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Game Changers: Pokémon

Robert Grosso / February 27, 2016 at 12:00 PM / Gaming, Opinions

With the Pokémon franchise celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, it seems fitting to come look back at the driving forces behind the games. The Pokémon franchise is the bestselling RPG in gaming history, with game sales reaching over $240 million since its debut in 1996. As a recognizable brand, Pokémon has made over $2 billion in merchandise sales, including anime, the trading card games and, of course, the games themselves.

Suffice to say, Pokémon is a popular, almost timeless classic series, but many outside of hardcore fans don’t truly know the history behind the franchise. It is a story about perseverance, as Pokémon almost never came to be if it weren’t for the contributions of several key people in the early 1990s. From fabled designer of Nintendo Shigeru Miyamoto, to illustrator Ken Sugimori, the origins of Pokémon had many hands involved with its original concept. However, none of them are arguably as important as creator and developer Satoshi Tajiri, who took a concept that reminded him of his youth and, more or less, changed the gaming world forever.

Satoshi Tajiri was born on August 28th, 1965 in Machida, a Tokyo suburb. What is known about Tajiri’s past is mostly anecdotal stories about his youth. As a young child Tajiri was fond of collecting insects, often spending hours exploring the wilderness around his home, studying them as a childhood hobby. It was such a big part of his childhood he had a nickname among his friends, lovingly calling him “Dr. Bug” for his fascinations.

Historically, the early 1970s was a time of growth in Japan. After World War II, the United States held control over many industries within the country. By 1972, control was relinquished back to the Japanese, who used their growth in capital to quickly expand their business sector, which would peak by the late 1980s. It was during that time the very ponds and forests that Tajiri would go bug hunting would begin to disappear, paved over by waves of concrete and steel to create apartment complexes and shopping malls for the growing Japanese population.

As Tajiri grew older, his interests turned to video games and arcade machines. Tajiri would spend a majority of his free time in arcades; so much so that a local store once gave him his very own Space Invaders cabinet as a gift for being a loyal customer. Tajiri disliked school to the point where he almost quit to play games full time. He would eventually graduate from the Tokyo National College of Technology, but again was pushed to study electrical utilities, a profession in which he had no interest.

There are rumors regarding Tajiri and his personal health. It was once widely acknowledged that he suffers from Asperger Syndrome, a reference only found in a biography by Lori Mortensen. The biography, part of a series called innovators for KidHaven Press, has been disputed by fans since its release in 2009. To this day, Tajiri himself has not acknowledged any diagnosis, but he has discussed in the past his own unusual habits—one example is how he would sleep for 12 hours straight before working for a full 24-hour schedule, which according to Tajiri, allows him to gain “inspiration for game designing.”  

Several copies of Game Freak Magazine, circa the 1980s.

Several copies of Game Freak Magazine, circa the 1980s.

At the age of sixteen, Tajiri started on the path he currently finds himself. It was here, in 1981, when Tajiri won a game design contest run by Sega. This spurred his interest further, to the point where he, along with his childhood friend Ken Sugimori, created an independent gaming magazine known as Game Freak in 1982. The magazine was typically 28 pages long and the cost was about 300 Yen (roughly $3.00 U.S) at the time of its release. Tajiri did most of the writing, while Sugimori, an amateur artist and fan of Akria Toriyama of Dragonball fame, typically penned the illustrations and contributed articles for the magazine. The magazine proved to be popular, and eventually Tajiri went from hand writing the magazines to professionally printing them.

From his writings in the magazine, as well as his training from the TNCoT, Tajiri began to teach himself how to write software. He began programming for the Nintendo Famicom by dismantling a full, working console and working backwards from the components. After several attempts at amateur programming, Tajiri would finally make his first game, titled Quinty.

Quinty would be picked up and published by Hudson Soft in 1989, and later released in North America under the title Mendel Palace. The game was an action/puzzle hybrid, where the main character was to flip floor tiles to eliminate enemies on screen, often by flipping them into a wall or a trap placed in the room. The mechanics were simple but intuitive, and the game was a minor hit in Japan. Using the money earned from Quinty, and to help establish himself in the gaming industry, Tajiri would found his own development studio, taking the name from his former print magazine, Game Freak, in 1989.

