The folks at Polygon recently got an opportunity to chat with Game Freak’s Junichi Masuda, who’s been heavily involved with Pokémon video games since the very beginning of the franchise. Masuda talked about a plethora of different topics, from the original Pokémon Red and Blue to the upcoming Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee. Read on below for some excerpts from the interview:
You’ve been around since the beginning of Pokémon. What was it like working on that original game? What was it like at Game Freak back then — that special time when you were still unsure of if this game was going to be a huge hit?
Junichi Masuda, composer and programmer on Pokémon Red/Green/Blue; director of Pokémon: Let’s Go! and many more: At the very beginning, we were still a pretty new company. We were just a few people, and obviously, we didn’t have a lot of huge hits on our hands at Game Freak. We knew we wanted to make games that we all as members at Game Freak wanted to play ourselves. We wanted to make the games that we really cared about wanting to make. At the same time, we had this requirement to run as a company. Obviously, we [needed] payroll and all that, so we needed to make sure that [Pokémon] was also a huge success and it would sell very well.
It wasn’t always a smooth development. It took about six years for the entire development of the original Red and Green games. We were able to get by by doing other projects for different companies along the way to make ends meet, while also on the side, people who wanted to work on Pokémon within their […] in the time they had from those other projects, to implement interesting ideas that they had and really put in all of their, I guess, really just creative energy into Pokémon.
It was really because of that kind of teamwork that I think that Pokémon, the original games, just came out to be as interesting and as fun as they were. That also led to their success. We definitely take that kind of […] that teamwork-focused work style, and that’s part of the Game Freak culture now. The team for Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee!, at the very end, we’re probably about 100 people total. But we started with that core group of people who really had a shared vision of what we want to make and bring our own interesting ideas to the table to really just make it the best game possible. We carry on that kind of philosophy even today.
What were you expecting to come out of the release of this game? Did you guys think, “Oh, we have this huge hit on our hands,” or “We’re very passionate about this game and we just want to get it out?”
Masuda: When we were first […] about to release the game, actually we were […] it’s six years of development. It really took us that long to get to a point where we could release it. Near the end of development, we started to get really worried because we were [developing it for the] Game Boy.
At the time in Japan, the Game Boy had been on a decline. You didn’t really see so many people playing it out and about at that point. Even when we were talking to our friends in the industry and saying that, “Oh, we’re working on a Game Boy game,” they were like, “Really? You’re working on a Game Boy game? That’s not going to sell very well, don’t you think?” That’s kind of what the atmosphere was like in Japan at the time.
We really didn’t expect that it would be a massive global success or anything. Back then, even role-playing games — the thinking in Japan was that they really wouldn’t do so well overseas, so we didn’t even think about really releasing it overseas at the time. We were thinking, maybe if we could sell a million units, that would be a great dream-come-true kind of situation, is what we were feeling when we were first releasing it.
What are some of the best memories that you can recall from making the original game back then?
Masuda: One of the more happy episodes or more positive stories, I really don’t remember so well, but I think the most memorable […] happening that I still have in my mind after all these years is that we were developing the game on these Unix computer stations called the Sun SPARCstation 1. […] We’re developing, and they’re these Unix boxes, and they crashed quite a bit. Back then, computers would crash fairly frequently.
Somewhere midway through the development, maybe in the fourth year or so, we had a really bad crash that we couldn’t, we didn’t know how to recover the computer from. That had all of the data for the game, all of the Pokémon, the main character and everything. It really felt like, “Oh my God, if we can’t recover this data, we’re finished here.” I just remember doing a lot of different research. I called the company that I used to work for, seeing if they had any advice to recover the data.
I would go on this internet service provider back then called Nifty Serve. It’s like a Japanese version of CompuServe. I’d go on and ask people that I never talked to for advice on how to recover the data. I would look at these English books about the machine itself, because there wasn’t a lot of information in Japanese, just to figure it out. We eventually figured out how to recover it, but that was like the most nerve-racking moment, I think, in development.
