I came across an English-language translation (courtesy of Shumplations) of a 2000 interview with Mr. Yoshio Sakamoto, a Japanese video game director and designer. After discussing his career, the interview shifted to what was then Mr. Sakamoto’s newest project, a Game Boy trading card game called Card Hero (never released in the United States). A couple of passages from the Card Hero discussion touched on issues involving progress in video game visuals and fun game-play – specifically with reference to the original Pokémon Red and Blue, which I have written about a bit here at The New Leaf Journal.

I pick up the interview at the point where Mr. Sakamoto was asked when he had started working on Card Hero. He began his response:

Around four years ago [in 1996]… when people were talking about N64 and PlayStation. It was the era when graphics were being pushed to the forefront, and I thought that direction would be the mainstream from that point on…

While there were 3D games prior to the 1994 release of the Sony PlayStation, the PlayStation, in conjunction with the Nintendo 64 (1996), were the first successful consoles known primarily for 3D game experiences (I offer an honorable mention to the Sega Saturn, which was of the same console generation but more oriented toward 2D games than its more successful competitors). 2D games from the previous console generation were still popular and the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 both have strong libraries of 2D adventures, but as Mr. Sakamoto stated, much of the energy in game design and consumption was directed toward exploring 3D worlds.

I argued in an article titled Video Game Stories and Standing the Test of Time that games with timeless stories or unique mechanics are more likely to age well than games that rely heavily on what constitutes the cutting edge graphical technology of the moment (see also Designing video games to produce benefits).

As I noted in an earlier post titled Video Game Visuals That Age Well, the 1990s era games that look the best today are not what were considered to be the most technologically impressive when they were released. For example, while the first fully 3D Mario game, Super Mario 64, has held up quite well as it slowly approaches the 30-year anniversary of its 1996 release, it is far less aesthetic than the fully 2D Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, which was released for the Nintendo 64’s far less powerful predecessor, the Super Nintendo, and it remains one of the most visually striking games ever produced.

We cut off Mr. Sakamoto’s quote where he stated that he had believed that games made a decisive turn to 3D in the late 1990s. Let us see what he said next:

[B]ut then the Game Boy Pocket and Pokémon were released.

Before continuing, note that Pokémon was released in Japan in February 1996, about 41 months before its September 1998 release in the United States. Now back to Mr. Sakamoto:

Pokémon was a very innovative creation, and I was impressed by all the little touches used to make it feel like you were really collecting living creatures; at the same time, the Game Boy Pocket was not just smaller but had become a much more appealing accessory to want to carry around.

Screen capture of the title screen for Pokemon Red, showing Red standing next to a Charmander under the game's title.
Title screen for Pokémon Red. I captured this on my computer.

While 3D games dominated the console market in the late 1990s, the most commercially successful games of the decade in both the United States and Japan were the original Pokémon games (the generation 1 Pokémon games were only surpassed as the best selling games of all time in Japan in early 2022).

Related: Pokémon: Pathways to Adventure (1999) Review (review of a 1999 Pokémon adventure book and strategy guide with reference to my own experiences with it). Bill’s Secret Garden – A Pokémon Generation 1 Urban Legend (my memories of a peculiar version of a Pokémon urban legend).

I examined this phenomenon in a November 2022 article titled Imagination in Pokémon Red and Blue. Much of the post was informed by my own experiences with Pokémon Red in 1998 and 99. The inspiration for that article was a quote by Mr. Julian Sefton-Green in a psychology paper about how his 6-year-old son interacted with Pokémon:

…[T]he Pokémon game flew in the face of dominant patterns of game development in the computer-gaming industry, which for years has been engaged in the single-minded pursuit of greater cinematic realism.

Julian Sefton-Green in “Initiation Rights: A Small Boy in a Poké-World” (from Pikachu’s Global Adventure)

I offered many reasons for what made the Pokémon games uniquely engaging, settling on how they inspired the imagination of players as being the most significant factor. Mr. Sakamoto focused on two aspects in his quote: game design and the portability of the Game Boy Pocket. I assume he was also implicitly noting the interactive elements of Pokémon – facilitated by the Game Boy Link Cable – in conjunction with the portability of the Pocket, which was a significant upgrade in the area of portability from the battery-chugging original model Game Boy.

