Chasing Mew: How the World Became Obsessed with Pokemon

How a simple marketing ploy led to years of Pokémon obsession.

This article originally appeared in the Den of Geek New York Comic Con special edition print magazine. You can find the digital copy here.

In 1996, Satoshi Tajiri faced a dilemma. The Pokémon creator had just released Pokémon Red and Green in Japan, accomplishing his dream of creating a game that would allow kids to catch and trade bugs. However, he had also nearly bankrupted Game Freak, the company he formed to develop the game.

The studio’s future was now dependent on the success of Pokémon. The problem was that Pokémon wasn’t selling well. Future CEO of The Pokémon Company Tsunekazu Ishihara would later comment that the slumping sales were due, in part, to Game Freak missing the holiday season with its February release of the game. According to an interview Ishihara gave to Nintendo.com, it was the “very worst time of year to release games.”

In this crucial moment, Tajiri decided it was time to put his faith in a spare piece of debug code that programmer Shigeki Morimoto had converted into a hidden 151st Pokémon named Mew. Mew was only meant to be released as an “in case of emergency” publicity grab. As part of a promotion with CoroCoro magazine, Game Freak would give Mew to 20 lucky contest winners. What had started as a joke among the programmers had now become the studio’s Hail Mary.

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The gamble worked. The hype surrounding this mysterious Pokémon caused the game’s sales to skyrocket. Not long after the promotion started, Pokémon’s weekly sales figures began to equal its previous monthly sales numbers and, almost a year after their initial release, the games captured the No. 1 spot on the Japanese sales charts for the first time. Soon after, those sales figures quadrupled. Why? Tajiri himself may have put it best in a 1999 interview with Time Asia: “Introducing a new character like that created a lot of rumors and myths about the game. It kept the interest alive.”

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Mew, however, was an intentionally designed in-game element with an air of mystery about him. He was a wink disguised as a rumor. His hype was a fire that Game Freak could control and use to propel the game to new heights of popularity. At least, that’s what the team thought. As it turned out, Game Freak had severely underestimated what opening the door to secrets within Pokémon would lead to.

In the short term, it led to an increase in playground gossip regarding the secrets of Pokémon. As any child who has ever bought into the story that Sheng Long could be unlocked in Street Fighter II knows, the playground was, at best, a shaky source for video game information. Young gamers will always have a fondness for stretching the truth when swapping video game knowledge in order to capture the attention of their friends. What made this issue particularly curious in the era of Pokémon was that, often times, there was no real way for either the kids telling the story or the ones hearing it to verify the information.

In a way, the biggest contributor to all this misinformation was actually the developer Game Freak. Game Freak may not have intentionally implemented additional secrets like Mew into Pokémon, but the relatively young development team’s ambitious design plans and duct tape coding tactics inadvertently led to an abnormal number of glitches that were soon interpreted as hidden features.

The Rosetta Stone of these glitches was undoubtedly the game’s unofficial 152nd Pokémon, MissingNo. Short for “Missing Number,” MissingNo was nothing more than a piece of game code used to register an error that occurred when the game tried to retrieve code for a non-existent Pokémon. The problem was that a relatively easy glitch in the game would cause MissingNo to appear as an actual Pokémon. Even better, an encounter with MissingNo would cause whatever item the player had in their sixth item slot to be substantially multiplied.

Nintendo warned players about this potentially game-breaking glitch via an article in Nintendo Power that detailed the exact process of acquiring MissingNo, informing players of what to avoid. But all most players could hear was that there was a mysterious new Pokémon in the game capable of producing miracles.

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The discovery of MissingNo had two distinct effects on Pokémon’s burgeoning urban legend culture: On a practical level, MissingNo alerted a small sect of gamers to how Pokémon’s basic programming functioned. With this knowledge in hand, players started unraveling the game’s code line by line. A few years after Pokémon’s release, these gamers formed some of the first online communities devoted to intentionally exploiting the mechanics of Pokémon to trigger certain actions. To this day, Pokémon remains a favorite in the speedrunning community simply because the game is filled with so many glitches that it offers a nearly infinite amount of shortcuts.

MissingNo’s other effect on Pokémon fandom was a bit more mythical. To some, the existence of MissingNo made it so that no Pokémon tale could be immediately dismissed. After all, if something this ridiculous was possible, then who was to say what was real and what was not?  

This fascinating combination of faith and obsession led to the spread of a new batch of myths that, unlike Mew and MissingNo, had no basis in fact. How did these myths spread? Gaming magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly and Nintendo Power would post the latest gossip, but for the most part, these rumors continued to spread from player to player. Pokémon urban legends entered the arena of folklore.

