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Old Pokémon art has been ‘wrong’ for years

Inaccurate images from old Pokémon manuals dominated the internet, but they’re finally being corrected

Two versions of Ivysaur next to each other. One is green and labeled new. The other is blue and labeled old. Image: Nintendo via Lewtwo
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

The Pokémon art we’ve been looking at from Pokémon Red and Blue and Pokémon Gold and Silver has been inaccurately presented for decades, according to a Pokémon archivist who goes by the name Lewtwo online.

Before game developers published press kits with digital artwork online, game art was more commonly presented to the public through print — manuals, strategy guides, advertisements. To get it online, artwork had to be scanned and digitized. This is how Pokémon designer and lead artist Ken Sugimori’s watercolor Pokémon paintings eventually made their way online, scanned in from places like Nintendo Power’s Pokémon Red and Blue Player’s Guide from 1998.

But it turns out these scans were actually not totally accurate. Lewtwo said the images from those guides had blown out color and artwork that was often stretched out or distorted. But it was what people had, and it existed online as the “official” Pokémon art on fan websites for decades. But that’s changing, thanks to Lewtwo’s effort and software developer Christopher Wells’ scans.

Lewtwo and others are working to upload high-quality scans for the original 251 Pokémon, preserving Sugimori’s artwork with as much accuracy as possible. Wells scanned in the images from a Japanese Pokémon guidebook for Pokémon Gold and Silver; the process took roughly 10 hours over a single weekend, he told Polygon. It’s not as simple as slapping the booklet down on a scanner. To get as little warping as possible, Wells unbound the guidebook, using a heat gun to melt the glue that held the book’s pages together — “a somewhat long process, requiring a good bit of patience to properly separate the pages without having the glue drip onto any pages,” Wells said. Then, he could scan in each of the flat pages, backed by a black piece of paper to keep the other side of the page from bleeding through onto the scanned image.

It’s easy to see the difference in the saturation of the newly scanned in images when compared to the older ones. Wells scanned in the images at 12000 dpi — it’s very high quality, and there are so many beautiful details conveyed in the scanned images that weren’t as noticeable before, details that remind us that an extraordinarily talented hand painted these images.

The Joltean and Vaporean images are a stunning example of it. There’s a variance in line weight you don’t often seen in digital media — something that may be considered an imperfection by some. You can see the blooms where paint meets water, the spots where Sugimori painted a little outside the lines. Lewtwo said he’s convinced this is the “closest we will ever get in being able to scan the original piece.”

“Sugimori’s watercolor art really stands out from a lot of official video game art these days, especially with the few official scans where you can see the small details and human imperfections which remind us that the art that we admire is all made by people and that we too can aspire to learn and make similarly impressive creative works,” Wells said. “It’s so impressive that even the altered versions of his art have inspired fans considerably.”

Lewtwo is taking over from here to add the newly scanned images to his Pokémon asset archive and helping to upload the images to wiki sites like Bulbapedia. The artwork already preserved there won’t be deleted, he stressed — it’s still accessible in a list of previous revisions. That’s important, because even those “incorrect” scans are a part of Pokémon history, and versions of the pocket monsters that have become beloved in the eyes and hearts of many fans. Over the next couple months, the images will be cut out of the scans in PokéDex order and uploaded to the archive.

Preservation is important; Pokémon is a major cultural touchstone and like any other media — like a book — it’s important to understand its history. Artwork is integral to that, as is preserving it in both physical and digital forms. The problem with preserving things physically is that you’ve got to find and acquire those materials, then recreate that accuracy in a digital file. But even as media production continues to rely more on digital distribution and less on physicality, it doesn’t mean companies have a stake in preserving their own history. Lewtwo said there’s already promotional assets and trailers from Pokémon Legends: Arceus and Pokémon Scarlet and Violet seemingly being removed from official sources; the preservation never stops, whether new content or old.

“Having stuff from nearly 20 years ago in what is essentially perfect quality for the first time is such a big deal, so we’re excited to make sure it’s being handled properly and meticulously for every single piece,” Lewtwo told Polygon.

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