In-Depth Stories

A tale of three Johtos: the evolution of the Gen II maps

You can’t make a game on your first try, and sometimes not even on your second. While developing Pokémon Gold and Silver, Game Freak went through several designs for Johto, which have now been leaked. Looking at how the world map was refined over the years tells us a lot about the evolution of the game as a whole.

How much can a region in the Pokémon world change in just two years? A lot, it seems.

It’s been two years since a group of hackers got their hands on the 1997 version of Pokémon Gold and Silver, originally shown at the Spaceworld event that year. That version, in a very, very early development stage, had a vastly different map, for what was going to be a vastly different game. Recently, the same group leaked further development versions, including one from 1998 that included an early draft of the Johto we know and love. And, of course, the game cartridges we bought in stores included a final pre-release version of all maps, along with the one we played. Together, these versions show a fascinating view of how Johto has evolved over the years, and deserve a closer look.

Edited by Aldo, bobandbill, Rivvon and Siddhar.

Before Johto existed

The games were set in a much larger continent – Japan, essentially – of which Kanto was just a small part. The original region was slated to appear, but as a slightly larger town, with just one Gym and a handful of iconic landmarks. The rest of the towns were supposed to be similar regions of the same country.

But at some point, someone must have wondered if it wouldn’t be better to build a new region instead, a sister for Kanto, not a country that included it. We don’t know exactly the reasoning – and probably never will – but we do know that the games took a surprisingly long time to develop, almost four years, in part because the core team was composed of just four programmers, and Game Freak kept part of the studio busy with two remakes of Pokémon Red and Green; that is, Pokémon Blue and Yellow.

What is clear is that they pushed the reset button at some point in late 1997, and pretty much all the world map was scrapped. Some pieces were kept – the Radio Tower in West City ended up in Goldenrod, the house design in Old City was kept in Violet and Ecruteak and the building placement in Silent Hills – aka New Bark Town – survived for a bit longer. But the old world was no more. Perhaps some of the maps were reused later, but certainly not this generation.

This is how the Gen II map used to look.
Everything gone, except, uh, Kanto? And New Bark.

What we know is that the games, slated for release shortly afterwards, were canceled and delayed indefinitely. The wait only took two years in the end, but it helped the team to refocus and give birth to the Johto we all know. Except, not entirely. Not yet.

Over the past few years, with the successive leaks, we have discovered that 1998 was a very interesting moment in the development of the games. In March, the devs were still working with the old concept maps. But by October, the world had changed decisively. Johto had been born. Or, well, a rough version of it, which kept changing until relatively close to release. And the original map is fascinating to look at.

While the general idea of most routes and cities survived – or, in many cases, the basic skeleton – most underwent pretty serious remodelling before release, and a few ones were pretty much remade from scratch. An exception is Route 45, which was left almost entirely intact until release. But what is striking is the things that are… not. There’s no Mt. Mortar, no Ruins of Alph, no Ilex Forest, no Ice Path and no Cianwood Town! And, of course, no Whirlpool Islands. A barebones Johto.

Let’s look at it step by step. We’ll follow the path every player will follow through normal gameplay, and compare all beta maps with their final forms.

Part 1: New Bark-Violet

New Bark Town

Change level: Recognisable, mostly because it’s so small and empty.

New Bark Beta
Living at a crossroads.

Let’s start from the beginning. New Bark Town is the start of the game and a pretty small map, at that. But, precisely because of that, they had their ideas set clearly from the get-go.

New Bark side by side
I bet Elm hit the fence several times when leaving his old lab in a hurry.

Admittedly, this is a pretty barebones place so it’s not extremely hard to recognise. Four buildings, a larger one for the lab and two exits, east and west. Still, there’s an incredible amount of changes for such a small town, and the final version clearly looks better. The lab and Elm’s home have been switched, and both Elm’s and the remaining home in the southwestern corner are four tiles tall, instead of two. There are far fewer trees, replaced by a fence. But most importantly, the exit to Route 27 is walkable, instead of being a lake. The water instead flows south of the town. You’d have to wonder how they would have stopped you from walking into Kanto early.

