Beware of the Pokemania

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Illustration for TIME by David Cowles
courtesy: Hasbro, Nintendo, Tiger Electronics, Toy Island, Viz, Warner Bros., Wizards of the Coast

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1999 Pikachu Projects
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Tajiri preserved the world of his childhood in Pokemon. In the late '70s, the rice fields gave way to shopping centers, and the ponds were paved over to make way for apartment buildings, highways and train lines. "A fish pond would become an arcade center," he says. Pokemon, he says, is a way for children of a new generation to have a chance to collect insects and other creatures the way he did. For example, the Pokemon named Poliwhirl has a belly decorated with a little whirl--Tajiri's memory of the transparent skin of a tadpole with its coiled innards visible beneath. "Everything I did as a kid is kind of rolled into one thing," says Tajiri. "Pokemon."

Rolled together with his other passion: video games. Tajiri was raised on Space Invaders in the early days of the video-game revolution. He never went to college but studied electronics at a two-year technical school. He spent much of his time at arcades, perhaps the very ones that grew over the ponds of his childhood. "It was as sinful as shoplifting," Tajiri says. "My parents cried that I had become a delinquent." He was such a fanatic that one arcade gave him a Space Invaders machine to take home.

With a handful of fellow junkies (including his friend Ken Sugimori, who would eventually draw all the Pokemon), Tajiri began a magazine called GameFreak in 1982 to publicize tips and cheat codes of their favorite games. "Our conclusion was," he says, "there weren't too many good-quality games, so let's make our own." He took apart a Nintendo system to figure out how to make the games himself. Then, in 1991, he discovered Nintendo's Game Boy and its prize feature: a cable that could link any two Game Boys together. "I imagined an insect moving back and forth across the cable. That's what inspired me." Tajiri had hit upon the basic idea that would make the Pokemon a marketing wonder. Collecting would lead to trading between handhelds--and eventually between collectors of cards and plastic battle figures.

Tajiri signed a contract with Nintendo, which was impressed enough by his previous attempts at game programming to want to develop his latest idea. But he couldn't quite explain the concept to Nintendo, and the company couldn't understand it fully. "At first Pokemon was just an idea, and nothing happened," says Shigeru Miyamoto, the genius behind Nintendo's previous best seller, Super Mario Brothers. Miyamoto became Tajiri's mentor and counseled the younger man as he toiled on what would eventually be Pokemon. (Tajiri would pay ambivalent tribute to Miyamoto, giving the name Shigeru--Gary in the U.S.--to the snotty chief rival of Satoshi/Ash.)

During the six years it took Tajiri to finish Pokemon, GameFreak nearly went broke. For several months, he barely had enough money to pay his employees. Five people quit when he told them how dire the financial conditions were. Tajiri didn't pay himself, but lived off his father. Perhaps the tensions were creative. Explaining his goal, Tajiri says, "The important thing was that the monsters had to be small and controllable. They came in a capsule, like a monster within yourself, like fear or anger."

However, by the time Tajiri was done with Pokemon in 1996, Game Boy technology was yesterday's news. "No magazine or TV show was interested. They thought Game Boy was finished," says Masakazu Kubo, executive producer of the publishing company Shogakukan Inc. "No toymakers were interested either." Spiffier graphics and more intricate games were going to be available on CD-ROM for use on home computers, leaving the tiny images on Game Boy in the dust. "When I finished Pokemon," says Tajiri, "I thought Nintendo would reject it. I was like a baseball player sliding into second base knowing he's going to be out. But somehow, I was safe."

Nintendo released the game but did not expect much from it. However, while the big electronic companies were giving up on Game Boy, Japanese boys were not. For them the games in the old technology were still affordable; the flashier and high-tech new models were out of reach. Kubo's publishing company did the math and decided to back Pokemon, coming out with a line of comic books that included the first trading cards as giveaways. While best-selling games like Final Fantasy grabbed the top slot for a couple of dramatic months and then faded, Pokemon sales grew slowly and steadily--and they did not stop. Tajiri generated further word of mouth by designing a secret twist into the programming. Officially there were only 150 species of Pokemon. Unknown to Nintendo, Tajiri had put a 151st in the software: Mew, a major character in the film. "You had to acquire Mew by interacting," says Tajiri. "Without trading, you can never get Mew." The rumors started flying of a secret monster that only a few people had the key to unlock. More games sold.

With a hit on its hands, Nintendo decided to animate the game. The show, produced in anime style (see following story), quickly became the top-rated children's TV series in Japan, appealing to both girls and boys. Then came an unpleasant surprise. In December 1997, about 700 children had sudden and simultaneous seizures while watching the show. The specific episode involved a bomb attack on Pikachu and its pals. In a microsecond, animated flashes interacted with frenetically changing colors as Pikachu blinked out its lightning bolts across the screen. Apparently such combinations of light can induce seizures in some children. While the government investigated, the show shut down for four months, and the producers revised their animation strategies.

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