Pokémon is 20 years old, and as successful as ever. Game Freak’s Junichi Masuda helps us on our quest to capture the secret of its appeal
Pokémon is 20 years old this year, and for the second time it’s become all but impossible to avoid. AR-based spinoff Pokémon Go always seemed a likely hit, but its numbers quickly exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations, reaching 50 million downloads faster than any app in history. Within a month, that figure had doubled. During its first two months of release, it had earned in excess of $400 million in global revenue. It may not be the first viral sensation on mobile – we’ve all encountered Candy
Crush and Angry Birds players on public transport – but the scale has been of an entirely different order, if only in terms of sheer visibility. That widely shared tweet about Nintendo changing “how society functions” isn’t actually much of an exaggeration: the news stories about injuries, misadventures and corpse discoveries, along with the images of crowds blocking traffic on busy highways and swarming over Central Park, all testify to its astonishing reach. Ignoring it simply isn’t an option. If you haven’t physically bumped into a Pokémon Go player in recent months, you’ve either been extremely fortunate or you should probably get out more.
But, yes, this isn’t the first time. Two decades ago, Pokémon was a bona fide phenomenon, its rise to ubiquity following the global rollout of both
Red and Blue Game Boy games and the associated trading-card sets leading to a similar outbreak of tabloid hysteria. As a craze, however, it had a narrower spread, skewing towards a younger audience – and it’s that playerbase in particular that has played a key role in Go’s success. Those viewing it as a landmark moment for AR or social gaming (even Sony boss Kaz Hirai has described it as a “game-changer”) and assuming it can be easily replicated are missing the crucial fact that Pokémon itself is so central to its success. Niantic’s own Ingress followed a very similar template and never came within a sniff of Go’s scope. A look at the raw numbers might suggest that Go has reached an audience well beyond Pokémon’s core fanbase, but many of those playing have been fans since the
beginning, or were brought into the fold at some stage during the five generations since (this year’s
Sun and Moon mark the advent of the seventh). It’s likely those who are still playing today rather than the curious first-timers; reports that the app had shed ten million users between July and August prematurely declared its demise when most mobile developers would kill for its active playerbase, which is more than three times that number.
In capturing the collective imagination of such a broad audience, the series has fulfilled one of its creator’s main aims. Game Freak founder Satoshi Tajiri originally conceived Pokémon as an attempt to recount his childhood love of collecting bugs in his rural home of Machida; this was his way of sharing that joy with a generation of Japanese children for whom widespread urbanisation had made such a hobby all but impossible. The reclusive Tajiri is perhaps less likely to have envisioned that it would eventually lead to crowds of people gathering to hunt rare monsters in the real world. He would surely have been perturbed, too, to note that GPS and Internet technology means that Pokémon are much more sparsely spread outside of busy towns and cities. These days, the public face of Game Freak is
Junichi Masuda, who has been with the developer since its foundation in 1989. “Game Freak was just a small company of around 15 people back then,” he recalls. “We each had to take care of many different tasks. For me, that meant working on programming, composing and creating our development environment, among other things.” By the time work began on Pokémon Gold and
Silver, Masuda had been appointed as a game director; since then, he’s been director or producer on every other mainline entry. He’s overseen Pokémon’s spread beyond games and into merchandising and movies; by 1998, it had grown too big for Nintendo to handle alone, and together with Game Freak and Creatures, Inc (which has produced Pokémon card games and toys, and the Poképark and Pokémon Ranger spinoffs) it set up a joint venture to deal with Pokémon marketing and licensing. Which brings us neatly to one of the most common misconceptions about Go: that it’s Nintendo’s baby. The publisher might own one-third of The Pokémon Company, but it is in fact the latter that has been working with Niantic on the app.
Masuda, it turns out, is the perfect frontman for a series such as Pokémon: relaxed, cheery and affable, and still enthusiastic about the series that has become his life. He’s been kept busy by Go, not least since he was responsible for the music: “I feel it’s best that I compose the particularly distinctive pieces, such as the battle [themes],” he says. That might sound immodest, but it’s spoken without a hint of arrogance. It’s simply that, given Masuda’s two decades of experience, there’s no one better placed to craft melodies that can both lodge in the brain and withstand heavy rotation.
