Exploring the Pokemon Cryptodex Project with Historian Aaron George

Published: November 17, 2021 12:00 PM /


Pokemon Gold and Silver Art

Back in 2018, players worldwide got their first glimpse into what could have been, when data from the Spaceworld 1997 Pokemon Gold and Silver demo was leaked to the public. The Spaceworld 1997 demo is a major piece of lost media history, and one of the earliest glimpses we publicly had for Gold and Silver. Its leak spawned many questions and excitement about many things, from map changes to sprite and text scripts, but the focus was on the Pokemon found in the beta. 

There were over 60 cut Pokemon revealed that day, some with alternative designs, others the public have never seen before, that captured the world by storm. Less than a year later, another leak surfaced, showing close to a hundred more Pokemon designs. Some of these were so odd and alien it was surprising to see that they were from the same game, leaving many to wonder how all of these creatures fit into Gold and Silver.

One man is now trying to piece together that puzzle, creating a chronological timeline to finally answer that question. Aaron George, a historian who has written extensively about the subject of these lost Pokemon designs, has taken it upon himself to tell the lost story of their development with The Cryptodex Project

"The Cryptodex is where I delve into my development notes of Pokemon Silver and Gold," George said in a sit-down interview with TechRaptor. "Where we got all the pieces in the development leaks. I’m trying to make sense of them, and I’m trying to make sense of the development history as we put together those things."

The Important Work of Helix Chamber

Pokemon Gen 1 Helix Chamber Beta
The work done by preservation group Helix Chamber was the primary inspiration for George's Cryptodex. 

George, who has a doctorate in American History, looks at the Cryptodex as a hobby for himself, and a challenge to piece together the nearly lost history behind the development of this single game. Much of his work is inspired by another, similar project done by Helix Chamber, a group who were able to recreate what many consider to be the most accurate picture of the original Pokemon games development out there today.

"Helix Chamber is absolutely wonderful," said Geroge. "One of the things they noticed, and that I think was very brilliant, is that inside the game, normally whenever you collect a Pokemon it’s listed in Pokedex order, from 1 to 151. [Helix Chamber] noticed there was an internal index number that didn’t correspond to the Pokedex number at all, and they started doing research into that and comparing it with some of the interviews that we have with the designers, and they discovered that internal index was an actual timeline of Pokemon's development, that the earliest created Pokemon had the lowest numbers, and the latest created ones had the latest numbers."

This methodology, along with the number of articles from Game Freak throughout the past 20 years, would slowly see Helix Chamber create a timeline of development, divided up into multiple periods of development phases. Early phases, as George notes, were singular monsters that were heavily based on Japanese Kaiju, such as Godzilla-style monsters. Some surviving Pokemon from that period include Rhydon, the first-ever Pokemon designed, along with the likes of Khangaskhan, Voltorb, Likitung, and Gengar, to name a few. 

Capumon Sprites Pg 1
The earliest known image of Pokemon Sprites, then named Capumon in 1990. Found in the Saotshi Tajiri Manga.

Each period of development becomes a time capsule to showcase how Game Freak slowly evolved their own understandings of what Pokemon would become. Period 2 is often considered the point where the Pokemon types were officially conceived, while Period 3 of development would focus heavily on evolution, with multiple lines of Pokemon created back to back. 

"The development of the Pokemon themselves also shows you the ways these ideas develop," George noted. This piecemeal approach is what inspired him to do the same with Gold and Silver, with the hopes of sharing the potential stories of the games' development with the public. 

George uses three leaked versions of Pokemon Gold and Silver for the Cryptodex: the Spaceworld 1997 Demo, the Spaceworld 1999 Demo, and the internal backup index, which George nicknames the Korean index due to it being found in a Korean backup file. These three pieces, all leaked through the years-long Gigaleak of Nintendo products, would provide enough clues to the development of the game to get the general public talking, at least for a time.

For George though, the potential for more still loomed. "I love hearing people say, 'Oh I like this one, this one is weird looking, this one is ugly,' but there is only so much you can [do] with that," said George. "I couldn’t find people actually discussing them, so what I wanted to do is I wanted to create a website where I can talk about them, so we can have some ability to create a discussion, a discourse about all those designs that we found, like maybe we can learn something more about them."

The question though was to find a starting point to do that, and for George, it is back to the Korean index.

The Korean Index

Pokemon Korean Index Gen 2
A close up view of the Pokemon sprites found in the Korean Index.

"As I was going through them, looking to figure out how we can understand them, I came up with a hypothesis that the Korean index, which is in a strange order, might be similar to the internal index numbers from the original [games]," he said. "It, in a strange, not perfect way, might also kind of date from earliest designs to latest designs."

