Written By: Hugo Rios
Edited By: Shania Kuo and Huimin Zhou
After 25 years and counting, Pokemon has become one of the most recognizable gaming franchises of all time. From video games, television programs, trading cards, and all sorts of collectibles and goodies, it is hard to find people who do not have some familiarity with developer Game Freak's beloved creation.
Mobile apps like Pokemon GO demonstrate how strong the fandom is behind the franchise. Groups of all ages can and have continued to enjoy the offerings that Pokemon has given.
The popularity of the first three generations of Pokemon is what led to the franchise becoming a global phenomenon today. With that said, taking a look back and seeing the franchise's progression over the years is vital in understanding how it reached mainstream appeal worldwide.
With the formation of Game Freak in 1989, director Satoshi Tajiri was inspired by his childhood and the Game Boy System that ultimately gave him and his friends the idea of what would become Pokemon. With the help of friend and fellow game developer Shigeru Miyamoto, Tajiri was able to pitch the idea of “Pocket Monsters” to Nintendo. While Nintendo was reluctant at first, Miyamoto’s backing and status as game director were enough for the project to receive backing.
After six years of development with funding from Nintendo, Tajiri's dream of people being able to catch, train and trade Pokemon through the Game Boy finally became a reality.
On Feb. 27, 1996, the first pokemon games were released on the Nintendo Game Boy System in Japan: Pokemon Red and Green. Localized versions of the games in North America were released in September of 1998 with Europe receiving the games a year later in October. Outside of Japan, Nintendo titled the games Pokemon Red and Blue alongside having updated graphics and designs compared to the Japanese originals.
The first entry in the series introduced us to the Kanto Region, with more than 150 Pokemon to catch, including the legendary pokemon, Mew. These games quickly gained popularity in Japan, causing a trading card game made by Media factory to be released later that year. Soon after, an anime based on the video games produced by OLM Inc., first airing in Japan on Apr. 1, 1997. The anime introduced viewers to Satoshi, later dubbed to Ash Ketchum, and his partner pokemon Pikachu, which would later be the inspiration for the game Pokemon Yellow releasing a year later.
While it is unclear whether Game Freak or Nintendo knew how popular the franchise would end up being, it was clear that they had a gem on their hands, which thankfully continued to grow as the years went by.
On Nov. 21, 1999, Nintendo released Pokemon Gold and Silver for the Game Boy Color in Japan, and North America and Europe receiving the games in late 2000 and early 2001, respectively.
This time, trainers entered the Johto region, located West of the Kanto region from the original games. Not only did these games add 100 more pokemon, but Game Freak decided to make quality-of-life and balance changes that would improve the series for generations.
Gold and Silver added new features such as pokemon having genders, allowing players to breed Pokemon for the first time. The games also added a real-time clock allowing different events to occur based on the time of day.
In terms of gameplay, the series was evolving and creating ways of adding aspects to strategy this time around. Perhaps the most dramatic changes were: the special stat split, two new typings of steel and dark, and held items.
The special stat split refers to Special Attack and Special Defense being separate properties in Pokemon. Before Gold and Silver, the special stat was one stat essentially combining the two properties. The split allows players to have more strategy due to Pokemon now being more specialized.
As for typings, the introduction of the steel and dark attempted to balance out typings in the games more effectively. In Generation 1, the Psychic-type only had one weakness in Bug-types. With the introduction of two new typings, the idea was to allow trainers to have more options in dealing with Psychic-types while still maintaining overall type balance. The integration was seamless and liked by fans almost immediately.
Held items added another aspect to strategy, allowing players to increase the power of their pokemon's moves or healing a pokemon during battle without using an item during your turn. The change is now commonplace and has become a staple in the Pokemon franchise.
Lastly, one of the most notable additions to the mainline games was the introduction of shiny Pokemon. Shiny Pokemon has become its own sub-adventure for many fans, with some fans dubbing themselves as "Shiny Hunters" who almost exclusively play the game in search of collecting all shiny Pokemon. Having a very low appearance rate and different color scheme from regular encounters, shiny Pokemon was adopted early on by fans and created a unique and refreshing aspect of the game that has become a mainstay to this day.
