Pokémon – 2000 Developer Interview

Pokémon – 2000 Developer Interview

In this 2000 interview, Pokemon art director Ken Sugimori outlines the genesis of Game Freak’s perennially popular monster-collecting franchise, the struggles he faced designing and rendering the early games’ extensive cast of creatures, and adjusting to life after delivering an explosive hit. Also included is an article by Shigeru Miyamoto on his relationship with Pokemon’s co-creator and Game Freak founder, the somewhat elusive Satoshi Tajiri

Ken Sugimori – Monster Designer

—Collecting, raising, exchanging… Pokémon is often spoken of as a game with a wealth of interesting mechanics, but which idea was your starting point for the development?

Sugimori: The plans for Pokémon began when we saw how extremely interesting the link cable device was for the Game Boy. Wouldn’t it be cool, we thought, to make a game where players could fight each other or exchange things via the link cable. Initially, we talked about a game where you made kaijuu1 fight each other. Alright, I said—I’ll try drawing some kaijuu then… but I realized I had never drawn monsters like that before. I was honestly pretty lost, but I managed to create about 20 or 30 different designs: some were cute, some were cool, some were slithering, and some, you couldn’t really tell what they were. Rhydon (Saidon) and Nidoking were two of the designs that survived from those first drawings.

—As monster designer, did you base your designs on anything in particular?

Sugimori: In the beginning, I just tried to draw kaijuu-ish monsters but in a more cartoonish, exaggerated style. It was Tajiri’s idea that they should all have their own individual roar or cry, but as I drew more and more of them, I started to figure out how to give them more interesting expressions, or to make them look dopey, or disgusting.

—Judging from your age, I’m guessing you were a fan of the kaijuu in Ultraman?

Sugimori: Actually, no—I was all about the heroes themselves, and the monsters and enemies never really made a deep impression on me. (laughs) Now that I look back as an adult, I do think some of those Ultraman kaijuu designs are amazing, but at the time I wasn’t particularly drawn to them. With Pokémon, it was more that I wanted to create kaijuu who could fight on your side as an allies, rather than the stereotypical monster enemies you saw in fantasy RPGs.

—There’s many different types of pokémon: grass, fire, water, and so forth. Were you consciously trying to create a certain level of variety in your designs?

Sugimori: I wasn’t the only person creating pokémon—there were 5 or 6 other designers working on them, too. As you can imagine, each designer had a certain style or type of pokémon that was their “specialty”—one of them was great at making cute pokémon, another one was all about the weird pokémon, and so forth. So no, we didn’t intentionally set out to make a certain variety, but just by mixing all of our styles, we were able to achieve a natural balance. I don’t think that would have been possible if I had tried to design them all myself. We designed over 300 in total, but only used 151 in the end.

Ken Sugimori (2000)

—Pokémon Gold and Silver, released in 1999, sold an additional 1 million copies. Was it challenging to design an additional 100 pokémon for this game?

Sugimori: We included some of the unused pokémon from the first game. For the new designs, we tried to make pokémon that would help balance out the roster, or ones we thought would look interesting in an evolved form—or, conversely, ones that we wanted to see the pre-evolved form for. There were also pokémon that just came in a sudden burst of inspiration, like Unown. Usually it’s pretty easy to tell what the motif was for a pokémon, right? This one’s based on a bird, this one’s based on a mouse… I had wanted to make one that wasn’t so obvious, something with a more surreal design. Like, a pokémon that had come from outer space or something. That’s where Unown came from.

—Interesting. From what you’re saying, I get the impression that designing all the individual pokémon came before any considerations of story and setting.

Sugimori: Yeah. We first came up with the pokémon designs, and then we created a story that fit around them. It was made simultaneously with the pokémon designs, in other words. And of course there also were several pokémon who were made specifically to fit with some aspect of the story, too.

—That’s a very “video game”-y approach. Pokémon was your breakout hit. I’m assuming this lead to changes in the way Game Freak worked, as well as a huge amount of pressure, naturally?

Sugimori: It really took off, didn’t it! There was a period where I felt that immense pressure, but really everything was changing even while we toiled away, and we made updates accordingly as we went. So no, Pokémon’s success didn’t cause that much change to our daily working environment.

—Is there any episode or event you can point to, in which you really felt just how big Pokémon had become?

Sugimori: Last year, when I went to Europe, I took a ride on the Eurostar train from Paris to London. At one point I decided to get up and go get a drink, which they sold in one of the train cars ahead of me. As I walked down there, I came across two kids sitting and playing Pokémon on their Game Boys, with the link cable suspended across the aisle. When I went to pass, they politely lifted the cable up for me and I walked right under. (laughs) At that moment, it hit me how widespread and popular Pokémon was.

—That’s a really great story. I bet you never imagined experiencing a scene like that when you were making the game.

