How The Original Pokémon Data Was Almost Lost Due To A Bad Computer Crash



With Pokémon: Let’s Go! coming out soon, Junichi Masuda looked back at some of his favorite memories from making the original Pokémon games that included close calls and fond moments, speaking with Polygon.


In the interview about the earlier days at Game Freak, Masuda compared it to a “college club” long before the worldwide hit. Here are some highlights:


Pokémon is now a huge phenomenon. How has your life and the life at Game Freak changed over the years as Pokémon has continued to grow — going from this young, smaller studio to developing one of the biggest franchises in the world?

Masuda: Back when we were first making the games, it was less […] We could hardly even be called a company at the time. We were just almost like a college club or something, where people who were interested would just gather and hang out. They’d come to work whenever they want, leave whenever they want. Some people would be sleeping over, because they worked so hard into the night.

It was just more almost like a little community spot for those of us who were making and working on the games. After the success of Pokémon and as it’s evolved over the years, where now they’re in 3D now and we need more and more staff to be able to make these games, obviously we’ve become a lot more of a proper company — there’s rules in place, and we have to work with other companies and operate like a proper business. That’s probably the biggest change.

As a result of that, I think the initial freedom we had, which allowed us to really just not care about anything, ideas that we wanted to implement in the game, that was how we operated back then. We still try to do that, but it’s obviously become more difficult now that we have this more proper company structure. That’s probably the biggest difference.

What I mean by that being like a challenge, because we’re a business now with Pokémon being so huge, being able to just rewind is difficult, because a lot of the people who are now on the team, they also grew up with Pokémon. They have an idea of what Pokémon is supposed to be. They’ve played these games, they’ve enjoyed them themselves. Just taking for example, on Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee!, even the idea of getting rid of wild Pokémon battles and trying something different was obviously met with a lot of resistance at first.

People were just like, “No. Of course. It’s Pokémon, there’s wild battles. That’s how it is.” There’s a lot of these unspoken rules that people feel [can’t change], but at the same time at Game Freak, we always want to be open to trying new things. If someone has a good idea or wants to try something out, we want to be able to actually do that. That’s just always a challenge that comes up with each project, just making sure that we don’t take anything for granted.

It’s always just, “What do we want to do with this project? What do we want to try out this time?” We really just discuss it with the team and game and find out what the best direction is for that game. One thing I’m always saying at the beginning of a project, you’re always telling the team is when you’re making a new Pokémon, don’t make Pokémon from Pokémon. Make Pokémon from scratch. What would you do if it wasn’t a Pokémon game? How would you make the game? Always be in that mindset, is what I’m always trying to tell the team.


Masuda on best memories from making the original games:

What are some of the best memories that you can recall from making the original game back then?

Junichi Masuda: One of the more happy episodes or more positive stories, I really don’t remember so well, but I think the most memorable […] happening that I still have in my mind after all these years is that we were developing the game on these Unix computer stations called the Sun SPARCstation 1. […] We’re developing, and they’re these Unix boxes, and they crashed quite a bit. Back then, computers would crash fairly frequently.

Somewhere midway through the development, maybe in the fourth year or so, we had a really bad crash that we couldn’t, we didn’t know how to recover the computer from. That had all of the data for the game, all of the Pokémon, the main character and everything. It really felt like, “Oh my God, if we can’t recover this data, we’re finished here.” I just remember doing a lot of different research. I called the company that I used to work for, seeing if they had any advice to recover the data.

I would go on this internet service provider back then called Nifty Serve. It’s like a Japanese version of CompuServe. I’d go on and ask people that I never talked to for advice on how to recover the data. I would look at these English books about the machine itself, because there wasn’t a lot of information in Japanese, just to figure it out. We eventually figured out how to recover it, but that was like the most nerve-wracking moment, I think, in development.

I was one of two programmers on the initial project. I also did the audio and the music in the game, but it was pretty much that the programming was just me and this one other guy. I just remember we both were into techno music at the time. So we would be working late into the night, it’d just be the two of us, and we would turn on this really heavy techno music — make it feel like it’s like a club or something. We would just be programming late into the night doing that, so that was pretty good memories.


Masuda on when he realized the game got popular:

When you guys were working on it, there were obviously some dramatic times, some difficulties. What was the moment when you realized, “Oh, this game is huge” after you released it? When did you say, “Nope, this is a phenomenon. This is gigantic?”

Masuda: The day of release [of Pokémon Red and Green], the whole team that worked on the development, we all went around to some different shops to just see how it was doing. We could tell it was actually selling fairly well. At the time, of course, there was no social media or anything like that, no way to get instant reactions from people. We just didn’t really get a lot of information in a very speedy way, so there was a while there that we didn’t really know exactly how well it was doing.

We started seeing the deposits from Nintendo, obviously. That hinted to us that it was selling pretty well. Then you started to see in the, after a while, the newspapers, you’d see articles talking about how this new Pokémon thing is becoming a big hit with the kids. In Japan, the games came first. It spread in popularity through word of mouth, primarily.

It wasn’t until later when you started seeing, “OK, there’s going to be an animated series. Oh, there’s going to be a card game. Now there’s a manga weekly publication.” When those things expanded into this multimedia thing in Japan, we really started to feel like, “Oh wow, this is a big deal now.”

Once the game came out overseas, that was a big hit. I remember just we got all of these requests to review products that people wanted to make. We got so many requests for all these different products that licensees wanted to make, I just remember the number of these requests just being insane at the time. I felt that, “Oh wow, this is really a big deal.” Then we actually visited, I was able to visit the U.S. and see all these different products on the shelves and everything, just see how big it had become even outside of Japan.

I think part of that was just due to the strategy of releasing it outside of Japan, where they started with the animated series first to get people excited about Pokémon as a universe and then release the game. You could really tell that they […] the strategy just worked really well to make it a huge hit overseas.


Read the full interview at Polygon.


Pokémon Red & Green first released in Japan in February 1996 for the Game Boy. It released in North America as Pokémon Red & Blue in September 1998, followed by Europe in October 1999.

Gamer, avid hockey fan, and firm believer in the heart of the cards.