While there were a number of additions and improvements to the original games, these changes set the bar as to what was to come in the future. It was clear that Game Freak and Nintendo were putting effort into the franchise as well as listening to fans, a combination that was sure to continue the success into the next generation for Pokemon.
The next installment of the Pokemon franchise came after the introduction of Nintendo's new console, the Game Boy Advance. Now with updated hardware, the Pokemon franchise went through an overhaul and sought to further progress the series for years to come. Eventually, Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire were released in Japan on Nov. 21, 2002, with North America and Europe getting localized versions the following year.
This iteration of Pokemon introduced trainers to the Hoenn region, in which 135 new pokemon were waiting to be discovered. While exploring a new region and encountering never-before-seen Pokemon was exciting for fans, this generation of the series was incompatible with prior generations due to the drastic system changes. Aside from that, new additions to the games would again become mainstream and push Pokemon into the direction we are familiar with today.
Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire further increased strategic elements of the franchise by introducing abilities with each Pokemon. Abilities such as Flying-types being immune to Ground-type moves or a Pokemon's same type attack bonus, a.k.a. STAB, doing more damage when the Pokemon's HP is low, added a new depth of strategy that became the norm for future generations.
Another aspect added was the introduction of Natures, allowing trainers to slightly alter stats of their Pokemon based on its nature. The mechanic allowed for customization in a trainer's pokemon team that was non-existent before.
Pokemon also introduced weather in certain parts of the region, with the type of weather being part of the battle at the beginning of an encounter with a trainer or wild Pokemon.
While strategy continued to be a focal point for Game Freak, the most notable changes to the franchise were the improvements of other RPG elements and an updated interface to better compliment the hardware.
Ruby and Sapphire introduced many new ways to play the mainline series of games, adding Pokemon contests and double battles into the mix. Contests allowed players to approach the series differently, taking time away from the normal catching and battling that fans were accustomed to and instead enjoying what was essentially a separate mode within the game. As for double battles, this way of battling would end up becoming a popular way to play competitively, with competitive doubles being acknowledged and becoming mainstream in today's concept of pro play.
But the most crucial change that Hoenn games brought to the franchise was the updated interface and menu system.
The PokeNav was an in-game upgrade that boosted the normal Pokedex from previous entries. Now, players have easy access to a map of the region and see the status conditions of their pokemon. Players could also see Ribbons that their pokemon had earned from competing in contests, further integrating the new mode into the game.
The games also expanded upon the existing Pokemon Storage System. They created a more user-friendly graphical design, which would be the foundation of how we see it even today.
Like prior generations, a third version of the game was released after Ruby and Sapphire: Pokemon Emerald. Emerald had a slightly different plot in comparison to the first two and would ultimately push the pokemon series to be the best-selling games for the Game Boy Advance of all time.
Generation 3 also introduced Pokemon FireRed and LeafGreen, remakes of the original Pokemon games that started it all. These remakes were released in Japan and North America in 2004 with updated graphics and designs that were up to standard for the Game Boy Advance.
Pokemon Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald are some of the most well-received pokemon games of all time from fans and critics alike. FireRed and LeafGreen were also seen as a satisfying homage to the originals, further increasing the franchise's success. With Nintendo moving on from the Game Boy Advance and transitioning to their next handheld console, fans had plenty to be excited for as the Pokemon hype train continued to move forward.
From the beginning, it is clear as to the amount of effort that Game Freak has put into developing the Pokemon franchise. The first three generations not only introduced people to the wonderful world of Pokemon but also paved the way for innovation for future entries.
As the franchise progressed, Pokemon continued to expand upon the groundwork that was laid by previous generations. Generations 4 and 5 pushed to update graphics as Nintendo’s hardware became more advanced, leading to animated sprites first appearing in Pokemon Black and White. This eventually led to full 3D animation in the Generation 6 Pokemon games and onward, a revolution that fans certainly enjoyed.
From lovable creatures, easy-to-learn strategy and compelling game design, it is easy to understand why the series still continues to see success. While the mainline Pokemon games remained fairly linear throughout their lifetime, each entry in the series is different enough without taking away too much from the conventional structure to keep fans engaged and wanting more.
While the earliest entries of the long-standing franchise are far from perfect, those games are the reason why Pokemon has been and will continue to be adored by those who encounter them.
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