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Pokémon originated in Japan, of course. There, Ash is called Satoshi; and Satoshi was made in the image of his creator, Satoshi Tajiri, a young outcast who, as a boy living in a suburb of Tokyo, collected insects and other tiny creatures of field, pond and forest. In a nation of ultraconformists, he was a misfit who didn't even dream of college. His father tried to get him a job as an electrical-utility repairman. He refused. No one expected him to go very far, even when he came up with the game after six trying years. But it is Tajiri's obsessions, more dysfunctional than Disneyesque, that are at the core of the Pokémon phenomenon. His monsters are a child's predilections. As the late, controversial child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote, "The monster a child knows best and is most concerned with [is] the monster he feels or fears himself to be."
As a boy, Tajiri accumulated insects, especially beetles. Even now, he tells Time, he is proud of the way he captured beetles, looking under rocks to find them sleeping. "Nobody else thought to do that," he says. The son of a Nissan salesman and a housewife, Tajiri was raised in the late 1960s, before Tokyo crept outward to his suburb. "As a child, I wanted to be an entomologist. Insects fascinated me. Every new insect was a wonderful mystery. And as I searched for more, I would find more. If I put my hand in a river, I would get a crayfish. Put a stick underwater and make a hole, look for bubbles and there were more creatures." In Pokémon, the pocket monsters--many in the shape of caterpillars, moths and crabs--can be found anywhere: tall grass, caves, forests, rivers.
Tajiri preserved the world of his childhood in Pokémon. 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," Tajiri says. Pokémon, 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 Pokémon 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. "Pokémon."
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 and 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 few fellow junkies (including Ken Sugimori, who would eventually draw all the Pokémon), 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 Pokémon 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 Pokémon was just an idea, and nothing happened," says Shigeru Miyamoto, the genius behind Nintendo's previous best seller, Super Mario Bros. Miyamoto became Tajiri's mentor and counseled the younger man as he toiled on what would eventually be Pokémon. (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 Pokémon, 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 Pokémon 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 Pokémon," 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 Pokémon, 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, Pokémon 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 Pokémon. 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, 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.
The Pikachu crisis stirred a huge amount of attention and publicity, but the wrong kind. At that time, Tajiri's GameFreak and Kubo's publishing company were negotiating with skeptical executives at Nintendo America about introducing Pokémon to the U.S. cartoon monster attacks kids was the first headline Americans read about Pokémon. It was not a good omen. There were others, however.
"Quite honestly, role-playing games, particularly for the Game Boy system, were never popular in the U.S.," says Gail Tilden, vice president of product acquisition and development at Nintendo of America. "We had a real concern that the role-playing nature of the game would be a hard sell for us." "The negotiations were not easy," says Kubo, who calls Tilden "the Dragon Mother of Nintendo." He explains, "She is a mother, and at first she didn't understand when we said Pokémon is good for children. In the end, though, it was good for us that a mother was in charge." Tilden says the seizures caused by the show concerned her, but "we knew it was isolated to that one episode." She adds, "It did not deter us from being excited. We were committed to taking a run at it."
Thus in the U.S., Nintendo had all the Pokémon pieces to play with--a fully extended product line of games, toys, comic books and cards to appeal to boys and girls from ages four to 15. Says Tilden: "We decided to make an all-out effort to repeat the phenomenon in the Western world." An additional part of the strategy, says Kubo, was to hide its "Japan-ness." Nintendo of America and its Japanese partners brought in Al Kahn, who developed the Cabbage Patch doll, to help with toy merchandising. The WB network (owned by Time Warner, the parent company of this magazine) swept up exclusive rights to the animated TV series. "There's a little bit of magic in what Nintendo does," says Sussane Daniels, president of entertainment at the WB. "We wouldn't interfere with their methods. God bless them." But Nintendo did ask for changes to be made to the original Japanese show (which now has 130 episodes). "We tried not to have violence or sexual discrimination or religious scenes in the U.S.," says Kubo. Some graphic sequences involving punching were taken out. The names of the characters and monsters were Westernized: Satoshi became Ash, and Shigeru became Gary. And the Pokémon were given cleverly descriptive names. For example, of the three more popular Pokémon, Hitokage, a salamander with a ball of fire on its tail, became Charmander; Fushigidane, a dinosaur with a green garlic bulb on its back, became Bulbasaur; and Zenigame, a turtle who squirts water, became Squirtle. Others winked at familiar pop images: the martial-arts Pokémon Hitmonchan and Hitmonlee are tributes to Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.
And once again, the Pokémon swept a nation. "We've never seen anything like it," says Tilden. The products plugged into every kiddie angle: toys appeal to younger kids, who then move on to the cards and graduate to the various levels of video games. The TV show propagandizes each new creature with a tutorial called "Who's that Pokémon?" Most of the Pokémon growl their names repeatedly ("Pikachu! Pikachu! Squirtle, squirtle, squirtle"), so the children learn who's who quickly. The craze is also Gen-Y web-friendly: the most popular website for kids 12 years and younger is Pokémon.com. It's all Pokémon, all the time. At least until the next craze.
Yet collecting pokémon and pitting them against one another is not a new kind of quest, simply one tweaked with technology. In Asia, fathers and grandfathers still tell of growing up in the midst of World War II, of nights not knowing what to do with yourself except sneak into the tall grass of the countryside to catch crickets, then take them home, cupped in your hand, to raise in the dark of matchboxes, training the insects for fights with the crickets of other boys who have been on the same nocturnal hunt. The more experience each cricket has had, the better a fighter it becomes--the tiny surrogate for the boy unable to fight in the war going on all around him. Pokémon is that kind of game. Except that there are many kinds of crickets, and all are potentially friendly monsters with fabulous powers. And nobody dies.
With reporting by Lisa McLaughlin/New York and Sachiko Sakamaki and Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo
Images © 1995, 1999 Nintendo/Creatures Inc./Game Freak Inc./1999 Pikachu Projects; moving images by Adam Connors
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