"Too Cute to be Successful in the U.S.:" Pokemon Developer Junichi Masuda Feared the Cutesy Jigglypuff Would be Rejected by Americans

Junichi Masuda initially worried America wouldn't be able to relate to Pokemon's cuter, softer specimens.

Feature by Nadia Oxford, .

It's cliché to look back on the phenomenal popularity of Pokemon and talk about its "humble beginnings," but franchise origin stories don't come much humbler than Pokemon's. Pokemon Red, Blue, and the Japan-exclusive Green was developed as a passion project with tiny teams. After six years of sporadic development, it arrived on the Game Boy, a system that had nearly breathed its last by 1996.

Pokemon's hurdles to success seemed difficult enough to clear in Japan; the possibility of achieving popularity in the United States was a whole 'nother can of Wurmples. Pokemon director, designer, and composer Junichi Masuda worried Pokemon's turn-based RPG format would be a turn-off for Americans. He was also afraid westerners would give the game the cold shoulder because of cutesy Pokemon like Jigglypuff and Clefairy.

Being from the moon myself, Clefairy is exactly the kind of positive representation I like to see in kids' shows.

"At first, we were told that the Pokemon were too cute to be successful in the U.S. and that we should change the design of the characters," Masuda tells us via an email interview. "At the time, it wasn’t common for RPGs from Japan to be popular overseas. I remember being worried that players outside of Japan wouldn’t accept Pokemon for what it was."

Pokemon's original roster of 151 monsters range from "tough and cool" to "so very fluffy and cute." While Masuda expected intimidating Pokemon like Charizard and Mewtwo to find an American audience, he was afraid the rounder, pinker Pokemon on the roster would be scorned. "Thankfully, my worries proved to be unfounded," he says, "and all of the Pokemon found their fans even outside of Japan."

There's a good chance the Pokemon anime helped endear Westerners to the likes of Jigglypuff. Who can forget the strawberry-colored menace singing its audience to sleep, growing irritated at such a rude show of inattentiveness, then scrawling on the sleepers' faces as a "take that?" Charizard's power and Mewtwo's dark, deadly moods can't bring the laughs like a Jigglypuff scorned.

Masuda admits introducing the West to the Pokemon anime alongside the games was a smart move overall. We eventually received tons of merchandise and the card game to help fuel PokeMania but putting the anime on U.S. airwaves was top priority. "We decided to start with the animated TV series," Masuda says, "and I think that strategy really paid off."

Pokemon Red and Blue came westward long before social media was born (though fans were already hard at work constructing Pokemon webpages). Masuda's fears about Pokemon finding a fanbase amongst Americans weren't alleviated until 1999 when he attended a screening of Mewtwo Strikes Back (localized here as Pokemon: The First Movie in LA.

"Once I arrived in the U.S., I saw just how many Pokemon products were on store shelves. There were far more products than I expected, and I remember being very surprised," he recalls. "Seeing the sheer number of products available in the shops was probably the first time I truly realized just how big Pokemon had become."

Masuda believed Americans could easily relate to an angry space cat grown in a test tube. And, well, he's not wrong.

Masuda also talked to Polygon this week about the struggles his little team came up against when making Pokémon Red and Green ("Even when we were talking to our friends in the industry and saying that, 'Oh, we’re working on a Game Boy game,' they were like, 'Really? You’re working on a Game Boy game? That’s not going to sell very well, don’t you think?'”). He also muses about the difficulties of re-visiting the Kanto region in an age of high-speed internet, smartphones, and other major technological advancements made since 1996.

We live in divided and uncertain times, but we can take some small comfort in the fact the entire world is proud to stand up and say "JIGGLYPUFF IS VALID" in a single resounding voice. Here's to 20 more years of Pokemon games, anime, manga, and baby names. No, I'm serious.

In celebration of Pokemon coming westward two decades ago, USgamer put together "Pokemon Week." We have tons of great articles celebrating the games, the fandom, and the cultural upheaval that occurred when Pikachu first sloshed ashore. Read 'em all!

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Comments 6

  • Avatar for SIGGYZtar #1 SIGGYZtar 17 days ago
    Rachael Lillis really sold me on Jigglypuff, I'm surprised she's only 40!
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #2 NiceGuyNeon 17 days ago
    I feel like people are always worried about what we'll like, but I'm glad Pokemon just stuck to being Pokemon and people loved it as it was. We love cute stuff here. I have a stuffed Pikachu on my nightstand.

    This also reminds me of Square-Enix's The Last Remnant and how the two main characters were some wussy lead to cater to Japanese audiences, and this massive burly dude in red to cater to everyone else, except his clothes were red because they were STAINED WITH BLOOD and Square-Enix had the nerve to advertise this as the "RPG for the world"

    I'll stick with the pink marshmallow, thanks oh worldly JRPG publishers...
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #3 Godots17thCup 17 days ago
    As someone that generally prefers the cuter Pokemon designs - I always end up having conflicted feelings when it comes time to start turning my adorable little Poke-toddlers into atomic super monsters - I'm really grateful that this aspect of the series has managed to cross the oceans unscathed.

    I'm not sure Pokemon would have the broad appeal or lasting power that it enjoys had the series been limited to only certain types of monster designs.
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  • Avatar for Beatnuki #4 Beatnuki 17 days ago
    It's always surprising reading back at just how on the fence the Japanese developers were in making Pokemon end up a global phenomenon!

    I think the critter variety of the games themselves had a big part in the success too though. Yes, you had your cuter creatures, but I remember as a kid being fascinated by the idea of many of those evolving into cooler, sleeker forms as they leveled up.

    Thinking about it, it was likely that evolution mechanic that first got me hooked!
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  • Avatar for technewsera #5 technewsera 16 days ago
    "At first, I read about Pokemon was too cute to be successful in the U.S. and that we should change the design of the characters. just I think.
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  • Avatar for arbtech #6 arbtech 15 days ago
    SnapTubeTubeMateTest Dpc Edited 2 times. Last edited 2 weeks ago by arbtech
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