His presence as figurehead is also a reminder that while Pokémon has never been quite as big as it is today, it would be wrong to peg the surge of
“I think the fact that we’ve never overhauled the series and created a divide is one of the reasons Pokémon has enjoyed such longevity”
recent interest as a dramatic comeback. Quite the opposite, in fact. Pokémon isn’t merely among the biggest sellers on every Nintendo portable since 1989’s Game Boy, it’s a hardware shifter in its own right. While it’s fair to say that Go has raised the series’ profile ahead of the release of Sun and Moon this November, there isn’t likely to be a huge crossover between a free-to-play mobile game of such mechanical immediacy and a £35 handheld RPG that requires dedicated hardware to play. Without Pokémon Go, these games would still go on to sell millions of copies each. With it, they might just outsell previous 3DS entries, even with an audience – particularly in Japan – that is increasingly getting its gaming fix from phones.
Its evergreen status is all the more remarkable when set next to its peers. Digimon, for example, is still around, but its popularity is dwarfed by that of Pokémon. After a frighteningly rapid rise, Yo-Kai Watch’s peak already appears to have passed in Japan, and its time in the limelight hasn’t been repeated overseas. Contemporaries such as Doraemon haven’t travelled, either, while Dragon
Quest has achieved only cult success outside its country of origin. Pokémon, by contrast, is a truly global concern, and there’s no one better positioned than Masuda to explain its enduring appeal. Why, then, has it managed to stay relevant for 20 years when so many other games aimed at younger players have long faded into obscurity?
At its heart, he says, it’s a matter of accessibility. “There are so many variables in the games market that it’s not easy to define why Pokémon has had sustained success,” he concedes. “There’s no doubt that the core elements of collecting, battling and trading have a lasting appeal when it comes to kids. But the thing that all our games really have in common is that we start by designing them with the younger audience in mind, and then add elements for our other core players. This means that even people who have never played the game before can easily buy it and get stuck in.”
It certainly does no harm that each time Game Freak is building upon a set of solid foundations that were laid down in 1996. The original Japanese games, Pokémon Red and Green, were six years in the making, during which time the studio came close to folding, having run out of money in the latter stages of development. Yet the time taken to refine its systems paid off: in a similar manner to the likes of
Advance Wars and Fire Emblem, Pokémon got so much right the first time that the games still stand up incredibly well years later. To a point, any changes to the formula would seem to be little more than gilding the lily. And yet plenty has changed. “Over the past 20 years, we have released more than 20 [Pokémon] titles,” Masuda explains. “If you look back over that time, you can see that we’re a long way from the original Pokémon Red, Blue and
Green versions. When you have a game formula that resonates so well with the fans, you need to cater for what they’re expecting, as well as innovate in ways that will excite both them and new players coming to the world of Pokémon for the first time.”
The challenge, he says, when making any new Pokémon game, is to maintain a balance between new elements and old. The core of collecting, battling and trading that Masuda describes as “the heart of the series” is one that the developer works hard to maintain. “Pokémon has been consistent in delivering a positive player experience over the past 20 years and, as such, we’re seeing a real nostalgia coming through from those who played the earlier versions of the games. I think the fact that we’ve never overhauled the series and created a divide between the old and the new is also one of the reasons Pokémon has enjoyed such longevity.”
