Available Hardware at the Time
Satoshi Tajiri had sat on the idea of Pokemon for a good many years before his idea was realised in 1996 – he was a self-taught game developer and programmer with only a handful of games under his belt before Red/Green. His motivation to learn how to make his own game, with his work partner Ken Sugimori, stemmed from seeing what was on the market and how the games of the time were (in his opinion) lacking in quality.
The Game Boy was the primary inspiration for the gameplay and mechanics involved in the original Red/Green. After seeing the link cable, Tajiri came up with the idea of catching, trading, and competing against other creatures, like the bug catching hobby he loved in his youth, and so there was really only one console he wanted to use. This resulted in Tajiri pushing the idea of handheld inter-connectivity as much as possible, showing that there was more to these link cables than originally intended by Nintendo.
Unfortunately, when it came to translating the game from Japanese to English, the games needed to be re-programmed from the ground up because of the original source code. The English titles released in the west were then based on the more stable Blue edition that had come out in Japan nine months after the Red/Green titles – it had updated code, script, graphics, and audio. This was just one of the hurdles the company had to jump because of the game’s very difficult six-year development time that nearly saw Game Freak bankrupt.
There was no doubt Pokemon Red/Green were developed with kids in mind – the GameBoy was a portable playing device being marketed towards pre-teens and teens, as well as an even divide between girls and boys. It was one of the the few devices that could say nearly half of its demographics was female.
Tajiri was a bug collector in his youth and held onto that passion despite the changing youth generations after his own – there was a big difference between going out for hours like he did as a child, catching and documenting different insects, compared to children staying indoors and playing. He wanted to recapture that feeling of going on adventures outside and exploring the world, so that kids could see a new version of his original hobby.
He wanted to make the game kid-friendly by having the Pokemon faint, instead of actually causing them physical harm or have a risk of them dying. The Pokemon could be named and controlled through commands, like a loyal friend, so that children would form attachments to them during their games. Tajiri was very adamant not to include extreme violence in Pokemon, since he thought there was enough of that already on the market and kids just didn’t need that sort of game.
Game Design & Mechanics
Tajiri took a lot of inspiration from a couple other games being released in the early ’90s, where there didn’t always have to be action or fighting, but rather the game consisted of an expansive story that could be stepped into and the main character could be lived through vicariously.
The game itself had a very simple goal (to be the very best), although nothing quite like it had been done before. The player needed to go through different towns, winning against gym leaders to attain badges, so that he could eventually make it to the Indigo League and beat the Elite Four. However, on top of this, another layer of story was added with the presence of Team Rocket and their malicious goals. The player gets pulled into stopping the evil team’s leader and disbanding the entire crew.
Catching and training Pokemon was essential to the game. The player could look at their stats, help them gain levels and get stronger, and even evolve into tougher versions of themselves.
The levelling of one’s Pokemon became strategy-based, where certain types of Pokemon would do better against others (such as water trumping fire), and a Pokemon could only know four moves at any time. To me, this kept the gameplay mechanics simple and effective, where decisions could make all the difference against opponents, but there were also ways to re-learn moves if a mistake was made.
I think there’s something endearing with how Pokemon was designed. I was 11 when the game came out in North America and I immediately wanted to play it – especially for any kids who weren’t allowed pets, you became extremely attached to those little pixels. The mid-’90s was a time when these sorts of games were on the rise: Tamagotchi was about the hit western soil in 1997, Monster Rancher was released on the Playstation in 1997 as well, and Digimon was right on the tail of Pokemon with its first video game three years later in 1999.
Ken Sugimori decided on all the final designs for the first 151 Pokemon and was the art director for the original games. He worked with a very small team at Game Freak who brainstormed ideas that he would then accept or reject; if chosen as a final design, he would then go on to draw the Pokemon from multiple angles so the graphics team could digitally recreate the Pokemon.
Originally, I think Tajiri wanted to have designs that resembled insects and were endearing, rather than scary or monstrous (despite the Pocket Monsters name). In Japan, the character designs worked for the designated audiences and were well-received, however on initial release to America there was hesitation as to whether a western audience would feel the same. The localisation team wanted to bulk up the Pokemon sprites, but Nintendo stood fast and the decision was rewarded with an excellent reception.
I feel like the visuals in the games were easily what made me want to play them way back when and why I continue to return to their remastered versions – the overhead world view, the Pokemon sprites, the battle screen, all of them work really well together.
The original Game Boy didn’t support colour (it was a 2-bit palette with 4 shades of grey), but when the Game Boy Colour came out in 1998 the Pokemon were seen in their full glory.
I don’t think there’s a lot to say about this topic, since the games were designed specifically with the Game Boy and its link cable in mind, capitalising on the hardware available at the time. The controls weren’t overly complicated and the games just worked. The music and Pokemon sounds was designed using the four sound channels of the Game Boy. Every decision made was based on a system that had been tried and true for a number of years already; the Game Boy came out in 1989 and saw most of its success thanks to Tetris.
There were a number of glitches in the original games, but from what I’ve read into them none of them seem to be game-breaking and there weren’t exactly things like “game patches” or “versions” at the time. Bigger issues like linking problems were down to the hardware rather than the software, while glitches soon turned into normal aspects of the game (such as Missingno). For the time it was released, Red/Green worked as a game and was the start of a multi-billion dollar franchise, but was still bettered via the release of Blue.