Today, there are still those who work to preserve the fan history of Pokémon’s myths and master their retelling. Ron Sroor is one such raconteur. His YouTube channel, Truegreen7, is devoted to exploring and celebrating nearly all things Pokémon, and, even though he was only five when the Pokémon phenomenon started to kick into gear, he remembers the mystique of the time well.

“In order to believe in the possibility of myths, I had to witness a legend come true,” Sroor says of the first time he encountered MissingNo. “It made me believe that there was more than just what was on the surface.”

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But Sroor also remembers the warnings that came with hunting down MissingNo and the game’s other myths. Rather than risk corrupting his game, Ron focused on a different aspect of the urban legends.

“I was obsessed with theories more than myths,” says Sroor. “I loved the idea that Dittos were failed clones of Mews and that Gengar was the shadow of Clefable, both of which I still believe.”

Of course, Sroor wasn’t completely immune to the charms of in-game exploits. He recalls pursuing nearly every legend that involved the use of certain button combinations which would guarantee a successful Pokémon catch. He describes these methods as the legends he most actively pursued and admits to “still mashing my buttons when catching a Pokémon to this very day.”

Some other Pokémon players, however, did pursue the more outlandish in-game rumors for themselves. Samuel Jahangir, a lifetime Pokémon fan and regular Pokémon community contributor, recalls one myth that became an obsession.

“For me, the myths first arose on the playground,” Jahangir says. “One myth I was particularly fascinated by was accessing Giovanni and Team Rocket’s Secret Lab. According to the rumors, if you defeated the Elite Four 100 times, you would gain access to this Secret Lab.  There, you would gain the ability to create your own Pokémon — from their types to their stats to their individual moves.  More importantly, deep within the lab would be none other than Mewthree.”

Jahangir set out to achieve those 100 victories, but stopped just short of triple digits when he discovered that the story was a fake. Rather than lament the time lost in pursuit of the nonexistent secret lab, Samuel chooses to remember this endeavor more positively.

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“These myths were a way for the blind to lead the blind,” Jahangir says. “Except, the fun didn’t come from finding out a myth was true or false.  Rather, the fun was in the journey and the discussions they would promote.”

Jahangir’s sentiment is echoed by Sroor, as well.

“The real world is full of mysteries and unknown locations. If a video game feels like it has a finite overworld and a limit to the encounters, then it doesn’t feel like real life,” says Sroor. “Pokémon was immersive because you never felt like you were at the end of your journey. These myths made it feel like Pokémon was real and ever expanding, and that still holds true.”

Both of these Pokémon fans also acknowledge that the days of myth hunting are long gone. Like many, they attribute the fall of Pokémon urban legend culture to the rise of the internet. With an infinite amount of information at nearly everyone’s disposal, many modern gamers are able to debunk or prove a myth the moment they hear it.

Yet, the players who lived through the age of Pokémon myths were able to experience something as special as the Pokémon games themselves. It was a unique time in gaming history when urban legends existed to be enjoyed rather than debunked. The pursuit of them was not the passion of a few dedicated players out to uncover a single mystery, but rather a global community that exchanged stories of impossible occurrences with glee.

There is no secret laboratory in Pokémon. It doesn’t unlock if you’ve beaten the Elite Four 100 times or 1000 times. As the modern internet crowd is so fond of proving, that myth — and many others like it — is fake. Yet, these myths are a very real part of what makes Pokémon one of gaming’s greatest franchises.

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Pokémon’s Tallest Tales

There are almost as many Pokémon urban legends as there are Pokémon. Here are several that achieved legendary status, even though they’re all false:

There was a lone truck in the game that hid Mew. To acquire him, you either needed to push the truck out of the way or slash its tires.

Your rival trainer’s Radicate was killed in an early battle, which is why you find him in a graveyard later in the game.

Bill’s Seaside Cottage housed a secret garden that contained everything from rare Pokémon to items that can’t be found anywhere else.

Magikarp’s seemingly useless splash attack had a 0.00001% chance of instantly defeating any Pokémon.

There was a haunted copy of Pokémon known as Pokémon Black that allowed players to kill other Pokéemon in battle.

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Every starter Pokémon could be evolved into a fourth form through a series of elaborate methods.

The music in Lavender Town was reportedly changed after it caused some Japanese players to commit suicide.

Early promotional leaks of Pokémon Gold and Silver from Japan led players to believe that Pikachu could be evolved into a water Pokémon named Pikablu in Red and Blue.

A hidden island that went by many names could be accessed, if the player followed a detailed surfing pattern.

Every stone in the game could be used to evolve Eevee into different Pokémon types. Nintendo liked this one so much that they added it into later games.  

Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.