Pokémon Go is in the news -- everywhere. As an assistant elementary school English language teacher, I’m used to surprising my Japanese students, but one sentence never fails to make their eyes go wide with horror:
“When I was your age, there were only 151 Pokémon.”
Now in its 20th year, the international sensation has exploded over the decades. The Pokémon gamefranchise now includes over 700 creatures and expands across anime, manga, toys, collectible cards, board games, video games and even a musical.
Entrance to a Pokémon Center in Japan -- Photo from Flickr cc by MsSaraKelly
The most recent incarnation of this wildly successful franchise, Pokémon Go, was released in June in the USA and EU and finally in Japan on July 22nd after great anticipation. The app instantly became a successful hit, inspiring a new generation of fans and causing servers to crash with the rapid attempts to download and play. Many new fans, however, may not know the backstory of this wildly popular international phenomenon. If you wish to become a true Pokémon master, you will need to know your Pokémon history! For new players and old players alike, here is a Pokémon primer:
Though now an international sensation, Pokémon didn’t start out that way. Pokémon (an abbreviation of ポケットモンスター, Poketto Monsutaa, or Pocket Monster) had humble beginnings in 1995 as a side hobby of Satoshi Tajiri. He based the concept on a favorite pastime from childhood, one that is still familiar to many Japanese children: insect and tadpole hunting.
Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri -- Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Satoshi Tajiri grew up in a small suburb just outside of Tokyo. As the metropolis developed further and the ponds and fields of his childhood were slowly replaced with shopping centers, Satoshi discovered a new passion: video games. He did not go to college, instead attending an electrical specialty school. He took apart Nintendo games to figure out how to build them himself. He spent hours with his friends (including the future designer of many Pokémon, Ken Sugimori) playing video games in arcades. Satoshi and Ken also started publishing a small magazine, Game Freak (sound familiar?), to publicize tips and tricks at defeating the most popular arcade games.
The final inspiration came in 1991. Satoshi saw the Game Boy and with it the connecting cable, which allowed players to communicate and trade with each other in games. Satoshi accredits his final inspiration to an image of “bugs going through this cable”. That final detail is what would turn this single player RPG into a competitive and cooperative gaming system. He signed a contract with Nintendo -- who by this time were impressed with his game making abilities -- but was unable to explain the concept clearly. Shigeru Miyamoto heard Satoshi’s pitch and helped him hone it to the point that Nintendo agreed to create the game. In honor of his mentorship, the rival character is named Shigeru (Gary in the American release) while the main character, Satoshi (Ash), is named after Satoshi Tajiri.
Main character, Satoshi (Ash) is named after Satoshi Tajiri. The rival character is named Shigeru (Gary in the American release) -- Photo from Wikimedia Commons
After six years, Pokémon finally moved from idea to reality. During that time, Game Freak almost went broke and several employees left. Satoshi worked for no salary, living with his parents. By the time Pokémon became a reality, however, the Game Boy was old technology in the eyes of the world. More money was being spent on games for CD-ROM, which had better graphics and memory. The Game Boy was considered passé and on the way out. Nintendo released the game with low expectations on return.
Otakon 2013 - Gameboy and Pokémon Games -- Photo from Flickr cc by Heath
While CD-ROMs were the future of gaming, younger children were still loyal to Game Boys, which were cheaper and portable. The game was released with a line of comic books that came with collectible cards. In addition, Satoshi secretly created the 151st Pokémon without Nintendo’s knowledge. The Pokémon was to be an Easter egg only available to players who traded with one another, fulfilling the original intention of a social game. He spread word about a secret, and that Mew (later a major character in the first film) could only be unlocked through trading. This design meant that sales kept climbing as word got around. Over time, Pokémon grew to become one of the best-selling Game Boy games of all time.
An International Hit (After a Few Changes)
The first time I talked about Pokémon with my students, I was met with inquisitive looks when I mentioned my favorite characters and Pokémon. After awhile, I discovered the reason was that the American version of the show was dramatically different from the Japanese one. Pokémon was one of the first anime series to be so successfully marketed to a Western audience. However, the game went through some changes on the way across the Pacific. Some were concerned that the show and game would be too “Japanese” for a western audience, so a lot of effort was spent making the world of Pokémon more relatable. Al Kahn, the marketing designer behind the Cabbage Patch Doll, was brought on to make Pokémon toy designs more palatable to a Western audience. Originally, Nintendo wanted to change the Pokémon character designs, thinking that these cute designs would not resonate with an American audience, but Satoshi Tajiri firmly refused.
The names, however, were westernized. Hitokage became Charmander, Fushigidane became Bulbasaur, and Zenigame became Squirtle. Satoshi and Shigeru became Ash and Gary, and Kasumi and Takeshi became Misty and Brock.
Meowth, derived from an onomatopoeia for a cat noise, was changed from Nyanth in the Japanese version -- Screen shot from Molly Thompson
By the time America was considering circulation, 130 episodes had already aired in Japan. So, any episode with religious or sexual overtones was completely removed. In fact, several episodes have never been aired in the United States. Some of the changes range from the small (an onigiri is changed to resemble a donut) to the downright odd (Jynx, one of the original 151 Pokémon, was changed from black to purple due to its unfortunate resemblance to an American minstrel character).
