Joe Cool asks:

Have you had the chance to take a look at the recently leaked Space World ’97 demo of Pokemon Gold and Silver? I would love to hear what you think about each of the scrapped and heavily altered Pokemon designs. If you haven’t seen them yet, you can find them here: https://tcrf.net/Proto:Pok%C3%A9mon_Gold_and_Silver

Wellll, I saw it, and I kinda went back and forth on whether to say anything about it, and eventually just sort of waffled until it felt like the moment had passed, but here we are, so…

The synopsis for people who haven’t seen any of this yet is as follows: The Cutting Room Floor, a community that studies material from video game development that was cut from commercial release, recently got hold of a very early beta version of Gold and Silver.  This version of the game was available to play at Nintendo’s Space World trade show in November 1997 – almost exactly two years before the games were actually released in Japan.  Only a tiny part of the game was actually accessible in the demo without debug commands, but all the Pokémon and maps of most of the region (though nothing that tells us much about the story) are in the code if you know where to look, and the effects of those two years of development are pretty evident.  It features a region apparently based on the whole of Japan (with Kanto being reduced to a single city – Pallet Town is intact, Pokémon Tower stands in the northeast, and we have the most important buildings from Saffron City and Celadon City, but the rest is almost unrecognisable; the Kanto Gym sits in the location roughly corresponding to the Indigo Plateau), Gold and Silver’s day/night mechanics and Pokégear with radio and cell phone functions, as well as 100 Pokémon that were not in generation I.  Not all of these are the same as the 100 Pokémon that we actually got in the final commercial release of generation II.  Some were already known from concept art that has leaked over the years, such as the scrapped Fire and Water starter Pokémon, or the early version of Girafarig’s design, but several are completely new to us.  Because the demo was never meant to be played for more than 10 minutes or so, the vast majority of these Pokémon weren’t supposed to be seen, which means they aren’t just placeholders created so there would be something to see in the demo; they were at some point actually intended to be put into the game, until they were replaced by different designs.

I don’t want to talk in detail about all of them, partly because that would take forever but mostly because there are a lot that I just don’t have that much to say about.  In broad terms, though, we have five categories:

