Somehow, after writing on this blog for nearly 10 years(!!!) and having reviews of individual Pokémon be a pretty big part of my schtick, I’ve never actually talked in depth about Pikachu – the beloved mascot, the one Pokémon everyone knows, even people who have never played a Pokémon game or seen an episode of the TV show; heck, I’d wager there are people who don’t even know what a Pokémon is who’d recognise Pikachu. But no more, for I have been commanded by the mysterious cloaked figures of my Dark Council to write next about the most famous Pokémon of all. So… what exactly is Pikachu’s deal, anyway? Where did it come from, and what makes the design so effective? Whence Pikachu? Read on, as we delve into the history of Pokémon’s favourite child.
I think it’s a fairly well-known bit of trivia now that Pikachu wasn’t really meant to be Pokémon’s mascot. If you go back to the very first games, the Japanese Red and Green or the international releases Red and Blue, or indeed to promotional materials from that era, Pikachu doesn’t really have any special prominence. This changes with the release of Yellow Version, which diverges from Red and Blue in giving the player Pikachu as a starter Pokémon. Yellow also trialled an early version of Gold and Silver’s “friendship” mechanics, just for the partner Pikachu, and made several other minor changes aimed at more closely reflecting the story of the Pokémon anime, which is where Pikachu’s prominence really started. But even that happened pretty organically: according to Junichi Masuda, the writers of the Pokémon anime chose Pikachu to be Ash’s partner because they knew Pikachu was already popular with kids who had played the game, which had happened without Game Freak ever deliberately doing anything to make it the face of the brand.
The first drafts of the Pokémon anime supposedly gave Ash a Clefairy as his partner Pokémon instead of Pikachu. In this, it would have followed the first serialised Pokémon manga, simply titled Pokémon: Pocket Monsters, in which the main character, Red, has a Clefairy as his partner. I don’t think we know exactly why the change was made. You can plausibly suggest that someone thought Pikachu would have more gender-balanced appeal than the “girly” Clefairy, but honestly Pocket Monsters had no difficulty making Clefairy a loud, crude and annoying slapstick comic, so I’m not sure that actually holds water (personally I also think Clefairy would have been a great fit for the Pokémon anime’s zany sense of humour). Wikipedia offers a couple of unconvincing explanations, including that “…yellow is a primary color and easier for children to recognize from a distance, and … the only other competing yellow mascot at the time was Winnie-the-Pooh,” and then just… cites a 2002 academic article which does not say or even imply that, so I think someone literally just made it up? All we have to fall back on is that Pikachu was popular from the start, and apparently more so than Clefairy, despite both of them getting similar attention in early promotional material and both of them being rare Pokémon from the early chapters of the games. Pikachu seems to have earned its popularity pretty honestly, just by being legitimately one of the most appealing Pokémon of generation I.
Koji Nishino, who designed a lot of the physical world of the original Pokémon games, has spoken about trying to hide Pikachu, make it rare because he loved it and wanted it to be special, a Pokémon that not everyone had – a plan that “completely backfired.” Pikachu was the games’ first ever “rare Pokémon,” which gives it a special mystique of sorts – and here I think I can, for once, speak with something resembling authority, since I actually did play Blue Version as a child not long after its international release in 1998. After encountering Pidgey and Rattata on the way out of Pallet Town, then Spearow and Nidoran out to the west of Viridian City, we come to Viridian Forest and meet Caterpie, Weedle… and Pikachu. There are some differences between the two versions of the game – male Nidoran and Weedle are rare on Blue, while female Nidoran and Caterpie are rare on Red, but between the two versions, you can find all of them easily. Pikachu is the first ever Pokémon that seems really difficult to get, with an encounter rate of something like 5%. It’s also only the second Pokémon, after your starter, with the cool elemental powers that the games promise; up until that point, everything you’ve met is literally just a rat, or a bird, or a worm (or Nidoran). Bear in mind, as well, that in the early games most Pokémon have very limited movepools compared to what we’re now used to, and a lot of them are limited to only Normal attacks for a surprisingly long time (even Pidgey’s Gust is Normal-type in generation I!). Unless you take the time to evolve a Caterpie, Pikachu is likely to be your second Pokémon with special attacks. Using its electrical powers to fry bird Pokémon will be one of your earliest introductions to the game’s type advantage mechanics, especially since you’ll only have used Normal moves in your first battle with the rival character. Its Thunder Wave is probably your first move that reliably inflicts a status effect. Catching and using a Pikachu feels good in those early games; it’s rare and special and it can do a lot of things that pull you into the deeper mechanics and strategy of the game from a relatively early point.
