Polygon explains how Nintendo introduced the Game Boy, Tetris and Pokémon to the West

The folks at Polygon have put together an informative piece to explain how Nintendo introduced the Game Boy, Tetris and Pokémon to the West. Read on below for a few excerpts from the riveting article:

“In Japan, the Game Boy would be an easy sell. It was as perfect a device for children and the common salaryman, a system to play on the go in a fast-paced society. Outside Japan … well, that was Nintendo of America’s problem — a challenge NoA would prove more than capable of solving, with a little help along the way from Tetris and Pokémon.”

“But the Game Boy’s longevity — discontinued, finally, in 2003 — would owe as much to a game about catching and training pocket monsters as to a game about falling blocks. Pokémon Red and Blue would reinvigorate the Game Boy around the globe, along the way kicking off another multibillion-dollar franchise.”

GOTTA CATCH ’EM ALL

“Pokémon’s success outside Japan was anything but assured. The two flavors, each with 139 of the main 150 Pokémon (plus one hidden one) available to catch and trade, were released in Japan in 1996 to instant acclaim. But at first Nintendo of America wasn’t sure what to do about the game. A year in and with the game still getting bigger and bigger every month, team members wondered if it could ever work stateside.”

“An RPG on Game Boy just seemed deadly. And it was very Japanese, culturally speaking, from our point of view,” Tilden says. “Like, the reason kids like it in Japan is they like RPGs a lot more, it’s on Game Boy, it’s in black and white, very complicated. And it was supported in Japan by a manga — a comic — that was reinforcing the story, [which was] also very Japanese. Kids were reading that comic book and getting more of the story.”

“Nintendo of America’s marketing team worried American kids might not have the attention span for a franchise so labyrinthine. “I think also that the marketing team felt a lot of competitive pressure about things being hip and cool and appealing older,” Tilden says. Sega and Sony had all the cool cred, in other words, and Nintendo didn’t like it. But Pokémon was too popular in Japan to not at least try to adapt it for the American market.”

“And so quite a bit of time was spent where groups of people — and I would be included in some of that — would look at the game,” says Tilden, “and think about what could we do with it here? The ad agency came up with a few concepts like, ‘Well, maybe it could be a baseball metaphor. Maybe we should change the look and feel of the characters and go with something very graffiti-like and gritty. And the characters themselves will be much edgier.’”

“While they talked, however, Pokémon blossomed as a cultural phenomenon in Japan. “There were comics that were getting picked up to become TV series, and movies were in the works,” says Tilden, “and there were all these things happening. So that by the time we finished debating what we could do, the ball [had] just rolled past us.”

“It was too late to change the game. They had to localize it, as-is, which meant coming up with English names for all 151 Pokémon that would match the intention of the Japanese version — like the fire Pokémon Charmander, which combines “char” for fire with “salamander” for its lizard characteristics.”

“And at the same time,” Tilden says, “knowing that it wasn’t just the Game Boy game that was happening, and it was a full franchise with a very, very well-orchestrated rollout in Japan, our president, Mr. Arakawa, felt that in order to experience a similar success we had to have a similar approach.”

“That meant creating a brand management effort to centrally manage all of these different parts of the franchise — the games, trading cards, TV show, comics, movies, and toys — out of Nintendo of America. Tilden was asked to lead the effort. “So I had to leave Nintendo Power and publications and start a new team,” she says.

“That team made a deal with 4Kids Entertainment to help manage and arrange licensing and merchandise, then the two companies together devised a strategy for introducing Pokémon to the West. The approach centered on one simple hook: collectability. Gotta catch ’em all.”

“Unlike in Japan, the team planned to introduce the TV show first — to hook kids on the narrative and theme in the hopes that the brand would then overcome resistance to complex role-playing game mechanics. The Red and Blue games would follow a few weeks after the TV show, in late September 1998.”

“But still, Nintendo had two major problems. The first was that television networks weren’t interested: They all turned the show down. To get penetration across most of the country, 4Kids had to barter Nintendo’s advertising budget for airtime on local stations.”

“I believe we managed to get to about 80 percent coverage through that method,” says Tilden. With that solved, they still needed to explain to the audience why Pokémon was great. All this work to localize Pokémon for the American market wouldn’t mean a thing if they couldn’t get people excited enough to give it a shot.”

“We used a technique that we had used with Donkey Kong Country, which was to send all of the subscribers of Nintendo Power, as well as others on our mailing list, a videotape that explained the franchise,” says Tilden. The mailing label included details on when and how to watch the show.”

“The video explained what Pokémon was,” Tilden says. “What the whole concept was. And it showed that there was the Game Boy games, and that there would be toys and there would be a card game. And there was this TV show, and of course clips of the TV show were in the video.”

“Nintendo of America’s PR agency, Golin Harris, had a clever idea to drum up more interest in the lead-up to launch. “Their idea was to turn the brand-new Volkswagen beetle into Pikachu, and they would get 10 of them,” says Tilden. “They had 10 people in yellow flight suits parachute out of a plane in ToPikachu, Kansas — Topeka, Kansas, being renamed ToPikachu — run and get into these yellow Pikachu bugs, and drive [them] around the U.S.” Everywhere they went, they’d hand out promotional material and show the games in action.”

“Pokémon got fast-food tie-ins and school book cover promotions, too. All in, Nintendo spent $15-20 million on a saturation marketing campaign, hoping to manufacture a phenomenon globally in a matter of months that could match the one that had emerged organically over a few years in Japan.”

“It worked. The game took less than a month to hit 400,000 copies sold in the U.S. and a mere 10 months to reach 4 million units, on its way to lifetime combined sales of nearly 10 million in the U.S. and 31 million worldwide. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. picked up the TV show in February 1999 for national broadcast, whereupon it held the No. 1 spot in Saturday morning ratings for 14 straight weeks, and in November, Pokémon: The First Movie opened at the top of the domestic box office. By the end of 1999, barely more than a year after Pokémon’s U.S. debut and just a few years after its Japanese introduction, the Pokémon franchise cracked $7 billion in global lifetime revenues.”

“Far from sinking in the American market, Pokémon had single-handedly revitalized the Game Boy. Over the next few years, revenues lifted across the whole Game Boy market. Combined hardware sales across Game Boy, Game Boy Pocket, and its backward-compatible Color successor rose every year, from 10.37 million in 1998 to 18.86 million in 2001, nearly doubling the system’s lifetime sales during that period. Game sales on the handheld jumped up by more than 200 million units over the same four-year period — no doubt aided by the releases of Pokémon Yellow, Gold, Silver, and Crystal — on the way to a lifetime tally of 501 million worldwide.”

“Tilden thinks the key to this success — to Pokémon’s immense popularity and its impact on the Game Boy market everywhere — was the way its world and concept came together into something magical. Entertainment franchises that do this — like Mario, Zelda, Pokémon, Harry Potter, and Tetris — transcend cultural barriers, she suggests.”

“And I think that the best thing to say is that it was our job not to screw it up.”

To view this article in its entirety, click here.

Source: Polygon.com

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