TIME Tokyo bureau chief Tim Larimer speaks with Satoshi Tajiri, the quiet, complex man who created a video game in which no one dies–and who in the process launched the worldwide phenomenon known as Pokémon. In this extended interview, Tajiri explains, among other things, the logical trajectory from bugs to Pikachu.
After first coming up with the idea for Pokémon in 1990, Satoshi Tajiri labored for nearly six years over the original game. Now 34, he based it partly on things he remembered as a kid. The careful attention paid off. Pokémon swept Japan and is now doing the same in the U.S. and beyond. Spinoffs include trading cards as closely held as stock options, a TV series and, now, a movie.
A person who usually shuns the limelight, Tajiri talked about his labor of love with Larimer and TIME intern Takashi Yokota at the offices of his small company, Game Freak, in Tokyo’s Setagaya neighborhood, a youth-culture hub with several colleges and universities. His company occupies two floors in a nondescript office building. Sandwiched between the Game Freak floors is a “cram school” for junior high school students who are taking extra paid-for lessons in hopes of improving their next entrance exam scores.
Tajiri had just finished work on the new series of Pokémon games for Nintendo’s Game Boy, to be released in Japan Nov. 20. He looked tired. His eyes were bloodshot, there were dark circles under his eyes and his hands and lips trembled while he spoke. He looked like he needed a good long sleep.
TIME: Are you O.K.? You look pretty tired.
Tajiri: It’s the way I work. I sleep 12 hours and then work 24 hours. I’ve worked those irregular hours for the past three years. It’s better to stay up day and night to come up with ideas. I usually get inspiration for game designing by working this schedule.
TIME: How did you get started designing games?
Tajiri: I’m part of the first generation who grew up with manga [comics] and anime [animation], you know, after ‘Godzilla.’ I was absorbed with Ultraman on TV and in manga. The profession of game designer was created really recently. If it didn’t exist, I’d probably be making anime.
TIME: Do anime and games require a similar creativity?
Tajiri: The technology in making games and in making anime is really similar. There are common concepts.
TIME: We heard you were a Space Invaders junkie.
Tajiri: I was really into Space Invaders in about 1978. It got me more and more interested in video games. There wasn’t any media to get information about games, so I came up with Game Freak magazine.
TIME: Weren’t you just a teenager?
Tajiri: Yeah. It was handwritten. I stapled the pages together. It had techniques on how to win games, secret tips for games like Donkey Kong.
TIME: Did you sell it?
Tajiri: The biggest sales were for a special issue on the Zabius game. We sold 10,000 copies. It cost 300 yen each. So when I was 18 I already had a business going. At first I used a photocopy machine–more important than style was selling information. But when sales increased, it was difficult to do it by hand. So I took it to a printer.
TIME: How did you move from publishing to designing games?
Tajiri: Pretty soon I had some contributors, and we’d all get together and talk about games. The more I learned about games, the more frustrated I became because the games weren’t very good. I could tell a good game from a bad game. My conclusion was: let’s make our own games.
TIME: What were you like as a kid?
Tajiri: The place where I grew up [in Machida, a western Tokyo suburb] was still rural back then. There were rice paddies, rivers, forests. It was full of nature. Then development started taking place, and as it grew, all the insects were driven away. I was really interested in collecting insects. [Later, Tajiri’s father tells me the other kids used to call Satoshi “Dr. Bug” as a child.] Every year they would cut down trees and the population of insects would decrease. The change was so dramatic. A fishing pond would become an arcade center.
TIME: You liked bugs?
Tajiri: 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. I usually took them home. As I gathered more and more, I’d learn about them, like how some would feed on one another. So I stopped bringing them home. But I liked coming up with new ideas. Like how to catch beetles. In Japan, a lot of kids like to go out and catch beetles by putting honey on a piece of tree bark. My idea was to put a stone under a tree, because they slept during the day and like sleeping under stones. So in the morning I’d go pick up the stone and find them. Tiny discoveries like that made me excited.
TIME: Did you have friends who collected insects?
Tajiri: Usually all the kids did it the same way, with the honey. None of my friends would do what I did. I got more insects than anyone.
TIME: So you were collecting Pokémon a long time ago! Did you make the insects fight against each other?
Tajiri: No, but sometimes they would eat each other.
TIME: Did you get the idea for Pokémon from these insects?
Tajiri: Yes. Places to catch insects are rare because of urbanization. Kids play inside their homes now, and a lot had forgotten about catching insects. So had I. When I was making games, something clicked and I decided to make a game with that concept. Everything I did as a kid is kind of rolled into one–that’s what Pokémon is. Playing video games, watching TV, Ultraman with his capsule monsters–they all became ingredients for the game.
