On this day, twenty years ago, two glitchy JRPGs were released to a handheld system on its last leg, and spawned one of the most successful gaming and entertainment franchises ever. Yes, it’s another Pokémon post. I can’t help it, Red, Blue, and Yellow have been released on virtual console and Sun and Moon versions will rise this holiday season. Today’s subject is the creator of the franchise, Satoshi Tajiri. Series Producer Junichi Masuda and Designer Ken Sugimori are arguably the most prominent staff members of Game Freak in the public eye, while the man who dreamed up this world in the first place works silently but diligently away from the public’s eye behind the closed doors of the studio, sometimes for 24 hours straight. The story of Satoshi Tajiri is simple inspiration from a childhood passion leading to greatness beyond expectations.
That sounds like a Pokémon name doesn’t? It was actually the childhood nickname of Mr. Tajiri in his early years in the semi-rural Tokyo Suburb of Machida. His childhood was spent exploring the ponds, rivers, forests, and rice paddies and collecting the insects that dwelt within them. He learned about how to find them, their habitats, and even theorizing new ways to catch them. He recounted in a Time Magazine article in 1999 that, “They fascinated me. For one thing, they kind of moved funny. They were odd. Every time I found a new insect, it was mysterious to me. And the more I searched for insects, the more I found. If I put my hand in the river, I would get a crayfish. If there was a stick over a hole, it would create an air bubble and I’d find insects there.”
He discovered he could catch nocturnal beetles by placing stones under trees and finding them sleeping under them the next day, rather than the more popular method of attracting insects by smearing honey on tree bark (Sound familiar?). “Tiny discoveries like that made me excited,” he mused. He claimed these innovative tactics helped him catch more bugs than anyone else, so even all those years ago, the creator of Pokémon was catching ’em all.
The Link Cable of Fate
As he grew older, unfortunately, he saw his childhood hobby slip away. Urbanization consumed the forests he used to explore, and Satoshi’s beloved creepy crawlers disappeared with them. Flash forward a decade and a half later, Tajiri had teamed up with artist Ken Sugimori and had recently transformed their video game fan-zine into a a budding video game studio, and the memories of insect hunting were far behind him. That is, until he saw the Game Boy version of Tetris utilizing the new technology of the Link Cable for multiplayer. He envisioned insects rather than tetrominoes traveling back and forth across the cable. While Tetris used the cable for competition, Tajiri envisioned a game that utilized it for cooperation and communication.
And thus, those old memories of scouring the countryside to find insects returned in spectacular fashion, along with influence from tokusatsu television show Ultra Seven’s use of summoning monsters from capsules. Tajiri and his team envisioned a game that would recreate his childhood memories for a generation of children who never had sprawling plains and forests to explore, a modern twist for a new generation. Six years passed from the project’s conception to completion. When the budget ran low, Tajiri forfeit his salary and moved in with his father to keep the studio from collapse. Though the business suits at Nintendo had little faith in the project, they reportedly did not understand the concept, Tajiri was mentored by Shigeru Miyamoto, whom Tajiri credits as a major factor in the games’ completion.
When Pokémon Red and Green Versions were finally released, the Game Boy was assumed to be at the end of its life cycle. Worries that this game with such a lengthy development cycle would be dead on arrival were immediately squashed as the sales numbers began to roll in. Millions of copies were sold, an anime and trading card game entered development. The Game Boy suddenly found itself with a new lease on life. Nintendo found itself sitting on one of its most lucrative hits in years, and this was before the pocket monsters invaded the rest of the world.
Lessons from the Pokémon Professor
The rest, as they say, is history. I’m not here to give a detailed explanation of the franchise’s early days, this is about Mr. Tajiri. This isn’t a “work in the field you love and you’ll never work a day in your life!” post. The creation of the Pokemon mega-franchise represents a simple idea: incorporating inspiration from your life, loves, and memories into your work and livelihood. Tajiri was very much into the ‘career’ phase of his life when he created Pokemon. He had attended trade school for electronics and created a small business with friends that evolved from a hand-stapled magazine to a video game developer under the wings of Nintendo. All the same, his greatest success came from looking within, and drawing greatness from within himself.
It was Tajiri’s fond memories and burning passions, mixed with an unshakable work ethic, that laid the foundations for one of the most legendary entertainment franchises ever to exist. You may say, “I’m not a video game developer, what does this have to do with me?” The answer is simple: In whatever your endeavors may be in life, seek ways to weave your passions and loves in life into it. For a teacher, this can mean finding ways to incorporate a favorite book/movie into a lesson plan. For a software developer this could mean seeking employment with a company that deals in the fields they are passionate about.
If one needs an example of the incredible effort and talent our loves and passions can bring out, look no further than fan project video games. Highly acclaimed fan-made video game projects, with thousands of work hours sunk into them, come about purely as labors of love. In many ways, Pokémon Red and Green Versions were exactly that: odes to the many things Tajiri loved when growing up that still brought joy to him as an adult. If you learn anything from this man, it should be this: Incorporate your passions into your work, and you will find effort and inspiration beyond what you thought you could put forth.
Happy 20th Anniversary Pokémon, and many thanks to Mr. Tajiri and his team at Game Freak for the millions of people his games have brought joy to all around the world. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without his creation, and I’m guessing if you were interested in this post, you feel the same way.
Oh, and you should really go check out that Pokémon Sun and Moon Versions trailer if you haven’t yet. Prepare to have your life flash before your eyes.