Can we catch 'em all?: Generation III
“…New versions appear less as enhanced or definitive statements. Rather, they represent the current best attempt to realize the vision…The ‘game’ is at once fluid and elusive, with only specific implementations or attempts to realize and capture it being fixed.”
Game Boy Advance was no technical innovation, but it did improve upon its predecessor’s technical specifications. Most obvious to the player were graphical additions including higher color pixel resolution and simple 3D effects. Less obvious to the player, but critical from a media archaeology perspective, was the complete overhaul of the core processing unit. This resulted in radically different data architectures in games produced for the handheld. The system might have been backwards compatible to Game Boy and Game Boy Color, but its workings were far ahead of its origins.”
Though Generation I was developed late in the Game Boy lifecycle, Nintendo dangled Generation II in front of players as an incentive to purchase the improved Game Boy Color. A similar policy would only benefit sales of the Game Boy Advance.
As always, it’s best to consider Nintendo’s official description of generations as a base for further discussion, but here it’s best to consider Generation III further before reaching a graphical representation of versions.
Pocket Monsters: Ruby and Sapphire were first released to Japanese audiences in 2002. Retitled Pokémon Ruby Version and Sapphire Version, the games were released in 2003 to the United States followed by Australia. Translated into French, Italian, German, and Spanish, localized versions also reached Europe in 2003.
As with previous generations, a third version known as Pocket Monsters: Emerald was first released in Japan in 2004. This version included a number of elements and combined the two storylines of Pocket Monsters: Ruby and Sapphire into a single narrative. Retitled Pokémon Emerald, it was released to the United States in 2005 and followed the same international release pattern as its Pokémon Ruby Version and Sapphire Version.
Between the original Generation III paired releases and the third title were a curious set of objects titled Pocket Monsters: FireRed and LeafGreen. These versions (of what, exactly, is discussed further below) were first released to Japanese audiences in 2004. Unlike Pocket Monsters: Ruby and Sapphire, these versions were bundled with the Game Boy Advance Wireless Adapter to eliminate the need for Link Cables during the trading process. The versions were retitled Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen and followed the exact same localization process throughout 2004.
Deciphering these last two titles is tricky. Even though the in-game Pokédex required all existing Pokémon for completion, and therefore for one interpretation of becoming Pokémon Master, all possible Pokémon were no longer accessible. Due to significant differences between the data architectures of Generation III and previous generations, trading with Generation I and II titles was impossible. Despite Nintendo’s insistence that this was an overlooked accident, evidence suggests otherwise. Both Generation I and Generation II core series games used the popular catchphrase “gotta catch ‘em all” on box art. In contrast, Generation III does not contain this catchphrase. It appears Nintendo was aware of the issue and either hoped it would not become an issue or, more likely, developed methods to counteract it. Many have argued that Pocket Monsters: FireRed and LeafGreen were developed to counter the inability to catch all Pokémon. This is certainly the most sensible solution. Surprisingly, however, Nintendo’s explanations for why Pocket Monsters: FireRed and LeafGreen were developed can be divided into three contradictory sets of explanations.
In some cases, Nintendo officially referred to Pocket Monsters: FireRed and LeafGreen as modified versions of Pocket Monsters: Ruby and Sapphire. Related press releases stressed these Generation III versions were developed to access previously-inacceessible Pokémon.
In other cases, the versions were labeled remakes of Generation I. Why the title was LeafGreen rather than WaterBlue is explainted through a particularly impressive rewrite of history. For example, one blog post by Junichi Masuda stated: “In North America, we released ‘Aka’ (red) and ‘Midori’ (green) as ‘Red’ and ‘Blue.’ The Japanese version is called ‘Midori’ and the North American version is called ‘Blue.’ Both are the same game.”
In still other cases, Pocket Monsters: FireRed and LeafGreen were labeled entirely separate games altogether. At one interview during E3 in 2004, an IGN reporter asked why the remakes came about. In response, Tsunekazu Ishihara stated: “We don’t feel that this is a remake at all. We feel that this is a new game, with wireless technology.”
According to Nintendo representatives, then, the official description of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire Versions, as well as the third Pokémon Emerald Version, are easy. Yet somehow, Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen Versions are simultaneously versions of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire Versions, remakes of Pokémon Red and Blue Versions (and therefore of Pocket Monsters: Red and Green, and entirely separate games. The diagram below offers an approximate visual representation of this conundrum.
Clearly, these official explanations are not only impossible but sheer nonsense. That Pocket Monsters: Ruby and Sapphire, as well as all subsequent localizations, proceeded exactly as Nintendo described is cannot be disputed. The difference in data structure, platform, and audiovisual content proves these are entirely new games. In fact, the differences between Generation III and all previous core series titles is so distinct that even considering these games to be adaptations is difficult. Instead, a more apt description would be a reboot.
In an article on the necessity of reboots, Erik Norris defined a reboot as a relaunching of a series or franchise that strips the series to its bare elements. The purpose of such an action is to remain accessible to new fans but retain enough key elements that prior fans are not angered. This is a logical interpretation of Pocket Monsters: Ruby and Sapphire. By retiring “gotta catch ‘em all” and beginning Generation III in a new area, with all references to Generation I and Generation II removed, the series is both accessible and familiar.
