We all know Pokémon as what it is today, but how did it all come to fruition? Pokémon went through a lot of changes, and it took series creator Satoshi Tajiri years of hard work and dedication to see it all come to life. Here’s the story of how it all happened…
Born August 8, 1965, Satoshi Tajiri (田尻 智) grew up in Machida, Tokyo. His father was a Nissan Salesman and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. When Tajiri was a child, Machida was a rural area that had forests, lakes and natural environments for him to explore. In an interview with Time, Tajiri said that he would spend his early years catching and studying insects, so much so that other kids would call him ‘Dr. Bug’. He even wanted to become an entomologist, however construction of shopping malls and apartment buildings stripped away a lot of the nature that he had loved to explore.
“As a child, I wanted to be an entomologist. Insects fascinated me. Every new insect was a wonderful mystery. And as I searched for more, I would find more. If I put my hand in a river, I would get a crayfish. Put a stick underwater and make a hole, look for bubbles and there were more creatures.”
– Satoshi Tajiri
With his hometown becoming less green with each passing day, bugs migrated away from Machida and Satoshi Tajiri shifted his love to video games and arcades. He would study the strategies and mechanics of his favorite video games, and he even took apart his Nintendo Famicom just to see how it all worked. He loved video games so much that he would often skip school in order to play at the local arcade. Tajiri often found it difficult to concentrate during school, and his teachers thought that he was just being lazy. It wasn’t until later that doctors discovered that the young Tajiri was autistic, which explained his compulsive behaviour for bugs and video games, as well as his lack of interest in school.
Unfortunately, Tajiri skipped school so much that he did not receive enough credits in order to graduate, and was forced to take make-up courses. He eventually graduated and later enrolled at the Tokyo National College of Technology studying electronics and computer science, but dropped out after just two years.
Growing up, Satoshi Tajiri was engrossed in the growing anime and manga culture. Tajiri grew up with Ultraman, both the TV show and manga, and was greatly influenced by the increasing popularity of pop culture in Japan. If video game designer hadn’t been a career option, Tajiri has stated that he probably would be making anime.
Game Freak Magazine
In 1978, Space Invaders took Japanese arcades by storm, and Satoshi Tajiri was one of many to fall in love with the arcade shooter. Following the release of Space Invaders, the next game to capture Tajiri’s heart was Donkey Kong. Tajiri had a keen eye for tactics and strategies, so from a young age he began to write tips and tricks on how to beat his favourite games. He stapled these handwritten pages together and named it Game Freak. The fan magazine managed to create a young audience and gaming enthusiasts began to read Tajiri’s work. One of these readers was Ken Sugimori, a young boy only a few months younger than Tajiri, who had a real passion for video games and drawing. As Tajiri continued to write new issues of Game Freak, Sugimori had begun drawing illustrations for the magazine. Game Freak was eventually sold in stores, with the most successful issue themed around a game called Zabius, selling over 10,000 copies by 1983. But despite the success of the Game Freak magazine, Tajiri wanted to do more.
As Game Freak continued to grow as a video game magazine publishing company, others had begun to contribute to the magazine. These contributors and Satoshi Tajiri would often come together to discuss video games. They had begun noticing what made a good game and (more importantly) what made a bad game, and saw a lot of the latter in many games releasing at the time. They came to the conclusion that Game Freak would need to start making their own games. Thus Game Freak, the video game magazine company, became the video game development company.
Game Freak’s first game was Quinty (renamed Mendel Palace in North America) on June 27, 1989 for the Famicom (and on October 12, 1990 for the NES).
Mendel Palace was created by the same team that would go on to make the original Pokémon games: Directed by Satoshi Tajiri, Art by Ken Sugimori and Music by Junichi Masuda. The game has the player on an adventure to save his girlfriend that has been kidnapped by a young girl. The setting has the player proceed through 5×7 grid rooms filled with enemy dolls. To defeat the enemies, they player will need to flip the tiles and propel them into the wall or onto an impassable block. The player will need to defeat all of the enemies to proceed to the next level.
Game Freak was beginning to gain a reputation, and had begun making games using Nintendo’s original intellectual property, including Yoshi for the NES and Game Boy, as well as Mario & Wario for the SNES. Game Freak also made some titles for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, including Magical Tarurūto-kun and the critically acclaimed Pulseman.