Notable Events and Unexplained Phenomena
Pokémon Go has been making dramatic headlines, with news outlets decrying the game for everything from causing traffic accidents to finding Pokémon in disrespectful places. However, these incidents are not the first time that Pokémon has caused a histrionic outcry.
Collecting the cards became an issue for many parents of obsessed fans -- Photo from Flickr cc by Kelly Teague
In the years that have passed, people forget how controversial Pokémon was when the franchisefirst debuted in Japan and, later, the United States.
A group of parents in New Jersey started a lawsuit against the Pokémon trading card manufacturer for racketeering. The lawsuit argued that the manufacturer was intentionally making some cards rarer than others, forcing kids to buy more. Another incident was when a fight broke out in a school cafeteria. A student stabbed another student over a card trading mishap. At the time, many media outlets in the US and Japan were nearly hysterical about the mania. Headlines were reading “Pokémon stirs up crime” to “Pokémon craze turns crazy in Arizona schools”. Turkey and Saudi Arabia straight-out banned the popular game. Religious leaders around the world denounced the game for using monsters and not differentiating between good and evil.
20 years in the spotlight doesn’t come without shadows. Many darker legends surround this popular brand. While proven to be little more than urban myth, the story of the Lavender Town Tone (or Lavender Town Syndrome) is interesting for its spread and staying power in an age before internet memes. The story goes that in February of 1997, a string of suicides of children between the ages of seven and 12 hit. All these children had played the Pokémon Red and Green games. The supposed cause was a high-frequency tone in the eerie music played in Lavender Town, which only children, who have more sensitive ears to higher pitches, could hear. Supposedly “hundreds of children” were affected by this eerie music, coming down with headaches and committing suicide by jumping from great heights. Lavender Town is the town where the most Ghost-type Pokémon can be found, only adding to the creepiness of the story. The grain of truth is that in the original Japanese release, the Lavender town theme was a MIDI file running on two channels. Someone playing with headphones would hear each tone separately in each ear. Some children complained of getting migraines from the combination of sounds, so the theme was changed for international release. While the migraines have been confirmed, no uptick in suicides took place at that time.
Lavender Town Syndrome has been thoroughly debunked, but some other stories have a surprising basis. One such story falsely attributed to urban legend is the “seizure episode”, an episode now banned that was never aired outside of Japan.
Pokémon had some issues with animation style leading to an incident in the late 90's -- Photo from Wikimedia Commons
In 1997, an episode of Pokémon caused over 700 children in Japan to collapse into seizures. About 20 minutes into the episode, a bomb explodes. This scene combined two popular animation styles: rapidly flashing lights in different colors (a style called paka-paka) and an intense beam of bright light. This combination turned out to be a bad idea. Seizures can be caused by light emitted at frequencies between 10 hertz and 30 hertz, with red light being a contributing factor. Children are more susceptible than adults to photosensitive seizures. Over 700 children were hospitalized with seizures and even more complained of headaches, convulsions, nausea and vomiting. While no one was seriously injured permanently, the incident was a major setback for Game Freak. The company was then in the middle of negotiations for releasing the cartoon in the United States. The show was put on hiatus for four months as the animators regrouped and revised their animation style to avoid these dangerous combinations. The flashing light episode was never aired in the United States.
Within one month of its global release, Pokémon Go had over 40 million downloads
Pokémon Go takes the collaborative and social aspect of Pokémon that Satoshi Tajiri dreamed about to a whole new level. By using AR (augmented reality) tech, users can take their Pokémon hunt into the real world. Pokémon trainers are encouraged to build teams, trade and operate with other users in the real world using their smartphones.
Everyone is getting in on the Pokemon Go craze -- Photo from Flickr cc by Steve Rainwater
Right now, the impact of Pokémon Go on pop culture and technology is uncertain. The app has been downloaded by more than 40 million users worldwide, becoming the most downloaded app from the App store of all time. Pokémon Go is estimated to be installed on 5% of all android phones.
Despite having no part in developing the game, Nintendo’s shares skyrocketed when it first was released. When investors learned the game was developed by Niantic, Inc., however, stock prices plummeted. Pokémon Go users have stopped crimes in progress and small businesses have profited by creating Pokéstops, which lure users to the location.
The presidential candidates from both major American parties have mentioned the app in their most recent speeches -- all less than one month from its original release date.
Pokémon Go has had its share of criticism. Overtaxed servers frequently crash due to demand. The game has had some unfortunate Pokémon placement, including in the Holocaust Museum, Washington, D.C. and Arlington National Cemetery.
New Pokémon Land inspired by Hawaii Photo via Wikimedia Commons
The game will feature an entirely new battle style, Battle Royale, allowing four players to compete simultaneously. QR code scanners will be made use of as well, furthering the possibility of using real world events to build Pokémon.
Pokémon has a long tradition of cooperation, acquisition and competition, which Pokémon Go and Pokémon Sun and Moon are keeping alive in exciting new ways. Now in the 7th generation, we are up to 746 Pokémon, 900 episodes and countless comics, movies and games. We are ushering in a new generation of Pokémon fans for years to come.
Traveling to Japan? Download our Pokémon Center Trip to Catch 'em all!