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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Man Who Created Pokémon

Tajiri Satoshi (surname first) is a 51-year-old Japanese man born in Setagaya, Tokyo (August 28, 1965)… and he is the man who created Pokémon… not bad for a guy who was diagnosed with autism as a child.

As a child, other kids would call him Dr. Bug because of his penchant for collecting insects.

As an adult, it was that same love of insects that helped inspire him in his career as a video game designer.

Tajiri was aware that as he grew older, Japan was becoming more urbanized… paving over more and more of the wonderful nature lands. Actually... outside of its huge cities, Japan has a heck of a lot of green... but it's cities are growing outward.

Fearing that kids would one day not be allowed of having the same joy he felt as a kid by insect collecting, he created a video game where kids could collect insects and other creatures.

Welcome to the world of Pokémon.

Ash Ketchum, the young boy hero of the Pokémon franchise who sense of fair play is an underlying theme children the world over should be enticed to emulate—that's basically Tajiri himself.

Write what you know, right?

Tajiri—like myself—was fascinated by video games. Since he an I are of the same age, we were essentially at the forefront of the video game revolution.

While I was busy taping a string to a quarter to get 99 free credits on Donkey Kong, Gorf and Pac-Man, Tajiri was learning how video game systems worked by taking them apart.

If I had done that to my Odyssey system or Atari 400 computer, I'm sure I would have been spanked with either a belt or a Hot Wheels track (with the hard plastic connector). So I didn't. The threat seems to have worked on me, and perhaps is also why I didn't become a mega-millionaire who invented a video game revolving around Pokémon. I blame my parents. :)

I, too, used to capture things… but mostly water-based ones, like tadpoles, minnows and crayfish…

Anyhow… despite being considered a near-genius, IQ-wise, I was a slacker who hated school, skipped it and barely graduated high school and university before applying myself in college doing journalism because I liked writing.

Tajiri… he was autistic, skipped school a lot to play video games, took make-up courses to graduate high school and did not go to university, instead opting for a two-year tech degree at the Tokyo National College of Technology studying electronics and computer science.

Despite he and I being about the same age, in high school the computer science course I took involved preparing computer punch cards, learning Basic and Fortran computer languages… hardly useful now…. so I suppose it's a good thing I almost failed the course. My father was a bight computer programmer in the whole decade of the 70s. Must have broken his heart.

So… while I was reading and collecting a ton of comic books, never once thinking that I should write my own, Tajiri took his love of video games to anew level, creating his own fanzine—Game Freak—between 1981-1986, that focused on the arcade video game scene.

Despite people like myself having a computer and dot-matrix printer, Tajira hand-wrote and stapled Game Freak.

My 10-year-old son… he wrote (not drew) a comic book last month:

Game Freak caught the interest of Sugimori Ken—the same guy who would later illustrate the first 151 issues of the Pokémon comic book—he also became involved in the video game fanzine. So too did other people.

Eventually, thinking to himself that video games of the early 1980s were pretty crappy (I'm reading some 1984 Swamp Thing comic books to my son this week, and man - the ads for the video games have my son wondering why anyone would ever want to play such shoddy-looking games)… so Tajiri and Sugimori decided to create their own games.

Tajiri studied Basic - that computer language I mentioned earlier - bought some hardware for game development —which I would assume would be pretty damned expensive back in the 1980s… and by 1989, Tajira and Sugimori turned their fanzine into the Game Freak video development company.

To be fair to myself, I was finishing off journalism school, was getting my application together to go and live and work in Japan on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme.

Tajiri and Sugimori created a video game called Quinty (クインティ), which was purchased by Namco. It was published by Hudson Soft in North America as Mendel Palace. My son's name is Hudson.

(I want you to know that I am reading a bio on Tajiri and re-writing this as I read it… so when I see parallels, it surprises me, too) (That, by the way, is how I like to write… to be surprised. Being prepared means my writing will be dry and boring.)

Tajiri then began freelance writing for a couple of magazines: Famicon Hissoubon (aka Hippon), and Famicon Tsuushin and Family Computer Magazine. Famicon, by the way, is Japanese-English talk for "Family Computer".

Okay… now the ba$t@rd is crossing over in to my domain! Hate him!

While I was in Japan, beginning in 1990, Tajiri apparently conceived of the Pokémon concept.

After seeing that Nintendo Game Boy hand-held consoles could communicate with other Game Boy's, he thought Pokémon would best be served on the same console and pioneered connectivity through these Game Boy systems so that players could link their Game Boy via a link cable to have friends play against each other.

Unlike today's video game player who does not have to be in the same house, city, country or continent as another, at least with the linked Game Boy's, kids could see, and if necessary, friendly-punch each other.

I traded in my Game Boy for this Game Boy Advance SP released in 2003 - still a most excellent video game system, despite it being "out-dated" now.

Nintendo didn't quite understand the concept of Pokémon, but they knew of his design reputation they figured "what the heck?" and wanted to further explore Pokémon.