Satoshi Tajiri was the director for all of Game Freak’s games (excluding Magical Tarurūto-kun), but in the meantime Tajiri had been working on his own side project.
Satoshi Tajiri’s nostalgia for collecting bugs as a child sparked an idea inside of him. He could not shake those memories of exploring tall grass and long rivers in order to discover a wide range of bugs, animals and fish. Tajiri wished to create a game that would replicate that sense of wonder that he had experienced growing up. So from 1990, he had set to work on some concept designs and discussing his ideas with his team.
At first, Pokémon didn’t quite look like the Pokémon that fans all know and love today. Lucky enough, fans have been able to view original concept designs for Pokémon, dating back to 1990. These designs allow us to see just how much it had changed up until its eventual release in 1996.
The original concept, known as Capsule Monsters, shared similarities to what it would end up becoming. For one, the concept of a trainer keeping monsters inside capsule-like balls was an idea that Tajiri had from the very beginning. Tajiri had always intended for the monsters to battle each other.
Another piece of early concept art shows that Satoshi always wanted to implement the idea of being able to ride on top of water Pokémon. However what is especially surprising that despite Lapras going through some subtle design changes, the text below confirms that the Pokémon’s name was always intended to be Lapras.
At the bottom of this image, a monster is being hatched from an egg, which would later become a mainstay in the series from generation 2 onwards. There is also a Pokémon that somewhat resembles Rhydon as it and its trainer are exploring a cave. Lastly, the art style better resembles how Pokémon would eventually look, and maintains that signature Ken Sugimori art style.
Whilst some things in this image look familiar, other concepts changed entirely. Marts in Pokémon certainly don’t have Pokémon locked up in cages or jars, something that was potentially scrapped due to the backlash that it may have received from animal protection agencies. One can also argue that it was due to Nintendo’s child-friendly philosophy, as they were apprehensive on the project from the very beginning.
Satoshi Tajiri always wanted to implement trading in Pokémon to encourage social communication. While trading didn’t become fully realised until 1996 with the eventual release of Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green, it is clear that Tajiri had this in mind from the very beginning.
It’s difficult to say for sure, but this piece may have been an early concept design for Celadon City due to the three-storey mart on the left side of the sketch. The drawing also shows someone riding a bicycle, a staple in the Pokémon series. Ever since the release of Pocket Monsters Red and Pocket Monsters Green, players have been able to encounter trainers in cities with their Pokémon outside of their Poké Balls. Clearly, this was something very important to Tajiri as it reflected the idea of living in harmony with Pokémon.
In the last piece of art, there appears to be more early concept of Pokémon that would go on to make the final cut. The trainer on the left has a Slowbro that, even though the image only shows the back of the Pokémon, looks exactly like its final design. On the other hand, the other Pokémon (Koffing) appears to be a lot different than its final design, being much larger and primarily made of gas. The trainer on the right also comes across as very aggressive with his whip, and whilst there are NPCs with whips in the original games, none show the action of using them whilst battling. This change could also be a result of Nintendo’s influence on the franchise.
When Satoshi Tajiri pitched his idea to Nintendo back in the early 90s, the meeting room was skeptical. They thought that Tajiri’s ideas were too ambitious and found it difficult to fully comprehend the concept. However there was one man sitting in that meeting room who saw great promise in Tajiri’s vision.
That man was Shigeru Miyamoto.
Being the creator of Donkey Kong, the game that Satoshi Tajiri had written about in his first issue of Game Freak Magazine, Miyamoto had always been a huge influence on Tajiri and his work. Therefore, to get recognition from Miyamoto himself was a dream come true.
Despite Nintendo’s scepticism on Satoshi Tajiri’s project, Shigeru Miyamoto had convinced them to put their faith in Game Freak. Tajiri instantly began development on what was then known as Capsule Monsters, with Miyamoto providing his professional expertise wherever necessary.
