Pokemon: The Mega-Franchise That Almost Never Was

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Grab a random person on the street and ask them what Pokemon is. Provided they don’t spray you in the eyes with mace for accosting them in public, they’ll probably be able to tell you at least a few cursory things about the franchise. 

Yep, it’s probably fair to say Pokemon is the world’s most consistently beloved and successful videogame franchise, with trading cards, manga, a cartoon series, and endless heaps of merchandise (including some very confusing lingerie) to its name.

Even 20 years later, in 2016, with over 100 million Pokemon games sold, and nearly 800 monsters to catch, the launch of mobile app Pokemon GO has absolutely dominated the public’s attention over the past few weeks – Nintendo’s stock price shot up by $9 billion, and Hollywood is reportedly scrambling for the rights to make a movie.

So with an already successful franchise arguably more popular than it’s been in years , now seems as good a time as any to ask the question: How did it all start?

To answer that, we need to go all the way back to Machida (a suburb of Tokyo) in the late 60s, where Satoshi Tajiri – the creator of Pokemon – grew up.

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Satoshi Tajiri deserves to be a much more recognised figure in gaming than he is – Perhaps the reason he isn’t, is that he lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, one of the three recognized social disorders within the spectrum of Autism.

As a result of this, Tajiri rarely does interviews or PR appearances. Regardless, this introspective and deeply creative individual deserves to be as widely known as the likes of Shigeru Miyamoto and Notch.

At any rate, you might not be surprised to learn that the architect of a franchise built on catching ’em all was a keen collector of insects, hunting for the mini-beasts across ponds, fields, and forests.

Such was his passion, that he was constantly finding new ways to catch and study the little critters, even earning the nickname of “Dr Bug” among friends.

Tajiri told TIME back in 1999:

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.

Street blossoming cherry trees Yakushidai Pokemon: The Mega Franchise That Almost Never Was

Sadly, in the late 1970s as Tajiri started high school, the fields and ponds that he explored as a kid were paved over by apartment buildings and shopping centers. It was at this time that Tajiri’s interests moved from insects to videogames.

Thanks to his obsession with games like Space Invaders (one arcade actually gave the jammy git a machine to take home), Tajiri nearly failed to graduate from high school.

But graduate he did. Tajiri never went to college, though he did go on to study electronics at a two-year technical school – a decision that would go on to have a momentous impact on the future of videogames.

See, it was at the Tokyo National College of Technology that Tajiri meet a man called Ken Sugimori, who would go on to design and draw all 151 of the original Pokemon. If you ever wondered who was responsible for Muk, now you know.

Tajiri and Sugimori started a videogame magazine together called Game Freak, the first few issues of which they would put together and bind entirely by hand.

Gamers may well recognize the name of the magazine, as it’s the name of the videogame development company that the pair went on to found – the company that still develops Pokemon titles to this day.

It wasn’t until the late 80’s that Game Freak began a new life as a videogame developer and established a working relationship with a company called Nintendo (dunno if you’ve heard of them).

Throughout the early 90’s, Game Freak developed a number of titles across the NES and SNES, including Mendel Palace, Smart Ball, Yoshi, and Mario & Wario – nothing game changing, but the universe was clearly saving Game Freak for something special.

Of course, Nintendo had their own part to play in the beginnings of Pokemon – the iconic Gameboy and Link Cable attachment would serve as the catalyst for Tajiri’s biggest stroke of inspiration yet.

One day, Tajiri saw two kids playing Gameboys, enjoying the then revolutionary Link Cable to connect with one another. He had a vision of an insect moving back and forth across the cable.

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For most of us, such a vision would probably mean we’d been in the sun for too long and we’d started to go a bit wrong. For Tajiri, it was the beginning of something amazing.

Duo gameboy Pokemon: The Mega Franchise That Almost Never Was

Of course, it’s the central idea of linking with other players that essentially inspired everything the Pokemon franchise has been about in its various forms: Collecting, trading, and battling cute animals to the point of exhaustion.

Tajiri signed with Nintendo, who trusted him based on his previous work with the company. Though according Shigeru Miyamoto – the man behind Mario and Zelda – Tajiri could never quite explain the concept to Nintendo properly.

Still, with encouragement from Miyamoto, Tajiri and his team toiled away on the project for six long years, although Game Freak very nearly went bust in the process.

In fact, the financial situation got so bad that five people actually quit – Tajiri stopped paying himself and lived off his parents while he finished the project.

Unfortunately, by the time the project was finished in 1996, it seemed that the Gameboy hype had died down massively.

Nintendo released Pokemon Red Green in Japan on February 27, 1996 but the company apparently didn’t expect very much at all from the games.

Sales grew slowly, aided by a manga series and trading cards from publishing company Shogakukan Inc who saw potential in the franchise and decided to back it – but it wasn’t until players discovered the existence of Mew, the ultra rare legendary Pokemon, that the franchise really took off.

Tajiri has said that the idea behind Mew was that it was a Pokemon you had to get by interacting. Apparently the 151st Pokemon was actually coded into the game without Nintendo knowing – it was Tajiri’s belief that a secret Pokemon would increase hype, and he was correct.

Japanese magazine CoroCoro announced a ‘legendary Pokemon competition’ in which a Mew would be given to 20 lucky winners – The contest received 78,000 entrants, and sales were bolstered as a result.

pokemon red blue yellow mew Pokemon: The Mega Franchise That Almost Never Was

Thanks to the newfound success of the games, Nintendo followed up with the release of Pokemon Blue in Japan. It was essentially the same as Red and Green, but with improved sound and graphics.

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With a successful series of games, manga, and trading cards already in the bag, the anime series of Pokemon made its debut in Japan on April 1, 1997.

After Pokemania was well and truly finished conquering every corner of Japan, it was time to send the franchise out West and see how it performed – though there were concerns that the US would be put off by the ‘Japan-ness’ of the brand.

The North American localization team apparently went so far as to attempted to change some of the Pokemon designs, fearing that they’d be too cute for a Western audience – this proposal was, of course, rejected.

With a full range of merchandise and a slightly tweaked animated series to play with, Pokemon launched an all out attack on the States in 1998, with the anime coming on September 7, and the games themselves landing September 30.

As we now know, their efforts were extremely successful. With America unable to resist the charms of kidnapping tiny cartoon animals, the rest of the world soon followed suit.

The rest is history: A trading card craze that swept playgrounds across the globe, Pokemon Yellow, the release of Pokemon The First Movie, spin off games like Pokemon Stadium and Snap for the N64 as well as sequels Gold and Silver which improved on their predecessors in every conceivable way.

But surely not even Satoshi Tajiri himself could have foreseen that in 2016, the franchise would be still be going strong. What’s truly wonderful is that Pokemon GO has found huge success by flawlessly combining the boyhood passions of Pokemon’s creator.

Over half a century after Tajiri explored the fields and forests of Machida in search of insects and adventure, there are kids out there right now, armed with smartphones and searching high and low across the great outdoors – trying to catch ’em all.


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TIME and 1 other

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