For all that, Masuda recognises the need to refresh and refine the formula each time to distinguish each new entry. “Over the years,” he continues, “we’ve seen the introduction of wireless play, online play, a shift from 2D to 3D graphics, black-and-white to full colour – the list goes on, and you’ll see even more exciting innovations in
Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon.” Indeed, as
sceptical as we are about Go representing a groundbreaking moment for AR gaming so much as a timely celebration of a beloved lineage, its use of the technology also serves to highlight that a series often viewed as conservative has regularly been anything but. Since Satoshi Tajiri envisioned the Game Boy link cables being used for something more than simply connecting two devices for competitive play, Pokémon has been a pioneer for new technology, usually with a strong focus on connectivity. FireRed and LeafGreen introduced wireless play for the first time with a bundled adapter, and at a time when Nintendo had only tentatively dipped its toe into online waters, Game Freak fully waded in with Diamond and
Pearl’s online functionality. It has, we suggest, been unusually forward-thinking for a Nintendopublished series in terms of its online integration. “I think this is because trading is really at the heart of Pokémon,” Masuda nods. “So many aspects of the game were created to facilitate or encourage trading – the large number of Pokémon, the ability to nickname them, the Pokédex and, of course, the creation of two different versions. We really place a lot of importance on the ways users can connect with one another and trade, so I suppose allowing players all over the world to connect with each other via the Internet was a very natural development for Pokémon.”
The game’s competitive aspect has partly driven these technological innovations, too. Along with trading, battling is one of the core tenets of the Pokémon experience, and Nintendo has embraced it, having been involved in the running of the Pokémon World Championships for more than a decade. It’s perhaps strange that Pokémon should have had a competitive scene for so long without ever being classed as an esport, even as a turn- based game. That’s partly down to careful control on the part of its custodians: unlike most competitive videogames, Pokémon has fostered a community spirit that prioritises sportsmanship, good etiquette and friendly competition rather than promoting a win-at-all-costs mentality. It’s built into the games themselves, which motivate players to view defeat not as a chastening experience, but as something to learn from. Both real-world and in-game events offer opportunities for players of all skill levels, rather than limiting them to the elite. That sense of fair play, of grace in victory and encouragement in defeat, even extends to spinoffs such as Namco Bandai’s Pokkén
Tournament, recently praised by pro player Ryan Hart for helping welcome a new generation of players to the fighting-game scene.
The depth of Pokémon’s competitive metagame, Masuda says, has been an important factor in its ability to sustain an appeal outside of its traditional demographic. “There are lots of activities that can be enjoyed by adults alongside kids,” he says. “Think about football, for example. Younger kids may not understand the more complex rules of the game, but both they and adults alike can enjoy playing and seeing the incredible skills of real players. We’re
Its spirit prioritises sportsmanship, good etiquette and friendly competition rather than promoting a win-atall-costs mentality
always researching these kinds of elements that can be appreciated and enjoyed regardless of age, and looking to add them to our games.”
It would be foolish, though, to dismiss the influence of savvy marketing and smart use of branding and merchandising opportunities in keeping Pokémon in the public eye. Already, Japanese players of Pokémon Go have seen 3,000 McDonald’s outlets transformed into gyms, while for the mainline entries, The Pokémon Company has used devious incentives to entice viewers to each new Pokémon movie. Some fans might show up out of a sense of loyalty, some even because they enjoy the films, but more often it’s because there’s usually a special Pokémon that can only be obtained via a code given away with the purchase of a ticket.
Masuda naturally spins this a little differently, but for all the obvious commercial motivations to such tie-ins, it’s not necessarily as cynical as it might seem. In addressing the topic, he returns again to one of his favourite themes. “We want Pokémon to be a means of communication,” he says. “What I really want to do is to connect people, then help them form great memories by experiencing these distributions and such in certain places. I think of it like having a meal. By itself, a meal is usually pretty forgettable – it can be hard to even remember what you had for lunch yesterday! But if you go for a meal with a close friend at a restaurant you love, you’ll remember that meal for a long time. I want to give people memorable Pokémon experiences with one another.”
That’s part of what keeps Masuda motivated, even after 20 years in the job. “When it comes to my work, I’m always trying to broaden my horizons,” he says. It’s particularly apt, as the player’s journey through each Pokémon game is all about expanding your worldview. Though Masuda claims that a reduced focus on story compared to most traditional JRPGs is “another important element”, these simple coming-of-age tales tap into universal feelings: the yearning to explore, the compulsion of collection, the thrill of competition, the desire to achieve greatness (or, in the words of the anime’s earworm theme song, to be “the very best, like no one ever was”).