From this, George was able to slowly piece together what is hypothetically the timeline of Pokemon Gold and Silver’s development, piecing together the oddball, early designs found in the Korean index and trying to recreate a picture of development with all of the information we have available. 

The Korean index contains all of the original Pokemon numbered from 1 to 151 in Pokedex order. The numbering then stops, and restarts at the number 300, before it ends at 448. The question then became to confirm that the Korean index provided the correct order of development. George believes that the Korean index is one of the earliest builds of Pokemon Gold and Silver we have available, and his evidence is mostly through educated guesses based on the order of the sprites and their relative completion.

"When you really begin to delve into it, Ho-Oh appears relatively early, like the first 50 out of that new 150 or so," said George. "We know for a fact that Ho-Oh appeared in an earlier build of the game that we don’t have." He was referencing the title screen for a 1996 build of Pokemon Gold that showcases Ho-Oh in CoroCoro Comic in August 1996. "We know at least Ho-Oh existed before Spaceworld of 1997."

Ho-Oh Corocoro Aug 1996
The first canonical appearance of Ho-Oh in the August 1996 issue of CoroCoro Magazine, three years before the release of Gold and Silver.

"The other thing to notice is that about 18 of the final 19 Pokémon on the Korean Index are all evolutions of other Gen II Pokemon earlier on the list, and 37 out of the final 40 appear in Spaceworld 97. All of this suggests these were designed right before Spaceworld was finalized."

To George, some of the more bizarre designs in the early stages that lead up to Ho-Oh, which was number 347 in the Korean index, likely predate the design of Ho-Oh. Some of these findings include a few scrapped Pokemon from Generation I, as well as a lot more unique Pokemon designs before we see the now more familiar designs found in the Spaceworld '97 demo. Most of these Pokemon were designed after Ho-Oh, including the beta evolutions of Likitung and Noctowl, early versions of Phanpy and Tyrogue, and a few unused, such as the Dark-type bell cat Berurun and the split evolution from the Bellsprout line, Tsubomitto. 

George, however, notes that the Korean index is not perfectly in chronological order, mainly due to the way Game Freak would add sprites. This time around, Game Freak seemed to add on Pokemon designs in groups based on the work of the designers. So you would typically see a block of Pokemon designed by Ken Sugimori for example, all bunched together in the Korean index.

While this is not a perfect match for what may be a chronological order of what was designed, George notes that the end of the list, which mimics closely what Spaceworld '97 would be, leads him to believe that the Korean index does contain a chronological timeline of designs. 

"The one big contribution I made so far is when I started this, no one thought that the Korean index was chronological," said George. "Now basically everyone I talk to agrees with me that it was probably in some degree, chronological."

Empirical Evidence

Sneasal Designs Cryptodex
Georges Method of putting together the development history of various Pokemon, such as Sneasal above, which was even redesigned for Crystal. 

Much of this, of course, is based on empirical evidence. George is not alone in his discussions on the Cryptodex, however, as he bounces ideas off several individuals who have delved deeper into the inner workings of Pokemon in their own ways.

"One person who I talk with, who edits a lot of the articles on The Cutting Room Floor, his Twitter handle is @OrangeFrench. He looks over some of my writing with me once I finish, and he oftentimes proposes alternate explanations," George said. "He tends to be a little bit less willing to speculate than I am, so he tends to bring me down to earth a little bit."

These alternative explanations are all part of the process of telling this story, something George is keen on sharing. Some of his hypotheses are quite unique, such as the belief that Elebii, a cut baby Pokemon, was part of a 3-stage evolution for the Electabuzz line, with Elekid being the stage 2 evolution. Another involves how Sneasel, a fan-favorite Pokemon, was possibly almost cut several times, with its design still not complete until a major rework of its design with Pokemon Crystal. 

Of course, these are just best guesses based on the incomplete information that is available. "I started [the Cryptodex] not necessarily to give definitive answers to anything, but I wanted to show that we have enough evidence that we can make some educated guesses and set kind of the terms of the field so that other people would be able to talk more about them," said George. "That’s what I’m hoping would happen, that when people read it, they will be able to take what I said, agree or disagree with me, and just come up with more theories that fit the evidence I found."

George also highlights the work of several other creators within the greater Pokemon community, such as Dr. Lava and his daily posts regarding Pokemon, and artist @Raciebeep, who has created ‘Sugimori-style’ artworks of the beta Pokemon. This dedication by members of the fanbase has made some of these beta Pokemon popular mascots in their own right. 

Ultimately, the goal for George and the Cryptodex is to start that conversation again. "To me looking at this development stuff gives us these really important insights which I feel they should be available to as wide an [audience] as possible because it teaches us more about these things that we grew up with."

Please Check out the Full Interview with Aaron George Below. 

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Game Freak
Release Date
October 15,2000
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