By Samuel Peace
Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of the Pokémon franchise, is regarded as one of the most influential people in gaming. Being the mastermind behind the phenomenon not only saved the Gameboy, but also revolutionised social connectivity in games. Born in Machida, Tokyo, on August 28th 1965 to a Nissan car salesman and a house wife, he grew up with a keen interest in bug collecting. Little did he know however, that the hobby which earned him the nickname ‘Dr. Bug’ among his peers would eventually lead to the idea which still manages to entice millions of people worldwide today. As a kid the area in which Tajiri lived was still rural. There were rivers, forests, ponds and other natural habitats, thus making it the ideal place for insect gathering. Tajiri was so fascinated that he wanted to become an entomologist as a profession, and he would often think of new ways to capture insects. In a Time interview he said how his approach to catching bugs differed from all his friends, yet he was able to end up with the most.
Unfortunately the natural wonders that Tajiri once beheld were soon ‘urbanized’ as new homes and shopping centres took over the landscape. However, as he became a teenager an interest in the arcades arose. Gaming soon became his new passion with Space Invaders being a favourite of his. Sadly this then new type of entertainment was frowned upon by most. Society and even his parents thought he was weird and a ‘delinquent’ for playing them. People looked at him as if he was some sort of criminal. Despite this he was not deterred and he became more and more interested in the making of games. His curiosity led to him planning his own titles and taking apart Nintendo’s Famicom console (NES in America/Europe) to see how it all works. In 1981, Tajiri entered a game-idea contest which was sponsored by Sega. His submission, an action game called Spring Stranger, helped him to win it.
Tajiri’s obsession with gaming had a massive effect on his education. Constantly skipping classes he nearly failed to graduate at all. He was forced to take ‘make-up’ classes in order to achieve his high school diploma. His distraught parents thought he was throwing his life away, so his father offered him a job at The Tokyo Electric Power Company. “I thought he could at least make a living that way,” he said. However, Tajiri already knew what he wanted to do and refused the job. Skipping college all together he decided to go to a two-year technical school at Tokyo National College of Technology, where he studied electronics.
At the age of 17, and around the same time he won the Sega contest, Tajiri decided to start his own ‘fanzine’. Because the World Wide Web had not been invented, fanzines (fan made magazines) were the only way people could communicate their thoughts and ideas. As an avid arcade fan, Tajiri decided to start his own fanzine called Game Freak. The fanzine focused on the arcade scene as you would expect. It contained news and guides among other things. It was usually around 28 pages and was written in longhand with Tajiri’s ‘loopy’ handwriting then stapled together. It cost around 200-300 yen, enough to cover his gaming expenses if it sold. Shortly after starting up Game Freak, a guy named Ken Sugimori (who would go on to illustrate the original 151 Pokémon) saw the fanzine in a dōjinshi shop (a shop which sells self-published – often amateur – bits of work) and decided to get involved.
Game Freak had decent sales during its run (1981 – 1986) and was especially popular amongst gamers at the time. As the popularity grew and the number of contributors rose, Tajiri decided to start printing it professionally. His best selling fanzine was a special issue based around the game Xevious. It included a guide on ‘how to score a million points’ and managed to sell a staggering 10,000 copies. As the number of contributors grew, so did the gaming discussions. Tajiri learnt a lot more about his passion and realised he wasn’t happy with the quality of most games. This was around the time of the video game crash in 1983 where a plethora of bad games and pong knock offs saturated the market. He became so frustrated that he and Sugimori decided to make their own games.
Tajiri spent a couple of years learning the Family BASIC programming language so he was able to understand the process of making games for the Famicom. He went on to buy development kits and transform Game Freak into a video game development company. Then around 1989 they pitched their first title to Namco. They had built a 80s style arcade game called Quinty (Mendel Palace in the west). It was a simple non-scrolling game (1-2 players) which mainly involved flipping over tiles. The tiles when flipped would push enemies back and sometimes reveal power ups. The aim of each level was to ‘pop’ all the enemies by pushing them into the walls. Namco was Tajiri’s first choice as he was a big fan of their work (especially Masanobu Endo’s titles). Game Freak continued to make more games including the 1991 game Jerry Boy (Smart Ball in the west) and Yoshi – their first collaboration with Nintendo.
The idea for Pokémon came when Tajiri saw the Gameboy and its link cable for the first time. Up until the creation of Pokémon, the link cable was merely used for competitive reasons. But Tajiri’s first thought was not to compete, but to communicate. He had a vision of his childhood where he would catch insects and share his findings with his friends. But with urbanization, many modern children could not experience the same thing. He thought that perhaps he would be able to make a game which involved a similar collection aspect with the added benefit of players being able to share their findings with friends via link cable. Being a big TV, anime and manga fan, Tajiri also took inspiration from Ultraman’s capsule monsters.
Game Freak pitched the idea to Nintendo in 1990, and although Nintendo did not fully understand the concept, Tajiri’s good work with other Nintendo games such as the acclaimed The Legend of Zelda earned him their trust. Put under the guidance of the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda), Game Freak spent six long years creating the first Pokémon games – Red & Green (Blue in the west). The production was difficult and nearly bankrupted Game Freak. Five employees quit and there was barely enough money to pay the rest. Tajiri decided not to take a salary and instead lived off his father’s income. Creatures Inc. A subsidiary of Nintendo helped out Game Freak by investing some money in order to help with the completion of the games. In return they were given one-third of the franchise’s rights.
During the six years of making the games, Tajiri also helped with other projects including two Mario spin-offs, Japanese only – Mario & Wario and the 1994 game Pulseman. In this time Tajiri had developed a strong relationship with Miyamoto and therefore decided to pay tribute to him in Red & Green. The main character’s default name in the games is ‘Satoshi’ as it’s based on Tajiri’s childhood, while the rival’s default name is ‘Shigeru’. These names were also used in the anime (although western audiences were given Ash Ketchum and Gary Oak). By the time the games were completed the Gameboy was becoming outdated and interest in it was waning. There was no enthusiasm from the media and most people expected it to fail. Tajiri was worried Nintendo would reject the game, but thankfully it was released. While sales were slow at first they soon picked up and eventually the games were among Nintendo’s best selling. In fact they near enough resurrected the Gameboy single handily – a new key franchise was born.
There are many theories as to why Pokémon succeeded such as the hidden Pokémon Mew which led to many eager people trying to obtain it, and the affordability of the ‘outdated’ Gameboy. The franchise continues to do well to this day, with Tajiri now 47 taking a back seat role as executive producer while Junichi Masuda (sound designer for Red & Green) has now taken over as director. Despite the success of Pokémon, little is ever seen or heard of from Tajiri as he is media shy. There are rumours that he has Asperger Syndrome, but some people dispute this. He is known for having irregular sleeping hours too, usually working 24 hours straight before having a 12 hour sleep. There is no doubt that there are many mysteries left untold by Tajiri, but he will forever be known as an inspirer of generations.