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The Tao of Pikachu

Gearoid Reidy | 5 Dec 2006 11:04
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You can only imagine how Satoshi Tajiri, the game-loving creator of Pokémon, must have felt as his labor of love became not just ignored by serious gamers, but a lightning rod for mentalists, both amateur and professional.

Tajiri is a genuine otaku done good, a bug-loving computer geek who played Space Invaders so much the arcade gave it to him to take it home; who rose from making his own fanzines on photocopiers to finding himself rich beyond his wildest dreams. And he remains a true nerd: The first question asked by Time, one of the few Western outlets to gain interview access to the reclusive Tajiri, was, "Are you OK? You look pretty tired."

By the time the money-making machine was done with it, Tajiri's little game was all but forgotten. The trading cards, the cartoon series, the movies - and the hysteria, the epilepsy, the accidental "swastikas," the supposed racism, the bad journalism and the downright sickening lies - all combined to overshadow the essence of Pokémon: a simple, charming little game, one that changed the course of the entire game industry.

... Must Begin From the First Step
Would Nintendo now be sitting once again on the precipice of market domination were it not for the billions Satoshi Tajiri gave them? Consider when Pokémon was first released in Japan, as Pocket Monsters Red and Green: February 1996, four months before the release of the Nintendo 64.

The Game Boy, a seven-year-old piece of technology, was on its way out. After a solid launch, the software-starved N64 would soon fall behind Sony's flashy new PlayStation brand and remain there for a decade.

Pokémon's success was vital both to Nintendo and to portable gaming. This was the dominant era of graphical flash - when if it wasn't in three dimensions, it wasn't worth playing.

The secret of Pokémon's success is well known: the ingenious decision to release two copies of the game, each with different Pokémon to collect, tapped into the collecting impulse hard-wired into every schoolboy's brain. From there, all Japan fell for Pokémon.

The elementary schoolkid word of mouth that led to its success in Japan can be seen more recently in Sega's Mushi King, a decidedly less cute form of insect battling game. Yet Pokémon remains superior, its combination of cuteness and fighting making it appealing both to boys and girls.

That appeal is carefully crafted. The main quest, a boy setting off to discover the world, is refreshingly free from evil armies, stolen kid sisters or any of the other stereotypes that dog most RPGs when it comes to "setting off on a quest time." It straddles that perfect line between reality and fantasy, the kind of thing that could happen to a small boy in a world seen just a little bit sideways, filled with the exotic.

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