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Pokémon: A Brief History

By Elizabeth Gibson for The J-Pop Exchange

In 1996, Satoshi Tajiri officially founded the Pokémon franchise by releasing the franchise’s first games, “Pokémon: Red” and “Pokémon: Green,” specifically designed for the Nintendo Game Boy. But it was much earlier when the idea for the games and the Pokémon universe entered his head.

As a child in the once-rural Machida region of Tokyo in the 1960s and ‘70s, Satoshi’s favorite hobby was collecting different kinds of bugs. He would find them in tall grasses, beneath rocks, and under water. He was fascinated by their complexities and the weird ways they moved. He loved to come up with new ways to capture them so he could take them home and more closely inspect them.

Then, as a video-game-obsessed teenager, Satoshi came up with the idea for a fanzine called Game Freak that he wrote, photocopied, and stapled together by hand. In the self-published fanzine, Satoshi wrote about video and arcade games and tips on how to conquer them, as well as lists of easter eggs in different games. Because of the popularity of the magazine, he met a lot of teenagers around his age who were also passionate about games and wanted to help with the fanzine, including an artist friend, Ken Sugimori. After writing about video games for several years, he decided he finally wanted to develop them with the help of his Game Freak crew.

Around 1990, after seeing the handheld Game Boy console for the first time with its landline-like communication cable that was able to connect two Game Boys to each other, Satoshi thought of an idea for a game where players could collect bugs. He imagined collected bugs crawling back and forth on the communication cable, essentially being traded between players. Several hard-working years later, after jumping over hoops with Nintendo; shifting his concept for the game a bit to a competition-based game rather than purely collection-based; and meeting and working with his hero Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario, Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, among others), Shatoshi and his crew from Game Freak (now a video game company) created a final product.

Finally, after six years of working long hours — sometimes for 24 hours at a time — the first games were completed and Satoshi’s childhood idea of collecting bugs was forever preserved. Instead of bugs, though, they were called Pocket Monsters, which was shortened to Pokémon. The game’s main character, Ash Ketchum, is known as Satoshi in the Japanese version of the game, which Satoshi has said reflects the childhood version of himself. Gameplay is pretty basic: the player collects Pokémon and battles them with friends. They losers don’t die, however, but pass out instead.

When the first games were released by Game Freak and Nintendo in 1996 — “Pokémon: Red” and “Pokémon: Green” in Japan — many thought it was going to be a flop, especially considering the Game Boy technology had basically become obsolete by that time. But instead, the games and their energy swept Japan, and later on, many other countries. (The games were released in North America, Europe, and Australia as “Pokémon: Red” and “Pokémon Blue.”) A wave of merchandise, trading cards, toys, an anime TV series, and other spin-offs were later created and sold. Pokémon has since gone on to become the highest-grossing media franchise of all time.

Pokémon games are still being made to this day. The augmented-reality mobile game Pokémon Go was created as a result of a collaboration between Niantic and Nintendo, by way of The Pokémon Company; it was released in July 2016. Pokémon Go is a location-based game that promotes physical activity, because in order to seek and catch Pokémon, collect items from Pokestops, battle at gyms, and more, the player has to walk around to find them. The mobile game is wildly popular: it has 800 million downloads worldwide, and has 147 million monthly active users as of May.

Even more recently, on November 16, 2018, Game Freak and Nintendo collaboratively released “Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu!” and “Let's Go, Eevee!” for the Nintendo Switch. The games focus on the Kanto region, and starter players are Pikachu and Eevee, both of whom were chosen due to their popularity and resonation with young children. Both games are also able to be incorporated with Pokémon Go, in that a player can catch Pokémon on the mobile game and then transfer them to the Nintendo Switch game.

Additionally, a live-action movie titled “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu,” based on the 2016 game of the same name, is set to be released May 2019. This will be the first live-action film for the franchise, and will star Ryan Reynolds as the voice of a CGI-version of Pikachu, with Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, and Ken Watanabe in live-action roles.

Satoshi’s dream spawned an entirely new universe that, after more than 20 years since the first game was released, is still inspiring and exciting new game players. In doing so, he has been named one of the 100 top game creators of all time by IGN, which said he created a worldwide phenomenon when he created Pokémon. There are players today who played the games as children and are now passing the tradition of “pocket monster” collecting onto their own children, even playing with them side by side. And with the Pokémon franchise arguably more popular than ever with recent releases, that tradition just might continue for decades to come.

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