Let's Go's director and environment designer discuss bringing the world of Kanto to 3D.
Barring a small handful of spin-offs, the Pokemon series is making its proper debut on Nintendo Switch next month with the release of Pokemon: Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee. Based largely on the classic Pokemon Yellow version, the Let's Go games return the franchise to its roots in many ways. As in the original, the story is once again set in the Kanto region, and you'll only encounter the first 151 Pokemon (plus the newly revealed Meltan) during your adventure.
The Let's Go games also diverge from tradition in some dramatic ways, particularly in their connection with Pokemon Go. Not only are you able to transfer certain monsters you catch in the mobile game over to the Switch titles, they also employ Pokemon Go's catching mechanics, meaning you're no longer be able to battle wild Pokemon.
GameSpot recently had an opportunity to sit down with Pokemon: Let's Go director Junichi Masuda and lead game environment designer Kensaku Nabana. Through an interpreter, we discussed what it was like reimagining the traditionally 8-bit world of Kanto in 3D, what changes the development team made in bringing the games to Switch, and how the new Mythical Pokemon Meltan came to be.
Despite being inspired by Pokemon Yellow, Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee seem to introduce a lot of new elements not found in previous Pokemon games. What new things should we expect?
Junichi Masuda: The main flow of the story plays out very much like Pokemon Yellow Version. One of the reasons we wanted to do this is that we imagined a lot of fans of the original game were going to be playing through it. There are different parts, but I think they'll recognize the main beats of the story and feel some nostalgia there.
At the same time, we did add a decent amount of sub-events that weren't in the originals. It kind of gives it a different feel because there's a lot of trainers alongside their Pokemon in the actual world itself, so it would be a different impression than the original game, while also covering the same story.
Team Rocket seems to play a more prominent role in Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee. Does this mean we'll see more of Jessie, James, and Meowth during the story?
Masuda: Yeah, they definitely appear more in the game than in the original Pokemon Yellow Version. With these two games, we really set out at the very beginning with a main target in mind, which was younger kids who maybe didn't own their own smartphones and weren't able to really participate in the Pokemon Go craze that happened. They weren't able to go out and join in on that fun, so really providing them with a really fun experience that also had some of that Pokemon Go gameplay. But at the same time, we wanted to introduce these new players, for whom this might be their first Pokemon game, through the original story, kind of ease them into the Pokemon experience that way.
Also, I thought it would be fun if players who maybe enjoyed the original game--they're now much older, probably in their 30s--they'd be able to interact with maybe their own kids or other kids that they know that are playing the game. They would actually know the general flow of the story, maybe able to give advice like where to go next and things like that. With Team Rocket, because the animated series is popular--it's in like 85-plus countries--I imagine a lot of those younger kids will have seen the animated series, even if they haven't played the game. So, we're trying to add in the elements like that to make it easier for them to get into the world and recognize the setup.
In the original games, your rival was a huge jerk, but the one in Let's Go seems much friendlier. Why the change?
Masuda: I think the biggest reason that rivals were more of a jerk in the early days is that we were just limited with what we could express with the pixel graphics. There's not much you can do with that kind of little sprite on the screen, so we worked harder to characterize them through dialogue and give them certain personalities. Also, because it's just dialogue and there's not a whole lot going on on the screen, it doesn't give as harsh of an impression even if they're jerks, I think. Now we have HD graphics and the visuals are much more impressive. If you also made him a jerk, the impression would be a lot stronger on players. Another thing, just my own personal take, is that it feels that people with those kinds of personalities these days are not as accepted by players, I think, as they were back then.
In the original games, there was text or some sort of setting where "Pidgey eat Caterpie," for example. That was fine back then, I think everybody liked it. But, I think, as Pokemon has gone on, the fans kind of have their idea of what Pokemon should be. If we did that now, I think a lot of people wouldn't really like it, it would give them a bad reaction.
What about the old man standing outside Celadon Gym who says he loves looking at the pretty girls? Did you have to tone that down as well?