We know a bit about Pikachu’s creation from a 2018 interview in the Tokyo-based newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun (pokemon.com also has an English page published a couple of months later that covers most of the same material), featuring Pokémon’s art director Ken Sugimori, game designer Koji Nishino and freelance artist Atsuko Nishida, who designed Pikachu. Nishida had worked with Game Freak before and was brought onto the Pokémon team specifically to add some “cuter” Pokémon to the roster – at the time, all three people working on Pokémon designs were men, and Sugimori was worried that they weren’t creating enough characters that would appeal to girls. To say that this decision paid off would be something of an understatement: as well as the universally-beloved Pikachu, Atsuko Nishida designed all three of the first-generation starter Pokémon, as well as my favourite Pokémon, Vileplume (among others). According to Nishida, her original design for Pikachu was meant to look like a long daifuku: a rounded, doughy mochi, or rice cake, with a sweet filling (traditionally red bean paste). This design obviously changed quite a bit between Nishida’s first pixel drawing (which does not survive) and Sugimori’s final watercolours, but even so, Pikachu clearly retained a lot of the original design’s roundness and plumpness in its early incarnations.
I’m far from the first to observe that Pikachu gets substantially less thicc starting around generation III, with a longer and thinner body and a more clearly-defined neck. According to Sugimori this was a conscious change, aimed at giving the animators of the TV show more freedom to have Pikachu use human-like gestures and expressions (and you can see the anime start to move in this direction even over the course of the Kanto series). There’s kind of a rock-and-a-hard-place aspect to this shift. I like Thiccachu and don’t think that looking more human necessarily improves the design. On the other hand, kids’ animation with animals as major characters invariably anthropomorphises them to make them more relatable, and I’m not sure what the optimal solution to this is, when you’re dealing with a kids’ series whose main draw is its huge variety of fantasy creatures, most of whom are not particularly anthropomorphic. I also can’t help but see Pichu – who, as it stands, is just “Pikachu, but smaller” – as a missed opportunity to bring back the plump daifuku concept. Sure, it might have looked a little “in-training Digimon,” but restoring the original design would have been a cool way of making Pichu more distinct from Pikachu.
“Pika” is both the Japanese onomatopoeia for a flash of light and, by what I honestly think is sheer coincidence, the name of an adorable mouse-like animal (actually related closely to rabbits) native to alpine regions throughout Eurasia and North America. According to Atsuko Nishida, the -chu ending (which is the Japanese onomatopoeia for a mouse’s squeak) was not chosen because she was particularly aiming for Pikachu to be mouse-like, but only because it sounded good for a small, cute creature. Like many rodents, Pikachu are intelligent and social – I think this is an aspect of the design that later Pokémon games and other media chose to emphasise because of Pikachu’s already emerging superstar status, not a root cause of its popularity, but it’s certainly a good quality for a character who is meant to be cute and relatable. Pikachu live in large groups, whose collective electrical fields can cause lightning storms. They know how to “cook” berries and nuts with electrical sparks, and they’re cautious but curious, which is really exactly what you want in a companion for what is, ultimately, a scientific factfinding mission.
Pikachu’s prominent cheeks, which are also the location of its electrical organs, were supposed to be evocative of a squirrel. Not all animals have cheeks – they’re only a “standard feature” for primates and rodents (there’s also a long-running debate about whether some kinds of plant-eating dinosaurs might had had cheeks). They’re incredibly useful for foraging prey animals, because you can stuff a whole lot of food into them that you don’t necessarily have time to chew, and just deal with it later. Everything we know about Pikachu, who is shy and jumpy in the wild and relies heavily on speed to evade attackers, suggests that it’s just the kind of Pokémon that would make good use of an adaptation like that. Pikachu’s tail is obviously supposed to be a lightning bolt, but to me it also makes a lot of sense if we think of Pikachu as a squirrel rather than a mouse. Mice have thin, hairless, cordlike tails, while squirrels have visually prominent bushy tails that they often hold in distinctive S-shaped curves, comparable to the Z-shape of Pikachu’s lightning bolt tail. Even a squirrel’s ears are longer and more pointed than those of a mouse. Nishida has said that Pikachu’s brown stripes were added mainly to give more visual interest to its back sprite, and that she wasn’t thinking about much more than that when she put them in, but even so… well they remind me a little bit of a chipmunk’s stripes, and chipmunks are members of the squirrel family.
So… I guess my spicy hot take for this article is that, in spite of its Pokédex species designation as “the Mouse Pokémon,” Pikachu has never been a mouse and is clearly a squirrel.
I wasn’t expecting that either, but it looks like that’s where we are.