From here, Game Freak would develop games for both Sega and Nintendo on various console systems. Some of the games created by Game Freak included Jerry Boy, a 1991 title distributed by Sony on the Super Nintendo (later renamed Smart Ball in the U.S); Yoshi, the first standalone game about Yoshi the dinosaur in the Mario series; and the 1994 game Pulseman, a Japanese only Sega Mega Drive game that has since been released on the Nintendo Virtual Console for the U.S. Tajiri would go on to win an award for his designs in Jerry Boy and would receive praise for the game Pulseman. It was his handling of the Nintendo mascots, however, that would begin a long relationship with the company that has lasted to this day.

Satoshi Tajiri, Circa 2006.

Satoshi Tajiri, Circa 2006.

It was in the early 1990s when Tajiri first envisioned Pokémon as a game. Part of his influence was watching the Nintendo game link cable being used by children playing with Game Boy systems. Reportedly, Tajiri imagined insects crawling on the cables between the game boys, as if they were being traded by two collectors. The concept then exploded as Tajiri began to envision a game where people can capture and trade unique creatures with each other over the game link cable.

Before Pokémon, there were already a few high profile games that employed similar mechanics at this time. The most notable is Atlus’ Megami Tensei titles, which debuted in 1987, and Enix’s Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride, which added monster catching to the series formula in 1992. Some have argued that Pokémon is essentially ripping off these concepts, but the emphasis in those games was collection and battling of demons and monsters, respectively. For Tajiri, the primary goal would be an emphasis on collecting and trading, which is often summed up by the English slogan “Gotta Catch ‘em All!”

The use of the Game Boy link cable was the key to this mantra.  At the time it was the only surefire method of transferring data from one game cartridge to another. Both Nintendo and Sega began experimenting with data allocation through television networks and limited online modems throughout the 1990s, but they were shoddy at best and all too often structured on a time format, meaning the possibility of missing out on features was high. Regardless, the link cable became a principal aspect of the design of the original Pokémon games, so its influence should not be ignored here.

Tajiri began production on Pokémon around 1990, first pitching the idea to Nintendo. The game was originally called Capsule Monsters at this initial pitch, which followed the core ideas of Pokémon—namely capturing and collecting the various monsters, and trading them via the game link cable. Several sketches of this are still in existence today, all of which were done by Sugimori, who has been a part of Game Freak since its founding in 1989. The early sketches show off original Pokémon designs and concepts, including the basic concept art of what the Pokémon would look like visually next to trainers.

The cover to Tajiri's original pitch, then called Capsule Monsters by Gamefreak.

The cover to Tajiri’s original pitch, then called Capsule Monsters by Game Freak.

Nintendo, at first, was confused by the project, and even initially rejected the idea from Tajiri. At the time, Nintendo was already in transition to the Super Famicom and was focusing on the console market push, rather than their handhelds, which were not yielding high returns for the company. Nintendo also had a tight control over what was released for their systems, often going the more conservative route in terms of games developed by their primary stable that followed a standard formula for handhelds, namely platform games and action titles. They thought that Tajiri’s concept was too wild, and that Tajiri was too eccentric for their current business strategy.

Shigeru Miyamoto, however, showed great interest in the project. Miyamoto, already a well-respected developer in Nintendo for his work on The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros, convinced Nintendo to provide some funding to Tajiri and Game Freak so that they could develop a proof of concept. Tajiri would then spend the next six years developing the game, the longest cycle of development for any Pokémon game to date. The long development time nearly bankrupted Game Freak, forcing Tajiri to not take a salary and even leading to several employees leaving the company due to lack of payment. He also worked for Nintendo to help mitigate concerns about his abilities, developing Yoshi, and Mario & Wario, a Japanese-only Mario spinoff.

It should also be noted that by 1996, when the first Pokémon games were released, the Gameboy as a system was already considered outdated. Nintendo had already designed a prototype that would eventually become the Game Boy Color, which was slated for a 1997 release, and there were even rumors that Nintendo would discontinue handheld gaming all-together due to low returns. Tajiri pushed the project through anyway, with the help of several individuals and companies believing his game, now titled Pocket Monsters, would be successful.

The first was Creatures Inc., a company founded by Nintendo in 1995 . Creatures Inc. became involved in the design of Pokémon after Tajiri suggested to Nintendo employee Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka that they form a partnership. Tanaka, a long-time composer for Nintendo games such as Metroid and Earthbound agreed, and with Nintendo’s blessing, Creatures Inc. would become the third company to receive credit for the first Pokémon games. Tanaka would eventually become the president of the company, helping Game Freak with the development of the Pokémon franchise ever since. This would prove crucial, as it gave the necessary funding and support to finish the original Pocket Monsters games.

