It might be hard to believe it now, but no one assumed that Pokémon would be an easy sell in North America. While the brand would become undeniably massive over the following eighteen years, in 1998, no one knew if audiences outside of Japan would truly embrace it. A multi-media barrage of video games, an animated series, comic books, and a trading card game certainly cemented the franchise as a full-blown success, but there is still much we don’t know about those early planning stages, and why certain choices were made.
In the early days of the franchise, several creative decisions were made seemingly with the intention of selling Pokémon to an older audience. It wouldn’t be all that unprecedented. After all, Nintendo of America has a history of altering Japanese box art and promotional material for the Kirby franchise, seemingly for that purpose. Some might argue that Nintendo has always struggled under the presumption that its franchises are predominantly aimed at younger gamers. Infamously, the translation team behind Pokémon Red and Blue believed that Western audiences would be turned off by the characters’ “cuter” designs, and pushed for them to be reimagined. Nintendo’s then-President Hiroshi Yamauchi apparently balked at the idea, and the original designs remained. It would appear, however, that Nintendo of America may have still made a concerted effort to mature the brand.
The Western releases of Pokémon Red and Blue kept elements from the original Japanese releases (Red and Green), but they used different sprites, opting instead for the updated designs from Pokémon Blue, a third version of the game offered in Japan as a mail-away incentive. There has never been an exact reason given for this choice. Blue’s sprites are very unique when compared to the rest of the franchise. When looking at the sprites from Red and Green, they’re a bit on the cruder side, but the aesthetic is a closer match with later releases in the series. The sprites from Blue, on the other hand, are quite a bit darker, and more mature in tone. Notably, Pokémon like Pidgey and Rattata seem to more closely resemble the actual animals that inspired them, as opposed to the more cartoonish designs that are now seen more prominently. Then there are Pokémon like Graveler and Golbat, both of which appear tougher and darker looking. It’s easy to imagine that these sprites may have been created (or simply just adopted) as a sort of compromise for those that pushed for the creatures to be redesigned. Even some of the art Nintendo of America used to promote the games skewed older and darker.
It’s not just the video game material that was darker in tone. Viz Media, the company that translated the earliest Pokémon comics and cartoons, also made an interesting decision at the outset of the brand. Rather than adapting the longer running comics from Hidenori Kusaka and Mato (of which Pokémon series creator Satoshi Tajiri is a fan), Viz Media instead adapted the works of Toshihiro Ono. The subject matter in the Ono comics is a bit of a darker take on the anime, and the artist took greater liberties with the designs of both the characters and the Pokémon themselves. The Kusaka and Mato comics would eventually see release as well, but not until a year later, when the brand had become more established. Interestingly enough, when those comics did see Western release, they were marketed at a younger audience, with size dimensions that resembled a coloring book and stickers included with each purchase. After Viz finished publishing the works of Toshihiro Ono, the Kusaka and Mato comics were shrunk to the dimensions typically seen in traditional American comics.
The mature tone of earlier Pokémon products is all the more striking given the tonal shift the anime currently appears to be taking. Pokémon fans have noted that the anime based on Sun and Moon appears to be heading in a younger-skewing direction. While the seasons based on X and Y have been lauded by fans for their stronger animation and tone, the newest series seems to be heading in a much different direction. Some have opined that the success of Yo-Kai Watch with younger fans in Japan could be the reason behind it. As the creatures themselves have evolved, it would seem so too has the brand.
With a company as notoriously tight-lipped as Nintendo, it’s impossible to determine whether or not any of these creative decisions were made for the express purpose of selling the Pokémon franchise to an older audience. There are certainly other explanations. Regardless, Nintendo’s strategy to sell Pokémon outside of Japan proved to be a massive success. Eighteen years later, the release of Pokémon Sun and Moon is further proof of just how enduring the brand has become.