The History of Pokémon
It doesn’t matter if you know anything about video games, or anime, or Japan. If you were a kid in the 90s, you’ve at least heard of Pokémon. Pokémon today is a global phenomenon of video games, anime series, feature films, mobile games, trading cards and toys. It’s a cultural milestone so huge that we take it for granted. Pokémon is everywhere, but how many people know the story of how it all got started? For the massive success it became, most would never guess that it started with one young man.
Pokémon technically first came to be in 1990, but the story of its creation starts in the early 70s, in the developing Machida district of Tokyo. As a child, Satoshi Tajiri loved collecting bugs, and the rural areas around his home provided plenty of creepy-crawlies for him to play with. But as urbanization claimed much of Japan’s rural landscape, Machida developed along with it, and Tajiri lost his favorite pastime.
Later, as a teenager, Tajiri would become enamored with arcade games and grew interested in designing games himself. He went on to get a technical degree in electronics and computer science from Tokyo National College of Technology.
Between 1981 and 1986, Tajiri and his friend Junichi Masuda wrote and published an arcade gaming fanzine called Game Freak. When Ken Sugimori happened to pick up a copy, he struck up a friendship with Tajiri and became Game Freak’s illustrator. As the two became well-versed in the world of games, they weren’t impressed by the quality of games that most arcades offered, and started toying with the idea of making their own.
They took Game Freak to a totally new level by adapting it into a game development company of the same name, and in 1990, the moment that would change video game history finally came. Tajiri was inspired by the GameBoy’s ability to connect with and interact with other Gameboys, and recalled his childhood of collecting bugs. He conceived of a game where kids could collect and train “pocket monsters” and trade them with their friends. Some time would pass before the first Pokémon game would launch, but it had been finally set in motion.
The Birth of a Legacy
Some might say it was a bold move for the modest staff at Game Freak to go straight to Nintendo to pitch Pokémon, but Tajiri had already sold a game to Namco a few years prior, and had become respected in the gaming industry. Nintendo took a chance on Pokémon and agreed to become their distributor.
Outside of Tajiri, the executive producer, Masuda, the music composer, and Sugimori, the illustrator, the team was small and had an extremely limited budget. Development took six years, and much of the staff quit due to low pay and long hours. Tajiri himself worked countless unpaid hours on the game and survived only on allowance from his father. But their hard work paid off when Pokémon Red and Green released in Japan on February 27, 1996.
Audience response to the games were only moderate at first, but when word got out that the rare, super-powerful Pokémon Mew could only be accessed only through Nintendo Power events or by exploiting bugs, interest in the games spiked and they flew off the shelves.
Pokémon’s initial success was so remarkable that animation studios rushed to cash in on it. OLM Inc. started airing the iconic Indigo League series in April of 1997, and in 1998, Pokémon The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back was released theatrically by the famous studio Toho.
After that, the rest is history. Game Freak kept up with the times and reinvented the Pokémon world over and over with each new game, keeping a delicate balance of fresh content and familiarity. As new consoles edged out older ones, they remastered and released old games so newcomers could enjoy them (i.e, FireRed and LeafGreen for the Gameboy Advance, HeartGold and SoulSilver for the Nintendo DS, and Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire for the Nintendo 3DS).
Pokémon’s popularity hasn’t faltered even a little in the 30 years since its conception. The games have been reliable top sellers, the anime series is widely regarded as a classic, and people fill their shelves with Pokémon merch, figurines and plushies. It’s safe to say by now that Pokémon as we know it isn’t going anywhere.
What Comes Next?
The original staff behind Game Freak is still up and running, and they’ve fought hard to make sure Pokémon stays true to its roots, while always managing to offer fresh and new gameplay. Game Freak has shown a remarkable ability to keep up with trends, so what does that mean for the future of Pokémon?
The answer probably lies in the roaring success of the 2016 augmented-reality mobile game Pokémon Go. While unaffiliated with Game Freak and Nintendo, the small team behind the app really tapped into every 90’s kid’s dream of being a real-life Pokémon trainer, catching Pokémon in the real world and strengthening their team in gym battles. As the line between the virtual world and reality blurs more and more with every advance in gaming tech, who knows? Maybe a fully integrated VR Pokémon world is on the horizon, with highly realistic Pokémon the player can bond with and care for, and real-life gym locations with actual incentives for the trainers that come out on top. With the right technology, maybe soon we can all be the very best, like no one ever was.
Rowan Thompson - August 24, 2020
Hilliard, Kyle. “The History Of Pokémon.” Game Informer, 27 Feb. 2018, https://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2017/12/31/the-history-of-pokemon.aspx.
IGN Contributors. “Top 100 Game Creators.” IGN, 2009, https://www.ign.com/lists/top-100-game-creators/69.
Madnani, Mikhail. “A Brief History of Pokemon.” LiveMint, 25 July 2016, https://www.livemint.com/Sundayapp/Z7zHxltyWtFNzcoXPZAbjI/A-brief-history-of-Pokmon.html.