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14 Features

History Lesson: Pokemon Red & Blue

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 3rd Nov 2013 at 11:30 AM UTC

Finger ever on the pulse, CVG's sister publication N64 Magazine first spotted Pikachu in October 1997, a good 16 months after Pocket Monsters had launched in Japan.

"A small, yellow cat", the magazine guessed, before moving on to kiss 007's freshly released face in GoldenEye 007.

Now, that little electric mouse clogs our 3DS slots and just appeared in his 808th anime episode. You can't trot to the local newsagents without tripping over the little fella at least three times.

Pokémon's dad, Satoshi Tajiri, never intended cute to be the order of the day. The initial spark of genius came in a memory of childhood - of insect-hunting and the joy of discovery. Known as Dr Bug, young Tajiri roamed the Tokyo suburb of Machida trapping beetles and scooping up tadpoles. The latter inspired Poliwhirl's stomach spiral - the design mimics intestines visible through the frog-to-be's translucent skin.

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As Tajiri grew older, Machida changed around him. Fields became tarmac and ponds brimming with toad-like wildlife became arcades brimming with toad-like teenagers. Tajiri was among the coin-op fanatics, setting up the arcade fanzine Game Freak in 1978 to dispense tips and techniques for all the latest machines.

Hand-written and photocopied, the mag was sold by the entrepreneurial Tajiri for 300 a pop. At the height of Game Freak's popularity his in-depth Xevious special 'How to score a million points' sold over 10,000 copies.

The transition from magazine to games developer really isn't tricky to imagine. Tajiri was part of a gang of writers, tech-heads and artists fervently discussing gaming intricacies - who else do you need to make a game? Spurred on by winning a Sega-sponsored 'Design a game' contest aged 16, Tajiri was becoming a dab hand at programming.

Incidentally, Tajiri has odd working practices: he sleeps for 12 hours before working 24. He's highly reclusive, and the few pictures of him you can find show him looking totally knackered.

Also notable was contributing Game Freak artist Ken Sugimori, the man who would later design the first 251 Pokémon. Tajiri single-handedly programmed Game Freak's 1989 gaming debut - a bizarre doll-filled arcade puzzler, Quinty. More importantly, 1989 saw the release of the Game Boy in Japan.

Oddly, of all the Game Boy's myriad qualities, it was the link-up cable that sparked Tajiri's imagination - envisioning bugs crawling along the line he was whisked back to his childhood days. Bugs driven away by industry could live once again; children who had never seen a tree in all their life could play digital bug-hunter.

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Amazingly, Nintendo almost passed on the idea when Tajiri pitched Capsule Monsters in 1990. The concept was good enough, however, to catch Miyamoto's attention. He acted as Tajiri's mentor and the relationship was affectionately referenced in the game - in Japan, you play as Satoshi and your rival is Shigeru, always slightly ahead of you.

To be fair, Miyamoto was pulling his weight - it was his idea to release multiple versions of the game to encourage trading.

The development staff had a few tricks up their sleeves too, mind. Pokemon's sprightly marching music, for example, is partly a result of the handheld's musical limitations. Composer Junichi Masuda saw he could manipulate white noise to synthesise a snare drum, and the distinctive theme grew from there.

As Tajiri refined the idea for the next five years, Game Freak got cosy with Nintendo, working on Yoshi, Mario and Wario games and the Game Boy Camera and Printer. Released in 1995, the Game Boy Camera software debuted Pokémon sprites a year before their proper release. On 27 February 1996, Pocket Monsters Red and Green (as they were known in Japan) hit the stores.

18 years and more than 200 million sales later, you don't need us to tell you what happened next. But we will anyway.

Six months later the graphically tweaked Pocket Monsters Blue was sold as a mail order exclusive. This improved build was the template for the West's Pokémon Red and Blue, released in 1998 after (for the time) an epic localisation job.

Interestingly, Nintendo of America wanted to toughen up the cute Pokemon, but Nintendo's own far-from-cute president Hiroshi Yamauchi (who recently passed away) put his foot down. So next time you curse the twee thunder-mouse, consider this: he could have been Chuck Norris. Phew.

Le Freak, C'est Chic

Before it got involved in all this Pokemon malarkey, Game Freak released a bunch of other games, some on non-Nintendo systems.

Not afraid to try new things, the studio tinkered with the puzzle, platformer and visual novel genres before finally hitting gold (or using Pay Day, if you will) with Pokemon Red and Green in Japan.

Here, then, is a selection of Pokemon-free games that Game Freak have released over the years.

Additional reporting by Chris Scullion