Released in 2001 and based around a brand very much aimed at today’s children, the Pokémon Mini is a gaming system that arguably has no business appearing within the pages of Retro Gamer. But take a second look at this obscure part of Nintendo history and you might be surprised by how interesting, and how retro, it actually is.
The first and most important point to make about the Pokémon Mini is that it isn’t a virtual pet device, it isn’t a pedometer and it isn’t a Game & Watch-style system with only one game built in. Such assumptions are understandable given the wide range of such Pokémon-branded items that have been released to date, but the Mini is actually a fully fledged handheld gaming system, just like a Game Boy. It uses interchangeable cartridges and plays simple dot matrix, monochrome games that have more in common with the technology of 1989 than 2001.
The great contradiction of the Pokémon Mini is that although it plays very simple videogames that use even simpler visuals, the interactive capabilities of the hardware did things the Game Boy Advance (released in the same year) could only dream of and were surely part of Nintendo’s momentum toward the eventual creation of the DS and Wii. Hardware features include an internal real-time clock, an infra-red transmitter for multiplayer gaming and data transfer with up to five other players at once, in-built vibration for force feedback and a shock detector for very rudimentary motion control. All of which are crammed into a tiny 74mm x 58mm x 23mm casing, the smallest handheld ever to be produced by Nintendo.
So why is the Pokémon Mini so undocumented? Undoubtedly it’s because of the association with the Pokémon brand. Every single one of the ten commercial games released for the system used the Pokémon licence, positioning the handheld as more of a kids’ toy than a hardcore gaming system. The Mini was only ever sold in toy stores rather than dedicated game shops and although the price tag of £40 was attractive for a new console, £20 per cartridge was very steep for games that offered only a fraction of the entertainment available on other systems of the time. And with the GBA and cheaper Game Boy Color both offering their own fair share of Pokémon fun in addition to a wide range of other games, it’s easy to see why even parents would think twice about buying a Mini for their children.
Following its 14 November 2001 release in the US, the Pokémon Mini made its way to Japan and Europe and enjoyed a regular stream of games – about one per month – until its final release Pokémon Breeder exclusively hit Japanese shelves in December 2002. The one-year shelf life is about twice the lifespan of Nintendo’s highest-profile failure, the Virtual Boy, but with about half the number of commercial games released, the Pokémon Mini can easily be considered Nintendo’s least relevant games console and would have slipped into total obscurity were it not for a strange twist of fate spurred on by a quirky feature in one of Nintendo’s GameCube games.
2003’s Pokémon Channel was a relatively forgettable virtual pet game for GameCube, except for the fact that it included a simulated software version of the Pokémon Mini, complete with demos of some games as well as a full exclusive game of its own, called Snorlax’s Lunchtime. This official emulator was instrumental in helping a handful of Pokémon Mini enthusiasts reverse engineer the handheld, develop an emulator of their own and begin to produce their own tech demos and homebrew games. And it is these dedicated few who are best equipped to tell us about the inner workings of the Mini and how it might have developed had Nintendo offered more support.
Detlef Hastik is founder of Team Pokémé, a demo group that spent a year developing their debut Mini production, a homebrew cart tech demo called SHIzZLE that shows off a number of gobsmacking visual techniques previously thought impossible on the hardware, including high-res title screens, 3D text, multiple layered sprites, fractal landscapes, shading, light sourcing, reflective spherical surfaces, sprite rotation and scaling, blocky Starfox-style 3D environments and even digitised video.
“When I discovered the Pokémon Mini in a sale-out box of a local games store in 2004, I first thought ‘eek! Pokémon! What crap’,” says Hastik. “But the price of just five euros made me look a little closer and I discovered that tiny cartridge sitting in the top-right corner of the box. My immediate idea was: ‘It has cartridges, the data can be dumped and disassembled and it must be possible to code an emulator’. At this time I thought the Mini had a z80-based CPU, which turned out to be a big mistake. Nintendo designed a custom CPU and used custom maskROMs for its cartridge, but the motivation to hack this portable game console was unbreakable.”
“Besides the fact that the Pokémon Mini is like a retro system with monochrome graphics, low resolutions and monophonic sounds – it was more or less unknown and ‘untouched’,” continues Hastik. “The scene had not taken notice of this handheld at the time. No development kits or programming manuals were available, no emulators or homebrew hacks were made. In fact, it was a crazy idea creating something like a scene milestone with this low-end hardware. We never expected SHizZLE to be referred to as the ‘mother of all hacks’ in the end.”