Pokémon 25

How a real-life Nintendo hero brought Pokémon to the world

Long before they were part of the world’s biggest media franchise, Pocket Monsters first screeched and scurried their way across Game Boy screens 25 years ago.

For many ‘90s kids like me, exploring Kanto for the first time was a truly magical experience. Game Freak’s seminal adventure told the story of an 11-year-old setting out alone on a journey into the wider world — one of growth, friendship, and discovery. As my world began to change dramatically and the scary horizons of high school loomed overhead, Pokémon leaned in and whispered: “Look, finding your place in the world isn’t strange and scary – it’s actually an adventure!”

While the world has changed dramatically since 1998, Pokémon has remained. With an estimated total revenue exceeding $100 billion since 1996, it’s now comfortably bigger than Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yet Pikachu and his pals almost never ventured beyond their creators’ homeland of Japan. If it wasn’t for the interference of an unlikely Pokemon Master — Nintendo’s late, great president, Satoru Iwata — Pocket Monsters wouldn’t have made it to the West.

Iwata speaks at Nintendo's E3 briefing in June 2009.

David McNew/Getty Images

Beloved by video game fans, Iwata had a history of putting fans before profits. When the Wii U console flopped, he took responsibility — and a major pay cut. As Joe Merrick, owner of the world’s most popular Pokémon fansite, Serebii, tells Inverse, it’s no surprise that Pokémon’s success is directly tied to Iwata.

“Iwata was a gamer. He wasn’t just in it for the money or the business,” Merrick says. “He saw things as a gamer and worked for gamers.”

Pokemon’s 25th birthday seems a fitting occasion to celebrate the franchise’s unsung hero. From Iwata’s little-known push to get Red and Green translated, to the programming wizardry he used to save Stadium and Gold and Silver, we spoke to Serebii’s owner and dug up a wealth of old interviews to pay our respects to Pokemon’s real-life Professor Oak.

Nearly lost in translation

It all started in Tokyo, in 1996. A fledgling studio called Game Freak had just wrapped the six-year development cycle for two ambitious Game Boy roleplaying games: Pocket Monsters Red and Green. After Tetris, the Game Boy needed another pair of system sellers – and now it looked like Nintendo had it. With 4 million copies sold in less than a year and Poké-fever firmly gripping Japan, the wild card had become an unstoppable phenomenon. Nintendo needed sequels, stat.

Without the luxury of six years of dev time, Game Freak ramped up production of Red and Green’s ambitious successors, Gold and Silver. Sensing the franchise’s huge global potential, Nintendo’s then-President insisted that Red and Green swiftly be translated for Western markets.

There was just one problem. With this tiny team of programmers hurrying to finish Gold and Silver, the studio leads had no idea how to rework Red and Green’s Kanji-filled source code into Western alphabets.

“There were only about four programmers,” Game Freak’s Shigeki Morimoto said in a 2010 interview on Nintendo’s official site.

Two children display their Pokemon cards in New York City in November 1999.

Evan Agostini/Liaison Agency

“We only saw one possible choice at the time — to focus our attention on Gold and Silver rather than an English version,“ recalled Pokémon Company International President Tsunekazu Ishihara during a 2015 interview with Japanese gaming site 4 Gamer (translated by Siliconera). Back in 1998, the prospect of Pokemon heading overseas was little more than a dream, but one unlikely board member was determined to make it a reality.

While Iwata is renowned for steering Nintendo through the 3DS and Wii U eras, he was president of a very different company in the ‘90s. Joining Kirby creators HAL Laboratory as a programming whiz in 1983, his visionary approach to game design landed him the company’s top role by 1993. But Game Freak didn’t need a meddling board member – it needed a programmer. It was time for this company president to roll up his sleeves and get back to coding.

“The biggest priority was not to do anything that would adversely influence the development of Gold and Silver,” Iwata said in 2010, “I ended up being involved in analyzing the best way to localize the overseas versions and got hold of the source code for Red and Green. To be blunt, at the time I was more of a programmer than I was a company president!”

Westward bound

Without Iwata’s intervention, it could have taken years for Pokémon to make its way to the West – if it made it over at all. His code remained at the core of the beloved franchise for just shy of a decade, and the first three Pokemon generations (Red and Blue, Gold and Silver, and Ruby and Sapphire) sold a staggering 109 million units globally.

“With Iwata creating instructions to analyze [Red and Green’s] source code in order to allow for the implementation of the texts, he essentially built a different version of the game,” Merrick tells Inverse. “You can see this core code carrying on throughout the following games - as it wasn’t until Generation 4 [in 2007] that the games allowed Pokémon of multiple languages to interact.”

It wasn’t just Iwata’s impressive insights on localization that proved pivotal for the franchise. Iwata got straight to work on analyzing Red and Green’s battle logic, finding a way to port it to 3D for an all-new Nintendo 64 Pokémon battler - Pokémon Stadium.

John T. Barr / Getty Images

In other words, Iwata swiftly became Game Freak’s secret weapon.

“I created [Red and Green’s] battle program and it really took a long time to put together,” reflected Game Freak’s Morimoto in 2010, “When I heard that Iwata-san had been able to port it over in about a week and that it was already working, I thought: ‘What kind of company president is this!?’”

Even with a full Pokémon Red and Green localization underway and Pokémon Stadium good to go, Iwata still wasn’t done reworking Pokémon’s source code. As development of Gold and Silver drew to a close at the start of 1999, Iwata suspected the bold new adventure was missing something. Not content with having players explore the sprawling new region of Johto, Iwata suggested that Gold and Silver allow players to return to Red and Green’s beloved Kanto, too.

It was a request that gobsmacked the developers at Game Freak. How on Earth were they supposed to fit two game worlds into an 8MB Game Boy cartridge?

Enduring innovation

Iwata had the solution once again. Creating new data compression tools from scratch, he squeezed Red and Green’s entire beloved world into Pokémon Gold and Silver. It’s an achievement that was integral to Pokémon’s continued success and was immortalized in the 2017 3DS releases Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon.

An NPC in Ultra Sun and Moon mentions Iwata's contributions to Gold and Silver, without mentioning him by name.

Nintendo / Game Freak / The Pokémon Company

“Pokémon was big before Iwata was fully involved, but part of [the franchise’s] longevity is surely due to the continuation he did in the compression and code for Pokémon Gold and Silver,” Merrick points out.

While Iwata is remembered for many accomplishments, his importance to the Pokémon franchise really can’t be overstated.

“One of the moments that truly showed his character was, during a time of hardship for Nintendo, he chose to take a pay cut rather than lay off staff,” Merrick recalls. “You could tell throughout it all that he loved doing what he did.”

Next time you throw a pixelated Pokéball, spare a thought to the smiling programmer who helped spread joy to millions — and worked tirelessly to make Pokémon its very best.

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