TIME: Why did it take so long to finish the game?
Tajiri: Well, the first game I did all by myself. That was before Pokémon. I didn’t rely on other companies or programmers. I just started by taking apart the Nintendo system to see how it worked. When I was 16, I won a contest Sega was sponsoring for a game idea. It took me two years to learn the programming, and a year to make my first game [called Quinty].
TIME: How did you get hooked up with Nintendo?
Tajiri: I saw Game Boy when it was first released. The idea for Pokémon clicked in my mind. The basic idea for Pokémon seemed a good fit for Game Boy.
TIME: Why did Game Boy seem right for Pokémon?
Tajiri: The communication aspect of Game Boy. It was a profound image to me. It has a communication cable. In Tetris, its first game, the cable transmitted information about moving blocks. That cable really got me interested. I thought of actual living organisms moving back and forth across the cable.
TIME: Wasn’t the cable being used for players to compete with each other? In Pokémon, players are sharing, too, aren’t they?
Tajiri: Yeah, everyone was using it to compete. The idea I had was for information to go back and forth. It wasn’t about competition. Even before Game Boy, there was a communication capability at game arcades–like two race car drivers sitting next to each other to compete. That’s all anyone was doing, using it to compete.
TIME: But if you’re not competing, games aren’t all that much fun, are they?
Tajiri: I liked competition too. But I wanted to design a game that involved interactive communication. Remember, there was no Internet then. The concept of the communication cable is really Japanese: one-on-one. It’s like karate–two players compete, they bow to each other. It’s the Japanese concept of respect.
TIME: Like the ritualistic elements of sumo?
Tajiri: A more casual form of sumo. Over the Internet, communication can be directed to anyone in the world and it’s anonymous. But with a communication cable, it’s one-on-one and the players pick who they play against. It doesn’t really get aggressive. It’s an intricate style of communication. Almost subtle.
TIME: How does that translate to the U.S.?
Tajiri: It’s interesting, because in Japan, everybody goes for Pikachu. In the U.S., the characters Ash [Satoshi in Japan] and Pikachu are grouped together. American kids seem to like that. In America there are more products sold with Ash and Pikachu together, not just Pikachu alone. I think Americans actually understand the concept of Pokémon better than the Japanese. The Japanese focus on Pikachu, but what I think is important is the human aspect–you need Ash.
TIME: Pikachu is sort of marginal in the game. But it’s now the best-known character. How’d that happen?
Tajiri: When they did the anime, they wanted a specific character to focus on. Pikachu was relatively popular compared with the others and potentially both boys and girls would like it. They heard a lot of opinions about this. It wasn’t my idea.
TIME: Do you think the TV show now dictates how people play the game?
Tajiri: At first, I was a little concerned. It depends on how people are introduced to Pokémon. If they start with the TV show, or with the cards, or the video game, they approach it differently each time.
TIME: Why is Pokémon still so popular?
Tajiri: When you’re a kid and get your first bike, you want to go somewhere you’ve never been before. That’s like Pokémon. Everybody shares the same experience, but everybody wants to take it someplace else. And you can do that.
TIME: Are all the goofy-sounding names important for Pokémon’s success?
Tajiri: What’s more important is that the monsters are controllable by the players. It could be the monster within yourself, [representing] fear or anger, for example. And they are put in capsules. Plus, everybody can give them their own names. Pikachu is like the name of the species. But each player can name their own Pikachu. So kids can relate to it more. They get more attached to them that way.
TIME: Did you name all those beetles and spiders and bugs?
Tajiri: No. I had a cat, though. I wanted to name the frogs, because I watched them grow, but there were too many.
TIME: Are the Pokémon names related to those insects?
Tajiri: Yeah. Like Nyoromo [Poliwhorl in the U.S.]. It looks like a tadpole. There’s little whirls on it because I remembered that when you pick up a tadpole, you can see its intestines because it’s transparent.
TIME: Do the names mean anything or are they just gibberish?
Tajiri: They all have meaning. Like Nyarth. It’s from a Japanese proverb about a cat with money on his head that doesn’t know it’s there. It’s about understanding the value of money. I don’t think they have that concept in the U.S., so the name is different. And Pikachu. ‘Pika’ is the sound Japanese say an electric spark makes. And ‘chu’ is the sound a mouse makes. So Pikachu is like an electric mouse.
TIME: None of the monsters is really evil. So how do you know if one of them is with you or against you?
Tajiri: Think of it like this. If a horse runs over you and you die, then the horse is bad. But if you’re riding the horse, the horse is your ally. So, if you have a monster in your collection, then it’s considered good. But if not, it’s still not considered bad, because it could be your friend one day.