Sugimori: For the most part, no, I never thought it was going to be this humongous thing. Though in the planning documents, there was a paragraph we wrote on the first page where we fancifully imagined what the world might look like after the release of Pokémon: “‘Wanna trade Pokémon?’, said the young boy, as he passed the link cable to his friend.” That kind of thing. Amazingly, it all came true! At the time, we were told that the game would probably need to sell over a million copies for that vision to come to pass. So it was something of a surprise when it happened. I also never dreamed it would one day become an anime, or that there would be a movie.

—One thing I noticed while playing Pokémon, is that when you encounter a pokémon and fight against him, its front side is facing you. But when they become your ally, it shows you its backside. I thought that was really interesting. Was that meant to evoke in the players a certain sense of trustworthiness towards the pokémon, or attachment?

Sugimori: You view the pokémon from your (visual) perspective as a player, so in fight scenes, of course, you have an over-the-shoulder view of your ally pokémon. It would mess everything up if you viewed them both from the frontside during fights.

Of course, the way we did it meant that we had to create twice as many graphics for each pokémon (a front side and back side), which ate up a ton of memory, but I also strongly feel that looking over their shoulder in battle, as it were, really makes you feel a certain closeness to them, and makes you want to protect them. I wanted to evoke that feeling in players. Showing the backside also gave us a chance to include more little details about the pokémon—like oh, they have this cool pattern on their back, or this pattern looks like eyes on their back, that kind of thing.

The trade-off is that once you befriend a pokémon, you can no longer see its frontal expression or face in battle. But not being able to see their face actually stimulates the imagination more, doesn’t it?

A comparison of the front and rear sprites for the notoriously powerful Magikarp, taken from the first and second-generation Pokémon titles; aside from the obvious color upgrade, the double-pixel implied-perspective rendering style used on the first-generation rear sprites was abandoned for a more standardized rendering style.

—Yeah, the Game Boy, and pixel art in general, is excellent at leaving room for the player’s imagination to roam.

Sugimori: I also love the limited color palette of the Game Boy, and I really hope that kind of game console doesn’t fade away. I feel like we’ve sort of exhausted the possibilities for Pokémon on the Game Boy, and we will have to bring future entries to other hardware, but I hope there will always be a portable handheld device like the Game Boy for people to enjoy.

—Do you ever find yourself getting bored with Pokémon, or maybe wanting to make a different game…?

Sugimori: There’s really not much that I can’t do with Pokémon. As a world it’s fairly open… that said, yeah, I sometimes get tired of it. But I’m still finding time to draw pixel art on my own. These days, I’m more into drawing pixel art (versus illustrations). Pixel art is incredibly deep. If you change the location of just one pixel in a sprite, it can give an entirely different impression. It’s got so much personality.

—Game Freak: leaders of the game industry, and pixel artisans par excellence. In many ways, pixel art itself is a fitting symbol for what makes video games so unique as a medium. And that seems like the perfect note to end this interview on too.

Sugimori: Well, there are some who say pixel art is living in the past, though. (laughs) There was a time when I heard that pixel artists were becoming harder to find, but I wonder if that’s still true today. With things like the Pocketstation and the Tamagotchi boom, NTT’s i-mode service, and the public’s embrace of the Game Boy, I don’t think pixel art is disappearing. I think we’ll be good for awhile yet.

Pokémon – 2018 Developer Interview

originally featured in Satoshi Tajiri: Pokémon wo Tsukutta Otoko

Shigeru Miyamoto – Producer

Satoshi Tajiri was born in 1965 and spent his youth in Machida City in Tokyo, back when it was still a green, natural paradise. When Tajiri told me how he loved to collect insects as a kid, and how he and his friends would show off what they’d caught and trade them with each other, it hit me: these childhood experiences were the roots of Pokémon.

I’m often asked for advice by children who want to become game creators, and my default answer for a long time has been: “When the weather is good, you should go play outside.” If you dream of becoming a game creator, you shouldn’t only play video games; I think you should try and have as many varied, diverse experiences in this life as you can.

You see, even if you take a bunch of early classes to study game development when you’re young, that’s not how you come up with a game like Pokémon. A wealth of different experiences is indispensable for fostering creativity. Get out there and move your actual body, jump, bounce, run. Experiencing the pain of falling down is very important, as is the feeling of butterflies in your chest when you’re in love. The specialized knowledge you need for developing video games—that can come later. What’s more important now, when you’re young, is to challenge yourself in the world that lies before you. Tajiri was captivated by insect collecting when he was young—only after middle school did he develop a passion for video games. And I believe all of those youthful experiences he had informed the creation of Pokémon.

Game Freak’s first game, Quinty, made independently using custom development hardware.

Before I had actually met Tajiri, I was very impressed by the 1989 Famicom game Quinty (Mendel’s Palace). Quinty was an action-puzzle game where you flip panels to defeat enemies attacking you. “What a clever game,” I thought to myself, whereupon I learned that it had been created by Tajiri and Game Freak.