Despite all of the enthusiasm that Tajiri had for his project, it appeared that Nintendo’s initial scepticism was not unfounded. Capsule Monsters appeared to be too ambitious of an idea for the newly founded Game Freak. The development company were struggling financially and Tajiri had lost several employees as he could not afford to keep paying them. Game Freak had begun working on other titles to circumvent this issue. Tajiri would spend long days and sleepless nights attempting to see his vision come to fruition. However despite his efforts, Tajiri’s project was put on hold indefinitely.
As years passed, Game Freak had developed a number of titles for Nintendo and Sega consoles in order to improve its financial situation. The company had clawed its way back to financial stability, and staff were eager to continue working on Tajiri’s brain child.
The further Tajiri’s concept had developed, the more issues they ran in to. For one, the name Capsule Monsters was inspired by gachapon, a craze in Japan that allows you to place a coin in a machine in order to receive a capsule with a toy inside.
However, it proved difficult to trademark the name, so Tajiri experimented with Capumon before ultimately landing on the name Pocket Monsters.
Lastly, Tajiri and Sugimori refused to let hardware limitations stifle their creativity. Together, they designed more than 200 monsters and attempted to implement every single one into the game. Their plan was to create as many as they wanted to, then cut out just enough so that they fit it onto the Game Boy cartridges. They eventually settled on 150, which seemed like an appropriate number to the team.
As the concept of Pocket Monsters was beginning to take shape, and Game Freak had some more financial backing behind it, they were able to speed up the project’s development.
When development had initially begun, Tajiri envisioned his creation to be a more traditional RPG (as was growing increasingly popular in Japan at the time thanks to the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series). The game was originally designed around the concept of battling, with less focus on capturing and collecting. Tajiri had initially wanted to implement a charisma mechanic (similar to Wizardry) which would determine whether the monster would join the player’s team.
Years earlier, Satoshi Tajiri had noticed two people playing Tetris together by using the Game Boy’s link cable. The original concept for the link cable was purely to allow players to compete against one another in head-to-head competitive games. But Tajiri saw something different. He envisioned two bugs crawling down the cable, going from one Game Boy to the other. As difficult as it was for Tajiri to interact with others, he believed that the idea of capturing and trading these creatures would lead to lifelong friendships.
The development process took a lot longer than Game Freak had initially expected and many changes were made from the original concept. However, Game Freak always kept the trading aspect in tact from the very beginning as they believed it to be an enticing feature in the game. Tajiri had hoped that the idea of trading would encourage the series to grow in popularity due to word of mouth. He wanted kids to trade Pokémon on the school bus, on the playground or after school. Shigeru Miyamoto realized that this was essential to the series’ success and offered advice to Tajiri that they should split the game into two different versions, with some Pokémon being exclusive to a specific version.
“I didn’t suggest splitting the games because it would allow us to sell more copies of the same thing. I just thought it would be more fun for the players if, say, there were 3 siblings and they all owned something unique. That way, they’d be able to communicate. I didn’t want to release separate versions of the games just to increase the marketability.”
– Shigeru Miyamoto
Leading up to the release, Game Freak wanted to have the option to play as a female character. This idea was ultimately scrapped; however, the character Green was still put into the manga series Pokémon Adventures. From generation two onwards, being able to choose between playing as a boy or a girl has been a mainstay in the series.
The legendary Pokémon Mew was not supposed to be in the final release of the game as the memory on the cartridge was almost at capacity. The team at Game Freak took a big risk in putting Mew in right at the end of development as a prank.
“We put Mew in right at the very end. The cartridge was really full and there wasn’t room for much more on there. Then the debug features which weren’t going to be included in the final version of the game were removed, creating a miniscule 300 bytes of free space. So we thought that we could slot Mew in there. What we did would be unthinkable nowadays!”
– Shigeki Morimoto
Despite putting Mew into the game’s data, the legendary Pokémon was never intended to be revealed unless it was to be used for some post-launch event. However, Mew had begun appearing in some players’ games as a result of a bug. Despite it being unintentional, the legend of Mew being this mysterious Pokemon that not many players encountered had become a hot topic of conversation amongst players, ultimately increasing the game’s popularity.
After six long and gruelling years of development, Pocket Monsters Red and Pocket Monsters Green released in Japan on February 27, 1996. However, these games were initially intended to release on December 21, 1995, according to the very bottom of an old flyer.
