Pokémon Gold and Silver: How Satoru Iwata Saved Game Freak

Pokémon Gold and Silver: How Satoru Iwata Saved Game Freak


Game Freak was in trouble. Sure, it was a good kind of trouble, but that
didn’t make the company’s situation any easier. A year ago, the tiny studio had been almost
completely invisible, their contributions to gaming overlooked by the masses. Now, with the success of Pokémon Red and
Green, they were a national icon, as gamers all across Japan called out desperately for
more games in the series. With such a pressing demand for new titles,
Game Freak were in danger of being swallowed up by their workload. They had so many different game projects in
the works that it was hard to keep track of them. Remastered versions of their original hits,
the Nintendo 64 game, and two brand new sequels for the Gameboy Color were all in development
– not to mention Nintendo’s insistence that the company translate their original
games into new languages for a global market. In the midst of all this work, though, Game
Freak still remained the same small group of friends that it had been a year ago. The entire team only had four programmers,
and there was no way they could manage to get all of these projects finished to a high
standard. Was Game Freak’s first taste of genuine
success going to spell the end for the struggling developers? Then, just as things look bleak, and the team
began wondering if they’d ever finish all their work, a hero emerged. He wasn’t an employee of Game Freak. He wasn’t even an employee of Nintendo. But in Pokémon’s darkest hour, one man
rescued Satoshi Tajiri’s struggling company, fixed up holes in multiple doomed projects,
and set Game Freak on the path to global stardom. This is the story of how Satoru Iwata saved
Pokémon. When Pokémon Red and Green finally hit store
shelves, the team at Game Freak breathed a sigh of relief. Their masterpiece was finished. Sure, it wasn’t particularly pretty, its
code was a mess, and it hadn’t been as thoroughly bug tested as it could have been, but they’d
done it. Five years of hard work was over. Except, having taken so long to finally complete
the games, there was a sense within Game Freak that their little roleplaying game was already
obsolete. Game Freak had moved into games development
the year that the original Game Boy was released, but after five years of delays, Pokémon had
finally debuted at a time when sales for the handheld were virtually non-existent. It seemed that the Game Boy was more or less
finished by this time, and Game Freak’s monster trading simulators simply weren’t
in demand. In spite of this, work began on a pair of
sequels. Game Freak had been forced to postpone plenty
of fun ideas while working on their first two Pokémon games, and the team were eager
to put all of these plans to good use. This work continued, even as reports of low
sales began to arrive. The game failed to scrape its way into the
top ten bestseller chart for Gameboy games, and it seemed that their original labor of
love was going to go down as an obscure footnote on the history of the handheld console. But, the team reasoned, at least they’d
made something they were proud of. Then, unexpectedly, sales of Pokémon games
began to skyrocket. Searching for a reason, the team realized
that a joke, snuck in at the last minute by programmer Shigeki Morimoto, was causing an
unusual buzz within the game’s small community of fans. Shigeki really shouldn’t have messed around
with the game’s code after he’d finished bug testing. It went against every rule of programming
to try sneaking in additional Easter Eggs after the Quality Assurance tests were complete. But Shigeki thought that his inclusion, an
additional secret Pokémon called Mew, was a fun way to use up some extra space on the
cartridge. Besides, what was the worst that could happen? However, even though Mew was completely uncatchable
under normal circumstances, as players explored the games, this little character began popping
up, seemingly at random. As it turned out, Pokémon Red and Green could
have really done with some more strict error testing – and not just because Shigeki had
been messing around with a last minute Pokémon. The games were filled to the brim with unintended
glitches, which did everything from warping players across the map, to generating impossibly
powerful opponents. In circumstances that players didn’t entirely
understand, some of these glitches would produce a battle with Shigeki’s secret Pokémon. This led to rampant speculation and urban
legends that bounced between Pokémon players, as everyone tried to find the hidden wonders
that the games held. And so, in order to make the most of their
newfound accidental popularity, Game Freak announced a competition, in which winners
could send in their Pokémon cartridges to receive an official copy of Mew, the secret,
hidden final creature within the game. This plan worked spectacularly, as fan buzz
grew loud, prompting more and more gamers to rush out and buy copies of Pokémon. After over a year on the market, the pair
of original games finally topped the bestseller charts in Japan. The game had earned the success it deserved. But there was a problem. One which could potentially engulf the entire
studio. With the Pokémon fanbase growing so rapidly,
demand for new games was getting to fever pitch. The team was ambitious about what they wanted
to include in Gold and Silver, the follow-on titles for the series. They envisioned these two games as the pinnacle
of everything that they’d done over the past six years, fixing the faults within the
original formula, and packing a huge amount of new gameplay elements into the titles. Except, these weren’t the only games that
the company had to work on. The popularity of Red and Green justified
a new, updated version of the original titles that didn’t feature as many bugs, and that
that boasted better artwork and smoother gameplay. Meanwhile, the team were also hard at work
producing a Pokémon game for the Nintendo 64 – this more graphically impressive title
would link up with the Gameboy games, if only Game Freak could get it to work. All the while, Nintendo were pressuring Game
Freak to translate Red and Green into English and other European languages, in order to
take the Pokémon brand global. Several of these projects seemed completely
impossible, for one big reason: under the hood, the Pokémon games’ inner workings
were impenetrable. The code for the original Pokémon games was
an absolute mess, having been cobbled together over five years, without any documentation. Shigeki and his fellow programmers had thrown
it together in a very haphazard fashion, to the point that unless you were one of Game
Freak’s four coders, you wouldn’t have the first clue how to interpret any of it,
or how any of the pieces related to each other. With such a confusing, convoluted code underpinning
