Can we catch ‘em all?: Generation I

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Versions, remakes, and media archaeology in Generation I
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  • Wednesday, November 5, 2014

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This column has been written by Rebecca Hernandez-Gerber. It expresses the views of the columnist, not necessarily those of Bulbagarden networks.

“Tajiri had a novel idea: to utilize the tsushin keburu [Game Boy Link Cable] for ‘communication’ instead – for exchanges between players in which the objective would be to barter with, rather than eliminate, an opponent by training monsters.” - Anne Allison, Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination

Twenty years ago, many players first encountered a video game through its advertisement campaign. Nintendo, in particular, was notorious for tightly controlling advertisement through censorship of unwelcome critiques in Japanese gaming magazines. This control went even farther in the United States, where the company-run ’’Nintendo Power’’ essentially functioned as a subscription advertising campaign. As a result, marketing controlled how players understood their games. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Generation I core series titles.

Before applying media archaeology methodologies to these versions, it is helpful to look at Nintendo’s advertised descriptions of versions.

Generation 1 Official Version Tree

According to Nintendo, Pokémania began with the Japanese release of Pocket Monsters: Red and Green for the Game Boy in 1996. A minor revision, Pocket Monsters: Blue, was released later in the same year as a gift to loyal CoroCoro Comic subscribers. Red and Blue were translated into English, with no other changes made to the games themselves, and released in the United States in 1998 as Pokémon Red and Blue followed by Australia. Some advertisements noted the existence of a secret third version known as Green in Japan, but little to no information was released on that title. Once successful in the United States, Europe received its translated versions in 1999.

The popularity of the anime series throughout the world happily surprised Nintendo, which decided to treat its fans during the long wait until Generation II. Therefore, Pocket Monsters: Pikachu was released in Japan in 1998. Renamed Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition, it was released in the United States in 1999 followed by Europe and Australia in 2000. All of these international versions were marketed as exact translations of the original Japanese titles. Though these versions were all compatible with the new Game Boy Color, they were not designed for that system.

Players soon discovered that Nintendo’s statements did not mesh with reality. In Japan, players noticed that Pocket Monsters: Blue was a significant departure from the previous versions. Graphics received a major overhaul, and a number of glitches were neutralized. Players with access to both the Japanese and North American titles discerned that the international localizations resembled Pocket Monsters: Blue more than Pocket Monsters: Red and Green.

In addition to these content alterations, a major technical change was discovered after comparing Pocket Monsters: Pikachu and Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition across platforms. Japanese players using a Game Boy Color could select one of several color palette options, indicating the game was built primarily for Game Boy and not its color successor. In contrast, international versions defaulted to a single, richer color palette, indicating a Game Boy Color title. These indications were reinforced by comparing the versions on the Super Game Boy. The Japanese version contained no special features on the device, but international versions accessed a variety of special borders. This may not appear significant, but studying technical limitations gives a clue: only Game Boy Color games contained borders on the Super Game Boy.

How can a player make sense of this confusion? Why are Nintendo’s statements nonsense when compared to the obvious reality of versions? For a more honest breakdown of versions, we must look at the source and executable code itself.

Generation I Unofficial Version Tree

The diagram to the right demonstrates the actual connections between versions from a media specific, code-based examination. Media archaeology is critical to make sense of the differences between this diagram and the previous, official diagram of versions taken from Nintendo advertisements.

Satoshi Tajiri released a superior set of games with the original Pocket Monsters titles, but he hand-coded those games over a period of six years. This limitation of resources resulted in well-known glitches. The purpose of Pocket Monsters: Blue was not a minor aesthetic revision but instead a much-needed overhaul of problematic source code, neutralizing glitches. What is so impressive about this version is that such an overhaul had to be invisible; more precisely, these structural changes appear minimal to players but radically altered the structure of the game’s code underneath the surface.

Nintendo considered the release of the Pocket Monsters franchise in North America to be a problematic endeavor. Stories of the company’s reluctance to send the games overseas are well known. How, then, could Nintendo knowingly release glitchy games to an audience they felt expected better of their products? Revision was needed, and it appeared under the guise of Pocket Monsters: Blue. Using media archaeology as a framework, it is possible to dig into the code. Comparing code across titles demonstrates that Pokémon Red and Blue were heavily derived from Pocket Monsters: Blue. Game engine, script, and audiovisual content were all ripped from the less-problematic version, with only version-exclusive Pokémon lists surviving from Pocket Monsters: Red and Green. It is these ideal English-language versions that were translated for other international audiences, ensuring the best-quality product available outside Japan.

What, then, of the confusion surrounding Pocket Monsters: Pikachu? Once again, glimpsing at the code itself is key. The title is not a version of previous Japanese titles but instead derived from what was considered to be the most stable set of games: Pokémon Red and Blue. Hidden objects in the code taken from the international releases confirm the connection. However, what remains especially confusing is the data discovered by accessing the game across platforms. Why would Nintendo release a more colorful version to international audiences but neglect their own?

By the time this version was in the process of translation, the Game Boy was at the end of its lifecycle in the United States and an incentive was needed to purchase the newest mobile platform. As such, all international versions were slightly altered so that they are actually Game Boy Color games rather than Game Boy, giving children an excuse to hassle their parents into buying the newest system. What remains a mystery is unknown why Nintendo chose to continue marketing the version as a Game Boy game. There are some questions that require a wider societal context than mere media archaeology. It is possible the company did not wish to confuse international audiences about platform compatibility or anger its Japanese audience by giving an enhanced product to non-Japanese audience. In the end, only speculation is possible.

You may have noticed this article does not discuss data structures or trade. Such factors are best discussed in the context of inter-generational trade beginning in Generation II. What is most significant about this generation is that it lays the base for how Nintendo communicated Game Freak’s products to their fans. Reality within code and reality within advertising are not the same, and if players do not consider media specific ideologies, the truth is quickly obscured.