Pikachu and pals have had some impressive staying power. When Pokémon first exploded in the late-90s, most pundits pegged it as just another fad. That year’s Pogs or Tickle Me Elmo. 17 years and 270 million games sold later, those naysayers have been proven thoroughly wrong.
Pokémon may have become one of the most successful gaming phenomenons of all-time, but it all started with a simple, black and white Game Boy title largely created by a single visionary trying to express his obsessions in video game form. The original Pokémon Red and Blue was engineered from the ground up to be a phenomenon, but nearly failed in countless ways. Here are a few things you may not know about the games that first challenged us to catch ’em all…
1. Pokémon is the offspring of a photocopied gaming zine. Most hardcore Pokémon fans know the series is created by independent studio Game Freak as opposed to Nintendo itself. What many probably don’t know is that Game Freak didn’t start out as video game developer.
Game Freak was originally a hand-lettered, photocopied video game fan zine written by Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri. Early issues were photocopied by a teenage Tajiri, but eventually he switched to professional printing when the zine started selling upwards of 10,000 copies per issue. The underground popularity of the zine allowed Tajiri to bring other contributors on board. One of these contributors was artist Ken Sugimori, who would go on to design all the original creatures in Pokémon Red and Blue.
Copies of the magazine version of Game Freak. Note the familiar electric rat on the issue on the right.
Tired of writing about other people’s mostly lousy games, Tajiri and Sugimori would transform Game Freak into a development studio in 1989. Less than a year later, this new studio would being development of a strange little game about battling monsters.
2. Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. With its repetitive grinding, obsessive collecting and silent protagonist, the world of Pokémon would seem to be an Asperger sufferer’s dream. Well, it turns out it’s exactly that. Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri suffers from the disorder, which is characterized by social anxiety, trouble interacting appropriately with others, and a tendency to get hung up on repetitive obsessions and minutia.
Interviews with Tajiri are very rare, and he’s said to be a bit of a recluse, working on the Pokémon games alone, or with a very small group of trusted co-workers. In the few interviews he has done, he’s talked about the major, borderline creepy, fixation he had on bugs as a kid. Tajiri would devise all sorts of innovative ways to trap insects (which he would take home and watch fight) until the countryside around his suburban home was developed and paved over. With the collectible wildlife gone, Tajiri would instead focus on video games, but he never forgot those bugs that so fascinated him as a kid.
A rare picture of our bug-obsessed mastermind.
3. It took an ridiculously long time to create Pokémon Red and Blue. Ever wonder why Pokémon came out so late in the Game Boy’s life cycle? Well, Pokémon was supposed to be one of the earliest games on the Game Boy, but it took so long to develop the system that was nearly dead by the time it finally came out. Pokémon began development in 1990, but a lack of funds and resources meant Pokémon (which came in Red and Green variations in Japan) didn’t hit shelves until 1996. American audiences would have to wait even longer; the westernized Red and Blue versions of the game didn’t come out until late 1998. In other words, that Pokémon Red and Blue cart you popped into your Game Boy Color was almost a decade in the making.
4. Your rival is named after Shigeru Miyamoto in Japan. Game Freak would pitch the idea for Pokémon (then called Capsule Monsters) to Nintendo several times, but Nintendo kept rejecting the idea, as they didn’t really understand the concept. The idea wasn’t approved until Mario and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto took a personal interest in the game. Miyamoto became a bit of a mentor to Satoshi Tajiri, advising him during the long development process (it was Miyamoto’s idea to split the game into two versions).
“Split your game, or I’ll split your wig.”
As tribute to his mentor, Tajiri would include a nod to Miyamoto in the game. In the Japanese version of Pokémon, one of the alternate names for your rival is Shigeru. Oh, and one of the alternate names for the main character is Satoshi. While it may seem like Tajiri is implying that he and Shigeru Miyamoto are rivals, he claims naming the bad guy after Miyamoto was a compliment. Your rival is always ahead of you during your adventure, which is how Tajiri saw Miyamoto, always two steps ahead.