The Origins of Game Freak

Ever wonder why Game Freak landed on such a peculiar name for a development team? You might be inclined to think “Game Freak” is a name more suitable for a magazine publication that gushes about games than for a development crew.

Well, you’re right.

The early days of Game Freak were fan-made publications with the sole intention of gushing about video games. In 1981, the sixteen-year-old Satoshi Tajiri wrote the first Game Freak Fan-Zine by hand and stapled the pages together. One photocopier and a little pocket change later, we had ourselves a teenage entrepreneur.

game freak magazine. Ichihara and Sugimori fanzine cover art. Early 80's prototype of pokemon's core creators.

On the pages, you could expect some guides on improving at games, some small listicles about Tajiri’s favorite titles, some drawing tutorials for video game characters, and other speculative works.

Ken Sugimori fumbled across a copy of Game Freak magazine and sought out to become the illustrator. He hadn’t yet developed his signature style, but the duo would soon be unstoppable!

One day, this ragtag group of publishers was feeling ambitious. Without any background knowledge in development, they decided to try their hand at creating games of their own. And so they did.

They cracked into a Famicom console with some screwdrivers and began hacking away, researching non-stop until they created Mendel Palace (Originally Quinty in Japanese)

Say Hello to the Famicom

Game Freak Faced Crippling Depression

Tajiri and his ragtag group of friends pitched the idea to Nintendo. The board room wanted nothing to do with it. Namco offered to pick it up… sort of. There were some legal matters to overcome. Namco offered to purchase the rights to Mendel Palace if the group formed a corporate entity.

And Game Freak was born.

Along the way, a small cult following would build up and familiar names such as Masuda and Morimoto would join the ranks. I suspect they were hovering around before the days of game development, since Masuda talks about the early days quite a bit, but the paper records don’t prove much.

Then they developed Smart Ball for sony. Things were looking good for Game Freak as a studio. Their dreams were coming to life.

With official development studio badges and two successful titles, Nintendo decided to put Game Freak to work. Their first project would be to work on Yoshi, a puzzle spin-off title to the Mario franchise released on NES and Game Boy.

Uh oh. Suddenly our boys were developing for the Game Boy. You know what that means.

Pokemon Red and Green took over five years to develop. Could you imagine how your boss would react if you were five years into a project you pitched to him and still didn’t have any results?

Well, their boss didn’t ask for Pokemon at all. Game Freak funded and developed it in their spare time while putting out titles like Mario & Wario in 1993, and Pulseman in 1994. Satoshi Tajiri may have realized his dream of becoming a developer, but his vision was still in hibernation.

Tajiri developed without an income to help make ends meet with his crew. He borrowed money from his father throughout the time period. I imagine that was a difficult family dynamic!

“Hey Dad, I still…”
“Money’s on the table kid. Don’t talk to me until you get a real job”

Still... Tajiri And His Friends Were Driven By Desire

Five employees quit. Things were looking pretty bleak. Until a group titling themselves Creatures Inc. offered to fund the project in exchange for 33% of the franchise rights.

Tajiri states in many interviews that when he first witnessed a Game Boy link cable, he was awestruck. He could picture little bugs crawling inside the cable and transferring between systems. It reminded him of his childhood, which I’m sure you’ve heard before.

Did you hear the rest of his story? Like many of his generation, he grew up watching his small rural village become industrialized. He wasn’t just a bug catcher. He was THE bug catcher. All the children of his village used classic Japanese methods of attracting bugs, like putting honey on the end of a stick.

Tajiri was setting rocks out in the yard to lure in resting bugs and checking on them first thing in the morning. According to the neighborhood children, little Tajiri became known as the renowned “Dr. Bug”

Tajiri said he wanted the kids of this new indoor generation to experience that same feeling of collecting creatures, exploration, and one-on-one interaction despite global changes out of their control. It was a huge success.

In 1999, Tajiri told a reporter at Time Magazine that he worked 24-hour shifts and slept for 12 hours between shifts, hoping to capture the optimal amount of inspiration he could.

The company intended for their little side project to make use of cutting-edge technology. Although, Pokemon released near the tail end of the device’s lifespan.

Pokemon Sales Were Off to A Slow Start

The sales were a little slow out of the gate, but the ragtag team of developers were pretty clever marketers. Rare Pokemon tucked away in secret locations (such as Pikachu and Mew) would keep kids gossiping to one another about their triumphs.

Kids could battle, and kids could trade. They could take their devices anywhere and everywhere. What Game Freak had accomplished was ahead of its time. A presentation of classic Japanese tenacity and hardcore motivation in its finest form.

Game Freak exploded. They were plated to release a Yellow and Blue version, a spin-off Pokemon Stadium title for N64, and branded Pikachu Tamagotchi clones. The franchise began getting so many submissions for merchandising that board meetings would need their separate headquarters and identity. 

Ishihara was a merchandising legend, and his cohorts crowned him the King of Portable Toys – mockingly at first. One meeting after another, he headed a boardroom with utmost seriousness and precision. In 2000, his branch of Creatures Inc. became The Pokemon Company. He had truly become the King of Portable Toys.

During this heavy crunch period of the franchise’s success, Pokemon Gold and Silver were intended to be the final, ultimate edition to complete the saga. The light at the end of the tunnel. A breath of fresh air. They added so many features and managed to increase the number of creatures available on the cartridge. They added a full second region for players to explore. 

Surely, Gold and Silver would satiate the desires of their following.

I mean, it did. Perhaps a little too effectively. We all know what happened next.

The rest is history. Pokemon became the highest-grossing media franchise on the planet, estimated to be worth 92 billion dollars. 

A side project with no backers.

A handful of ragtag developers with no skills or mastery to start with.

The largest media franchise on the planet.

Remember THAT the next time someone tells you your ideas are stupid.