 monsters (rounding off the figure 251), an exchange with old versions, an internal timer for temporary events and a skateboard that looked cool in the 90s – although it did not make it to the final version.

The collectible card game was released according to plan in October 1996 in the form of the first issue of 102 cards, widely advertised by CoroCoro magazine. The editors decided to pull off another trick and get bogged down in applications again: the publication decided to exclusively sell Pocket Monsters Blue Version by mail for 3,000 yen. The magazine was again taken aback by the demand and eventually launched eight sales campaigns. The price on the secondary market tripled, although in this version, in fact, there was nothing special. The game was released in video game stores three years later, in October 1999, shortly before Gold and Silver, and sold two million copies. Game Freak conceived Pocket Monsters Blue Version while sweating over Pokémon 2. It is based on the final evolution of the third starter Pokemon Squirtle and is a slightly improved version of the original game. Several bugs have been fixed (though not all), graphics have been partially improved, as well as new sprites for Pokemon, hints of the existence of Mew, and one dungeon has changed. Some Pokemon, almost elusive in existing versions, have also become easier to catch in the tall grass. It was the Blue version, considered the final one for the first Pokémon game, that served as the basis for export outside Japan. The developers reused the same engine and texts. As for the content (wild Pokemon, trainers, events, etc.), the Western versions of Red and Blue were based on Red and Green, respectively.

* The second generation was originally supposed to be called Pocket Monsters 2: Gold & Silver, but the number 2 from the name disappeared in 1997. Now it is simply called Pocket Monsters: Gold & Silver, or Pokémon Gold and Silver. — Approx. scientific ed.

Fast and logical diversification

The second manga

Nintendo has established its fruitful partnership with Shogakukan (the Japanese publishing giant that spawned CoroCoro, a large number of manga and their anime adaptations) and TV Tokyo. Together they decided to release new adaptations of Pokémon in April 1997. The first was the new manga Pocket Monsters Special (Pokémon Adventures in the West), entrusted to Hidenori Kusake. It was a very accurate adaptation of the game, preserving the events of the original, but with a deeper plot. “That comic most resembles the world I wanted to create,” Tajiri said of him. The work bluntly touched on dark aspects, softened in games and other adaptations. The R team here didn’t look funny, but dangerous, and the trainers faced the death of their Pokemon and some characters. The manga is a huge success to this day: more than 150 million volumes have been sold.

Cult animated series

Also in the summer of 1996, the production of an animated series began, designed to prolong the success of the franchise and prepare the ground for the release of the next game. It was at best about one season, since the public did not much like series based on games, and Ishihara was convinced that Pokémon 2 would be the final chapter of this epic. Creatures asked Ken Sugimori to oversee the adaptation from the OLM studio (established two years earlier by a team of animation veterans), as well as to complete the drawings for the card game. Ishihara also turned to Hirokazu Tanaka, known as Hip Tanaka, for help in developing a sound track for the anime. This engineer and musician joined Nintendo in 1980 and helped design the sound circuits of the devices before starting to create music and sounds that have become iconic for many games (Donkey Kong, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Dr. Mario, Super Mario Land). He crossed paths with Ishihara on the Mother 2 project. Without leaving work on the Game Boy camera and printer for Nintendo, he wrote the opening and background music of the animated series. The discs with them were a success, which in 1999 prompted him to permanently join Creatures, which gave him more freedom than Nintendo.

On Tuesday, April 1, 1997, at 18:30, Tokyo television began broadcasting the first episode of the Pokémon-based anime series. This was the third adaptation of the game, which had sold more than three million copies by that time. The main elements of the game have been preserved — the same awkward, stubborn and charismatic young hero intends to conquer the Pokemon League, meeting new friends along the way. Colorful and kind cartoon greatly expanded the universe of the game and multiplied its success. In the series there are small inserts with the representation of Pokemon (replaced in the West by Poké Rap at the end of the broadcast), which allowed young viewers to join the universe. This success was to be followed by the brilliant release of Pocket Monsters 2 at the end of the year, but, alas, the plans fell through again, and Pokémon was one step away from a fiasco.

The most successful anime

In just a few months, the Pokémon anime series has turned into a stunning audiovisual phenomenon. Having covered 10% of the market share in April 1997, the cartoon chained more than 18% of the audience to the screen in November (twenty million viewers) and broke the record for views among all TV Tokyo channels. The show also took first place in the country in its broadcast hour. The Pokemon anime has become the driving force behind the franchise around the world. All game marketing revolved around the popularity of the series among schoolchildren, to whom he presented this new world. The anime has been broadcast in more than 70 countries.

At the same time, the manga Pokémon Adventures was released, which turned Pikachu into an undisputed Pokémon symbol — in surveys, both girls and boys called him one of the most popular Pokemon. Among other things, the anime was designed to build a bridge to the game, accompanying the releases of new versions and announcing monsters of future generations. For example, the first episode “The Beginning” ends with the appearance of Ho-oh, the legendary Pokemon from the Gold and Silver versions expected by the end of the year. This was a real surprise for the fans who had already managed to fill their Pokedex, who had to wait a long time for a chance to catch this creature.

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