Masuda: Yeah, we definitely re-evaluated all those kinds of things. But at the same time, the fact that you remember that means that it was something memorable. We had to be very careful about which things to change and which things to keep as they were. Definitely check it out for yourself and see if he's still around.
What was it like having to reimagine the Kanto region in 3D? How hard was it to recreate the world for an HD console?
Kensaku Nabana: I was in elementary school when Pokemon Yellow Version came out, and I remember playing those games as well as a fan myself. So, when we were first starting out in the development of this game, we all went back and played Pokemon Yellow Version again, and I just tried to remember the world of Pokemon that was in my imagination when I was playing those games, because you had to fill in the gaps a lot back then. Really try and take what was in my imagination then and redesign the areas to look like that image I had in my head.
Also, keeping in mind that we put the focus on having a lot of Pokemon in the environment, walking around in the overall world this time around, so [we focused on] making the visuals look like something where that wouldn't seem strange. We initially explored a more photorealistic direction, but we settled on this more anime style approach, these cuter visuals.
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It definitely leaves a strong impression, seeing how different some very famous scenes from the old game are in Let's Go, such as the first time you come to the S.S. Anne and see how much more majestic it looks. For some areas like Lavender Town, which was very creepy in the original games, how did you go about expressing that in Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee?
Nabana: Lavender Town is definitely one that I don't want to talk too much about and have you discover for yourself, but I definitely have the same impression as you. It's kind of this creepy, unsettling place. So, I initially approached it with that in mind and designed it to make it look like it would give that impression. But that wasn't enough for Mr. Masuda. He was like, "You've got to make it feel even creepier." He gave me a lot of specific directions to do that. So, I think it will be fun to see what it looks like.
It doesn't seem like held items and abilities are in these games. What is the reason for that?
Masuda: Yeah, that was actually a conscious decision. We don't have held items or abilities or eggs, or a lot of features that weren't in the original generation that got added later on. We had to be very careful in selecting which things we would update from the original games and which ones we would keep the same. I did like the appeal of the simplicity of the original Generation 1 games, as this being an entry title for new players joining the franchise to really experience something very similar to what kids did 20 years ago, but [we also wanted people to] enjoy some of these new gameplay gimmicks, like the Poke Ball Plus and the connectivity with Pokemon Go.
But, of course, we did have to update some other things. For example, we added more types later on and Pokemon got re-typed, so those exist in the game. And, obviously, you weren't able to run in the original game. We were only able to create four-way movement, so we decided that we probably couldn't do that today and it made it much easier to move around, I think.
Even though held items aren't in it, we've seen that Mega Evolutions are. Can you tell us how that's going to work? Traditionally, your Pokemon has to hold the right item to Mega Evolve.
Masuda: No real details, but I can guarantee it's very simple. We didn't really think too much about it and just kept it very simple to trigger Mega Evolutions.
Please tell us more about the new Pokemon, Meltan. Was it always planned to debut first in Pokemon Go? And was it designed in collaboration with Niantic, or internally at Game Freak?
Masuda: We definitely planned to debut it in Pokemon Go from the very beginning. We had talked about in the early stages of even Go's development that we want to debut a Pokemon, and we worked with Niantic to kind of figure out that functionality. I've been working on the development of Go since the beginning as well, so I've always had it in mind. But the design, that was done internally at Game Freak. I gave some specific setting directions to one of our designers who was also a fan of the original games and played them as a kid, so he had a really good idea of what I was looking for, based on this kind of very simple metal nut design. He definitely probably had the original Kanto Pokemon designs in his mind and tried to keep it as simple as possible. You know, they were more kind of basic back then compared to some of the more modern designs. He worked on that, and then once it was finished, we gave all the assets and everything to Niantic, we planned the event and had them execute on that, and it worked out.
Following up on Meltan's design, here in the States he's been given a joking/affectionate nickname of "Nut Boy." I'm curious how you feel about that nickname and if, perhaps, he has a similar nickname in Japan?