I was one of two programmers on the initial project. I also did the audio and the music in the game, but it was pretty much that the programming was just me and this one other guy. I just remember we both were into techno music at the time. So we would be working late into the night, it’d just be the two of us, and we would turn on this really heavy techno music — make it feel like it’s like a club or something. We would just be programming late into the night doing that, so that was pretty good memories.
When you guys were working on it, there were obviously some dramatic times, some difficulties. What was the moment when you realized, “Oh, this game is huge” after you released it? When did you say, “Nope, this is a phenomenon. This is gigantic?”
Masuda: The day of release [of Pokémon Red and Green], the whole team that worked on the development, we all went around to some different shops to just see how it was doing. We could tell it was actually selling fairly well. At the time, of course, there was no social media or anything like that, no way to get instant reactions from people. We just didn’t really get a lot of information in a very speedy way, so there was a while there that we didn’t really know exactly how well it was doing.
We started seeing the deposits from Nintendo, obviously. That hinted to us that it was selling pretty well. Then you started to see in the, after a while, the newspapers, you’d see articles talking about how this new Pokémon thing is becoming a big hit with the kids. In Japan, the games came first. It spread in popularity through word of mouth, primarily.
It wasn’t until later when you started seeing, “OK, there’s going to be an animated series. Oh, there’s going to be a card game. Now there’s a manga weekly publication.” When those things expanded into this multimedia thing in Japan, we really started to feel like, “Oh wow, this is a big deal now.”
Once the game came out overseas, that was a big hit. I remember just we got all of these requests to review products that people wanted to make. We got so many requests for all these different products that licensees wanted to make, I just remember the number of these requests just being insane at the time. I felt that, “Oh wow, this is really a big deal.” Then we actually visited, I was able to visit the U.S. and see all these different products on the shelves and everything, just see how big it had become even outside of Japan.
I think part of that was just due to the strategy of releasing it outside of Japan, where they started with the animated series first to get people excited about Pokémon as a universe and then release the game. You could really tell that they […] the strategy just worked really well to make it a huge hit overseas.
Pokémon is now a huge phenomenon. How has your life and the life at Game Freak changed over the years as Pokémon has continued to grow — going from this young, smaller studio to developing one of the biggest franchises in the world?
Masuda: Back when we were first making the games, it was less […] We could hardly even be called a company at the time. We were just almost like a college club or something, where people who were interested would just gather and hang out. They’d come to work whenever they want, leave whenever they want. Some people would be sleeping over, because they worked so hard into the night.
It was just more almost like a little community spot for those of us who were making and working on the games. After the success of Pokémon and as it’s evolved over the years, where now they’re in 3D now and we need more and more staff to be able to make these games, obviously we’ve become a lot more of a proper company — there’s rules in place, and we have to work with other companies and operate like a proper business. That’s probably the biggest change.
As a result of that, I think the initial freedom we had, which allowed us to really just not care about anything, ideas that we wanted to implement in the game, that was how we operated back then. We still try to do that, but it’s obviously become more difficult now that we have this more proper company structure. That’s probably the biggest difference.
What I mean by that being like a challenge, because we’re a business now with Pokémon being so huge, being able to just rewind is difficult, because a lot of the people who are now on the team, they also grew up with Pokémon. They have an idea of what Pokémon is supposed to be. They’ve played these games, they’ve enjoyed them themselves. Just taking for example, on Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee!, even the idea of getting rid of wild Pokémon battles and trying something different was obviously met with a lot of resistance at first.
People were just like, “No. Of course. It’s Pokémon, there’s wild battles. That’s how it is.” There’s a lot of these unspoken rules that people feel [can’t change], but at the same time at Game Freak, we always want to be open to trying new things. If someone has a good idea or wants to try something out, we want to be able to actually do that. That’s just always a challenge that comes up with each project, just making sure that we don’t take anything for granted.
It’s always just, “What do we want to do with this project? What do we want to try out this time?” We really just discuss it with the team and game and find out what the best direction is for that game. One thing I’m always saying at the beginning of a project, you’re always telling the team is when you’re making a new Pokémon, don’t make Pokémon from Pokémon. Make Pokémon from scratch. What would you do if it wasn’t a Pokémon game? How would you make the game? Always be in that mindset, is what I’m always trying to tell the team.
