The Origin Of Pokemon

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  • Game Freak
  • Inspiration For An Institution
  • The Phenomenon
  • Mew, The 151st Pokemon
  • Legacy

Pokemon is the biggest video game franchise ever. Its all-ages appeal, collectability, and colorful characters have made it a worldwide phenomenon for decades with no signs of slowing down. It's spawned movies, a long-running anime series, a trading card game, and an uncountable level of merchandise.

Today, Pikachu is as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse. Pokemon was a smash hit from the very beginning, but the original games were a labor of love that grew out of years of dedication. Let's take a look at how this iconic franchise came to be.

Game Freak

Satoshi Tajiri was an enthusiastic collector as a child and developed a love for video games as a teenager. Growing up in '60s and '70s Japan, he was an avid bug collector. While this was a popular hobby among Japanese children at the time, Tajiri took it to such an extreme that his grade-school nickname was Doctor Bug.

By the time he was in high school, Tajiri had discovered arcade games. To the consternation of his father and his teachers, he would frequently cut class to go to the arcade, eventually imperiling his chances of graduating. Refusing his father's entreaties to get a respectable job, Tajiri instead started a video game magazine titled Game Freak.

Game Freak issues were written, photocopied, and stapled together by hand. Tajiri made the first issues in 1983, selling them for 300 yen apiece – around $4.25 in 2022. The best-selling issue contained a guide for the arcade game Xevious, selling ten thousand copies when Tajiri was eighteen.

One of Game Freak's readers, Ken Sugimori, discovered the magazine at a manga store and offered Tajiri his services as an illustrator for the publication. The company continued to grow from there, and eventually, Tajiri wanted to start producing video games of his own. He began to study programming, and in 1989 Game Freak had its first game, Quinty (called Mendel Palace in the West) published by Namco. Sugimori designed the characters, and the game's music was created by composer Junichi Masuda.

Inspiration For An Institution

The same year Quinty was released, Nintendo launched its revolutionary handheld video game console, the Game Boy. The system included a port for the Link Cable accessory, which allowed two Game Boys to be connected for multiplayer (a physical connection was required as wireless technology was still a long way off).

Tajiri wanted to develop a game inspired by his bug-collecting days as a kid, and the Game Boy with its Link Cable gave him his billion-dollar idea; what if the Link Cable were used to transfer data between game cartridges, allowing players to trade from their collections? He pitched the idea for his game, Capsule Monsters, to Nintendo in 1990. The company was hesitant, but Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto was impressed enough with Quinty that he was willing to give Game Freak a chance with their ambitious new game.

Capsule Monsters, eventually renamed Pocket Monsters over copyright concerns, spend six years in development, with Miyamoto offering his expertise to Tajiri throughout the process. In fact, it was Miyamoto's idea to ship the game as two separate cartridges with different monsters to collect. This would encourage players to trade amongst themselves and has been a series staple since the beginning.

Game Freak also developed some puzzle games for Nintendo to keep the lights on during this period, such as Yoshi and Mario & Wario, but the company's finances were strained by the long development process of Pocket Monsters. Tajiri himself cut costs by taking no salary, instead asking his father for money.

Ken Sugimori designed the original 151 Pokemon, and Junichi Masuda returned to compose what would become the soundtrack of a generation of gamers. By the time Pocket Monsters was finally ready to ship in 1996, Tajiri was worried that he had missed his chance – the Game Boy was old hardware at that point, and he was unsure there would be a market for a new title on the console.

The Phenomenon

The two versions of Pocket Monsters, Red Version and Green Version, were released in Japan on February 27, 1996. The first year saw over a million copies sold, and that figure more than tripled in 1997, outselling the now-legendary PlayStation title Final Fantasy 7 in Japan.

With a hit on their hands, Nintendo and Game Freak set about localizing the titles for a Western release. Every single Pokemon was tweaked, renamed, and trademarked to make the characters as appealing to Western audiences as possible. According to Kotaku, the localization team wanted to make the game's cuter creatures more ferocious-looking to appeal to American kids, but Nintendo's CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi vetoed the change.

The game's title was shortened to Pokemon, a portmanteau of Pocket Monsters, a nod to a scrapped earlier title, KapuMon, which was itself derived from the original title, Capsule Monsters. Instead of a Green Version, Western audiences received a Blue Version.

Nintendo Of America made a massive marketing push in the summer of 1998 with Red and Blue hitting North American shelves on September 28 of that year. According to Chris Kohler's Power Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave The World An Extra Life, Pokemon became the fastest-selling Game Boy title ever in the US, selling 200,000 units in the first two weeks and four million in the first three months.

Mew, The 151st Pokemon

All of Pokemon's marketing materials and even the game itself indicated that there were 150 unique monsters to catch. One of Game Freak's programmers, Shigeki Morimoto, had snuck an additional creature into the game just before launch. The only Pokemon in Generation One not designed by Ken Sugimori, Mew was only supposed to be alluded to in the game's lore as an extinct Pokemon whose DNA was used to create Mewtwo. Morimoto added Mew to the game at the last moment, intending for it to be a special Pokemon that only Game Freak staff would know how to unlock. According to a Stanford case study by Gini Shinn, Tajiri kept Mew in the code but made it completely unobtainable, intending to use it for a promotional event later.

Nintendo wasn't even aware of Mew's existence when the game shipped.

Tajiri believed that face-to-face interaction was important for Pokemon despite it being a video game, and eventually, Mew could be unlocked by players who brought their cartridges to special in-person events.

Legacy

Pokemon has been a driving force in video games and in global pop culture ever since its worldwide release. Eight generations of mainline Pokemon games have been released thus far, bringing the total number of collectable critters to nine hundred and eight. The ninth generation, Pokemon Scarlet And Violet, has recently been announced as of the time of this writing.

There have also been numerous spinoffs and remakes – and that's just the video game side of the franchise. Satoshi Tajiri remains President of Game Freak, while Ken Sugimori and Junichi Masuda have continued to lend their talents to the series to this day.

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