Years ago, during a Pokémon autograph session, a mother approached Junichi Masuda with her son. These games had changed her child’s life for the better, she said. The sentiment stuck with him. “Through Pokémon, you can enrich people’s lives and have a positive impact on them,” he says. The idea had never occurred to him before. “But afterwards, I definitely tried to focus on keeping the series positive, playing and making sure we don’t let people down.”
For more than 20 years, Masuda has worked on Pokémon at Game Freak as a composer, programmer, and director. He was heavily involved with Niantic’s Pokémon Go and is directing Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Pokémon: Let’s Go, Eevee!, Game Freak’s upcoming Switch games. With Let’s Go, Game Freak hopes to unite its longtime fanbase with new fans — a goal that wouldn’t be possible without Pokémon Go. Since its release in 2016, the mobile game has changed the way Game Freak views the franchise.
“Pokémon Go really did represent the second Pokémon boom, so to say, and it was really a rare opportunity that no one could have counted on,” Masuda tells The Verge. “Especially the timing, with the 20th anniversary of Pokémon was the same year and we were able to create something that really resonated with the world again and just kind of create this huge explosion.” Without Niantic’s game, he says, he wouldn’t have been able to make Pokémon: Let’s Go. “[It’s] the whole idea of the throwing mechanic,” he says. “Also the concept of just having this living room experience where everyone will just kind of get together.”
Keeping the series fresh after all this time continues to be a challenge, but Masuda says the hardest part has always been keeping up with Nintendo’s changing tech. He points to the early use of link cables to trade and battle, which eventually evolved into wireless. Developers had to adapt to Wi-Fi and the web to work with people online. Even now, Game Freak is creating a game based around the Switch’s Bluetooth capabilities. “All this kind of new tech, it’s really exciting when you’re younger, but as I get older it becomes a lot more difficult,” he says. “Maybe 20 years from now you’ll understand what I’m saying.”
Masuda has high hopes that Pokémon: Let’s Go will give the series a boost big enough to last that long. “The biggest thing I feel with Let’s Go is really hoping that it’s going to serve as sort of a base or starting point for the next 20 years of Pokémon,” he says. As for what Masuda envisions that future as, it’s undeniably sunny. “I really think it’s important that Pokémon continues to be a positive force in the world — makes people happier, enriches their lives through a variety of ways,” he says. “But I don’t think it needs to be a consistent, unchanging experience necessarily. I think there’s still a lot of room to explore variety, not only through the main series of games but also through the more spinoff titles.”