Pokémon: Let’s Go! is based on the Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellowformula, but feels like a reinvention. Since you are telling the team “No, approach it from scratch,” what are some improvements or major changes over those original games that you’re most excited about or surprised by?
Masuda: With Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! being on Nintendo Switch, we envisioned it from the start that people would mostly be playing it in their living rooms. Up until now, people would get together with Pokémon, but we wanted to take the approach of, “What would a Pokémon in the living room where people get together and are playing with one system look like?” That’s where the features like the simultaneous two-player gameplay where you’re sharing controllers come from.
The connection with Pokémon Go, we figured people would be coming from playing Pokémon Go outside. Then they could do something with the game once they’re all together in the living room, sending Pokémon from that into the game and playing with them together with the controllers and Poké Ball Plus. There’s a variety of features in there that […] those kind of gameplay features, they have existed elsewhere, they haven’t been part of Pokémon traditionally, that I think we were only able to think of because we tried to approach it from, “OK, so what do we do with this new console?”
What has it been like to return to the original world and design of Kanto, Red and Blue, and having to re-envision it? What has that been like for the staff who were around back when the original Redand Blue came out?
Masuda: It was tough, of course, with the original people. I mean the staff members who had been around for a long time and also a lot of the newer or the younger staff who had maybe played the games. Everyone had this idea in their head of what the original games were supposed to be. We would just have more of a subjective, I don’t know, discussion type of thing of, like, what we would keep the same or what would we change without destroying the feel, that original kind of feeling that the games gave off.
For example, we all agreed that you wouldn’t want to change most of the dialogue or a lot of text messages that appear in the game. Not like cell phone text messages, but text that appears in the game. Because there’s so much, I don’t know, creator’s intent and all of that stuff that was part of those messages, that we didn’t want to just change it just because. But at the same time, stuff like the Pokédex, we figured we could update that design to be something a little bit more useful and people really wouldn’t care too much. It really complicated decisions about what to keep and what to change.
[…] Obviously a lot of new players are going to be going through this Kanto adventure for the first time. We wanted to make it so the overall structure is similar, so people who played the original games could give advice to these younger players on the adventure about what to do next. There were just other things that we wanted to streamline a little bit to make it a little bit more of a compact experience.
We went back and of course played the Yellow version, for example. If you go back now, it’s actually that there’s some fairly tough parts in there. It maybe takes like 40 hours to complete in the game. We knew that we needed to make it a little bit more streamlined for more modern audiences. So really just improving the pace of play without destroying the feel of the original games was how we approached it. If you go back to those original games, they didn’t have free directional movement. It was all on a grid where you’d move one space at a time in a 2D environment, monochrome graphics, and you couldn’t even run back then. Even just those kind of movement changes definitely improved the pace of playing Let’s Go, Eevee! and Pikachu.
Pokémon: Let’s Go!, even though it’s a throwback to Pokémon Yellow, is still very different. How do you retain that core feeling of Pokémon without keeping it the same exact thing over and over?
Masuda: I think at the core of Pokémon [are] the Pokémon creatures themselves — they’re always the core. So we always try to implement new gameplay systems and have new regions and all those new things in each game but where we always make sure we just pay the most attention is expressing those […] the value, I guess you would say, of each of the individual creatures.
We treat them as these really unique creatures with their own characteristics and make them fit in the game world each time in a way that makes sense within the context of that world. Like, Mewtwo is always kind of mysterious, powerful, where Mew is this mythical Pokémon. It wouldn’t have made sense for everyone to have a Mew, for example.
Or even just the more common Pokémon like Weedle. You probably wouldn’t see Weedle using a super powerful attack or move or anything like that. We really just put a lot of focus on making the Pokémon themselves behave within the context of the world a believable way that makes them these appealing and these desirable characters. As long as you have that, the player’s going to want to go out and catch them. That’s kind of the core of what Pokémon is, and we just really put a lot of focus on that every time.