From Manga Artist To Game Designer: Ken Sugimori’s Work Before Pokémon

By Sato . June 5, 2014 . 5:33pm


Ken Sugimori is best known as the character designer and art director for Pokémon, but have you ever wondered what he did before that? In a recently released art book of his, titled Ken Sugimori Works, Sugimori shares stories about his work with Game Freak and life before Pokémon.


Game Freak started out as a group of amateurs in the business of publishing gaming magazines in the ’80s. At the time, Satoshi Tajiri, who would go on to create Pokémon, was in charge of the editorials and Ken Sugimori handled the illustrations.



It wasn’t until after Game Freak’s release of the 1989 action puzzle game Mendel Palace, which they co-developed, that they became a full-fledged company. However, prior to this, Sugimori says he had other work going on during his early days working at Game Freak.


“While working on game graphics for the company, I was still working on drawing manga,” Sugimori shares in an interview in the book, “namely Mendel Palace for the ‘Famicom Hisso-bon’ and Jerry Boy for the ‘Family Computer Magazine’.”


Following this was his work contributing illustrations for The Adventure of Valkyrie Gaiden: Two Goddess. At this point in time, Sugimori was not considered a regular staff member of Game Freak. Sugimori explains that the reason for this is that, at the time, he still wanted to remain a manga artist.


He’s then asked in the interview if he just eventually gave up on being a manga artist to become an official staff member of Game Freak to develop videogames at the company.


“Yes, well, I didn’t exactly just give it up,” responds Sugimori. “While I had my regrets of living the lifestyle of a manga artist, I honestly also felt that I was at my limit. On the other hand, it was really fun working at Game Freak. Apparently, the president was waiting for this time to come, and after two years since the founding of the company, he asked again, ‘how would you like to become an employee?’”


From there on out, Sugimori not only worked as a game designer, but he also worked as a director, starting with a Magical Taluluto game for the Sega Mega Drive.



“At the time, we were in talks with the folks at Sega for various projects,” recalls Sugimori. “They asked what would Game Freak like to do. We had various choices, one of which used a certain fast food chain’s character, a Phantasy Star sequel, and more. Out of all those, partially because I was reading the manga at the time, we decided to go with Magical Taluluto.”


According to the interviewer, the staff members got a scolding from the company president when they voiced their displeasure at having to make a character-based game. Sugimori explains that, at the time, character games were very common and not many of them were great.


However, he used that as the motivation to continue on in this direction to make a great character game.



The opening Sega voice chime was also one of the extra efforts Sugimori and the rest of Game Freak put into the game, as they actually got the voice actress for Taluluto to record it, which was quite a feat at the time.


Finally, Sugimori brings up the Pokémon franchise.


“Two years after Pulseman, Pokémon Red and Green were released, and thankfully, it was a big hit, and I’ve continued working on [Pokémon] since,” says Sugimori.


“While it is a thing of joy, I’ve also had feeling of occlusion. If I were to continue drawing for Pokémon, I’m sure it’d bring a sense of peace and security, but I also wonder what would happen if I were to do something completely different.”


“When I draw illustrations for Pokémon, I am highly evaluated, but for example, if I were to start something from scratch, then perhaps this would be a true way to personally evaluate myself? Well, so I say, but in the end, I’ve realized that it’s not that big of a deal,” Sugimori concludes with a laugh.

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  • Landale

    Phantasy Star, with his art style. That would have been something to see.

    • GH56734

      Every game made by Game Freaks had some gameplay quirk that made it completely original.
      For a well-established series like Phantasy Star, I doubt Sega would give them too much liberties to rework the battle system (and the final version of IV was back to the series root in fact).
      I understand why they would prefer to work on something more original, even if the “what could have been” hurts

      This article is a gem, btw.

      • Landale

        The original Phantasy Stars had plenty of gameplay quirks themselves for the time. Some simply intended to have been used though never actually making it, and some that actually made it into the games. I really doubt Sega would have had a problem with them doing quirky things with it.

    • ragnatic

      You might like this then.

  • Bunzi

    This guy always has been one of my favorite illustrators – his style has gotten distinct and his character design, Pokemon and humans included, are some of the most diverse and interesting in the industry, at least for me.

    I’d love to see him branch out and design for other series, sometime.

  • Shippoyasha

    Now I’m really curious what his manga could’ve been like. And of course, another story of Sega dropping the ball with Phantasy Star.

    • I’d love it if we got a proper V. Phantasy Star IV is my absolute favorite RPG. It’s a good adventure and has more personality than any RPG I’ve ever played.

  • I am familiar with Mendel Palace and Jerry Boy from watching Arino playing it on Retro Game Master, but sort of clueless on the others besides Pokemon.

