In 1996, the Pokémon franchise hit the scene in Japan with its first two games for the Nintendo GameBoy: Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green. They were released at the same time using the same game engine, but with different monsters and plot; the idea was that players of the different games could trade monsters with one another, and it was necessary to trade with someone in order to collect all 150 Pokémon. (Mew, a 151st Pokémon, existed in this tier of games but was only given out as prizes for Nintendo Power competitions and other such promotions, or could be unlocked using a Gameshark or through a glitch near Lavender Town — coincidental to today’s video game urban legend.)
Lavender Town in these games was a sort of “graveyard” town, where Pokémon are put to rest in a Tower and hauntings by restless spirits of Pokémon are apparently relatively common; and it’s central to the myth that hundreds of Japanese children committed suicide in a spike in 1996, when the games were released, but only once they got to Lavender Town in their games. The myth has come to be known as “Lavender Town Syndrome”.
The origin of this story is most likely 4Chan’s /x/ (“Paranormal”) board, according to KnowYourMeme, though the earliest instance of the story was posted to Pastebin in rather poorly written prose.
The original form suggested that there was a secret inserted into 107 copies of the cartridge during the first few minutes of play. Supposedly, you’d encounter a secret message from ghosts if you entered the grassy areas before getting your first Pokémon, after which the kids playing the game would have some sort of psychotic break, and the game would move their save file to Lavender Town — the graveyard town — with a very low play time and only the starting Pokémon in their inventory. The story included an investigation of the programmers by detectives who eventually committed suicide themselves; the narrative includes elements impossible to have been known by the person telling the story (including such things as knowing that someone was “smiling generously” when the narrative was supposedly reconstructed from a tape recording).
The story itself continues to evolve as people add to the mythos, and the most widely known version of the story is that malicious programmers inserted mind-control signals into the game’s musical score intentionally, such that once children got to Lavender Town, the music in the area — very high-pitched and slightly discordant — resulted in these kids getting extreme headaches, self-mutilating or committing suicide. When the game was localized to North America, the music had been changed to eliminate this effect.
Another new element that was inserted to the myth was a supposed waveform analysis of the music, seen in this Youtube video:
As you may be able to tell from the thumbnail image, the waveform included some ghost figures derived from the ghosts in Pokémon Tower. This was a rather obvious fan-made addition that does not exist in the original waveform, which was actually “chiptune“, generated by a sound chip rather than digital. The screech that happens when the ghost image appears is likely because the actual generated waveform itself was edited to include that ghost image, rather than it existing in the original game. A different version of this waveform alteration included Unowns, Pokémon from a much later game in the series whose bodies look like letters, spelling the words “LEAVE NOW”.
Another element added later to the story was that there was a “white hand” creature, which looked like a decomposing skeleton hand, all based on a throwaway line from a specific non-player character joking that there was a white hand on the player’s shoulder. This “white hand” creature supposedly acted as an actual combatant, whereas throughout the game people and creatures generally appeared to challenge your team of monsters with their own. In addition, the animations for the ghosts that appeared in the tower supposedly could drive you mad if you saw them in their entirety, but many frames were missing from them on being decompiled. And there was supposedly a boss coded in the game for the tower stage, which involved a human corpse that had been buried alive and had no actual script for what might happen if you won against him, and a series of creepy alterations to the normal game-over screen if you lose; the implication being, you couldn’t win. KnowYourMeme describes these three additions to the myth as involving “whitehand.gif”, “haunting.swf”, and “staticmesh.wav”, filetypes known to Windows users but which likely have little meaning within the scope of Gameboy programming. It’s doubtful any of these elements added to the story have any kernel of truth to them.
However, there may be an element of truth in the music being altered because of the high-pitched noises in the music causing headaches. Pokémon does have its history of legendary disturbing happenstances, and needing to alter the source material in response to complaints, including ostensibly inadvertently causing seizures in children with flashing-light motifs in their original cartoon series, so at least that part is plausible. Though, the supposed incidence of seizures is itself potentially specious, so it’s just as possible that this was a response to complaints that didn’t stem from actual physiological effects happening, so much as people complaining about the sound. As for a noteworthy spike in suicide rates in 1996 in Japan, there was no real appreciable increase in that year over others generally; Japan is historically culturally tolerant of suicide, though recently they’ve started an effort to curb suicide by 20% by 2017. It’s possible children committed suicide more in that year than others, but there’s certainly no actual scholarship or news articles suggesting this was the case, and certainly nothing pointing the finger directly at the GameBoy games.
This story has all the makings of a Bloody Mary or Candyman type myth — an innocuous thing you could do to summon a ghost of some sort, followed by dire consequences for doing it. What’s REALLY scary is how many young, credulous children might come across this stuff on the internet and really think their games are haunted; though, this is obviously the intent. The entire concept of “creepypasta”, or copy-and-pasteable creep-out “campfire” stories, is an effort to corrupt something as innocent as Pokémon the way ghost stories might have been told around the fire — you know, that innocent game about searching for and trapping animals and forcing them to fight with one another for your pleasure.