Pokémon fever is once again sweeping the nation thanks to the one-two punch in 2016 of Pokémon Go and the release of the seventh-generation #Pokemon games Sun and Moon.
While all of you might be rushing to grab your 3DS so you can catch all 801 Pokémon in the never-ending quest to become the very best and all that, one thing you might not be aware of is the fact that Pokémon developer, Game Freak, actually has a storied development history and has made other games outside of Pokémon.
Sure, they’ve been a practical Pokémon factory, producing all seven generations of Pokémon games as well as their respective spinoffs, but they’ve managed to put out a few games that might surprise even the most diehard of Pokémon fans. Before Game Freak was even a video game developer, it was a self-published fanzine created by studio founders Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori in the 1980s; Tajiri would edit and write articles while Sugimori provided illustrations.
In 1989 the two founded a video game company using the same name and began producing a number of unique games. While none of these games have ever found the same level of success as Pokémon, it's always important for an artist in any creative medium to keep experimenting and expanding their horizons. Who knows, after you’ve conquered all the trials on Alola and caught all the legendaries in Sun and Moon (and have proceeded to get your ass handed to you online by the insane pokemaniacs from Smogon), you might be interested in tracking down some of Game Freak's other works.
Game Freak’s gameography can be divided between two distinct eras. The pre-Pokémon days when they would do a wide variety of different games in many different genres, and the post-Pokémon period where the studio had a change of internal structure, so team members could pursue projects outside of the main series.
Let's start with the pre-Pokémon games.
1. 'Mendel Palace' (1989)
Mendel Palace shares a unique place within the pantheon of Game Freak games. It was their first title and was also the first game designed by Tajiri, co-creator of Pokémon. The game is a very unique action/ puzzle hybrid, the likes of which you’ll only see in such classic titles as Bomberman, that serves as the perfect example of the quirky sensibility the studio brought to their game designs.
Players are in a room composed of flippable tiles, containing several enemy dolls to defeat. Players must use their tile-flipping ability to propel enemies into walls to ultimately destroy them. It was released in America, so this one is much easier to track down than some of the other games on this list.
2. 'Yoshi’s Egg' (1991)
Also known as just Yoshi here in the States and in Europe, Yoshi’s Egg was a relatively unadventurous Tetris knockoff. Sprites of enemies from the Mario franchise would drop down the screen, and the player would try to stack them up in order to get rid of them and keep the screen from filling. Not a terribly innovative addition to the genre, but everyone loves Tetris, and everyone loves Mario, so it’s not all bad.
There are two big changes in structure though. The first is that the player moves the sprite “blocks” around at the bottom by swapping columns back and forth in order to align existing enemies on the bottom with falling enemies that cannot be controlled by the player.
The second is the addition of the egg pieces. If a bottom piece of an egg is aligned with a top piece of an egg, it doesn’t matter how many enemy blocks are between them; the whole column is cleared, and the player is treated to a baby yoshi hatching. Again, not the most adventurous game that Game Freak has to offer, but still probably a lot of fun it you like Tetris-style multiplayer games.
3. 'Magical Tarurūto-Kun' (1992)
This lighthearted platformer has two unique distinctions. One is being based on a successful 21-volume manga that ran in Shonen Jump from 1988-1992. The other is being a game featured on the Sega Megadrive. Yes, you heard that right. Game Freak, the iconic creators of Pokémon, were at one time producing games for Sega, Nintendo’s mortal enemy in the late '80s and early '90s. If you could go back in time and share this information with your friends on the playground, you’d probably blow their little minds. You’d probably also blow the minds of a few Sega executives who are probably kicking themselves for not locking up Game Freak before they became the global juggernaut they are today.
The game is a pretty simple platformer but has enough charm for those of you out there who love the old classic 16-bit platformers. The story follows the plot of the manga as players control Taruruuto' as he aids fifth grader Edojou Honmaru, who's dealing with the trials and tribulations of elementary school.
For those of you looking for something a little softer than the head-exploding action of Fist of the North Star or something a bit more charming than the energy blasts of Dragon Ball, this is a sort of cute palate cleanser on the tasting menu of Game Freak’s creations.
4. 'Mario & Wario' (1993)
Before going on to create one of the most enduring and profitable video game franchises of all time, Game Freak had the distinct pleasure of working on another Nintendo property. Pokémon design superstars Junichi Masuda and Satoshi Tajiri created one of the most unique entries in the long and storied Mario franchise.
What makes this installment especially unique is the fact that it was never released outside of Japan and required use of the Super Nintendo’s very rare mouse peripheral. The game doesn’t play like most traditional Mario platformers, and instead is kind of more like the PC classic Lemmings.