Sun and Moon and Pokémon Go are very different expressions of similar ideals. Tellingly, Masuda refers to “pushing the publisher Niantic hard to develop [this] game to say what we want it to”; Pokémon has historically communicated its message through mechanics, and Go is evidently no different.
Above all else, the Pokémon games are focused on making connections with others. It’s an ethos that’s sweetly expressed in a recent 20th-anniversary promo wherein a shy Japanese boy attempts to settle in at a new school in America, eventually finding something in common with a school friend through a single word: “Pokémon?” It’s a cute exercise in branding, yes, but there’s truth in its depiction of Pokémon as a way of breaking down common boundaries of communication. If these pocket RPGs are a shared language any kid can understand, thanks to Pokémon Go you can now extend that to include a much broader age range.
As Masuda reflects on 20 years of Pokémon, it’s clear that the series’ rare ability to bring people together is the achievement of which he’s most proud. And yet he’s keener to express thanks to those who’ve made all this possible. “What I’m most grateful for is that so many fans have supported Pokémon all this time,” he says. “Without them, Pokémon wouldn’t be where it is today, and
Pokémon Go certainly wouldn’t have seen the phenomenal success that it has so far. I really love getting to meet and talk with Pokémon fans, and they’ve given me so many great memories throughout the years. As a recent example, not long ago I gave a speech at the Japan Expo in Paris, and I was blown away that over 3,000 people came to hear it. Pokémon Go seems to have really resonated with people and has huge numbers of players all over the world. It’s far beyond anything I had ever imagined.”
Pokémon Red/Green/Blue (Game Boy, 1996) The games took three years to reach Europe. In the Japanese version, the protagonist and his rival were named after Tajiri and Miyamoto.
Pokémon Emerald (GBA, 2004) Emerald re-established the use of animated sprites, setting the standard for games to follow. It also presented the Battle Frontier, a postgame tournament.
Pokémon FireRed/LeafGreen (GBA, 2004) The series’ first remakes, FireRed and LeafGreen offered wire-free battling and trading for the first time, thanks to the Game Boy Advance Wireless Adapter.
Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire (GBA, 2002) The best-selling GBA games added Pokémon contests and GameCube connectivity. Innate abilities and natures for Pokémon transformed the metagame.
Pokémon Platinum (DS, 2008) Wi-Fi Plaza supported up to 20 players, the Vs Recorder allowed you to rewatch your favourite battles, while the Battle Frontier made a return.
Pokémon Diamond/Pearl (DS, 2006) The first DS games pioneered online multiplayer, alongside the self-explanatory Global Trade System. Once again, it featured home console compatibility.
Pokémon HeartGold/SoulSilver (DS, 2009) These came bundled with the Pokéwalker, a Poké Ballshaped pedometer, with steps boosting experience and friendship levels – a precursor of sorts to PokémonGo.
Sprites were replaced by 3D models in by far the series’ biggest visual overhaul. Refined connectivity included the new Player Search System for a truly global experience. Pokémon X/Y (3DS, 2013)
The first direct sequels introduced an absorbing movie-making aside, a difficulty modifier, and bonus narrative links between the two pairs of games. Pokémon Black 2/White 2 (DS, 2012)
Infrared communication allowed for easy local trading and battling, while the online Pokémon Global Link offered access to the browser-based Dream World. Pokémon Black/White (DS, 2010)
Explosively powerful Z-Moves, fourplayer battles royale, mysterious Ultra Beasts and a new trial-based structure suggest the most ambitious and feature-rich games so far. Pokémon Sun/Moon (3DS, 2016)
The Delta Episode was a more substantial endgame after X and Y’s slender coda, while Mirage Spots offered access to legendary Pokémon. It was the biggest UK launch to date.
FROM TOP Mimikyu, Komala and Bounsweet are three new additions to the roster. Alolan Sandshrew is a regional variant