Words: Will Nelson
Describing, succinctly at least, exactly what Pokémon is a whole 25 years after the release of the Game Boy's Pokémon Red & Blue titles is impossible. It isn't just games, it's cards, TV shows, movies, mobile games, clothing lines, toys, and more. The brand of Pokémon has permeated every level of culture imaginable. It's a multimedia powerhouse that has defined multiple generations.
These are the ways Pokémon presents itself. Underneath all of that are fan-driven communities, projects, artists, game designers, and people who make Pokémon their own. The community is so large it has become essentially self-sustaining in how content and relevance spawns from the fans themselves.
With that in mind, I spoke to an artist, musician, ROM hacker, and someone who dives into Pokémon history, all in the hope of uncovering how the fans have evolved Pokémon to mean something more than the sum of its parts.
Why? Because Pokémon would be nothing if it weren't for its fans.
As it turns out, a lot of Pokémon fans want to know what could have been, and this is where Dr Lava steps in. With 151K followers on Twitter, he dives into "lost Pokémon history". Finding old magazine articles and interviews, having them translated, and showing off lost sprites and art. He calls it the "shoulda's and woulda's" of Pokémon.
"It feels good to find rare information... I always think, 'nobody knows this and people are gonna like this'," he tells me "I love the thrill of the chase of finding an old magazine and getting it translated, and sometimes it coming back with something new."
That cycle is what keeps Dr Lava doing what he does, and clearly some people want to see what he finds. He told me that he's not even the first person to do this, as a group called Helix Chamber have been unearthing Pokémon secrets for the last few years. Their level of success told Dr Lava that people want to know what could have been in the world of Pokémon.
What makes part of Dr Lava's approach so unique though is that he commissions artwork for a lot of the lost and beta Pokémon designs.Rachel Briggs is one of the people who makes this art for Dr Lava's posts, and she even emulates the iconic Ken Sugimori watercolour style.
"Animals and creatures were what I always liked to draw, especially mythical creatures," she explains. "so Pokémon was really cool because there's all these weird magical animals, and they can be your friends.
"I love the art style, there's just something so captivating about the watercolour, it really influenced my art."
When the Space World '97 demo leaked back in 2018, featuring creatures cut from the games Gold and Silver, Rachel saw all the unused Pokémon sprites and took action. "These need love," she thought. "What if they had come out? What would that [art] have looked like?"
Rachel felt that sharing her art was the only way for these representations to be out in the world. She absolutely loves the reactions to what she does, which in turn proves that fans still love these beta and lost Pokémon designs.
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"I always go and read all the comments, my favourite ones are the ones that say, 'This would've been my favourite if it existed,' or say what it reminds them of. As a lot of times the art comes down to personal decisions I make for the Pokémon sprite.
"A lot of people weren't too aware of the leaks or didn't look into them, but seeing the reactions to 'new old' content is so cool, you get to see people surprised over and over again."
This notion of people taking older Pokémon content and revitalising it isn't just subject to the game art, it also extends to the music. That's why I speak to Tristan D. Perez, a composer and arranger who turned the Pokémon Emerald soundtrack into a symphonic score.
Tristan's relationship with Pokémon is incredibly personal, as he tells me "the [series] music led me to the games". After hearing the orchestral mixes for Pokémon in Super Smash Bros. Melee he instantly fell in love, so much so that even his concert music feels like it's from a video game.
We get to talking about his composition for Littleroot Town from Pokémon Emerald, and he tells me that because his version is orchestral, he can incorporate new song progression via instruments, from simple all the way to lush. Which can really bring out the sense that it's the start of an epic journey.
"I hope that I'm doing something to help get people excited about this music in a new context," he explains. "Maybe I'm inspiring people to get more into instrumental music and understand this music in a different way."
In turning Pokémon music into an orchestral piece and making it readily available on platforms like Spotify, creators like Tristan are simultaneously both a bridge for Pokémon fans to access the music, and able to give them a new context to experience it in.
Perhaps the most well known and drastic way that Pokémon gets put into a new context is through ROM hacks. These change the original ROM files of a game to create a wholly new experience. One of the most prolific ROM hackers is Wind1158, and they tell me why they do it.
"It's fun making Pokémon games with stuff you would never see in official games. I always prefer ROM hacks with a new storyline, I love how people put their own ideas in the games."
Wind1158's most recent ROM, Pokémon Nameless, is a prequel to their other games. This Pokémon FireRed hack incorporates Gens 4-8, Mega Evolutions, and a partly open world with no gyms. The truly amazing thing about Wind1158's work is how the original Pokémon titles are flipped, crossing over modern mechanics and generations, but having a wholly unique approach to story and progression.
The common denominator through all these conversations is that while what some fans make isn't entirely new, it always breathes new life into the Pokémon franchise. This combination of creativity and building off the old is widespread across Pokémon, going well beyond the people in this article.
Pokémon is very special to a lot of people, even inspiring some to create and giving them a foundation to do so. Not only that, but it has allowed them to give something new to longtime and dedicated fans, all these years later.
Check out more articles in GAMINGbible's Pokémon Week, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the franchise:
Pokémon Red, Blue and Green: How The Nintendo Game Boy Hits Were Made
My First Pokémon: Our Original Pocket Monsters
Featured Image Credit: Dr Lava, Rachel Briggs, The Pokémon Company
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