the Pokémon games, nobody but the core team at Game Freak could help with programming
new titles. This meant that for every day spent working
on the updated Pokémon Blue, the game’s sequels, Gold and Silver, was delayed by another
day. The team wanted nothing more than to finish
their magnum opus, but with so many distractions and side projects, there was a danger that
everything that Game Freak had built would end up crumbling around their ears. Facing mounting pressure from fans and Nintendo
alike, the team began trying to justify the cancellation of some projects – in particular,
the worldwide release of Pokémon. Game Freak found itself in the odd position
of trying to talk down their big hit, claiming that it simply wouldn’t appeal to Western
audiences. But Nintendo would not be dissuaded. Game Freak needed to translate Pokémon Red
and Green. They also needed to rewrite the game’s entire
code to work on the Nintendo 64 for the Pokémon Stadium spin-off. Plus, they needed to finish their incredibly
ambitious sequels, Pokémon Gold and Silver – and they needed to do so as soon as possible
to capitalize on the success of their original games. Failure on any of these projects risked dooming
the Pokémon series, and bursting the bubble of popularity that had engulfed Japan. But there was no solution which would save
the day. Game Freak couldn’t work faster, and Nintendo
programmers couldn’t decipher their code. The small team was stuck. Just when all hope seemed lost, Satoru Iwata
entered the fray, rolled up his sleeves, and bailed Game Freak out. Satoru Iwata was not an employee at Game Freak. He wasn’t an employee of Nintendo either
– instead, he was the president of a company called HAL Laboratory. This company had worked closely with Nintendo
on a series of games, so Satoru had a chair in key board meetings, and had been keeping
an eye on Game Freak for a long time. Satoru hadn’t always been HAL’s president,
though. When he’d started with the company, years
ago, he’d been a hotshot programmer, writing code for a number of key games that had helped
the company establish itself. So when Satoru piped up in a board meeting,
offering his services to help deciphering Game Freak’s code and taking care of their
localization work, he wasn’t volunteering his company. He was happy and willing to put his own skills
to the test by trying to figure out how Pokémon Red and Green fit together. While many were dubious that Satoru would
have the time and ability to commit to such a big project, he was given a copy of the
game’s code to pore over. If the president of HAL thought he could fix
the problem that four professional coders couldn’t figure out, he was welcome to try. And so, Satoru read through the code. He made notes on it, learned how it fit together,
and, before long, had completely understood what was going on. Nintendo sent a representative to check on
Satoru’s progress, if only to see whether they’d need to assign the localization tasks
to someone else. Satoru smiled as he showed off his progress,
and talked long into the night as he discussed what he’d done with the code, what was left
to do in localizing the games, and how he’d organized and structured his work so that
others could leap in and begin the task of translating Pokémon for a wider audience. But Satoru didn’t stop there. Having helped guide the Pokémon localization
project, he set his sights on the second big challenge he knew that Game Freak was facing:
the problem of rebuilding Pokémon Red and Green’s battle mechanic in Nintendo 64 architecture. This had been a particularly huge problem
for Game Freak, as their code had, in all fairness, only barely fit together on Gameboy
hardware. Unpacking and reworking the entire combat
system seemed like an impossible task. It was all the more impressive, then, that
Satoru Iwata managed to complete the entire conversion process in a single week. Everyone was astounded, not least programmer
Shigeki Morimoto, who’d spent months building the original battle system. When he heard that Satoru has learned, restructured,
and fixed their broken code, he exclaimed, “What kind of president is this?!” With two of their biggest problems out of
the way, Game Freak’s programmers got a little greedy. They started wondering what other enormous
problems Satoru could fix for them. The president happily looked over their code
and created an image compression system which saved a phenomenal amount of data, meaning
that the team could make the most of space in future Pokémon games. In spite of being besieged by requests, Satoru
didn’t mind at all. He was thrilled at the success that the Pokémon
series had achieved, and in his mind, if he could handle some of the big challenges to
the various side projects that Game Freak were working on, without disrupting the team’s
flow too much, that would help them to make Pokémon Gold and Silver the best games they
could possibly be. And so, thanks to Satoru Iwata’s help, the
Pokémon series launched around the world. Pokémon Red and Blue became enormous hits
on many continents, disproving Game Freak’s earlier claims that they wouldn’t do well
outside of Japan. Similarly, Pokémon Stadium on the Nintendo
64 was released in Japan to thunderous success. A follow up game was released worldwide, helping
to further boost the appeal of the series. Then, finally, after three years of intense
work, Pokémon Gold and Silver were finished. These games lived up to their creators’
expectations, introducing new gameplay elements, more detailed sprites, color graphics, and
a map that was twice the size of the original game. All of these achievements were only possible
thanks to Satoru Iwata’s help. While he had nothing personal to gain from
helping Game Freak with their challenge, Satoru had gladly stepped in to fix the problems
that the team had been struggling with, and their combined successes saw Pokémon go on
to critical acclaim around the world, inspiring an entire generation of gamers. And as for the moral of this story? It’s good to share. We all have different skills and techniques. We all have something to contribute, and when
we tackle projects together, we’re able to make something wonderful. Maybe, like Satoru Iwata, you might currently
find yourself in a work or school environment that doesn’t make the best use of all of
your skills. You might have other talents that are being
overlooked by those around you. If that’s the case, follow Satoru’s example. Go out of your way to find opportunities to
practice the things that matter to you. If you can’t do it during your average day,
try to find time to put your talents to work. Somewhere out there, you’ll find people
who appreciate what you’re good at. Because, at the end of the day, we’re all
more successful when we work together. Just like playing Pokémon.