But, while this map is pretty simple, it has gone through a lot more revisions. After all, this town was already designed in the very first beta and survived until the final product, with minor changes.

Silent Hills
It was supposed to be a horror game at first.

This is Silent Hills, the very first incarnation of what eventually became New Bark Town, back in the “Old Japan” world of 1997. As you can see, pretty much everything is there, with two exceptions: the eastern exit, replaced by a northern one (it was a very different world map, after all) and the house on the northeast, your home in the final game, which was a Pokémon Centre! That idea floated in their minds for a while, as the mid-development version, found in the unused files for the final game, also has a Pokémon Centre in the same spot! Now that is a mystery: why did they keep deleting and resurrecting the Pokémon Centre? Eventually they decided to put a healing machine in Elm’s lab and empty up a house, which makes more sense when you have to work with such a small map.

New Bark Mid Development
The same but wetter

This mid-development map looks identical to the first Johtonian draft, but with the PC replacing a house and the sea blocking you from just walking into Kanto. This means that the most “different” map of all four is the final one, by virtue of switching two of the buildings around and shrinking the one on the southwestern corner. And yet it’s remarkable how identical the final map looks when compared to its ancient 1997 incarnation.

New Bark Alpha comparison
Minimal redesign efforts.

Look at this. The exit to Route 29 is intact. The Pokémon Centre is now your house. The southwestern house is also almost intact. The sea exit matches a conspicuous rock from the alpha map. The lab is now where one of the houses used to be. The trees in the middle of the town are now a signpost. Except for the old lab (whose design was more detailed than the final’s) and Elm’s house, which are in different locations, everything else remains mostly in place. This is a map that went through a lot of intermediate stages just to end up mostly where it started.

New Bark Evolution
The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Update – 30 August

A new intermediate version has surfaced as more map files are analysed, making it the fifth version of New Bark on record! This one was made a week before the second one from the above picture. In other words, this is technically the second design for the town. And… it’s a bit strange.

2 house New Bark
The aliens abducted our neighbour!

As you can see, this is essentially the same thing, except without the neighbour’s house. So only you and Elm would live in this town, making it even emptier than Pallet Town. I don’t get why this even happened- the fourth building existed in the original version and lasted to the end, in the same exact location. Feels more like a mistake than anything else.

Route 29

Change level: The spirit changed drastically, the actual map not so much

Route 29
Why is there grass atop a cave anyway? What’s the point?

So… Pokémon Gold and Silver were supposed to start with… a cave! Right after starting the game. It is possible that the original script involved you walking towards Route 28 and Kanto at the start, since there was nothing to stop you from doing so, but either way, you’d get into a dungeon within the first hour of gameplay. That is… a decision. Not unlike Viridian Forest, but think of how annoying caves are, considering that every single tile can trigger random encounters. Just imagine all those lovely Zubats welcoming you to the Pokémon world! Incidentally, since there are no Dark Cave entrances in the beta map, there is a chance that the inside was repurposed later down the line. This said, I have a question: how exactly were you supposed to go back to the lower path when coming from Route 46? There are no ledges or anything – the top of the cave is a dead end. What a baffling oversight.

Route 29 comparison good
Imagine: a Zubat as your first catch.

And yet, the route itself is very similar to what we eventually got. The shape of the caves is almost exactly the same as the shape of the final ledges in the eastern zone. The top ledge on the western side, in fact, is still there in the final version. The northern exit is still present, now with a gate instead of another ledge. And the two side exits, to New Bark and Cherrygrove, are still 9 and 11 tiles up from the bottom of the map, respectively, even if half their original size. As remarkable as the changes are, it’s even more fascinating how much it did not change. See the image below which overlays the beta and final map to see this.

Route 29 fuscion
One ledge survives.

Cherrygrove City and… Azalea Town?

Change level: Is that you?

Old Cherrygrove
Who was the jerk who built that house blocking the path to the tower, anyway? That’s just being mean.