Instead of directly controlling Mario, the player controls a fairy called Wanda who protects Mario as he wanders through a stage. She uses her powers to manipulate the stage and keep the portly plumber alive. Game Freak even put a few references into the game in the original versions of Red and Blue. In some respects many of the game design choices would come back into play in the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series.
5. 'Pulseman' (1994)
The actual gameplay for Pulseman isn’t bad. It’s a pretty standard platformer with an aesthetic somewhere between Mega Man and Sonic. Pulseman looks very visually similar to Mega Man, but most of the backgrounds and enemies have a distinctly Sonic the Hedgehog vibe to them, which is kind of to be expected since the game was put out for the Sega Genesis.
If there’s anything to be gotten out of this game, it’s really just about how crazy the backstory is. In my head, Pulseman is pretty much what the lovechild of Tron and Mega Man would be if they both got kinda high first. The game’s backstory is that a computer programmer made an artificial intelligence program, and then fell in love with (and had sex with) said program by uploading his consciousness into a computer. Pulseman was…somehow…the result of their union, as Doc Yoshiyama combined his DNA with his AI’s computer program. I have no idea how that would result in a child. How does Pulseman get a physical body? Was someone responsible for 3D printing Pulseman, or was he grown in a vat or something?
(I mean, it doesn’t really matter. The '90s were a simpler time when no one really understood what the internet was or how computers worked, so you’re just kinda supposed to go with it.)
Anyway, spending time having weird digital incest sex with his cyberspace daughter turned the good doctor evil, and in a positively freudian turn of events, Pulseman must venture into the real world and defeat his father who has gathered a band of evil minions known as the Galaxy Gang.
6. 'Game Boy Camera' (1998)
Okay, so this isn’t really a game, but it’s way too weird not to include. It’s one of many confusing, slightly incoherent Nintendo peripherals that don’t really make sense. You buy a Gameboy to play games — y’know, like Wario Land or Pokémon. But for whatever reason, we have something that takes grainy, pixilated pictures, and Nintendo assumed that’s totally what children wanted.
It feels like the visual version of the Yak Bak novelty toys, except way, way more expensive. I mean, technically there were mini-games included in the Gameboy Camera, but those don’t really count. They’re pretty much knockoffs of Space Invaders and other crappy arcade games featuring people’s faces as enemies. Objectively I guess you could say it was pretty ahead of its time, since this thing was a digital camera attached to a gaming device way back in 1998. Hell, if you bought the Game Boy Printer, you could even print the pictures you took.
With the help of the Nintendo 64 transfer pak, there was even talk of using the Gameboy Camera to scan in the faces of friends and families to be put into games like Perfect Dark. Supposedly the feature was even up and running, and it was completely possible to assemble a team of bots made out of the most annoying playground bullies to fight against in a virtual death match.
But given how the late '90s saw the beginnings of the American school shooting, and Nintendo staked their reputation on being a family friendly company, it’s not too hard to see why that feature was axed at the last minute. It’s a shame, though. Donkey Kong 64 would have been so much better if you could stick your faces on those apes in multiplayer.
I really don’t understand why the Game Boy Camera isn’t way more popular with hipsters, though, because I can’t think of anything more niche than this thing, and god knows hipsters love sh*t that’s a terrible and ironic version of something that’s actually functional.
7. 'Click Medic' (1999)
Click Medic is a very odd game in many respects. It’s one of the last things you’d ever expect to see coming from the creators of Pokémon. At this point, the game is very hard to find — and especially tricky seeing how it was never localized and imported from Japan. It also has especially heretical distinction of being released on the original Playstation back before Nintendo bought Game Freak and turned them into a second-party developer.
Click Medic is one part visual novel, one part puzzle game. The game has you using a futuristic medical device, called a virtual body machine, to save patients suffering from a deadly new disease. After going through numerous dialogue windows, you play a puzzle section where you place antibodies to clear out the deadly infections.
While this is probably one of the more difficult games to track down on this list, if you do manage to get your hands on it and learn Japanese, you can count yourself amongst the special elite of Game Freak fanatics.
Now for the post-Pokémon games...
8. 'Drill Dozer' (2005)
After the success of Pokémon, Game Freak was largely responsible for solely cranking out the core games in the franchise. Somewhere between generations three and four of Pokémon (Ruby and Sapphire and Diamond and Peal respectively), they managed to create this little gem of a platformer.
In Drill Dozer you play as Jill, who is the daughter of the leader of the Bandit gang known as the Red Dozers. Her father is ambushed by a rival gang known as the Skullkers who steal Jill’s dead mom’s diamond. To get it back, Jill must invoke her inner Simon and Kamina and get into mechanical drill vehicle to show the world the power of drills.
