The first Pokémon RPG adventure for Nintendo Switch, Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu! and Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee!, is almost here, and the excitement continues to grow. To learn more about the process that went into the adventure's creation, we had a chat with two members of GAME FREAK inc.—the developers of the games. Join us as we talk to Junichi Masuda, one of GAME FREAK's founders and the director of Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu! and Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee!, and Kensaku Nabana, the games' lead environment designer. Both creators were kind enough to share their thoughts on the production of these upcoming titles.
Pokemon.com: Where does the original creative spark for a new Pokémon adventure usually come from? What are the first things you work on when get that spark?
Junichi Masuda: I think that no matter who you are, if you are a creative person, a new project begins with the desire to do something specific or figure out the solution to a specific problem. For example, we have Nintendo Switch, which can be used in the living room as a home console. So we have the issue of getting people into the room to play the game. That's where we started with this project—through that concept.
The ideas of connecting the games to Pokémon GO, of creating the Poké Ball Plus to be able to use it to catch Pokémon, and of two-player multiplayer were ideas we came up with to solve that problem. We had this goal in mind and then thought about what kinds of features to implement that would meet that goal. It's the same when I create music. I always try to think about who the listener will be and what situation they will be in when listening to the music, and then I make music to fulfill that kind of image in my mind.
Pokemon.com: Mr. Masuda, these are the first games you've directed for Nintendo Switch. What opportunities afforded by the new hardware were you most intrigued by?
Masuda: At first glance, it's a complicated piece of hardware—you can connect it to the television, you can take it out with you in handheld mode, there's a touch screen, you can take off the controllers, there are gyro motion controls, and there are a lot of other elements. So in the face of those complications, the approach we took was to look at the ways we could simplify things. We took the idea of using a single controller to play the game to make that all feel less complicated, and that also opened the path to having this kind of local two-player multiplayer where you can share the controllers.
Of course, from a technology perspective, there's the increased power of the hardware, which really allowed us to have much better visuals than we've had before. The communication technology in the system also proved very valuable. For example, we use Bluetooth to allow Trainers to transfer Pokémon from Pokémon GO into Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu! and Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee!, which is something we wouldn't be able to do without that technology. Behind the scenes, it's kind of a complicated setup, but we always try to make it feel very simple for the player.
A Living World
Pokemon.com: The world of Pokémon feels more active than ever in these games, giving the sense of a living, breathing place. Was that a priority during development, and if so, why did you feel it was important?
Masuda: Because you don't battle wild Pokémon in these games, we wanted to come up with ways to encourage people to run in and go find the Pokémon they want to encounter. Having Pokémon appear in the world lets the player see the ones they want to catch and encourages them to do so, but it also makes the world feel, like you say, more alive and richer as a result.
Pokemon.com: A lot of personality shines through in the way each Pokémon moves and acts. Were there any Pokémon that proved especially challenging in this regard? And do any Pokémon stand out to you as favorites in the way they animate?
Masuda: There are two parts to how we gave the Pokémon's movements and actions a lot of personality. There are, of course, the animations that each Pokémon has, but there are also the patterns in which they move. That was something I came up with near the end of last year. I developed a basic set of rules for how all the Pokémon should move, such as how many steps they should take before they stop and let out a cry or what their behavior pattern is for when they move again.
Once I handed this set of rules over to the programmers, they added their takes on how the individual Pokémon would move for an extra layer of personality. One of the things that was memorable to me was watching one of our movement programmers. He was referring to a video of rabbits walking around when he was creating the movement for Nidoran, which ended up influencing how that Pokémon moves. I wound up really liking Nidoran's final animation.
Pokemon.com: There's a lot of focus on the two main Pokémon in these games—they're featured on the cover, they boast unique moves, and players have new ways to interact with them. Is this bond between Trainer and first Pokémon something you've always wanted to emphasize more?
