Since the launch of Pokémon Go, we’ve grown obsessed with finding and catching Pokémon all over again. The multimedia franchise that reigned supreme in the late ‘90s never fully went away, but it’s just returned to the forefront via an augmented reality app from Niantic and Nintendo for smartphones. A single look outside is likely to find people tracking for Butterfrees and Sandshrews.
But the app, the Nintendo games, the trading cards, the whole shebang, all goes back to one man: Satoshi Tajiri, a quiet writer turned designer who co-created Pokémon alongside childhood friend Ken Sugimori, who designed the creatures. Unlike Stan Lee or Steven Spielberg, Satoshi Tajiri’s name isn’t recognized despite his legacy on a generation, but the deceptively simple app that has the world hooked has achieved what Tajiri set out to do ever since Game Boy: Go outside.
In an interview with TIME from 1999, amidst the first Poké-mania in the west, Tajiri told of his childhood growing up collecting bugs in rural Machida, a Tokyo suburb that has since undergone heavy development. Back then, Tajiri was free to explore the dirt and grass, so he played with all the bugs he kept squashing.
“They fascinated me,” he told TIME. “Every time I found a new insect, it was mysterious to me. And the more I searched for insects, the more I found. As I gathered more and more, I’d learn about them, like how some would feed on one another. Tiny discoveries like that made me excited.”
Later in the interview, Tajiri lamented the rapid development of postwar Japan: “Places to catch insects are rare because of urbanization. Kids play inside their homes now, and a lot [have] forgotten about catching insects. When I was making games, something clicked and I decided to make a game with that concept.”
As Tajiri grew older, he almost became an entomologist, but he picked up video games, derailing that path. He became a games journalist with his indie zine, Game Freak, which later became the studio that made Pokémon. When Nintendo released the portable Game Boy, Tajiri knew it was the perfect platform for a game inspired by his buggy youth.
“The communication aspect of Game Boy … was a profound image to me. It has a communication cable. In Tetris, its first game, the cable transmitted information about moving blocks. I thought of actual living organisms moving back and forth across the cable.”
Twenty years since the first Pokémon titles were released on Game Boy, players are once again obsessed with becoming masters of a reality inhabited by super-powered critters. But all Tajiri wanted, in essence, was for kids to go outside and have fun. With the way Pokémon Go has captured the world, it looks as if that mission was accomplished.
“When you’re a kid and get your first bike, you want to go somewhere you’ve never been before,” Tajiri said in that same interview from seventeen years ago. “That’s like Pokémon. Everybody shares the same experience, but everybody wants to take it someplace else. And you can do that.”