Gotta Catch ‘Em All: The Art of Pokémon’s Ken Sugimori

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Stories February 22, 2018 Featured Image

Do you want to know the very best story?

Like no story ever was?

To catch them is its real test, to train them….wait, that’s not right.

Happy (Almost) International Pokémon Day, everyone!

Unless you’ve been off the grid for the past 20 years (in which case how and why are you reading this blog?) you have at least seen one of Nintendo’s adorable little Pocket Monsters, either in video games, television, trading cards, or oddly frightening parades….

To celebrate 20 years of freaky Pikachus, we’re going to hack the true origin story behind these 151 little critters.

Well, technically there are 802 little critters as of 2018, but, honestly, who can keep track?

The Electric Tale of Pokémon…

It all started in Machida, Japan with a boy named Satoshi Tajiri who loved to watch bugs crawl along the tall grass.

Satoshi would spend hours seeing how much different type of insects he could find and draw, marveling at the complexities and uniqueness of nature. Satoshi also loved video games. He loved them so much that he decided to start making a video game fan magazine called Game Freak with his good friend, Ken Sugimori.

Eventually, the company grew so popular that they moved away from just talking about games to actually developing games. Satoshi and Ken eventually got to meet and later work with their lifetime hero, the creator of Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto.

Flash forward a bunch, and the Game Freak team is tasked with making a game for the new Nintendo Game Boy. Satoshi is suddenly struck with a bolt of inspiration, like Team Rocket being hit with a Thunder Shock.

Satoshi saw two children with their Game Boy’s connected together via the new Link Cable.

Remember, that thick landline-like cable that existed in the dark period before WIFI was a thing?

Satoshi imagined little bugs crawling between the two cables and trading the information between games in order to help kids complete their bug collection.

This transfer of information might not seem like a big deal now, but it was HUGE back then.

Trading information between game devices had never been considered before, and honestly, it was a bit confusing. When Satoshi pitched the idea of his creature collecting game to Nintendo, they just didn’t get it.

Regardless of the board’s skepticism, the one person who mattered believed in the project: Shigeru motherf*cking Miyamoto, God of Mario. Miyamoto gave the green light to Satoshi’s weird little dream and thus Game Freak began to work on what would be an overnight international phenomenon.

Everyone went home happy and rich and the board was proved wrong, end of story.

Just kidding.

The whole thing was a massive flop.

As it turns out, the game was massively complicated, full of glitches, and took a lot longer to make than originally intended. The project got so bad that Game Freak ended up hemorrhaging employees at a rapid rate because of long hours and the inability to pay people for their work.

The project was shelved and Sathoshi and Ken went back to working on less ambitious projects in order to make a few quick bucks. Six full years later, the team managed to scrape together enough wins to have the funds to pull the collectible monster project out the dust bin and into the world.

And thus, Capsule Monsters, I mean, CapuMon, I mean, Pocket Monsters, I mean, Pokémon was born.

Damn, getting the copyright for a name is really hard.    

Did the game work? Somewhat.

Was it pretty? Gosh no.

Was it a success? Boy howdy, was it.

The game was massively addictive and attracted record number sales for the Game Boy. How did Game Freak get people to buy so many copies of their games?

Basically, they were ingenious capitalists. Every game version had slightly different Pokémon in it so that the only way to complete the game (aka, catch them all) was to play with a friend or be so lonely that you bought two consoles, a link cable, and two versions of the game for yourself so you could trade yourself the last 15 or so Pokémon you needed… eh hem.

And that’s how one kid’s weird little passion with collecting bugs became millions of kids’ weird time-consuming obsession with catching them all.

But wait, there’s more!

While Satoshi gets a ton of credit for the creation of Pokémon, so much so that the main character of the Japanese TV show is named after him, there’s one person who’s easily one of the most forgotten figures of the video game and art world: Ken Sugimori!

I Choose You, Ken Sugimori!

Besides just being Satoshi’s friend and co-collaborator in Pokémon, Ken was also an amazing artist and the lead designer for the original 151 Pokémon!

It was because of Ken’s beautiful artwork that Satoshi wanted to push ahead with the project, even when it cost way too much money.

Unfortunately, while Ken’s designs looked great on paper and watercolor, due to the sh*t quality of the original Gameboy, his beautiful creations looked really bad, sometimes even terrifying.

Have you ever gazed into the dead eyes of the original Wigglytuff? It’s some haunting stuff.

With each installment in the series, computer quality got better and better and was able to more satisfactorily bring Ken’s creations to life.

Today, Pokemon are fully-moving 3D models capable of expressions and animations. Needless to say, the digital art has come a long, long way.

Other games have tried to capitalize on the collectible creature market that was created in the wake of the Pokémon craze, but nothing has quite topped the original, thanks in part to Ken’s wondrous imagination and his ability to express so much in such a simple form.

Think about it: you have 800+ creatures. Each has to have a distinct look that separates it from all the others but must be close enough to its particularly evolutionary line that players know which creatures are related. Not to mention each creature has to be simple enough that you can tell what the hell you’re actually looking at, while also being well cute/cool enough that you want to buy merchandise of the dang thing.  We bet even da Vinci couldn’t pull this feat off.

Ken has admitted that his favorite of his creations are the simpler ones, like Gengar, because they’re super easy to draw. We’re sure all the kids in the 90’s thank you, Ken, for your hard work.

Who’s That Pokemon?!

Which Pokémon was the first Pokémon ever made?

Did any of you say Pikachu? That’s probably because Pikachu’s the first little creature that comes to the top of your head (probably due to its omnipresence in creepy parades).

Well, you’re wrong.

The first creature ever created was Rhydon!

While not being one of the better known Generation One Pokémon, this big guy has a secret influence on the game’s history. Rhydon was the first “official” pocket monster to have real concept art and for that, it’s original image is displayed numerous times throughout the first game, often in shrines or dungeons (see below).

But back to Ken. If he’s such a genius at coming up with Pokémon, why are there only 802 creatures instead of thousands?

Well, I’m glad you asked.

What? Pokémon is Evolving!

Pokémon has gone far beyond Ken and Satoshi ever thought it would and reached people worldwide. This means a lot of money, yes, but also a lot of translation.

The games, the show, and card game are currently being translated into nine different languages and while that might not seem like a lot, think about this: almost every single Pokémon’s name is a pun.

For example, Farfetch’d.

The name “Farfetch’d” is based off of the idea of something being far-fetched, but that’s only because the Japanese name of this Pokemon is Kamonegi, which is not only a fusion of the word for duck and green onion, but a phrase meaning that something is as far-fetched as a roasting duck carrying its own onion for garnish.


Confused yet?

Us, too.

If each creature’s name has to make punny sense for 9 different regions, there’s a hell of a lot of wordplay that needs to happen. While I wish the quest to catch them all would go on forever, the creators are sticking to under 100 new Pokémon per new game…

For now.

You’ll Teach Me and I’ll Teach You

For this International Pokémon Day, we would like you all to remember that ideas can evolve into something you couldn’t possibly imagine.

One kid’s obsession with bugs and videos games evolved into a phenomenon that in helped shape a generation. Remember to keep on training and never give up on your dreams because you never know what lies ahead!


written with 💖 by Julian Vercoutere

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