  • Pokémon that seem to have made it into the release build of Gold and Silver basically unaltered aside from their names, or with only minor changes in their appearance.  Depending on which ones you count, there are about 25-35 of these, including Chikorita and Meganium, the whole Mareep line, Natu and Xatu, Quagsire, Espeon, Skarmory and Crobat.  Snubbull is there, but is a Psychic-type and does not evolve.  Happiness mechanics do not seem to have been implemented yet (these build on Pikachu’s happiness tracking in Yellow, which was not released until 1998), so Pokémon like Crobat evolve by levelling up instead; there also seems to have been a Psychic-affiliated evolutionary stone, the Heart Stone, that was used to obtain Xatu, Politoed and Espeon.
  • Pokémon that exist in generation II as we know it, but seem to have been quite different at this stage of the development cycle.  There are about 25 of these; many of them do not yet have their final Japanese names.  Bayleef is there but looks completely different, more like a flower with a little blobby creature sitting inside it, and I wonder if this is actually a relic of some other design altogether that wasn’t meant to be associated with Chikorita or Meganium.  Ledian looks more like a Ledyba with stars instead of spots, and might have been intended to be paired with Ledyba somehow rather than an evolution.  Mantine seems feathery, and Kingdra is much spikier than usual.  Delibird has a hat and beard that make him much more clearly based on Santa.  Blissey has a sort of heart-shaped crest thing, and Girafarig is much more symmetrical, with a complete neck and head at each end.  Porygon 2 is… uh… this, for some reason?  Raikou, Entei and Suicune are all present, but look completely different from their final forms.  Sneasel is not yet an Ice-type, and is much cuter but more generic-looking.  Umbreon, weirdly, is a Poison-type, and evolves from Eevee through the use of something called a Poison Stone, which I suppose finally explains why Umbreon has poisonous sweat, and why he seems so out-of-place among the other early Dark Pokémon (despite being Gold and Silver’s only pure Dark-type).  Bellossom uses the same stone and is Grass/Poison, suggesting she was originally meant as a Vileplume counterpart who would be more toxic, not less.
  • Evolved or baby forms of existing Pokémon from generation I.  There are, I think, 17 of these: baby forms of Tangela, Goldeen, Paras, Doduo (strangely three-headed), Meowth, Vulpix, Ponyta, Grimer, Growlithe and Mr. Mime (this last one bears a certain resemblance to Mime Jr.), and evolved forms of Tangela (not unlike Tangrowth in appearance), Ditto, Farfetch’d (who looks swan-like, carries a sceptre, and seems to wear a crown), Pinsir (elements of this design might have been reworked into Heracross) and Lickitung, as well as an Eevee evolution that is clearly a primordial form of Leafeon.  Finally, Weepinbell has a Poison Stone evolution as a counterpart to Bellossom, which I can only describe as a fat Bellsprout.
  • Possibly Pokémon designs that were cut from generation II, but reworked into Pokémon that we know from generation III or later.  These are conjecture and I’m not sure there’s a strong case for either.  However, commentators at The Cutting Room Floor suggest that the Water-type starter line – blue-tinted seal Pokémon – might have influenced Poplio, Brionne and Primarina (possible, but they look fairly nondescript), while a shaggy white two-stage Ice-type might have influenced Snover and Abomasnow, although the names – which reference the English words “wolf” and “werewolf” – suggest to me that this is a separate concept, based on werewolves rather than yetis or snow-covered trees, that was altogether abandoned.
  • Designs that correspond to no known Pokémon.  There are 16 of these, if you don’t count the ones from the previous group.  The Fire starters are silky-furred bear Pokémon that show only a passing resemblance to the Cyndaquil line.  Qwilfish has an evolution, who is essentially just a big Qwilfish.  There is a sunfish-like Water Pokémon that evolves into a Water/Steel shark with a trailing anchor, and then from there (bizarrely) into a gulper eel.  I’m not sure what makes any of those three stages go together; that lack of cohesion might be the reason for the abandonment of the design.  There’s a… two-headed floating blob thing, which apparently evolves into Girafarig for some reason (both are Normal/Dark in this version, not Normal/Psychic) – again, I can understand why this was ditched, because Girafarig makes more sense without it.  There’s a cute Dark-type cat Pokémon with a bell on its tail and a more fearsome-looking evolution.  There’s a shell Pokémon that seems to be a Shellder that has detached from a Slowbro or Slowking but retained its spiral form, though the game data doesn’t give any clues to how the player might have obtained it.  There’s a Fire/Water performing seal who plays with a flaming bomb rather than a rubber ball.  Which is clearly hilarious.  There are two stages of an electrical tiger Pokémon; these might ultimately have been thought redundant with Electabuzz, although the younger form looks to me as though it might have been an early foray into the wonderful world of Pikachu cloning.  Finally, we have a Ghost-type cursed straw effigy or voodoo doll (this concept might have been picked up with Shuppet and Banette), which evolves into a… panda with traits of a jiangshi (a Chinese vampire).  Because… sure!
  • There’s also a substantial list of Pokémon we do know from Gold and Silver who are missing here.  The Cyndaquil and Totodile lines, of course, are absent, likewise Sentret and Furret.  Chinchou and Lanturn might have replaced the odd anchor shark-into-gulper eel Pokémon, and Heracross might have been reworked from the Pinsir evolution.  Togepi, Snubbull and Marill are there, but do not evolve.  Sunflora and Quagsire are there, but not Sunkern or Wooper, and Sunflora is Grass/Psychic.  Sudowoodo, Misdreavus, Wobbuffet, Yanma, Dunsparce, Gligar, Shuckle, Corsola, and Stantler are all missing completely; so are the Slugma, Pineco, Swinub, Teddiursa and Larvitar lines.  And to be honest, I’m kinda glad Game Freak seem to have scrapped all those other designs to work on the Pokémon we actually got instead – they are, for the most part, probably a lot more interesting than all those baby forms would have been, the lost evolutions mostly look fairly bland (Leafeon, when he finally turned up, was not exactly spectacular), and even the independent designs that were scrapped completely don’t look all that intriguing (except maybe for the bomb seal and jiangshi/panda; they can stay).  We also seem to be missing Lugia, which is strange considering how much design work goes into mascot legendary Pokémon in later generations.  They’d already decided to have Ho-oh be a mascot Pokémon by the time of the trade show at which the demo was shown, but seem to have been using her as a mascot for both Gold and Silver – maybe they had only recently decided to stick with the two-versions model, since they had just been calling the game Pokémon 2 in promotional information as recently as September 1997. All this does explain why Lugia isn’t really involved with the other legendary Pokémon of Johto – Suicune, Entei and Raikou are closely tied to Ho-oh, who resurrected them after the burning of the Brass Tower, but Lugia’s only connection to that story is that he was kind of there.

I think this is interesting as a glimpse of Game Freak’s design process and production cycle at a still very early point in Pokémon’s history. The games had actually been announced in 1996, only a few months after the release of Red and Green, and their release was originally planned for the end of 1997 (the same year as the first episode of the Pokémon anime, which featured Ho-oh), but there were a lot of delays. Game Freak was still a very small team in the 90s, and they hadn’t been expecting the runaway success of Red and Green in Japan that led to demand for international versions. These ended up being the Red and Blue most of us know, more polished than the original Japanese-only games and released in North America and Australasia in 1998. They were also working for some of that time on Yellow, for a Japanese release in 1998 and overseas in 1999. That must have been a pretty crazy couple of years, and it’s no surprise that Gold and Silver mostly went dark to the public in 1998. For a lot of that time, generation II would have been on the developers’ minds even when they weren’t necessarily able to actively work on it – so it makes sense, I think, that the sorts of changes we see from demo to release are not just tinkering, but changes in vision. The 1997 demo of Gold and Silver has a lot more baby Pokémon than the final version, as well as more evolutions of first generation Pokémon, which speaks to a much greater dependence on the previous games; I suspect a lot of them (and maybe some of the unique designs as well) were ideas that had been played with for Red and Green. The idea of setting the games in a region based on all of Japan, too, says something like “we’re doing the same thing, this is the same game, just bigger,” and makes the world and its inhabitants seem more homogenous. Choosing to focus on just one region instead, the same size as the first, and cut most of the Pokémon with explicit evolutionary links to generation I, replacing them with completely new designs, emphasises much more the variety and diversity of the Pokémon world. The Space World ’97 version of the game, to me, is still very focused on “finishing” Pokémon, on tidying up everything that the team hadn’t managed to put into generation I, still under the assumption that this could very well be the last Pokémon game. By the time Gold and Silver were completed they understood, I think, that this was just the beginning.

 

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