With help from Nintendo's brilliant designer Miyamoto Shigeru (surname first) mentoring him, six years later Pokémon Red and Green (in Japan: Pokémon Red and Blue, ポケットモンスター 赤・緑, Poketto Monsutā Aka Midori, which literally is Pocket Monster Red Green) was born, nearly bankrupting Game Freak in the process, with Tajiri lived off his dad, and five employees quitting.

A map from the Pokémon Red and Blue/Green game showing the Kanto region of Japan.
Basically, Game Freak was saved after Creatures Inc. wisely decided to invest in the business, receiving one-third of the Pokémon franchise rights. Ka-ching!

While still working on that video game, Tajiri helped with the design on the Nintendo Mario games Yoshi (aka Yoshi's Egg, ヨッシーのたまご, Yosshī no Tamago ) and Mario & Wario (マリオとワリオ - this one was only released in Japan), as well as Pulseman (パルスマン) for the Sega system. I was a huge Sega fan for years before I moved to Japan in 1990.

So… the Pokémon Red and Blue/Red and Green game was finished in 1996… which was around the time that people figured that Game Boy would be biting the dust, seeing as how it debuted in 1989… and seven years is a long time for a video game system to hang around.

There was no huge advertising push for Pokémon, and little merchandising… usually that meant Nintendo was unsure of the product.

But, because cream always rises to the top, sales on Pokémon began to steadily increase… and when rumors that a character named Mew could be found in the game by exploiting programming errors, then more and more people wanted the game… seeking to prove if it was true or not. Apparently Mew was in the game… but in some of the games he was not accessible unless glitches were followed. Don't quote me on that.

Because of Tajiri's childhood interest in bugs and nature, he made sure that in the video games (and comic books/manga and cartoons/anime) that when a Pokémon's health went down to zero, they did not die, but merely fainted… and could be captured or recaptured into a pokeball.

I have long admired that non-violent aspect of Pokémon! As well as the explanation that the Pokémon NEED to and ENJOY battling each other… so the so-called violence is explained away.

Other Pokémon video games include: Pokémon Gold and Silver (1999); Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire (2002); Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen (2004); Pokémon Diamond and Pearl (2006); Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver (2010); Pokémon Black and White (2011); Pokémon Black and White 2 (2012); Pokémon X and Y (2013); Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire (2014); and Pokémon Sun and Moon (2016).

Pokemon video games... gotta buy'em all.
Other non-Pokémon games created by Tajiri are Smart Ball (1991); Jelly Boy 2 (unreleased - 1995); Drill Dozer (2005); HarmoKnight (2012); Tembo the Badass Elephant (2015).

The Pokémon animated television series, known in Japan as Poketto Monsutā (ポケットモンスタ, Pocket Monsters) was first seen on April 1, 1997… and is still running new episodes as of this publication in 2016.

There are 906 animated television show episodes (Click HERE for a full list); eight televisions Specials (three full-length and five normal 1/2-hour length; 25 side-story episodes; seven Winter Vacation shorts; and eight ANA flights shorts, which you could see if you flew All Nippon Airways.

Just in case you thought I was kidding about the whole airplane thing...
Oh… and there's a total of 18 animated movies, too: five original series movies; four Advanced Generation series movies; four Diamond & Pearl series movies; three Best Wishes! series movies; and two XY series movies.

Like they say - ya gotta catch'em all. I think I've watched the first five years of the show, and a couple of the movies… and while my kid seemed to like to collect the Pokémon card game cards (what a rip-off for the money spent), he never liked to watch the animated series, leaving me to watch it alone while my wife shook her head in 100% support of what I was doing. No… scratch that… it was the opposite of what I just wrote.

So: Pokémon video games; comic books/manga; animated/anime television series; animated/anime movies; collector card game… it's pretty obvious that Tajiri has done well with his bug-friendly Pokémon franchise.

Creatures Inc., who invested in Game Freak - they have done well too.
So… Tajiri credits Nintendo genius Miyamoto with being a huge influence. For you Pokémon fans… if Tajiri is Ash Ketchem, then Miyamoto is Ash's rival Shigeru… as Miyamoto's first name is Shigeru. Awwwww.
Apparently, my lack of autism has worked financially against me.

Gotta catch'em all,
Andrew Joseph


  1. My friend has caught about 640 of them I think and there's over 700 to catch. The OCD in him allowed him to catch each Pokemond in their different evolutionary state. If you bundle his hours I think it would equate to close to a month if he played 24 hours a day.

    1. Is it really OCD, or just the desire to finish what one starts? I had over 100 hours in on Final Fantasy X, and more on XII.
      I play every LEGO video game to achieve 100%... to beat the game. It's why I don't care for games where you can't BEAT the entire thing. I like to win. At the arcade, the goal for every player was to get the high score. It's a shame it never translated into me trying to do well in high school or university or college... but did, for a while, in Japan. It does continue as I write this blog, however. I have this desire to know everything, and to brag/share it here in these blogs. I'm not omnipotent, so I had to figure out where I could try and be the best... sadly, I chose to tray and be an expert on all things Japanese. If I played Pokemon... I would do as they suggest: Gotta catch'em all. Your friend isn't OCD... he's a completist. If he has to play it all the time putting other parts of his life at risk, then that's OCD. Otherwise, he/she is someone who enjoys winning... Good chatting with you!