Another important individual would be Junichi Masuda. Masuda joined Game Freak on the behest of Tajiri himself, who in turn wrote the score for Quinty. Masuda would go on to be the composer for the original Pokémon games, even developing a technique to add more dynamic music into the handheld cartridges. Using a program developed by Game Freak called sound driver, Masuda would create unique digitized themes and sound bites that would become the basis for each Pokémon’s in-game “cry.” Masuda still composes the music for the Pokémon franchise, but now serves as a co-director, producer, and even designer for the franchise.

Finally, there is Shigeru Miyamoto, who helped Tajiri and his staff with the initial design of the Japanese releases of the games. Miyamoto would become a mentor to Tajiri through the six years they worked together on Pocket Monsters Red and Green. It was also Miyamoto who suggested that there be “paired versions” of the games, creating two games with separate content in each, again emphasizing the “Catch ‘em All” aspect with the game link cable. Tajiri would jokingly honor his mentor by putting the main character and rival’s second name choice as Satoshi and Shigeru, respectively.

The original Japanese releases were not instantly successful in Japan. As stated above, the Game Boy system was considered dated by 1995, so the initial sales push by Nintendo was also small, with many within the company not expecting the series to make a major impact. Pocket Monsters Red and Green only grew in popularity, to the point where it even prolonged the demise of the Game Boy system for another year. Part of the appeal was due to word of mouth interest in what Tajiri first envisioned: collecting and trading various monsters like the insects from his youth. Another, often overlooked factor, was the hidden Pokémon Mew, which was secretly added to the code of the game just weeks before it was launched without Nintendo’s knowledge.

The allure of finding a rare, one of a kind Pokémon hidden in the game made many fans excited about the process. Long before the term “event Pokémon” was even introduced, hundreds of theories were rumored to exist on how to catch the ultimately near unattainable Mew. To this day, there is only one legal way to catch Mew in the original games, and that is through manipulating a glitch in the games coding to do so.

Another theory to this is the simplicity of the game’s mechanics. In 2000 the Columbia School of Business argued that the gameplay-first approach to the franchise was instrumental to the success of Pokémon. In an article titled Pokémania: Secrets Behind the International Phenomenon, the School of Business stated that the lack of artificial effects, high graphics and texture mapping, for example, would allow children playing the games to use their own imagination and creativity, thus creating a more engaging experience. In truth, we may never know what addictive quality Pokémon has, perhaps it is just simply a good game that everyone, young and old, gravitated towards.

A third game, Pocket Monsters Blue, would be released as an exclusive bonus item from subscribers to CoroCoro, a toy and gaming magazine in Japan, which would go on to be the major announcement arm for the Pokémon franchise. This third game updated the sprites in the original titles and fixed some of the bugs found in the game, but the popularity of the third title would lead to fully-fledged release months later. This would spawn another tradition with the Pokémon games: a third, tie-in title with new features and redesigned dungeons. Together, the three titles sold over 10 million copies in Japan.

The success would cement Nintendo as dominant force in the handheld market, which was severely waning by 1996.  Nintendo would see that success repeated in North America, when Pocket Monsters, renamed Pokemon to avoid a trademark dispute with Monster in My Pocket, would officially be released on September 30, 1998 to rave reviews. Pokémon Red and Blue, based on the Pocket Monsters Blue version of the game, would go on to make $9.85 million in North America during its initial release, giving birth to a multi-national, billion-dollar franchise.

Throughout the adversity that Tajiri faced when creating the Pokémon games, one thing is undoubtedly clear: his hard work, perseverance, and dedication to the project, along with the help of individuals like Sugimori, Tanaka, Masuda and Miyamoto, formulated a perfect storm that would redefine the blockbuster handheld game. What started as a simple vision by Tajiri would become a reality, with the video game world being richer for it thanks to his contributions. Pokémon continues to impress fans globally after 20 years, with no sign of slowing down. In fact, in 2016 Pokémon will officially go mobile for the first time with Pokémon Go, which would mean a new way to connect, trade, and battle opponents worldwide. Pokémon continues to evolve, but the impact the series has is undoubtedly felt in the gaming community.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this episode of Game Changers. If you have any questions or comments, or any ideas on what games should be featured on Game Changers, please leave them below or contact me at @LinksOcarina. See you next time! 

Robert Grosso

Staff Writer

A game playing, college teaching, erudite-minded scholar who happens to write some articles every so often. Have worked as a journalist, critic, educator and blogger for over five years now, with articles published (as user editorials) on Game Revolution and Giant Bomb as well as a contributor for the websites Angry Bananas and Blistered Thumbs. Now making TechRaptor my home.