Ask any stranger off the street to name a Pokémon, and chances are they’ll come up with Pikachu. Since 1996, Pikachu has been the smiling face you see on Pokémon merchandise, alongside Ash in the television show, and in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
But what exactly went down when designing Pikachu? Did the game designers at Game Freak know that they had a hit on their hands?
In a recent interview, three of the main creative forces behind Pikachu’s design — Game Freak co-founder Ken Sugimori, character designer Atsuko Nishida, and game designer Koji Nishino — talked about some of the inspiration behind the beloved Pokémon.
Pikachu was specifically designed to be cute, Sugimori said, according to a translation of the interview. While Pokémon were originally envisioned to be more “tough-looking” overall, a few people in the company expressed desire for cuter Pokémon. Sugimori was unsure of how to approach a cute design since he was coming at it from a “boy’s perspective,” so he turned to the women in the company — specifically Nishida — for ideas on cuter designs.
Nishida wasn’t even on the Pokémon team at first; she was actually working on character designs for a Mega Drive game. After switching over to the Pokémon team, she was given the vague outline to design an “electric type” with “two evolutions.”
Nishida says that the original design was done directly in pixel art and resembled a daifuku (a mochi rice cake filled with sweet filling) with ears sticking out of it.
Pikachu’s electricity-holding cheeks were inspired by squirrels, says Nishida. Its yellow coloring (not present in the original Red/Blue/Green games) was chosen because of the electric motif, and also because it was a naturally compliment to the red-green-blue colorings of the first-generation starter Pokémon.
Originally, there was another evolution for Pikachu in addition to Raichu. The second evolution was known as Gorochu and had fangs and little horns, but was scrapped to keep a balance within the game.
Nishida collaborated with Nishino on the design. He sent it back a few times, telling her to “make [it] even cuter.” Nishino (who was actually the real-life inspiration for Snorlax) became the overseer of cute Pokémon designs.
In fact, Nishino was so attached to Pikachu’s design that he purposefully made Pikachu harder to find in-game. His plan backfired, though, since Pikachu’s rarity only made it more popular amongst players.
Pikachu’s name, meanwhile, came from “Pika-Pika,” which is a Japanese onomatopoeia for glittering and shining, and “chu,” which is akin to a mouse squeak.
Sugimori attributes Pikachu’s biggest break in popularity to the anime. It was a very deliberate decision to have Pikachu as Ash’s (Satoshi’s) partner Pokémon.
“In the game you choose one of Squirtle, Charmander, and Bulbasaur, but if Satoshi chose one of those three as his partner [in the anime] it would’ve created a gap with the kids who didn’t pick that Pokémon,” said Sugimori.
The team also theorized that Pikachu’s simplistic and appealing design is what makes it a fan favorite. Indeed, the love of Pikachu has spanned 22 years and seven generations of Pokémon — and will hopefully continue on for more.
“There’s just something nice about talking to people about Pikachu and how easily they understand,” said Sugimori.