Trivia: It is speculated that this is why all Pokémon games that have followed always have the initial copyright year of 1995.
The games were an instant success in Japan, but this begged the question: could this series be successful overseas?
After Pocket Monster’s initial success in Japan, Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi urged Game Freak to localise the games for the North American market. However, Game Freak was sceptical. Simply translating the games’ texts to English wouldn’t work due to the fragile state of the source code. Enter Hal Laboratory president (and future Nintendo president) Satoru Iwata.
Despite being a company president, Satoru Iwata had always enjoyed working hands on with hardware and software. He often assisted in the development of many projects, in and outside of HAL Laboratory. Iwata read through the entire source code for the games and conducted an analysis that had allowed Nintendo programmer Teruki Murakawa to work on the localisation. In order for it to work, they needed to create an entirely new version from scratch. After a gruelling localisation period, the series was on its way to the western world in the form of Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue, whilst this upgraded version became Pocket Monsters Blue in Japan.
Trivia: Having already read the source code, Satoru Iwata was tasked with implementing the battle code into Pokémon Stadium on the Nintendo 64. Developers were previously experiencing difficulties with this, however Iwata managed to achieve this feat in just one week.
During the localisation process, there were some changes that needed to be made. First, they ran into copyright issues with the name Pocket Monsters. In order to bypass this, they shortened the name to one that fans are much more familiar with today: Pokémon.
Critics argued that Pokémon seemed a little too “Japanese” for the western market, and needed to be altered in order to create a worldwide appeal. Initially, both Clefairy and Pikachu were intended to be mascots, with Clefairy receiving most of the spotlight. However when they were getting ideas for the anime TV show, they went with Pikachu as the electric mouse had proven to appeal to a wider audience. They also thought that having a yellow mascot would be more easily recognisable as the only other yellow mascot at the time was Winnie the Pooh.
Pikachu was initially designed by artist Atsuko Nishida and was later only finalised by the more prolific Pokémon artist, Ken Sugimori. In a 2009 interview with Gamepro, Junichi Masuda stated that Pikachu was one of the most difficult character to settle on a final design for as they needed the electric mouse to be universally appealing to boys, girls and parents.
The release of Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue was an instant success in North America. Releasing September 28, 1998, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue released 20 days after the anime (licensed by 4Kids Entertainment) launched in the United States. With the TV Show airing a new episode every morning Monday to Friday, along with the games gaining popularity on the playground, Poké Mania was in full swing.
The choice to make Pikachu the mascot of the series proved to be the best decision that The Pokémon Company had ever made. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Satoshi Tajiri’s idea to make Pikachu the mascot, however he did acknowledge the Pokémon’s widespread appeal. The Pokémon Games’ composer, Junichi Masuda, believes that Pikachu’s popularity was due to the Pokémon being Ash’s partner in the anime, which was a decision made by the production company, OLM Inc.. Satoshi Tajiri and the team at Game Freak were very excited for its release, despite their initial apprehension.
Trivia: In the Japanese version of the Pokémon anime, Ash is named Satoshi (named after Satoshi Tajiri) and his original rival Gary is named Shigeru (named after Shigeru Miyamoto).
Pikachu became so popular that it received its own version as Pokémon Yellow. This version seemed unnecessary to Satoru Iwata as the sequel, Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver, were initially planned to release in the same year.
“We originally started work on Gold and Silver right after releasing Red and Green, and then just when we were racing forward with the development, Tajiri-san came to us and said: ‘We’ve finished one!’ I thought that this was really quick and asked him what it was, to which he replied: ‘We’ve finished Blue’ … And then after that, we made Pikachu!”
– Tsunekazu Ishihara
With the sequels on the horizon, Satoshi Tajiri had successfully started a video gaming revolution. The landscape of the industry had since changed forever, becoming a worldwide cultural phenomenon.
Tajiri’s Continuous Involvement
As the series has continued across many generations, Satoshi Tajiri has continued to be heavily involved in the direction of the series as the CEO of Game Freak. He has also been an executive producer of the core Pokémon games since Pokémon Diamond and Pokémon Pearl on the Nintendo DS in 2006.