The impression I got of Tajiri was that he could balance two difficult things: the need for good gameplay, and the need for a game to be fun for the masses. I remember thinking then, “This guy’s definitely got another great game in him.”

Later, Tsunekazu Ishihara of Creatures Corp. officially introduced me to Tajiri, and arranged for us to have lunch in Kyoto. “Keep up the good work!”, I said, cheering him on. I remember at that lunch, Tajiri talking deeply about game design, saying “‘game’ is a verb.”2

Shortly after that meeting, I received the original planning document for Pocket Monsters, which at that time, was still titled “Capsule Monsters.” At that time the plans only described two Game Boys connected by the link cable, which was used to trade capsule monsters between them. “This looks interesting!”, I thought—above all, it struck me as a novel use of the Game Boy hardware, a new gameplay experience that couldn’t be had on any other system.

After that, I entrusted Tajiri to my great teacher and Game Boy producer Gunpei Yokoi, and for awhile I had no contact with the Capsule Monsters project.

We received the Capsule Monsters plans in 1989, but the game wasn’t released until 1996… as you can see, they had a hard time finishing it. Nonetheless, in that intervening period, Tajiri worked under Gunpei Yokoi and developed Yoshi no Tamago (Yoshi) and Mario and Wario, and in doing so, I believe he learned how to transform his raw ideas into actual game form.

It was much later when I returned to the Capsule Monsters project. While my title for the development was Producer, in truth, I had hardly any advice to give to Tajiri. It simply wasn’t needed: Tajiri was the kind of person who was always asking himself the important question: “why is this interesting? what makes this fun?” He had been asking himself those question since he was a child, and that searching and understanding was directly connected to his adult talent for making fun games. I trusted Satoshi Tajiri fully and completely. Sometimes people refer to me as his mentor, but I’m always kind of embarrassed to hear that, seeing as I didn’t really do anything!

The one bit of support I did give to the Pokémon project was convincing Nintendo to increase the size of the backup memory for the cart. At the time, the hardware components for extra memory were quite expensive, but I proposed to management that we go all-in on this project. With that addition, we were able to include the full 151 pokémon to catch—gotta catch ’em all! I was also working on the development of the Nintendo 64 hardware at the time, and so I proposed the Pokémon Stadium game, which gave Tajiri an opportunity to realize Pokémon in 3D.

One thing that left a deep impression on me happened right at the end of the development, just before we completed Pokémon. “I want this game to surpass Mario,” Tajiri said to me. “I don’t mean in terms of novelty, of being new or old: I want to create a game with universal appeal, something that will stand the tests of time and be remembered in history.” Games of that caliber are quite rare. However, as they say, if you don’t set your sights high, you’ll never reach the top. And I believe Tajiri was able to create a game like Pokémon precisely because he aspired to make something with such a broad, popular appeal.

A page from the Satoshi Tajiri: Pokémon wo Tsukutta Otoko manga, showing a young Satoshi Tajiri contemplating the typical battle screen design layouts found in most RPGs.

Tajiri’s words sparked an idea in me. At first, there were no plans for the different Red/Blue carts—it was going to just be a single cart, but I wanted to do something a little more creative for this. Since the core of the game was catching and trading pokémon, creating two different cart versions which had slightly different chances for each pokémon to appear would encourage and necessitate friends to trade with each other, and make the whole experience more fun.

I thought of the slogan, “The game begins when you select your cart!”, and at the beginning, we actually created models for three colors: Red, Blue, and Green. Ultimately we whittled that down to just two versions, and it looked like it was going to be Red and Blue, but we thought Venusaur (Fushigibana) was so well-done, we ended up releasing Red and Green instead.

I’ve touched here on how Pokémon came to be, and there’s no question that Tajiri is a game designer with unending energy and inventiveness. However, there is one thing we must never forget. No matter how much of a genius one may be, games are not created by one person alone. Tajiri had the help of Ken Sugimori and Junichi Masuda, and the three of them worked together to bring out the best in each other. I believe Pokémon is ultimately the product of that team.

Finally, as a game creator, I think it’s easy for people to get the impression that Tajiri and I are rivals. In truth, I have never thought of Tajiri that way. I see him as a fellow colleague with the same passion and dream as me: to create fun games. I sincerely hope and believe that sleeping within Tajiri—dormant now perhaps—are personal experiences that he will once again use as the basis for creating a new amazing game.

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  1. Kaijuu here is specifically referring to monsters in tokusatsu media like Godzilla, Ultraman, Kamen Rider, which were all at the height of their popularity when Sugimori was growing up.

  2. This is a slightly cryptic comment, but it makes more sense in Japanese, where nouns can become verbs very easily by adding “suru” to them. In either event, he is emphasizing the volitional nature of game design–that one should think about game design in terms of the actions a game allows players to take.

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