Chronologically, the release of Pocket Monsters: Emerald followed Pocket Monsters: FireRed and LeafGreen. However, in terms of narrative, Pocket Monsters: Emerald builds on the story of Pocket Monsters: Ruby and Sapphire. How, then, is it possible to determine levels of adaptation within these games? Once again, the definition is found within the code.
Digging into Pocket Monsters: FireRed and LeafGreen reveals unused data from Pocket Monsters: Ruby and Sapphire. Much of this code relates to abilities or effects available in Generation III that were not available during Generation I. This includes key items, weather effects, and trainer sprites from Team Magma and Team Aqua. However, there is no code specific to Pocket Monsters: Emerald. Additionally, the build dates of the titles are included within the code, laying out a specific timeline of creation. These build codes demonstrate the first known instances of multiple versions of a single game. Games released in Japan as well as the United States contain two sets of build codes, one for a version 1.0 and another for a version 1.1. All other international variants do not contain information on a specific version. The build codes is a critical media archaeological clue into the development of Pokémon games and demonstrates that two Japanese versions were produced before the first version created for the United States. A second United States version was created followed by Spanish (on the same day as the US Version 1.1). Another day passed before the French build date and another four days before the simultaneous German and Italian build dates. This order of localization is in direct contrast to Generation II translations within Pocket Monsters: Crystal Version. Why the order of translation was altered is anyone’s guess, but it is fascinating nonetheless.
Interestingly, it appears that Pocket Monsters: Emerald is actually an adaptation of Pocket Monsters: FireRed and LeafGreen rather than Pocket Monsters: Ruby and Sapphire. Several clues point to this conclusion. All unused header text from the remakes are included within the code, as are unused music tracks. Build dates are also included in this game, indicating its creation began after the completion of the remakes, but the order of localization is not consistent with previous titles. In this case, games released in France and Spain contain the same build date, which is several months after the one included for United States games. The build date of games released in Italy follows a few days later, with German games once again the end of the line.
Considering all of the information found in the code, it appears the true description of Generation III versions is quite different from Nintendo’s confusing interpretations.
Other than fascinating pieces of trivia, why does any of this matter? Remakes are common to video game history, with Pokémon core series games a particularly famous example. Why should players care about the constant adaptation, remakes, and reboots that compromise the franchise? The trouble lies in the realm of media archaeology and game studies, which can eventually affect how a player interacts with a work.
In Best Before: Videogames, Supersession, and Obsolescence, author James Newman examines video game preservation from both a practical and philosophical perspective. In particular, his work considers how it is possible to preserve a video game when remakes, ports, patches, adaptations, and reboots are the standards of the industry rather than the exception.
Newman notes that remakes are rarely discussed as just another version of a game. Instead, the newest version of a game is almost always marketed as the one true version. As a result, “The ability to experience [a game] ‘in its true form’ works to decouple ‘the game’ from the specific technologies of any given historical implementations.” 
The definition of a video game is a surprisingly debated topic, but one thing that all can agree on is the distinction between video games and more passive forms of media such as films or television. A video game is an audiovisual and software object that comes to life as a result of player interaction. For a player to interact with a game, a user interface is required. Despite continued arguments, it is difficult to believe that a video game can possibly be separated from a user interface. More to the point, if a video game was designed for one specific user interface, then that interface becomes a portal into understanding developer decisions. This understanding is the core of media archaeology.
Pokémon Red and Blue Versions as well as Pocket Monsters: Red and Green as well as Pocket Monsters: Blue are not audiovisual artifacts that exist in some nameless space accessible by whatever technology is compatible. These video games came about as a result of the Game Boy system. They exist in a historically specific time. Satoshi Tajiri himself has repeatedly stated the purpose of Generation I core series games was to demonstrate the Game Boy Link Cable was usable as a form of communication rather than battle. By remaking Generation Iinto Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen Versions, to paraphrase James Newman, Generation I is decoupled from the Game Boy. It becomes ahistorical, technologically unspecific, and just another Japanese roleplaying game rather than the artistic, cultural, and technical marvel its media specific context provides.
What the player can learn from Generation III is both the promise and caution of an endlessly upgraded technology. Fans will always play older games, but with new fans born everyday, a remake becomes more than a single object in the lineage of Pokémon. That remake becomes representative of all the experiences that came before. If Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen Versions gave new players the ability to experience Generation I, they also replaced Generation I in the minds of many players. Never is this lesson more crucial than now, with the quickly approaching release date of Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. After all, considering the past in the realm of the present, who is to say that the upcoming remakes won’t also, in the minds of many players, replace Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire Versions? If that replacement does occur, then perhaps a media archaeological examination of Pokémon core series games becomes more critical than ever.
- James Newman, Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolecence (London: Routledge, 2012)
- Winnie Forster, Game Machines 1972-2012: The Encyclopedia of Consoles, Handhelds & Home Computers (Utting, Germany: Gameplan, 2011)
- Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).