As the series progressed, the games continued to be influenced by Satoshi Tajiri and his childhood. As a kid, Tajiri noted that kids in Japan would smear honey on trees in order to attract bugs. This childhood memory of Tajiri’s was implemented in the Pokémon games from generation 4 onwards, allowing the player to battle and catch unique bug type Pokémon.
During early concept stages, Tajiri had the idea that players will be able to battle with multiple Pokémon at once in order to bolster their stats.
“Takuji and I finally finished negotiating. He’d agreed to trade one of his Fireflies for two of my Green Dragons. But I still felt like our exchange was a little unbalanced. I asked if he wouldn’t mind adding 5 Powerkings, monsters with the strength you might expect to see in soldiers, and we finally struck a bargain. Powerkings have a high encounter rate, and you’ll quickly run into them if you wander around dungeons. They’re strong, though, and the theory is that, if you have a lot of them, you can put them to work as soldiers when you run into other monsters. Takuji and I hooked up the Link Cable and traded monsters. The Game Boy plays sound effects as the monster data is being transferred, so we could hear the monsters’ cries.”
– Satoshi Tajiri (predicting how trading and gameplay would be implemented in the games)
While this proved to be too ambitious for the Game Boy hardware, the idea was later implemented in the form of double battles from Pokémon Ruby and Pokémon Sapphire and triple battles in Pokémon Black and Pokémon White.
Many years have passed since trainers chose their very first Pokémon on the Game Boy, yet you can argue that the franchise is as popular as ever. Games continue to be released for modern systems and they consistently sell millions of copies with each iteration.
As with any popular franchise, Pokémon has been successful in many different ways. The Pokémon Trading Card Game has a very loyal following, both professionally and casually. It was first introduced to Japan in October 1996, and to North America in 1998. According to the official Pokémon website, the Pokémon Trading Card Game has since sold 25.7 billion cards as of March 2018.
Official merchandise for the Pokémon franchise come in the form of anything you could imagine, from plush toys, to clothing, to an adorable snorlax bean bag. Pokémon has become instantly recognisable, becoming a worldwide phenomenon.
Moving on to the franchise’s mascot, Pikachu is now an icon that is known to Pokémon fans and nonPokémon fans alike. A yearly Pikachu parade is held in Yokohama, Japan every August and features 1,000 Pikachus taking place in shows and parades.
Pikachu was also chosen as Japan’s official mascot for the FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Featuring video game and anime characters in sporting events is not uncommon for Japan, as Mario (as well as Pac-Man and Doraemon) was featured in the 2016 Olympic Closing Ceremony. However, choosing Pikachu to officially represent Japan in a worldwide sporting event just goes to show his popularity and worldwide recognition.
With the mobile title Pokémon Go being an incredible resurgence for the franchise, the series has made its way back into pop culture and has been a popular talking point in news media. Pokémon Go borrows much of the vision that Satoshi Tajiri originally had for the series, being able to explore the world and capture various monsters. Whether it be in a park, a city or next to a lake, there will always be something new to find.
Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Pokémon: Let’s Go, Eevee! for the Nintendo Switch will be the first ever main adventure Pokémon game to be released on a home console. The title is a HD remake of the original Pokémon adventure that took Satoshi Tajiri six years to see to fruition. It borrows mechanics from the mobile game, allowing players to see Pokémon in the wild rather than just encountering them in wild battles.
At Nintendo’s 2018 E3 Direct, it was revealed that the Poké Ball Plus will come with the Legendary Pokémon Mew. It can be speculated that this is a reference to the implementation of Mew in the original entry in 1996.
What came from a young boy growing up in Machida, Tokyo exploring the world outside has grown into something that has touched the lives of millions around the world. For fans who grew up with the series, a sense of nostalgia has been implanted that values the lifelong friendships that this series has allowed many to form. Whether it be discussing the Mew glitch on the playground or trading Pokémon on work breaks, the series has grown into a phenomenon that brings people together. Satoshi Tajiri has truly created a world where people can come together and share in the fun of Pokémon, and it all began with a young boy exploring the wonders of nature.
If there was one thing that you could say to Satoshi Tajiri, what would that be? Let us know in the Comments section below…
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