When the Gameboy titles “Pocket Monsters: Red” and “Pocket Monsters: Green” were first released in Japan in 1996, few could have predicted what came next.
The concept was simple enough: Players would traverse a fictional world capturing, training and battling the creatures that inhabited it — a mission encapsulated in the game’s famous slogan, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All.” But within just a few years, Pokémon, a portmanteau of the Japanese name “Poketto Monsuta,” was a global phenomenon.
By 1999, the game had launched in multiple Western markets, later becoming one of the most successful franchises of all time. It spawned an anime series, which was translated into over 30 languages, and trading cards that swept the world’s playgrounds during the “Pokémania” of the late 1990s.
It also imprinted the identities of 151 entirely fictional characters into the memories of millions.
Japanese children participate in a Pokémon card game tournament in 1999. Credit: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images
A quarter of a century on, many first-generation Pokémon are as recognizable to millennials as they are to their children. This is partly thanks to a post-2016 revival inspired by the mobile game “Pokémon Go” and movie “Detective Pikachu.” But the franchise’s success is about more than clever marketing — it is the result of unique characters that were universal enough to cross cultures and diverse enough to make catching ’em all a challenge, not a chore.
Their origins trace back to Pokémon’s creator Tajiri Satoshi, whose childhood love of collecting bugs inspired a game with a strikingly similar premise. Most of the individual designs were, however, the work of illustrator Ken Sugimori.
Sugimori had worked with Tajiri on the magazine Game Freak, which would eventually grow into the games company behind Pokémon. As the firm’s art director, he brought his collaborator’s vision to life through a complex and imaginative taxonomy, complete with individual lines of evolution and fictional genuses, like grass- or dragon-type Pokémon.
Bulbasaur, one of the most recognizable Pokémon from the first generation. Credit: Courtesy The Pokemon Company
Giving the characters distinct personalities was always going to be difficult. Even with an accompanying TV series, most were only able to utter their own names repeatedly. Their appearances, therefore, were especially important.
“Along with Tamagotchi, the narrative was that you’re caring for them,” Tobin said in a video interview. “You care for them so they grow up, and kids can identify with getting stronger. But then you also care for them by (making sure they) don’t die. It was unusual to have this in a battle game … it took some of the features of war and then combined them with nurturance.”
Squirtle, a light-blue turtle. Credit: Courtesy The Pokemon Company
The cutesy Squirtle (top) evoled into Wortortle and, eventually, Blastoise (bottom). Credit: Courtesy The Pokemon Company
This juxtaposition was reflected in the designs, which were at once both cute and fierce — or, through the process of evolution, morphed from cute to…