How Pokémon Was Born From Bug Collecting and Asperger's Syndrome

As the creator of Nintendo's Pokémon series, Satoshi Tajiri is one of the most important (if not well-known) developers working in video games today.

Like another Nintendo legend, Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, Tajiri's most popular work has been directly inspired by his childhood experiences and hobbies. While Miyamoto's Zelda was the product of boyhood explorations, however, Tajiri's role-playing juggernaut is the product of, as you may expect, boyhood insect collections.

Tajiri grew up in Machida, a city that now forms part of the sprawling metropolis that is greater Tokyo. As a boy in the 1960s and 1970s, though, it had a quaint, almost rural atmosphere, which led Tajiri to a hobby of collecting local bugs and insects.

He was so mad for it, in fact, that his classmates would call him "Mr. Bug", and as a child he wanted to grow up to be an entomologist (someone who studies insects). As happens when kids get older, though, interests come and go, and by the time he was a teenager Tajiri's focus had shifted from harvesting bugs to pumping coins into arcade games like Space Invaders.

So keen on gaming had he become that Tajiri began to cut high school classes to go play games (so much so he nearly failed to graduate from high school), and when he eventually bought a Famicom in the early 80's, took the thing completely apart to see how it worked so he could make his own games.

How Pokémon Was Born From Bug Collecting and Asperger's Syndrome
Satoshi Tajiri. Kickin' it.

If that sounds a little...different, that's because Tajiri is unlike most other noted game developers in that he has according to both Western and Japanese reports been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a condition that can - as seen in first his insect collecting and then fascination with games - lead to incredibly focused activities, often at the expense of other duties (like, in Tajiri's instance, schoolwork).

Asperger's syndrome also causes issues with social interaction, which explains why the name Satoshi Tajiri isn't as well-known as one would expect given the popularity of his creation. Nintendo representatives explained a few years ago that, while Tajiri is incredibly creative, he is also "reclusive" and "eccentric".

This means that, again unlike most other developers, Tajiri never went to college or university. Instead, he studied electronics at a Tokyo technical college, and in 1981 started up a little video game fanzine called Game Freak. While little more than a few pages of writing crudely printed and stapled together, the zine was distributed enough to catch the attention of additional contributors, including, most crucially for Taijiri's future success, a young man by the name of Ken Sugimori.

How Pokémon Was Born From Bug Collecting and Asperger's Syndrome
Original copies of Game Freak

The pair soon became friends, and after Game Freak (the zine) wound up in 1986 (and a few years studying programming language and Nintendo's Famicom console), in 1989 the two founded Game Freak the development company.

Game Freak's first game, Mendel Palace, was published by Namco on the Famicom in 1989, but it was in 1990, when Taijiri saw two Game Boys connected using a link cable, that the penny dropped. Drawing on his childhood love of collecting insects, Taijiri envisaged a game where Game Boys could be linked together and creatures not only collected, but put into battle against one another.

Nintendo, and particularly Taijiri's "mentor" Shigeru Miyamoto (who helped Game Freak release a few games like Mario & Yoshi for Nintendo in the early 90's) backed the idea, and while it took over six years to develop - and nearly bankrupted the fledgling studio - in 1996, the first Pokémon games were released on the Game Boy in Japan.

What came next, well, you don't need a Total Recall post to tell you that.

FUN FACT: As a tribute to his friend and mentor, Taijiri named two of Pokémon's main characters after himself and Miyamoto. In Japan, the boy we know as Ash is called Satoshi, while Gary is called Shigeru.
Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.