(Note: The Game Boy Color was already available in the United States when Pokémon Red and Blue crossed the Pacific.)

The success of Pokémon in conjunction with the popularity of a physical trading card game, Magic: The Gathering, gave Mr. Sakamoto an idea:

Pokémon is a game that cultivates affection for … ‘items’, Game Boy Pocket was a platform that could realize them, and [Magic: The Gathering] offered a game format, so I started to think combining and synthesizing elements from all three would make something really fun.

Of course, one may ask whether this project had to be a Game Boy Game. Mr. Sakamoto had plenty of experience with console games (detailed earlier in the interview). However, Mr. Sakamoto was determined to chart his course:

I decided it’d be a Game Boy project from the very beginning–no matter how great the graphics were or how fast the processing speed was on other hardware, it wasn’t going to work anywhere else.

Card Hero appears to have been released for Game Boy Color, which had largely superseded the classic black and white Game Boy by 2000. It appears that portability, being able to play on the go and, I assume, interact with others, was intrinsic to Mr. Sakamoto’s concept for Card Hero and this was more important than the power offered by the 3D-oriented consoles of the day. He went on to explain how he and his team worked to make the card game balanced and deep while remaining accessible to people who did not have experience with competitive card games in the mold of Magic or the Pokémon Trading Card Game. Other than portability, little of this required the Game Boy. But Mr. Sakamoto found some value in the Game Boy’s limitations. The following passage is Mr. Sakamoto discussing how it would sometimes take the computer a non-trivial amount of time to settle on a move against the human player:

[S]ometimes it takes too long, but isn’t that rather ‘human-like’? In logic-oriented games like this, there’s a tendency to think that a faster computer is always better, but many of the people who are into Card Hero have said, ‘I’m really thinking about my moves, so it wouldn’t be fun if the computer could immediately shut me down’, and they like that the speed of the computer’s response gives them a feel for when they’re really sweating their next move (laughs). It’s not as if ‘faster CPU routines = correct response’, but I mean, we didn’t deliberately make it slow on purpose.

Working within the confines of limited hardware can yield unexpected benefits.

Card Hero was never released outside Japan. One Game Boy card game that did make it stateside was the Pokémon Trading Card Game for Game Boy Color. That game was terrific, holds up well today, and has a bona fide case for the title of best Pokémon spinoff game. In light of Mr. Sakamoto’s interesting 2000 interview and the fact that Pokémon Trading Card Game is one of my favorite Game Boy games, I would be interested in trying an English-language version of Card Hero. Sadly, Card Hero has remained exclusively Japanese for 23 years, including a 2011 virtual console re-release, rendering it highly unlikely that it will be given an official English release.

Game Boy has seen a bit of renaissance of late (see On the Game Boy Renaissance). While some of this is owed to nostalgia, another part of the resurgence in interest recognizes that there were many fine games produced for a console that was fairly primitive when it was released at the end of the 1980s, much less by the time Card Hero was released in 2000. However, notwithstanding all that has changed, Mr. Sakamoto’s assessment remains just as true with today’s technology as it was in 2000. I argued in Engrossing but not Excessively Addictive that a game should ideally inspire meaningful engagement. Sharp, modern visuals can help make a game more engrossing, but they do not complete the circuit. A well-designed game can, even bound by the constraints of limited hardware or resources, offer a uniquely meaningful experience.

Tangentially Related: Winds of New Beginnings: Pokémon Gold & Silver (reflections on the 20-year anniversary of the U.S.-release of Pokémon Gold and Silver). The Pokémon Special Split in Generation 2 – Statistics and Analysis (a study of stats in the original and second-generation Pokémon games). Nintendo Power’s 1999 Yoshi in Pokémon April Fools Prank (stories from the Pokémon phenomenon in 1999). Until We Meet Again Visual Novel Review (reviewing an old visual novel with strikingly aesthetic visuals).