Pokémon’s actual creators take a moment to remind us that it’s not Nintendo who’s crafting Pikachu and his pals’ video game adventures.
So imagine you’re a creative professional. You started working at your company 30 years ago, the very same year the company was founded, but it took seven long years before you and your coworkers produced a bona fide hit. After that, you kept making hits, and that breakout title from 1996 launched what’s now one of the most popular media franchises not just in your home country, but on the entire planet. Each and every new installment is something that fans of all ages look forward to with excitement, and the joy they bring on release day is comparable to a national holiday. You’d probably feel pretty good about yourself?
Sure, but if you’re Junichi Masuda, the primary producer of the Pokémon video game franchise, all that success comes with just a twinge of sadness, because even after decades of beloved titles, hardly anyone knows the name of his company.
“Hold up,” you might be thinking. “’Hardly anyone’ knows the name of Nintendo, one of the most famous companies in the world? And you’re saying Nintendo, which I know from reading SoraNews24 has been in business since the 19th century, was founded in 1989? Casey, have you been drinking on the job, AGAIN?”
I assure you, though, that for today’s work shift, I’m not drunk. However, if you, like almost everyone Masuda talks to, thinks the Pokémon games are made by Nintendo, you’re not correct.
In a recent chat with fellow Pokémon development staff members Hiroyuki Tani and Takano Unno, Masuda (who’s wearing a white, short-sleeved T-shirt) laments the fact that so few people know, or remember, that the Pokémon video games are made by a company called Game Freak, which began life as a self-published video game fanzine in 1989.
“I’ve asked about 200 people ‘What company do you think makes Pokémon?’, and almost 100 percent of them say ‘Nintendo,’” recalls Masuda in the video. “Since Pokémon first came out, people have said ‘It’s a Nintendo game,’ so I think, ‘I’ve got to make Game Freak better known.’”
▼ “Even now, people think I’m a Nintendo employee,” says Masuda, causing Unno to burst out laughing.
The confusion stems from the fact that while Game Freak is the software developer for the mainline Pokémon games, i.e. the company that decides what’s going to be in the games and does the programming, Nintendo is the games’ publisher, the company that physically produces and sells the copies of the game that get shipped to retailers. So when people see the Nintendo logo proudly displayed on the box of every Pokémon game, many of them assume that Pokémon must be a series that Nintendo develops in-house, like Super Mario or The Legend of Zelda, franchises which are both developed and published by Nintendo.
“Pokémon is made by Nintendo” isn’t the only misconception that Masuda runs into either. “Even now, people think I’m a Nintendo employee,” he says, and he also mentions that when he goes to visit his parents’ house, sometimes kids in the neighborhood think they recognize the famous video game creator. “’Hey! Isn’t that Masuda?’ they’ll say to their parents, and the doubting parents will say ‘What would someone from Nintendo come all the way here from Kyoto for?’” In truth, though, Game Freak’s offices are in Setagaya Ward, on the southwest edge of downtown Tokyo, and not such a particularly long train ride from Masuda’s hometown of Yokohama.
Unno and Tani run into similar misunderstandings. “Relatives will ask me, ‘Hey, can you get me a discount on Nintendo hardware?” Unno shares, to which Tani quickly agrees “Yeah, they do that to me too!” “So I have to tell them, ‘Umm, I don’t work for Nintendo’” Unno says.
But for al the strained smiles and rueful laughs, Masuda doesn’t seem too steamed about Game Freak’s lack of name-recognition when Pokémon comes up. “If people don’t play the games we make, then I feel like the game-making process isn’t complete,” he explains. “Making a game, having people play it, and them thinking it’s fun: that’s the best combination,” he says, likening the process to cooking delicious dinner being far more satisfying when others eat it and tell you how much they enjoyed it instead of just eating it yourself.
Still, next time you fire up a Pokémon game, like maybe this fall when Pokémon Sword and Shield debut on the Nintendo Switch, remember that if you’re metaphorically thinking “This is great! My compliments to the chef,” it was Game Freak that did the cooking.
Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’s always happy to eat Pikachu’s cooking.