Hell, you could say Jill was drilling into stuff before it was cool thanks to Gurren Lagann and its pathological obsession with all things spiral and drilly.
Drill Dozer has the special distinction of being a bit of a technological marvel since it was one of only two games on the Gameboy Advance to feature a built-in rumble pak. This allowed players to experience the unique thrill of rotating their drill either clockwise or counterclockwise to devastate environmental puzzles or enemies. While the game has largely been forgotten, the spirit of Jill lives on as an assist trophy in Super Smash Brothers Brawl.
9. 'HarmoKnight' (2012)
I’d like this game a lot more if it were just a regular platformer. The character designs are pretty cute, and the graphics aren’t bad for a 3DS game. The levels look great, too, and the game took a pretty worn concept and put enough charm into it to make it worth playing around with.
The gameplay bores me just a little though. The levels scroll automatically, and you have to jump or strike in rhythm to the music. It’s a neat idea, but I can’t help but feel like there was a little bit of missed potential. Honestly, what I would really like to see is something along the classic Viewtiful Joe, which was all about racking up combos and an increasing number of special abilities to do so.
It would have been so much cooler if HarmoKnight worked off of chaining combos together in time to the music, with your attacks and special abilities being both music-based and exponentially more powerful the longer you kept the melody up.
Instead we have a pretty decent game that more closely resembles one you could download on your cell phone…which it kinda was, since it’s a DS e-shop title. Probably the most interesting thing about the entire game is that it came about as a result in Game Freak’s internal structure. James Turner created the game after Game Freak decided to allow its employees to create side projects while still spending the bulk of their time working on the Pokémon franchise.
It’s a pretty cool idea, and with that in mind, HarmoKnight looks a lot more like a simple but charming indie game.
10. 'Tembo the Badass Elephant' (2015)
Easily one of the most unique games to come from the studio in their post-Pokémon development game jam, Tembo the Badass Elephant is probably the most non-Nintendo-friendly platformer you could ever imagine. Given the fact that they still restrict online play with the completely regressive 12-digit friend codes, having a curse word like “badass” in the title would be more than enough to never get this approved by the rather draconian censors of the big N.
Game Freak even went as far as going to Sega, Nintendo’s once sworn enemy, to publish this on the PC, PS4 and Xbox One. Basically just about any system that was not owned by Nintendo. In the game, you play as the titular badass elephant, Tembo, who’s like an amalgamation of every ‘80s action hero combined with an adorable elephant.
The game is an action platformer heavily influenced by games like Metal Slug and Contra. Considering how Game Freak has largely avoided doing anything you might see from a more conventional Western developer featuring guns or a military theme, this is kind of a surprising take to see a military elephant plow his way through evil minions while saving hostages and gobbling peanuts.
All I can say is that I would love for a Pokémon crossover, since Ash summoning Tempo would be infinitely more badass then that Donphan Ash got his hands on back in the original series (then proceeded to completely forget about in his PC box, where it was never mentioned again).
11. 'Giga Wrecker' (2016)
Giga Wrecker is easily the most audacious game to ever come out of Game Freak for two reasons. First, there is a more adult anime art style to this game, especially considering the fact that the majority of their other stuff has all been family-friendly cartoon stuff. This feels like the most edgy thing they’ve ever done in their attempt to court a more otaku fanbase.
But given that there’s been over 20 years of Pokémon and there’s probably more than a few fans who’ve grown up and bought Nurse Joy and Misty body pillows, maybe that makes more sense then you’d think.
The other thing is that the game is an early access PC game. Something that was normally only reserved for indie steam developers is now being done by one of Nintendo’s most precious cash cows.
For those of you not familiar with the practice, essentially early access is kind of like a beta test where gamers pay to play an unfinished game and sort of see it change and evolve through updates. The game sees you controlling an anime girl who’s able to absorb metal and debris into her arm to form weapons, defeat enemies, and solve puzzles. Giga Wrecker is easily one of the boldest games to ever come out of the studio in terms of breaking away from what they’ve done previously.
So it's for those of you who are willing to take the risk to play something that may never be finished — but god knows you’ll need something to pass the time as you wait for the inevitable eigth-generation Pokémon game.
So that’s it, folks! Game Freak has been around for 27 years with quite a few games under its belt. Most of their work has been for Nintendo, but they’ve also done work for Sega, Sony and even Microsoft. Of course, they can never quite get away from Pokémon. No matter how much they try to get away from pikachu, that little electric mouse keeps pulling them back in.
So what do you think? Does anything we listed have the potential to rival the Pokémon franchise? Let us know which ones sound the most interesting in the comments below.