The Pokémon games would never have been released outside Japan were it not for the tireless effort of the late Satoru Iwata, said Tsunekazu Ishihara, president and CEO of The Pokémon Co. International, in an interview with 4Gamer that was translated by Siliconera.
Ishihara spoke to 4Gamer about the heady days of 1998, by which point Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green — the first games, as they had been originally released in Japan — had exploded in popularity. Pokémon developer Game Freak had decided to move on to the next entries in the franchise, Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver, and Ishihara said that the studio was so small that it "didn't even have any people to spare to even do any kind of port," let alone tackle the massive task of localizing a text-heavy game into English.
Nintendo and Game Freak released Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green in 1996 on the Game Boy in Japan, and during the development of those games, said Ishihara, "The thought of bringing it to countries outside of Japan didn't even occur to us in the first place." But by 1998, Pokémon had become a phenomenon in Japan, and Hiroshi Yamauchi, then the president of Nintendo, requested that Game Freak release the games in America — while adding that the company also "hurry up and make [Gold and Silver]," according to Ishihara, who was a producer on Red and Green.
"We only saw one possible choice at the time, and decided to focus our attention on Gold and Silver rather than an English version, and thought 'overseas development is just a dream within a dream,' and gave up on that idea," Ishihara told 4Gamer. "But that's where one man raised his hand — HAL Laboratory's president Iwata."
Iwata had joined HAL Laboratory in 1982 and ascended to president by 1993, but he was still a programmer at heart, not a business executive. Ishihara explained that Iwata analyzed the entire source code for Red and Green and "began mapping out a course on how to make a foreign version for [them]." In an Iwata Asks interview published in 2010, Ishihara and another colleague noted that Iwata also created compression tools for Pokémon's graphics code, and ported Red and Green's battle system to Nintendo 64 for Pokémon Stadium.
In this fashion, Iwata served as a go-between for Game Freak and Nintendo, even though he didn't actually work at either company. The English versions of Red and Green were released in North America as Red and Blue in September 1998 on the Game Boy. Iwata joined Nintendo in 2000 and succeeded Yamauchi as president in 2002; he held that position until his death this past July at the age of 55.