Nabana: I haven't really seen a lot of nicknames in Japan yet, but for the design, we really tried to make it look like it was kind of a more realistic-looking object, like something that maybe you could see it in real life. It would look weird, but it wouldn't stand out too much. Initially, I thought this would be a very divisive design, like some people might like it but some people won't. It looks really strange, but if you look at it more closely, it's kind of cute at the same time. But it seems like the reaction has been generally really positive, and that's been a lot of fun. There's been tons of fan art already and it was revealed just recently, so it's been exciting for us.
In the DS and 3DS games, there were a lot of events at stores that gave out free Pokemon via download codes. Is anything similar planned for Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee?
Masuda: The functionality from the previous games is in there, it's called Mystery Gift. It's in the game and I'm sure there'll probably be something, but I think with the limited selection of Pokemon, they're all fairly easily catchable in other games. I'm not sure how often or how frequent it's going to be with these particular games.
We’ve talked about transferring between Pokemon Go and Let's Go. When the "core" Pokemon game planned for 2019 arrives, will there also be transfer possibilities between Let's Go and that title?
Masuda: We're definitely always thinking of that kind of forward-moving functionality, especially since we've introduced the Pokemon Bank. Now, up to Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, you're able to store your Pokemon. We know they're very important to everyone. I mean, obviously, people would be very sad if they couldn't use their Pokemon in a future game. So, it does get complicated when you talk about the details and we're still figuring it out, but we do have plans to find ways to let players use their Pokemon in the next game.
What are your favorite Pokemon games?
Masuda: Definitely Red and Green for me is the most memorable. It was a six year development with just nine of us, so we have a lot of memories from that time, both good and bad. One of the other things was that we didn't have much expectation that the game would be played by millions of people at the time. We were just developing it. At any time the company could have gone under and it may not have been released. But yeah, a lot of memories from that time.
Nabana: Red and Green, that's where I started as well. I played those games and I have great memories playing them, but over the 20 years as time went on, I think the memory got glamorized even more. It starts to just become this legend in my mind. Of course, we tried to make Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee, the re-imagining of that, to kind of live up to those. It gets more and more beautiful in your mind as time goes on, so that's what we tried to do. So those are probably my favorite games, just in my memory.
But as a developer, I think being able to work on these games and try and update them for the modern time and work as a team lead on these games, that was probably my favorite experience so far.
Going back to Red and Green and how arduous the development process was. Is there anything from back then that you wanted to specifically address or implement when updating the adventure for Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee?
Masuda: With Red and Green and even games after that, at Game Freak we always wanted to have Pokemon appear in the overworld, in the field itself. But, specifically with the original games, there was no way of doing that with the Game Boy hardware. It just couldn't handle it. We really wanted to make them feel like living creatures that are in the world with you, so you'll see on Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee they'll all have their own little unique movement characteristics. Some of them will run up and stop. They're kind of curious. It'll be fun to just discover how they all react to you.
One final question: any chance we see Pikachu's scrapped evolution, Gorochu, someday?
Masuda: You're probably not going to see it. None of the Pokemon that we worked on, got to a point, and then discarded them have actually ever re-appeared yet, so I would say the chances are low. One of the reasons for that is that we always have this base criteria at Game Freak of being able to explain why a certain Pokemon is in the world or why it exists in that world, trying to make it feel believable within the fantasy. And usually the ones that get rejected are Pokemon that we weren't able to justify, I think. Usually there's a reason for why they weren't implemented, and as long as that reason still exists, they probably won't be put in the game.
We always say Pokemon isn't a "character game." It's not a game where it's just the characters, but it's a game that shows this world where these living creatures are existing in a space. That's kind of a slight nuance, but that's what we always try to go for at Game Freak. It's not good enough that they're just cute. (Laughs) They have to have something more to it.
Nabana: I've worked on Pokemon designs myself and it really is a very arduous, time consuming process. You've got to talk to a lot of people, a lot of back-and-forth and really be able to justify it before we get to a final design.