Behind the scenes at Pokémon

Mitsuhiro Arita first began illustrating for Pokémon over two decades ago. He talks to Diane Smyth about his part in helping to create the look and feel of the Pokémon world and why the company still favours a hand-drawn aesthetic

The Pokémon Company is huge – in fact it’s the highest-grossing media franchise of all time. A Japanese consortium between game developers Nintendo, Game Freak, and Creatures Inc, its outlets now cover video games, a trading card game, an anime TV series, toys, films, books, music, and a theme park. It’s the world’s top-selling toy brand; it’s also the top trading card game on the globe.

But it wasn’t always like that. When The Pokemon Company executive director Satoshi Tajiri first came up with the concept in around 1989, he was inspired by a simple childhood love of insect collecting. The idea went through several changes and a name change but in essence remains the same – the Pokémon are ‘pocket monsters’, which players collect and train then pit against each tother. The first video game, Pokémon Red and Green, was released in Japan in 1996 on the Game Boy; the anime TV series was first broadcast on TV Tokyo in 1997. The trading card game – Pokémon TCG – was first published in Japan in 1996 and was later released in North America in 1998.

So when Mitsuhiro Arita joined Creatures Inc in 1996 as a contract artist on the Pokémon TCG, it was very early days – in fact the computer game hadn’t yet been released, and the company had less than 20 employees (it now has about 90 artists working on Pokémon TCG). And while the characteristics of the first Pokémon had already been worked out, for example their heights and relative strengths and weaknesses, the existing designs consisted of grayscale pixel art from the emergent game. This gave Arita-san a lot of leeway to invent the look and feel of the Pokémon and their world.