Masuda: It was something we definitely aimed for in these games—to really increase that ability to form a bond with your partner Pokémon even more than you have been able to in the past. Not only can the Trainer do things to feel they're getting closer to their Pokémon, but the Pikachu and Eevee partner Pokémon in the games do things to make them feel closer to the Trainer. It's kind of a back-and-forth relationship.
Revisiting the Past
Pokemon.com: With this return to the Kanto region and the events of Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition, how do you strike the right balance between familiarity and newness? How do you decide which details to change and which to keep the same?
Masuda: Our approach to development of these games was to appeal to a broad audience. One of the big reasons for that is there are a lot of younger players who maybe didn't have their own smartphones and couldn't join in on the Pokémon GO boom. Because of this, Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu! and Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee! might be their first time playing a Pokémon video game.
So I wanted to use Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition as a base to introduce the original 151 Pokémon to them—to have them experience catching and training Pokémon, which are core gameplay elements of the Pokémon series. Now, there are a lot of features that were added in later Pokémon games, such as Eggs, Abilities, and held items, that didn't exist at the time of Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition. However, we want kids today to experience something similar to what kids enjoyed 20 years ago. Of course, there are aspects, such as link battling and trading, where we updated the feel to be something more appropriate to modern tastes.
Pokemon.com: What were some of the challenges in bringing these classic environments into a three-dimensional world for the first time? Which locales do you think look especially good or interesting in this new visual style?
Kensaku Nabana: One of the most difficult aspects of updating all the environments and maps for the new hardware and graphic style was that we wanted to keep it nostalgic for fans of the originals while also making it something that looks very inviting and appealing for younger kids. It should always be very clear where you can go, where you can't go, where Pokémon would appear, and where they wouldn't appear.
I think there was a lot of simplicity in those older pixel graphics, which made things like that obvious to the player. The graphics helped communicate things to the player, so you'll see there are quite a few things that we left mostly unchanged. We updated the way you can move around, but we made it very clear where you can go and where you can't go and where you might find Pokémon.
In terms of locales that I think look especially good or interesting, one thing that we did this time around was go back and update all the towns. We redesigned them, pretty much, giving all the towns their own personalities. I think players will have a lot of fun discovering how the locations have changed.
Pokemon.com: Mr. Masuda, you previously directed another pair of games set in the Kanto region with Pokémon FireRed and Pokémon LeafGreen on the Game Boy Advance. What lessons did you learn from that experience that you were able to bring to these games? And what different goals did you have in mind for the Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu! and Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee! video games?
Masuda: The base concept behind Pokémon FireRed and Pokémon LeafGreen was very different from what we are going for with Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu! and Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee! Back then, the primary focus was to creates games that could connect with Pokémon Ruby and Pokémon Sapphire, which were the other titles available on the Game Boy Advance. This time around, we're defining what the modern living-room Pokémon RPG experience might be when you play on a home console on a big-screen TV. We're starting from very different places, and as a result, I think you'll see the direction is quite different.
At the same time, probably because of the popularity of Pokémon the Series, I think most Pokémon fans prefer the less scary, kind of cuter, and more inviting look that the animated series provides. So the feel of the world changed to be a little less scary, and the Pokémon started to look less monsterlike and more like the impression that people get from Pokémon today. We're taking those ideas and continuing to implement them in these new games.
Behind the Scenes
Masuda: I was the one who worked on the base game concept document for Pokémon GO, and even in that original concept, I had the idea of introducing new Pokémon through the mobile game. I wanted to realize that goal by creating games that could connect with Pokémon GO and feel somewhat similar to it without feeling like we were copying it. Given my involvement in Pokémon GO's development, I felt that I was probably the best person to direct these games.
It was also interesting to work with Nintendo Switch. There's a lot of technology packed into the hardware that we were all trying to discover at GAME FREAK. For example, developing the Poké Ball Plus and working with Bluetooth to facilitate the connection with Pokémon GO were both very interesting things that I had a chance to work on as the director this time.
