RetroVision – The Challenges of Taking Pokémon West

Pokémon is about as Japanese as you get, with the cute anime infused aesthetics and RPG elements being seen as the major selling points of the series. However, despite the long lasting popularity that the monster collecting franchise has seen since its release in 1996, the games overtly Japanese feel was not always seen as a strength. In fact, much like the multiple alterations that the anime series went through as part of an Americanisation process, the same was actually pitched for the Red and Blue long before the anime.

You see, Red and Green may have got off to a strong start in Japan, but this wasn’t enough to appease the western localisation team who felt that the American audience was just too different. Moreover, they even argued that the game should not be released in its current form within America, fearing that American children simply wouldn’t take to “Cute Monsters”. In turn, recommending that Nintendo “beefed” up the majority of the game’s 151 Pokémon, in order to make them more strong and fearsome looking.

Jigglypuff & Pikachu
Characters such Jigglypuff and Pikachu were viewed as too cute for an american audience.

This is something that the late President of Nintendo, and then President of Hal Laboratory Satoru Iwata remembered, when recollecting the assistance Hal gave to the game’s development.

“We were sent a proposal of muscle-bound characters to use if we wanted to do well in the U.S.”

Nevertheless, despite the recommendation, and the concern for the franchise’s success in America, the idea was rejected in its entirety by the then President Hiroshi Yamauchi.

This wasn’t to say that Yamauchi wasn’t concerned with maximising the new brand’s potential within America. He just felt that Pokémon was perfect as it was, and instead he saw this perceived problem as more of a challenge to overcome. Challenging Nintendo to convince the American audience of the quality that lay within this innately Japanese product. A challenge they most definitely rose to, with Nintendo having allegedly spent over $50 Million to promote Red and Blue in the West.

Nevertheless, this isn’t to say that there weren’t any changes made to the games. Although the majority of changes were reserved for the text and the names. As we all know, the majority of the 151 names were localised so as to play off of English terms, rather than Japanese ones, trademarking them all in the process. Although of course there are notable exceptions, such as Pikachu and Mewtwo.

This however caused the localisation team quite the setback. You see, it was discovered during this translation process that simply altering the the text wouldn’t be possible. As such, the team had to take the tough decision to completely reprogram the game from scratch. No small job.

Pokemon Covers
The coding and animations within the Western releases were based on the Japanese Pokémon Blue, which was released after Red and Green.

This caused the Western releases to be based on the coding and artwork of the more recently released Japanese Pokémon Blue. Albeit keeping the unique Pokémon distribution of Red and Green (Green would become the Western Blue). This process would end up taking over 2 and a half years, with Pokémon debuting in America on 28th September 1998 to both critical and commercial acclaim. Acclaim that continued throughout the game’s subsequent European releases.

So there you go, Pokémon may have gone through some changes, but thankfully we never got to see a Marcus Fenix version of Pikachu and the gang. Nintendo of Japan, Yamauchi and Game Freak all held firm in their vision of what they wanted Pokémon to be on a global scale, and as such the Pokémon we all know and love is still going strong today. It just goes to show how some things really do speak to all cultures.

Simon Aubrey Drake

A lifelong gamer with a fanatical love of all things Nintendo and Japan. So much so that I've written a thesis on one and lived in the other. Currently on a quest to catch every last Pokémon. Follow me on twitter via @DudeXChill or @RingsandCoins.

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