33It´s a generational thing: visitors under the age of thirty particularly are enchanted by the colourful little monsters of the Pokémon chess game. After their debut in 1996, the main characters of this chess game, the Pokémon, changed how children experience the world forever.

Swapping creatures

Pokémon, or pocket monsters, is originally a video game for the Gameboy pocket computer, from the Japanese producer Nintendo. In the game, the player is a trainer who travels the world of Pokémon to catch and train little monsters. These wild little creatures hide in a virtual, natural landscape of forests, fields, water and caves. The trainer collects as many different little monsters as possible and lets them compete against other Pokémon. By winning, the tiny monsters become stronger and the player improves as a trainer. The goal is to become champion of all trainers and to collect and categorise all of the little creatures.

Classifying Pokémon is an essential part of the game, and this is what sets it apart from other video games. Each monster has its strengths and weaknesses because of the type of element to which it belongs. For example, a fire type Pokémon will lose from a water type monster, because water extinguishes fire. The game is not as much about the fight – Pokémon can´t die -, as it is about the evolution of the monsters after winning a battle.


Pokémon Pikachu

In the first Pokémon game for the Gameboy, two players connected their devices with a cable so they could exchange their little creatures. There were 151 monsters of all shapes and sizes to catch and train. By now, there are almost 500 monsters and Pokémon is mainly played on the latest game consoles.

In addition to all kinds of related games, such as the Pokémon chess game, there is the ever popular Pokémon card game. The players can have the little monsters on the Pokémon cards play against each other to find out who is the best trainer.

After Nintendo released the computer game in 1996 (in Japan, Europe followed in 1999), the game was an instant hit and the animated series was released a year later. In this series, viewers follow the young Pokémon trainer, Ash, on his adventures to become a Pokémon master. Ash´s little friend Pikachu, a yellow, hamster-like creature, plays an important part in the series. This little monster doesn´t really stand out from the other ones, but because of the animated series, Pikachu has become the ultimate symbol of Pokémon. It is not without reason that he represents the King in the Pokémon chess game.

Childhood memories

The special element of collecting and classifying monsters has its origins in the childhood memories of the Japanese creator and designer of the game, Satoshi Tajiri. He was born in 1965 and grew up in a suburb southwest of Tokyo. When Tajiri was in elementary school, there were no paved roads in his neighbourhood. There was plenty of nature and on his way to school the boy walked through woods, past rice fields and had to cross a winding stream.

Pokémon Poliwag

Tajiri’s favourite pastime was collecting and studying insects. He would later use his discoveries to develop the characteristics of the Pokémon. The Poliwag monster, for example, is modelled after the tadpoles (polliwogs) that lived in the pools of the rice fields. The young Tajiri had often caught them and studied them closely. He was especially intrigued by the tadpoles´ organs, which were clearly visible because of their translucent bodies. And just like a real tadpole, Poliwag can evolve into the toad-like monster called Politoed.

Modern advancements reached the outskirts of Tokyo and by the time Tajiri was in high school, terraced houses replaced the forests and rice fields, and the winding little river was dammed. All of nature´s play areas were gone. At the time, Tajiri didn’t mind much, because he had found a new hobby: computer games. He forgot about nature and his insect collection, but in the early 1990s, when he was already a professional game designer, his childhood memories surfaced. He saw two children playing against each other with their new Gameboys and it occurred to him to have the kids collect virtual insects and exchange them via the connection cable. Pokémon was born. In theory that is, because it took years for Tajiri´s idea to become a real game.

Game Freak

In his teens, gaming enthusiast Tajiri used to create a handwritten magazine full of gaming tips called Game Freak. He photocopied his work and distributed it. One of the magazine´s avid readers, Ken Sugimori, visited Tajiri and the boys became friends. They started writing the magazine together, with Sugimori taking care of the drawings. He would eventually draw all 151 of the little monsters from the first Pokémon game. The boys´ magazine became more professional, but they wanted to do more than just write about games: they wanted to design them themselves.

On 26 April 1989, they founded a video game company of the same name, Game Freak. A few years later, Tajiri spoke to Nintendo about his insect-inspired idea and Game Freak was given the opportunity to develop the game. Due to the complexity of the Pokémon world and all the different features of all the little monsters, it took them six years to complete the game.

Tajiri was afraid that the idea of collecting little creatures would not appeal to young people who lived in the urban areas and who didn´t really know about insects, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Once it hit the shops, Japanese schoolchildren were worshipping the game in no time and the rest of the Western world followed suit. And that explains the happy faces near the showcase where the Pokémon chess game is on display!

By Marjolein Overmeer