Pikachu's Origin Story

Two years prior to the release of Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue in the United States, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green launched in Japan in 1996 for Nintendo Game Boy. It was a hit and drew many fans, especially children. The games’ popularity spread beyond Japan, and soon people around the world became familiar with the creatures known as Pokémon. Among the many Pokémon introduced, the most famous was—and still is—Pikachu.

In Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green, Pikachu appears not as one of the first partner Pokémon the main character chooses—which are Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle—but as one of the many wild Pokémon caught during the game.

What made Pikachu so popular? Certainly the fact that Pikachu is adorable is a contributing factor. But looking back on Pikachu’s original design reveals a plumper, somewhat different form than the Pikachu of today.
One of the main reasons Pikachu gained such popularity was the broadcast of the animated Pokémon TV series. Appearing as the partner Pokémon to the main character Ash, Pikachu captivated audiences with its bright yellow body and red cheeks, together with its “Pika!” cry. Pikachu’s popularity only grew, appearing not only in the Pokémon TV series but in movies as well. Pikachu now shows up in a lot more places, such as appearing at events and on many Pokémon products.
Until now, the origin of the creation of Pikachu hasn’t been told in detail. What were the ideas and stories behind the design of Pikachu when it first appeared in the games Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green?
How was the beloved Pikachu created? The secret story is finally ready to be revealed—22 years after the game’s release.

The Main Actors Behind Pikachu’s Origin Story

We spoke with three creators who developed Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green and were deeply involved with the creation of Pikachu.

Ken Sugimori
One of the founding members of GAME FREAK Inc. He was in charge of the official character design for Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green. He is currently a director at the company.
Koji Nishino
A planner for GAME FREAK Inc. His main role in the original Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green games was data design, including field maps and the appearance rate and strength of Pokémon.
Atsuko Nishida
A character designer for Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green. She currently helps with character design for the Pokémon series as a freelance illustrator.

“I want some cute ones, too!”

First of all, why haven’t you spoken before about how Pikachu was created or who designed it?

Sugimori:“The process of designing not just Pikachu but Pokémon in general was complicated, with multiple people putting their ideas together and modifying the design to create a single character. Because of this, we have always refrained from simply saying who designed which Pokémon. If we were going to talk about it, we wanted to tell the whole story in detail.”

What is involved in designing game characters?

Sugimori:“It involves not only character design but the design of the game itself. Pokémon, as its [Japanese] title ‘Pocket Monsters’ suggests, is a game in which monsters battle each other. At the time, I figured that since they were monsters, they should have a tough look, but midway through I thought, ‘I’d like some cute ones, too.’ There weren’t many designers in the company at the time and I was doing most of it, and since I was designing from the perspective of a man, I hadn’t thought of creating a cute Pokémon. That is why I asked some of our female staff, like Nishida, to join.”

What was the reason behind why you wanted not only tough Pokémon but cute ones as well?

Sugimori:“To bolster the concept that you don’t just battle Pokémon but collect and trade them as well, we had to make trading Pokémon more interesting. What kind of Pokémon would a player want when making a trade? Not everyone looks for the same thing, meaning you have to have a lot of variation. There is a limit to the number of tough-looking Pokémon one can make, so we made weird Pokémon, huge Pokémon, mechanical Pokémon...and after considering all these variations, I thought, ‘We need more cute ones.’ It wasn’t that the ones we had designed weren’t cute at all, especially when the Pokémon battled in a shrunken form. But since most of the Pokémon were monster-like, we thought we should add some cuter Pokémon, as well.”

“Its name was Gorochu.”

Did you receive any orders when creating Pikachu?

Nishida:“There were no specifications other than gameplay ones, such as it had to be Electric-type and that it would evolve twice. I designed Pikachu and Raichu based on that.”

Sugimori:“Weren’t you told to make it an Electric-type Pokémon and to make it cute?”

Nishida:“No, I wasn’t. I was told to make its final form look strong. That’s right, there was an evolved form after Raichu at the time. Its name was Gorochu. It had fangs and horns and looked like a god of thunder.”

Why was this Gorochu rejected?

Nishino:“That’s because, in the game specifications, Pikachu ended up being the kind of Pokémon that evolves only once.”

Sugimori:“There was nothing wrong with its appearance—it simply had to do with the balance within the game.”

Nishino:“There was also a problem in terms of the size of the game data. We had to save space by taking Pokémon originally designed to evolve twice and making them evolve only once. Pikachu was not one of the first three Pokémon, so it was an easy target for this kind of reduction.”