    • I just watched that ep the other day, actually. They also did an interview with Sugimori in another ep.

      • I just finished up watching a few day and Jerry Boy was one of them. I did remember seeing that he did an interview, but probably have to search for it up on SAGCXX, since the dailymotion channel that had it has nearly all of its videos removed.

        • You should probably just check for batches or, better, look at SA-GCCX’s website. That’ll make it easier for you unless you HAVE to have everything streamed. :P

          • Did like it that way, but using SA-GCCX is fine, too. Still haven’t seen a lot of the early episodes so it works out fine for me ^^

  • ShawnOtakuSomething

    no one remembers pulseman? but Rotom

    • Landale

      I remember Pulseman. Fun game, hard as hell at points, and probably a good way to give yourself a seizure on some levels.
      I was just very distracted by the mental image of Phantasy Star with the art style.

    • GH56734

      Bushi Seriyuuden and the two Jelly Boy games (especially the cancelled yet leaked sequel) were awesome.
      There’s a puzzle game for the PS1, and a PC-Engine puzzle game about giving directions to a monkey to get food without being trapped à la Wario&Wario/Pacman 2 that literally nobody remembers.

      I think Sugimori had the pink haired girl from Pulseman as his Twitter avatar too

    • Mar Mar

      I’ll never forget Pulseman, the Megaman of Sega!!!

    • MaskedHeroxx

      Explain the photo for me…in to young to know

    • flint

      Don’t you mean Ledian and Bisharp?

      • Landale

        There’s actually a lot of things in Pokemon inspired by Pulseman, both the character and the game itself. Volt Tackle, or in the game’s delightful bit of engrish, Volteccer turns him into a tiny orange ball surrounded by electricity and enables him to get inside machines. Rotom and the Pikachu line’s signature move right there.

        • flint

          I’m really going to have to go back and play it someday. If I recall correctly a lot of the music in Diamond/Pearl/Platinum are inspired by Pulseman too. The Fast ball looks like Pulseman’s helmet too.

          • Landale

            Those seem to be the most Pulseman inspired. Team Galactic/Galaxy Gang, Mars is pretty similar visually to Pulseman’s assistant, drawing a blank on her name, Charon apparently looks a bit like an older Waruyama, Barry’s theme uses a bit of Neo Tokyo’s music, it’s where Rotom first showed up.

    • Kari

      I see Megaman man Zero

  • TruSpindash

    I love Sugimori’s art style. When he put out that piece of artwork for Smash Bros., seeing other videogame characters in his style made me realized how much I would love to see him do more games outside of Pokemon.

    • Zero_Destiny

      That’s one of my favorites! ^^

    • I will never ever get over his Peach for this. I adore his Peach.

      Gimme a Mario game with Sugimori art.

    • Slickyslacker

      He truly captured the soul of Smash, in this piece.

      It’s as though he’s drawn each character a million times over, even if he’s only done so with a few of them.

    • NTaiyokun


      • Göran Isacson

        Funny part is that seems to be a recent development. Looking back on his old style, there’s a lot more cubes going on.

    • Snorlaxation

      Breathtaking. I love this image.

    • [S]unjay

      Princess Peach looks so good in this picture.

  • urbanscholar

    I know this is about his work before pokemon. However his art has a subtle, youthful vibe to it. I love it

  • Lemski07

    why do he need his other works when his pokemon work royalties is like printing moneh

    • Landale

      Because he did things before Pokemon, which is what this is about. Because only doing one thing is a pretty good way to hate the thing.

  • Hinataharem

    I remember he was the first Japanese name I ever learned in my life, thanks to it being printed on the bottom of some Pokemon cards

  • Hadrain Onnion

    I like him so much XD

  • Black Is a Status

    Love that original pokemon artwork

  • DoctorButler

    Never really liked Pokemon, but I love Sugimori’s style, it evokes a great deal of personality.

    • GOLD

      JK your entilted to your own opinion.

  • Higashi no Ame 東の雨

    I actually bought his artbook yesterday and I was ‘what the~’ when I read this article today.

  • Göran Isacson

    Oooh, that Magical Laluwhatever game! A friend of mine actually owns that, I’ve seen him play it… had no idea that was Game Freak.

  • chroma816

    I definitely appreciate his old stuff, and the change around gen 3 was very nice – a great transitional point – but his new art style is fantastic.

    • flint

      He seemed to almost copy Akira Yoriyama in terms of monster design before that point.

      • chroma816

        True, but he ended up developing a very personal art style that you know is his immediately when you see a pic.

  • Ric Vazquez

    All hail Sugimori

  • 60hz

    i love Magical Taluluto one of my all time faves…

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