Discovering Nintendo’s Other Forgotten Console, the Pokémon Mini
It's a legit system, Nintendo's smallest ever, and hackers have been making their own games for it since 2001.
Yesterday, VICE's science and tech channel Motherboard ran a great feature exploring "Nintendo's forgotten console", the Satellaview. This Super Nintendo add-on – if we're being supremely picky, more a peripheral than a console proper – was only released in Japan in 1995, and allowed users to unscramble signals broadcast from a partner company, St.GIGA, in order to play specially selected video games on specified dates. Many titles were made available to subscribers, some exclusive to the service and others simply SNES games given a novel means of distribution. Famous faces popped up: the original Harvest Moon was separated into broadcast-proportioned episodes, likewise A Link to the Past from the Zelda series.
It might sound a little like a humble brag, but I was well aware of the Satellaview prior to Motherboard's article, because I'm old. I did most of my formative gaming in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and remember seeing this strange contraption, which sat beneath the SNES unit much in the same way as SEGA's Mega CD did the Mega Drive (I've previously written about my love for that divisive add-on), on the pages of domestic games magazines, which I bought as regularly as possible (or simply soaked up in the newsagents for 20 minutes at a time before being kicked out for not buying anything). But the response to the piece proves that it certainly wasn't a widely known piece of Nintendo history: "Been gaming since the 1980s and this is the first time I've seen that," reads one response on Twitter; "Never really knew about this console," reads another. Job done, then: public, informed.
But when I turned to the editorial crew at Motherboard in the UK, who happen to sit right beside me, and mentioned the Pokémon Mini, my line of enquiry was met by blank faces. And I can completely understand that reaction, as while I've been an active gamer pretty much my entire life, and have owned my share of Nintendo consoles and even wrote a documentary for Radio 1 on mobile gaming not so many years ago, the Pokémon Mini had completely passed me by until around a month ago when I saw it in the pages of a Retro Gamer bookazine, the Videogames Hardware Handbook, covering the years 1977 to 2001.
The Pokémon Mini is, as the article in question states very firmly, "a fully fledged handheld gaming system". It's not a single game in a single shell, like the old-school Game & Watch releases. It's not some kind of virtual pet toy. The system, clearly featuring the famous Nintendo logo above its screen, uses cartridges. It wasn't a Japan-only system, like the Satellaview, going on sale in the East, America and Europe between the winter of 2001 and spring of 2002. It was fairly short-lived, with only ten official games released – each of which, as the system's name might well imply, had a hefty degree of Pokémon branding attached. It's officially Nintendo's smallest-ever games console, no more than 74mm in any direction (about half the size of the miniscule Game Boy Micro); it came in a variety of colours, like the Game Boy Pocket and most subsequent Ninty handhelds; and it ran for absolutely ages, around 60 hours, on just one AAA battery. It had a built-in rumble feature, infrared connectivity for local multiplayer, and even some primitive motion control technology in its shock detector.
Basically: how the bloody hell had I missed this until now? I have one, albeit rather feeble, excuse. In 2001 and 2002, I was at the business end of my degree, and gaming wasn't exactly something I could find a great deal of time for, nor reasonably afford given the many costs of university living: books, printing, horrendous bar bills from across the Greater Manchester area, the monthly ASDA binge. All I had with me at uni was my old Pocket-model Game Boy, Link's Awakening and Pokémon Blue alongside Tennis and Tetris, which rarely came out from under the bed, and for a term a battered Mega Drive with its dodgy-as-hell port of Premier Manager and, naturally, a cheap-night-in-saving copy of Sensible Soccer. Anything new – even when it looked old, as the visuals of the Pokémon Mini definitely did in 2001, more original 1989 Game Boy than anything more Advance(d) – simply didn't register on my radar. Believe it or not, studying became quite significant as I approached the end of my course.
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To me, then, the Pokémon Mini is Nintendo's other forgotten console, the real rarity in the ranks – so obscure, in the UK at least, that I didn't know about it at all until 14 years after its introduction. But it's a system that's maintained a loyal audience, and the website Pokémon-Mini.net provides fans with occasional news updates as well as comprehensive lists of playable titles both official – just the ten, remember – and unofficial, homebrewed affairs, which massively outnumber the commercially sold cartridges.
Click your way to the list in question, here, and you'll find an admirable number of recognised franchises – thanks to reverse engineering, hackers have been able to use the Pokémon Mini to run a wide array of "playable" (some of these things are more tech demos than games proper) titles, and introduce emulation on other platforms. There's Zelda Mini, which is sort of self explanatory and mimics the graphical style of Link's Awakening, but falls into that demo category; Sonic Arena, which is a simple but complete game in which Dr Robotnik's robot army must be destroyed; and even a concept mock-up of Elite. The demo scene has celebrated the work of Mini's hackers, with SHizZLE singled out for being "totally insane".
Regarding the official games, a few are noted as worthwhile distractions from the rather-more-impressive sights and sounds of contemporary consoles. The Retro Gamer piece highlights Pokémon Shock Tetris as a neat twist on the Russian original, where nailing four lines at once (that's what a "tetris" is, you know) allows you to capture a new monster, and Pokémon Race Mini is described as "one of the true jewels" of the Mini's limited catalogue, a side-scrolling racer where multiple routes keep the gameplay fresh. The somewhat shittier Pinball Mini is summarised as "nothing like pinball at all", so maybe steer clear of that, and the bundled Pokémon Party Mini is, as its title suggests, a party game collection with only a couple of half-decent attractions.
Over on Motherboard: Apple TV Brings the Nightmare of Mobile Games to Your Living Room
And how much will it cost you to own one of these bizarre handhelds, today? What's the entry fee for properly checking out a strange slice of Nintendo history, a crossover console that even people employed as video game section editors managed to miss for over a decade? A brief fumble around eBay puts a unit at around the $90 mark (about £58) for a complete, properly packaged model, but unboxed systems are listed for half that. And do I want one? Of course I do. I mean, look at this thing. You can fit three of them in the palm of your hand. It's the cutest console this side of SEGA's Pikachu-styled Pico, only way more interesting. It's the gaming equivalent of all those kitten photos you tweet so very often (seriously, stop that), and it makes me smile – which is something the Game Gear so very rarely did, dying on me like that right in the middle of Wonder Boy.
Is the Mini more obscure than the Satellaview? Maybe, maybe not. It might depend on your age – if you were madly into Nintendo in the early 2000s, no doubt you came across details of this diminutive device; whereas if you, like me, were already a teenager when the SNES was in its pomp, the Satellaview was well known as something incredibly exotic that you could only dream of seeing for real, one day. But buying a Satellaview now, with its vital broadcasts having shut down in 2000, will cost you a lot more money than picking up a Mini, and will be a waste of time in terms of actually using the thing. The handheld, meanwhile: the games still play (no patches, no always-online requirement, imagine!); there's a small but active community of users, and well-meaning hardware abusers, online; and it'll set you back relative small change versus the bigger peripheral.
But it's your money. You could go and splash it all on a completely ridiculous pre-order package for some forthcoming, sure-to-be-okay-I-guess modern game. I'm not judging you. Honest.
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