And, pretty early in our travels, we arrive at one of the most fascinating sections in the game, none other than Cherrygrove City. Or well, something that looks about three times as large, which I guess explains why the final version is called a city and not a town despite how small and non-eventful it ultimately became. But wow, that’s a downsizing! Let’s look at the original map: it’s a proper city, with a Gym (a really early one, unless it was closed until later like Viridian’s and Petalburg’s). Most intriguingly, it boasts two major buildings: one behind a fence and three sets of ledges and a tower behind a cuttable tree. Whatever they were used for, it’s clear that Cherrygrove was intended to be much more than the generic First Town it eventually became.

You might be arguing that this town looks nothing like the eventual Cherrygrove, and you would be right… mostly, because there are a few telltale signs that prove that this is, indeed, the same map. If you remove the top half and focus on the lower part, you will start seeing the few landmarks that did survive: the Mart and the Pokémon Centre haven’t moved at all! Neither have the Route 29 entrance, a section of the shoreline, much of the sea and two whole rocks. It is enough to make it clear that, at some point in late 1998 or early 1999, they decided to shrink down Cherrygrove but they didn’t really think it necessary to clean out the entire map before remodelling.

Old Cherrygrove comparison
That fence cutting the town in two really looked annoying.

But here’s the fascinating part. Did you know what they did with that same lower half?

They did Azalea Town.

Old new Azalea fusion
I did not see this coming.

Again, you may need to squint. In this case, the similitudes are fewer. But they are there, clear as day. The Gym is exactly where one large building with the same size used to be. The path leading to the entrance has the same shape as the old shoreline. The entrance from Route 33 matches the one from Route 29, and the building to Ilex Forest happens to be located over where a small patch of trees and an empty square that looked out of place originally used to be. Again, it’s just enough to make it clear that they did not clean out the whole map before doing a heavy redesign (aspiring rom hackers, please pay attention).

Of course, this raises way too many questions. First of all, what happened to the original Cherrygrove? Did they run out of space and decided to downsize it to gain room to use elsewhere? Was it too plot-heavy for the early game? And who decided to use that map as a base to rebuild Azalea after the original version was destroyed? (More on that later, when we get there).

But the biggest question here, though, is what happened in between the first beta draft and the final Johto? The released game included unused maps inside an in-between stage of development, and the ‘second’ beta version of Cherrygrove does not match the final version. As The Cutting Room Floor (which I used as a source for these mid-development-stage maps) notes, this map was labelled as “Nagoya”, a large Japanese city west of Shizuoka (development name for New Bark), which suggests that this was, indeed, supposed to be a major urban zone right after starting the game. But until now, it was believed to be a beta Azalea because of two reasons: how much it doesn’t look like Cherrygrove in any way, and the fence, which in the final version only appears after Azalea. Of course, now we know that, in the first draft, that same fence was also used in Route 31, as we’ll see later. But, in spirit, the maps are the same: they have the same number of (actually used) houses, with a major building hidden behind a cuttable tree and another one behind the railings. The Gym is already gone, unable to survive the Great Tree Flood of Early 1999.

Second Version Beta Cherrygrove
This is the sea of trees, as you can see.

Still, the most stunning part is how many changes this version underwent did not survive and were, in fact, undone for the final. A deluge of trees flooded the land. A building replaced the open connection with Route 29 of the original and the final versions. The PC and the Mart were moved around exactly two tiles from where they are in the other two versions. And the buildings had plain rooftops, instead of the striped ones that appeared in the other two iterations. It is as if they looked at this version, said “nope”, restored the previous backup and tried again.

Mid Cherrygrove fusion
Look at the shop and the PC. This makes me mad.

In a way, it makes more sense that previous beta scavengers couldn’t recognise Cherrygrove here: the only matching parts are a very small portion of the shoreline and exactly two rocks. And, of course, there is nothing of Azalea here, except – if you squint reaaaaaally hard the PC where the Slowpoke Well eventually landed. But even that is far too much of a stretch. Why did this map exist?

Mid Cherrygrove Azalea fusion
Nope. Doesn’t fit at all.

Route 30

Change level: Barely recognisable.

Beta Route 30
But the question is: was Joey there already? When was he created?