100 Comments

  1. Thank you Iwata-san. Thank you for helping game freak (pokemon is my favorite franchise) thank you so much to be a great man, a real example for everyone! I just can't thank this man enough for all great things he did in his short live!

  2. And thus with Pokémon saved, the franchise became one of Nintendo's biggest money-earners ever, giving them a nice nest egg when times were tough by the power of Satoru Iwata.

    Seriously though, you have to wonder how Iwata did it.

  3. Your stories are wonderful and I'm not going to blame you but it always makes me sad to think aboit myself and what I'm doing i life. Iwata did many great things in his life…he was glad and happy.

    What am i then, i can't do anything I'm always looking up to these people and yet i disappoint them.

  4. Satoru Iwata "Revolutionized" the gaming industry with the Wii and DS. The company began to see a spiral with the failure of the Wii U and Iwata's death, but thankfully, we got an equally amazing President of Nintendo, Tatsumi Kimishima. Iwata's legacy in the Switch is surely showing. I think the Switch will surpass the record breaking sales of the Wii.

  5. The description of 'a map that was twice of the original games' doesn't cut it. Satoru Iwata's contribution to data compression made it possible to include the greatest feature a sequel title to have: access to a map of the original games where you could fight all the old major bosses, and ultimately, the player character of the original games. 18 years, and Pokemon fans have still been pining for this feature to come up again.

  6. RIP Satoru Iwata The Great! thank you for saving both Pokemon and Nintendo! I am here to pay you tribute! Imagine what happened without you! Your programming skill is so awesome! You are beethoven of Video Game world!

