Beware of the Poke Mania

Can such cute critters be bad influences? How one misfit's quest turned into a global bonanza

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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."

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