If you thought Cherrygrove was different, just look at this. You can guess it’s the same route because, well, it’s a barren straight with grass, ledges and trees, but other than that, it’s absolutely different. No Mr. Pokémon, no split path, a river instead of the small pond from the final, the fences from old Cherrygrove (which, on the plus side, match the river rocks on the left side pretty well!). But, most importantly, it’s tiny. Compare it with the final one.

Those seem the most uninspiring ledges I’ve ever seen.

What happened here? Where did the extra real estate come from? Easy: the large northern part of the map that was removed from Cherrygrove allowed them to extend the route. And, frankly, they turned it into a much more interesting one. The beta version feels so… boring.

Route 31

Change level: Barely recognisable

Route 31 beta
I bet that’s Professor Ledge’s house.

Now, here’s a route that, despite looking generally similar – same size, bland path to Violet, trees and grass – is actually totally different. Let’s count the things that are there: a house, surrounded by ledges, that might have belonged to Mr. Pokémon originally, if he was even in the game at that point. Certainly, the signpost and the importance that the house has in the map – it’s the only landmark worth mentioning – suggest that the route was designed for it, so it probably was very relevant.

Route 31 comparison
Professor Ledge’s home sank into the water. 🙁

Other than that, let’s count the things that are not there: a) a gate to Violet, b) a lake, c) cuttable tree shortcuts, d) Dark Cave, e) mandatory grass patches. In fact, other than the trees around the edges of the map, almost every other tile is different. Not even the connections to the surrounding areas: the path to Route 30 has been shrunk and shifted to the left, and the exit to Violet City is two tiles up in the final version, likely to accommodate the extra grass area and the ledge. For such a small area, it was almost entirely rebuilt into, perhaps, something far less memorable than what it was supposed to be. But hey, at least you can get a Dunsparce in Dark Cave.

Violet City

Change level: I guess the “oldish Japanese buildings” concept survived in some form. Everything else…

Beta Violet City
Middle row, top: I’m sure the house’s owner must have hit his signpost more than once when leaving.

This is a doozy. Violet City looks absolutely nothing like the final version. Well, to be fair, that is in part because the old “Japanese style building” tileset was edited during development, because the concept itself did survive until the end. But the city design – oh boy. It was massively different. There were four identical buildings, in oddly symmetrical quarters and a signpost outside of each, hinting that they were relevant in some way. We also see the same fence design from the previous towns and routes, which, again, was only used on the western half of the region in the final game. Also, notice that gigantic tower behind a cuttable tree. It’s 9 levels tall, exactly the same as Tin/Bell Tower in the final games. Was Violet supposed to be Ecruteak’s “twin” city? It’s worth mentioning that the final game still has 9 floor maps for Sprout Tower, five of them unused, although who knows whether that was its original purpose back then.

Barely anything survived. The full extent of the changes becomes apparent if we compare the map with what we eventually got:

Violet Beta Final Comparison
There’s more room to swim now, thankfully.

They look nothing alike. Not even the entrance remains: mirroring the changes in Route 31, the gate was moved two tiles up, forcing a strange turn instead of the straight line in the original design. And, of course, where the old tower was located, we now find the Ruins of Alph. Even the exit to Route 32 was shifted to the right. The only thing that survived intact was the path to Route 36, although you could argue that Bellsprout Tower, the Gym and the Trainers’ School are roughly where three of the major buildings used to be, even if they don’t match exactly.

Olod and New Violet Fusion
Find the not-differences.

Luckily, this time we do have an “intermediate step” that seems to have stuck more than Cherrygrove’s equivalent did.

Mid Violet
The Greens of Alph.

This does seem like an interesting middle step, bridging both versions. We still have the same “four buildings” design, but most of the railings were removed. One of the houses was turned into a small tower, which could be Bellsprout, while the gigantic tower was replaced by the Ruins of Alph and a smaller house, exactly where a regular one eventually turned up. The Gym has been moved to the same horizontal position where it eventually ended, just a few tiles up north, and – gasp – one tile from the exit to Route 32 matches.

Mid Violet fusion
Now in Tree Vision.