How Pokemon, a Game Inspired by Insect Collecting, Took Over the World

It's Pikachu and his 700 friends' 20th birthday

It all started with bug collecting. As a child growing up in the rural outskirts of Tokyo, Satoshi Tajiri lived for trapping insects. He loved the way they moved, their colors and variety.

He wanted, you might say, to catch them all.

 

When he reached his teens, Tajiri also grew to love video games, but he was frustrated. "The games weren't very good," the reclusive designer told Time magazine in a rare 1999 interview. "My conclusion was: Let's make our own games."

Tajiri was fortunate. It was 1990, and the Game Boy has just appeared. Tajiri managed to interest Nintendo on a game built on a bunch of phantasmagorical animé characters. The game—Capsule Monsters—soon acquired a catchier name: Pokemon. It debuted in Japan in 1996. And you know the rest. 

But just in case you don't: Pokemon is the second most popular video game franchise ever (only Mario beats it) with over 280 million units sold. But it doesn't stop there. With its famous "Gotta catch 'em all" tagline, Pokemon—a game that casts its players as trainers who capture and train creatures to fight one another and evolve as they go—is a card game (21.5 billion trading cards sold) and an animated TV series (900 episodes to date). Pokemon is a movie franchise (more on that in a moment) and a slew of merchandise, too. There is a Pokemon World Championship that draws 1,700 players from 35 countries. There is Pokemon Day (Feb. 27). There is a Pokemon balloon (Pikachu) in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and Pokemon jets in the fleet of All Nippon Airways.

Courtesy Pokemon

Finally, as the residents of 100 countries discovered this July, Pokemon is also a mobile game app: Pokemon Go, which has notched 500 million downloads—and counting.

Courtesy Pokemon

And the wonder of all this is: Nobody saw it coming. As Tajiri's developers at his company Game Freak began building the first Pokemon game in 1990, "the thought process wasn't, 'Let's come up with a brand that'll take over the world,'" said J.C. Smith, the Pokemon Company's senior director of consumer marketing. "It was something they thought would be good in Japan—but it wound up being a huge franchise played on all continents." 

Most especially this one. While Pokemon didn't hit U.S. shores until 1998, it's celebrating its 20th anniversary this year anyway. Among the festivities is the rerelease of Pokemon: The First Movie, which 200 select Cinemark theaters are screening this week. "Advance ticket sales have been quite strong," reported Cinemark marketing and communications chief James Meredith. "Hopefully this will be the first of several Pokemon events during the next few months."

So maybe it's a dumb question, but how has Pokemon captured the imaginations of so many millions of people? Pokemon corporate maintains the game has salutary benefits for kids, allowing them to "learn the merits of sharing and sportsmanship." Smith will tell you it's about the community created around sharing the characters. "At its core," he said, "Pokemon is about interacting with people."

But maybe the reason's even simpler. There are 700 known Pokemon out there, and, much as Tajiri did with his insect collection, the fun comes collecting (sorry—we mean catching) each and every one of them.

This story first appeared in the October 31, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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