Sugimori:“Come to think of it, the one who came up with the name was Ms. Nishida.”

Nishida:“Since it was an Electric-type Pokémon, I thought ‘pika‘ [the expression of light flashing in Japanese]. For ‘chu,‘ [the “squeak” sound a mouse makes in Japanese] I wasn’t thinking of a mouse but rather chose it because it sounded good, and also because of its size, so I combined several different elements to come up with its name. Pikachu is not particularly mouse-shaped, and a Mouse Pokémon named Rattata already existed, so I actually hadn’t intended to make it a mouse.”

Sugimori:“Making Pikachu a Mouse Pokémon happened after the fact. I think Mr. Tajiri [the president of GAME FREAK], who wrote the setting text, made that decision.”

  • Satoshi Tajiri, the president of GAME FREAK Inc.

“We really would do whatever.”

By the way, who designed the first three Pokémon chosen by the main character?

Sugimori:“Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle were all designed by Ms. Nishida.”

Nishida:“I created the designs for Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle by working backward from their final forms. I wanted people to be surprised when it evolved into Charizard, so I designed the original Charmander in such a way that Charizard would be unimaginable.”

Sugimori:“The experience of keeping small animals such as frogs, lizards, and baby turtles as pets gives the game a sense of reality and makes it easier to get into the game. I realized it might be difficult to make an emotional connection if the first partner Pokémon is a tough-looking character.”

Which “cute Pokémon” were designed by Mr. Sugimori?

Sugimori:“I came up with the Pokémon Clefairy, but it is just one cute creature, and I was never really able to branch out from that.”

At the time, how many people were working on creating Pokémon?

Sugimori:“A total of three people, including professional designers and those who worked in both design and programming. They were all men. Then, Ms. Nishida joined to create a four-person team. Incidentally, the company GAME FREAK had only about 10 employees at the time.”

Nishino:“We didn’t have enough people, so job categories were all jumbled, and we really would do whatever. I would make resources within the game, and programmers would make designs, as well.”

Nishida:“There just weren’t enough people, so we’d help each other out while working on other projects, that kind of thing.”

“I was inspired.”

Under the circumstances, what did you actually do to get Pikachu to appear in the game?

Nishida:“I didn’t draw an illustration on paper, but went straight to the computer screen and punched in the dots. Using dots to create the face of this dumpling-shaped creature with no definition between its head and body! At the time, I was obsessed with squirrels. I didn’t own a squirrel, but I wanted to because I thought its movement was comical. It was here that I was inspired to make Pikachu store electricity in its cheek pouches. When hamsters store food, their entire body puffs up, but with squirrels, it’s just their cheeks.”

Sugimori:“Afterwards, Mr. Nishino started working as the ‘cuteness supervisor.‘ Mr. Nishino might not look like someone who could do this job, but he’s very particular about cuteness.”

Nishino:“I just really love cute things. With Pikachu, the name alone has a cute ring to it, doesn’t it? I came to love it more and more, and wanted it to be even cuter.”

Nishida:“Every time I would submit the design, Mr. Nishino would tell me to make it cuter, which was frustrating! I worked hard so Nishino would give me a nod of approval!”

Tell us more about the specifics of the design. Why are the tips of Pikachu’s ears black?

Nishida:“I think that is a vestige from when he was dumpling-shaped.”

Sugimori:“The Game Boy didn’t have color. That’s probably why we made coloring something that could be easily expressed in black and white.”

Pikachu has a very distinctive tail as well, doesn’t it?

Nishida:“I wanted to include some parts that expressed lightning—since Pikachu is an Electric-type—so I created this design.”

What is the pattern on its back?

Nishida:“I didn’t think that hard about it, but during Pokémon battle scenes, you always see the back of your Pokémon on the screen. That is why I figured it would be better to put something there rather than having it be perfectly smooth.”

Although Game Boy didn’t have color, when we made the official art with color based on the dot pictures, wasn’t it Mr. Sugimori who decided on the colors?

Sugimori:“Toward the end of development, we decided that the games should be compatible with a new peripheral called the Super Game Boy, which would let players play the Game Boy on their TVs. This hardware made it possible to add just one color to Pokémon, which would be black and white on the Game Boy. That is where we decided on the colors for each Pokémon—basically an attribute color that expresses the Pokémon’s type in a way that is easy to grasp. All of the official art for Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green was based off of the dot drawings, which led to the use of yellow in Pikachu’s official art.”

NEXT“I just loved Pikachu so much…”
1
2