  7. What if Satoru Iwata have helped GameFreak back in the year 1989 to make the first Pokemon games, "Red & Green" and released them worldwide on April 21, 1990 for the original Game Boy? And if Iwata had helped GameFreak to include alot of features in Pokemon Red & Green; a female player character, over 250 Pokemon, genders, breeding, egg-mechanics, baby forms(such as Pichu, Cleffa, Happiny, Munchlax, Elekid, Magby, etc.), more Bug, Ghost, and Dragon Type Pokemon along with more of their powerful damaging battle moves, and if they also introduced Steel, Dark, and Fairy Type Pokemon? As well as animated battle sprites and full-bodied back sprites, all glitches fixed, Gen 2 Pokemon introduced in Gen 1 as originally intended(including Legendaries such as Entei, Raikou, Suicune, Lugia, and Ho-Oh), with Mew and Celebi being obtainable normally in-game with Celebi being # 254, Mew being # 255, and the final Pokemon, Mewtwo being # 256? And if they also included a few cities with traditional East-Asian/Japanese cultures as well as Time Travel-mechanics while using Celebi to go to different time periods and change the future? How would all of that helped have changed history of the Pokemon franchise had Satoru Iwata have helped GameFreak to make the first Pokemon games Red & Green and released them 6 years earlier worldwide?

  8. Iroiro to arigatōgozaimasu Iwata-san.
    Thank you for everything you've done in your amazing career.
    Nintendo fans miss you dearly. <3

  9. Iwata was a bloody genius, and will be sorely missed, not just because of his abilities but because of his heart. He knew gamers, because he was a gamer first, and nothing could deter that.

    Rest in peace, Iwata-sama.

  10. My only issue was my Crystal version corrupting and ruining my original save.
    Otherwise these guys are kinda my hero they made games that made my childhood all the more tolerable.

  11. What a great guy, and speaking of Easter Eggs, if you transfer a Pokémon from Pokémon Silver in the Virtual Console on the 3DS to Pokemon Ultra Sun or Ultra Moon, have it in your party, go to the GAMEFREAK building in Heahea City. Talk to Morimoto, and he’ll have chat with you about ‘this amazing came out and helped with finishing the game.’ So happy GameFreak still reference him after 2 years.
    RIP Satoru Iwata. Your legacy between Nintendo and GameFreak will never be forgotten, especially because you’ve helped skyrocket Pokémon into basically the #1 ‘best selling RPG game’.

  12. R.I.P Satoru Iwata, we loved your games, nintendo is in our hearts forever, please don't get bankrupt nintendo, your games you programmed and finished, made our hearts happy, just because you died, does not meant that nintendo is over, we love nintendo, and it shall never be destroyed, thank you so much iwata, we will miss you.

  13. This channel is so god damn underrated, the work put into these episodes is amazing.
    I would love to see this kind of thing done with the story of the Wii and DS and maybe the story of Mario and Smash Bros perhaps? I really love watching these.

  14. I guess Mr. Iwata poured his HP into all his work…. RIP man I hope you are developing games wherever dead devs go! I hope that the happiness you were able to give millions earned you a special spot in tech masters heaven!

  15. 13:37 It's good to SHARE. We all different SKILLS. If that's the case… find people that appreciate what you're good at

    I'm here expecting a skillshare AD!

  16. Satoru Iwata had a big impact on my childhood. He was the reason I was able to hold a DS and the reason we had a Gamecube and Wii laying near the television sets. He pretty much made my childhood with the amazing games and systems he launched. It’s a shame that he went the way he did, but he will leave a lasting impression and legacy on the gaming community.

  17. Kanto wouldn't be in Gold and Silver if it wasn't for this man. Yeah sure, it's just a game. But to me, this man is a hero.

  18. Mew saved pokemon. That's why i love mew. She's cute, (i call her a she) and she saved the gaming world, along with iwata. I hope rainbow road is treating you well iwata.

  19. Iwata is Legendary. He is crazy.. that's how u should work. He just loved what he was doing and he had much skills.

  20. The difficulty of structuring and documenting code was what vexed me so much that I didn't continue on the path to become a programmer. I'm just too disorganized for the profession, it seems.

    So I completely understand how Game Freak accidentally painted themselves into a corner with impenetrable “spaghetti code.” Writing code that works is one thing… Making sure it's decipherable enough to make future revisions later is another thing entirely, and it takes a good deal of extra time at the outset.

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