by Daley Wilhelm
21 years ago on February 27th 1996, a new title came to Nintendo’s popular new gaming system, the Game Boy. Initially, the two games Pokemon Red and Pokemon Green had modest sales. Creator Satoshi Tajiri never dreamed that his creatures, the titular Pokemon, would take the world by storm.
Today, Pokemon (or “poke-man” as some parents like to say) is a household name with over 122 titles, a trading card game, dozens of movies, and the devotion of millions of fans. Fans have encyclopedic knowledge on Pokemon natures, typings, and movesets but are a little foggy as to how this empire was spawned.
Pokemon started with frog spawn. Tadpoles, precisely. Tajiri, who lived in the suburbs of Tokyo as a child, loved to adventure outdoors and capture frogs and insects. Tajiri became known as “Mr. Bug” by his classmates, but this wasn’t necessarily an insult. Japan has a history of bug-catching and collecting due to it’s interesting biodiversity when it comes to creepy crawlies.
Kabutomushi, Japanese rhinoceros beetles, are an especially striking species that kids and adults alike seek out, sometimes in order to make them fight. Sound familiar?
You can see how it wasn’t a stretch for Tajiri, or Mr. Bug, to think up a game based on an already ancient practice. You catch things, collect things, and then make them fight. This didn’t apply to Pokemon until later in Tajiri’s life when he was inspired by the Game Boy Game Link Cable. He imagined bugs running between the cables and thus the first inkling of the Pokemon franchise was hatched.
When Tajiri tried to pitch the game to Nintendo, he was turned away. It took his new friend Shigero Miyamoto to convince the company to produce the newly named Pocket Monster game.
Pokemon’s origins are often unknown, but to those who look closely enough, there are some clever homages hidden in the series. In the Japanese version of the first games and anime, the default protagonist name is Satoshi, whereas the default rival name is Shigeru. In Pokemon Crystal in the Battle Tower, there is a bug catcher named Tajiri, the spitting image of the young Game Freak founder himself.
It’s rather mystifying to think that the series is both very young in being 21, and in how far it’s come from its humble beginnings of nearly bankrupting Game Freak, having a lone artist in Ken Sugimori, and Tajiri’s desire to let kids confined to paved streets the ability to catch creatures.