TIME: What’s the story with Mew? Some kind of a secret character?
Tajiri: Yes, this was done on purpose. Mew was not originally included in the games for people to acquire. You had to get it from interacting with Game Freak or Nintendo. There were 150 characters, and Mew was number 151. You can’t ever get a Mew without trading for it. It created a myth about the game, that there was an invisible character out there. Someone gives me Mew, then I give Mew to you, then you pass it on. Introducing a new character like that created a lot of rumors and myths about the game. It kept the interest alive.
TIME: The main human guy is named Satoshi. That’s your name. Is he your alter ego?
Tajiri: Basically, he’s me when I was a kid.
TIME: His main rival is named Shigeru. That’s the first name of Miyamoto, the famous game designer at Nintendo who did Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros. Do you consider him your rival?
Tajiri: No! I really look up to Miyamoto-san. In the TV series, Shigeru is Satoshi’s master. In the game, they are rivals. Shigeru is always a little bit ahead of Satoshi.
TIME: Does Satoshi ever catch up with Shigeru?
Tajiri: No! Never!
TIME: Have you caught up with Miyamoto-san?
Tajiri: I think very highly of him. I’d memorize each piece of advice he gave.
TIME: But Pokémon is more popular than anything Miyamoto-san has done. Hasn’t the student passed the teacher?
Tajiri: No, because Pokémon was made with Miyamoto-san’s advice. Since I was a teenager, playing Donkey Kong, he’s always been my role model. He’s a mentor for my heart.
TIME: You know what Miyamoto-san said? He said, half-jokingly, that Pokémon wouldn’t stay popular forever because he was developing a new version of Mario Bros.
Tajiri: Is that what he said?
TIME: Did the Nintendo people expect Pokémon to be such a big hit?
Tajiri: Not at first. They didn’t expect much from the game. Game Boy’s popularity was declining. Just when I finished the game and took it to Nintendo, I felt like a baseball player who slides into second base even though you know you’re going to be out–but then it turns out you are safe.
TIME: You really thought Nintendo would reject it?
Tajiri: Always. I was told they couldn’t really understand the concept of the game.
TIME: A lot of people blame violence in video games for violent things young people do, especially in the U.S. Do you feel guilty about that?
Tajiri: In Japan, violence in games is pretty much self-regulated. In the 1980s, there was a game called Bullfighter where the matador stabbed the bull and red blood squirted out. The day after it was released, they changed the blood to green. There’s more violence in games in the U.S., in things like Mortal Kombat, where they rip out hearts and cut off heads. Japanese people wouldn’t come up with ideas of blood splattering all over. Japanese focus more on the intricacies of the actions, the motion.
TIME: The TV people in the U.S. were worried about violence in Pokémon. Can you believe that?
Tajiri: I’m very careful about violence in games. I’m not interested in creating violent effects.
TIME: It seems like role-playing games are more popular in Japan than the U.S. Why’s that?
Tajiri: Well, one reason is that back when we had arcade games only, they cost 100 yen for one game. I think in the U.S. it was always [much cheaper at] 25 cents. So 20 years ago we thought it was very expensive, but when role-playing games were introduced in Japan, it was revolutionary because once you bought the software, no matter how many times you played, it was free.
TIME: So Japanese game designers aren’t making violent games?
Tajiri: No, they make them. But only to sell in the U.S.
TIME: Still, American kids like Pokémon, even without the blood.
Tajiri: I was really careful in making monsters faint rather than die. I think that young people playing games have an abnormal concept about dying. They start to lose and say, “I’m dying.” It’s not right for kids to think about a concept of death that way. They need to treat death with more respect.
TIME: Well, there’s a preacher in the U.S. who says Pikachu is the devil.
Tajiri: I never heard of that! [Laughs] I heard there was a guy who criticized [kid’s book character] Harry Potter because of the magic. But I saw the author, and she seemed really nice. The critic seemed like a grouchy mean guy.
TIME: What do you think about that weird incident in Japan in 1997, when 700 kids had seizures while watching Pikachu’s blinking lights on the Pokémon TV show?
Tajiri: When I was a kid, I was taught to sit far away from the TV while watching. Then TVs got bigger. That was O.K. in the U.S., because you have big rooms. But in Japan, the rooms are small. So people got in the habit of watching TV close to the screen.
TIME: Is it a good idea for kids to spend so much time playing Pokémon?
Tajiri: I think a lot about kids and what they need and want to make their lives better. You know, the cram school industry started when I was young. There was so little time to play. During school breaks, we’d run to the arcade to play games. Right now, there isn’t much time for kids to relax. So I thought of games that could help kids fill in those five- or 10-minute gaps.