But at the same time, it's important to have the younger generation at GAME FREAK take over the development of Pokémon as a series. I do believe this will probably be, in terms of the main Pokémon RPGs, the last time that I work as the director.
Pokemon.com: You also served as the composer. What was your approach to enhancing/remixing the soundtrack for the Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu! and Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee! video games?
Masuda: When first approaching the idea of remixing or rearranging the music that I had originally created for Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green, I knew that I would need someone who really understood how I made that music and who is also very familiar with Pokémon. Also, due to the sheer number of songs, I would need someone who could handle that workload and would be able to rearrange the tracks in a classical music style without making huge, sweeping changes.
The person who I got to handle this was Shota Kageyama. He's a musician who's worked on Pokémon games in the past at GAME FREAK. He's really good at making dramatic music, and he's also very consistent and fast in delivering his work. I talked with him, and we came up with a style of music that we felt would be most appropriate for these games.
Again, with the concept of a Pokémon RPG in the modern living room, the music is always going to be on—you're probably not going to turn off the sound like you might on a handheld system. Because the music will be heard throughout the room, everyone will be able to hear it. So we wanted something that would feel kind and inviting—something that everyone in the household would be comfortable hearing.
We've used various music styles in the past, such as heavy metal or techno, and those are obviously things that certain people really like. At the same time, however, those styles can be divisive or intimidating to others. With that in mind, we wanted the music to feel inclusive, and I think Mr. Kageyama did a great job in achieving that.
One of the more interesting things that Mr. Kageyama did comes in the form of how he respected the original music while injecting his own variations on the themes. Most of the songs use the same key and tempo as the original versions, and he keeps things very similar for the first pass of the tune. After the initial loop happens, though, Mr. Kageyama's arrangement kicks in, allowing his own style to come through. I think it'll be very interesting for fans of the original soundtrack to listen to how it's changed.
Pokemon.com: What do you hope new Pokémon players get out of these games? How about longtime fans?
Masuda: It's kind of the same for both audiences, really, but this is the first time that a Pokémon RPG is going to be in the living room on a modern home console. That's really the focus of how we approached the development. I think seeing the Pokémon in HD visuals on a big-screen TV is going to be a lot of fun for traditional fans as well as new players.
The other big thing in these games is, obviously, pretending to throw a Poké Ball to catch Pokémon using either the Poké Ball Plus or a Joy-Con. It's similar to the Pokémon GO style of catching, but we've evolved it to be an even more immersive experience. It lets you feel like you're a Trainer really catching Pokémon in the games. I think that's going to be a lot of fun for all players. My hope is that everyone will enjoy it—not just by themselves, but also with their friends or family joining in on the fun with the two-player gameplay.
Nabana: As a fan of the original Pokémon RPGs, I want first-time players to get to know the setting and world of Pokémon and what it's like to be a Pokémon Trainer. I want them to go out and catch, train, and battle Pokémon—to enjoy all the different elements of the Pokémon RPGs.
For the longtime fans like myself, there's obviously the goal of completing the Pokédex. This time, the way you catch the original 151 Pokémon is very different from how it was in the past, so I think it'll be quite a challenge. The experience also feels very fresh because the technique of catching Pokémon is different in these games.
Other than that, we have some interesting content for longtime fans who are more interested in battling. After you finish the main story, there are Master Trainers that exist throughout the Kanto region. There's one for each of the different species of Pokémon—and each is the master of that Pokémon. That's what they call themselves. They've raised their Pokémon to be extremely strong, and you can go out and challenge them.
For example, if you find a Charmander Master, you challenge that Master Trainer with a Charmander of your own. To defeat that Charmander Master, you need a deep knowledge of how the Pokémon battle system works and you need to have a strong Pokémon. If you do manage to defeat them, you claim the title of Charmander Master for yourself. You can then travel throughout the Kanto region to collect all these different Master Trainer titles.
We would like to thank Mr. Masuda and Mr. Nabana for taking the time to chat with us about their latest games. If you want to learn even more about Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu! and Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee!, please visit the official website!