Pikachu also originally had a third evolutionary stage, following on after Raichu: Gorochu, who, as described in that same interview by Nishida, “had fangs and horns and looked like a god of thunder.” Only last year, we got a partial look at Gorochu from a back sprite unearthed in a leaked beta version of Pokémon: Red and Green that was analysed by the fan website Helix Chamber. There are now a couple of pieces of fanart floating around the internet that imagine what a fully-realised Gorochu design might have looked like, and you can read more on everything we know about it here. Gorochu was one of many designs cut from the final game because of the extremely limited memory space on a GameBoy cartridge (Mew, notoriously, was slipped into the final game at the last minute by Shigeki Morimoto using the sliver of extra space that was freed up after they took out the debugging tools; this is the kind of economising that was in play here). Because Pikachu is now part of a three-stage line with Pichu, it seems unlikely this concept will ever be revived (if there were ever a moment to do it, Mega or Giga Raichu would have been that moment). Sugimori also cited “balance” as reason for leaving out Gorochu, but this seems like an offhand comment and I’m not sure whether he means the same thing as we do, when we talk about “game balance.” From context, it seems to me like he’s talking more about the “balance” of two- and three-stage Pokémon and the “balance” of which kinds of Pokémon appear in which areas, not about Gorochu being in some way overpowered. Raichu isn’t a very strong Pokémon in generation I, and I don’t think a pure stat increase would put it over the top; that would take some additions to its movepool to give it some way of taking down gen I’s big Rock/Ground-types like Rhydon (maybe they were planning for Gorochu to get Earthquake?). But since we seem to have gotten to that point of the review, let’s talk a bit about how to actually use Pikachu.
The sensible assumption to make about using Pikachu in battle would be that you shouldn’t. Pikachu’s evolved form, Raichu, has higher stats all around, and Pikachu isn’t a good candidate for using an Eviolite because its base defence stats are paper-thin (they were buffed slightly in X and Y, but you still can’t rely on Pikachu to tank anything). All that is… not untrue; Pikachu is definitely a weird choice for any Pokémon team and very tricky to use effectively. However, by virtue of its mascot status, Pikachu has picked up a few special tricks over the years that make it a little more punchy than its raw numbers suggest. The most important of these is the Light Ball: an item introduced all the way back in Gold and Silver, which Pikachu can hold to double its attack and special attack stats. In theory, this makes its power comparable to crazy legendary Pokémon like Reshiram and Zekrom; in practice, Pikachu is a bit weaker because it can’t use additional items like a Life Orb to get further boosts, but that’s still pretty good for an unevolved early-game Pokémon based on a lemon mochi. A Light Ball makes Pikachu into a truly absurd glass cannon – it will die if hit by almost any attack whatsoever, and its speed is above average though not particularly exciting, but all of its attacks are utterly devastating. You can occasionally get a Light Ball from a wild Pikachu in most games where they appear (but unfortunately not in Fire Red and Leaf Green, where it would arguably be overpowered at the start of the game). Pikachu has a decent, but not amazing, movepool to back up those inflated attack stats: Thunderbolt, Surf, Grass Knot and Volt Switch on the special side (Surf and Grass Knot are especially useful because they make Pikachu a risky switch-in for most Ground-types); Play Rough, Brick Break and Body Slam on the physical side. Smogon has a Pikachu set with Extremespeed, which is certainly a solid move for Pikachu considering its fragility, but I think it’s only available from a single Black and White-era event distribution, and I don’t believe it’s possible to pass the move on to another Pikachu by breeding, so… that’s a pretty exclusive option (there have been a lot of event distributions of special Pikachu over the years, many with special moves – some, like Surf, have since been added to Pikachu’s modern standard movepool; others have not). And then… there’s Volt Tackle.
Volt Tackle is Pikachu’s second special little trick, an exclusive egg move, first available in Diamond and Pearl, that you can only get on Pichu by breeding a Pikachu holding a Light Ball. Volt Tackle is an electrical Double Edge, a ruthless onslaught of Electric-type physical damage that Pikachu pays for with some of its own HP. Only Zekrom has reliable access to a physical Electric attack of comparable power, so this is another way for Pikachu to set itself apart, and if you’re going to use Pikachu, Volt Tackle is a big part of the payoff. Pikachu does have support moves as well, including Wish, Thunder Wave, Reflect, Light Screen, Encore and Electric Terrain, but a Pokémon as fragile as Pikachu has absolutely no business pausing to use them when it has so much sheer power on tap. The one exception is Nasty Plot, and even that seems like a risky choice on a Pokémon that is, itself, already a risky choice. Fake Out is also on its list, and while its applications are pretty limited (it’s basically just a little bit of free damage on the turn you switch in), Pikachu is just the kind of Pokémon to appreciate an extra hit to bring a target into range of a Thunderbolt or Volt Tackle one-shot.
The partner Pikachu that you receive in Let’s Go Pikachu is an entirely different beast. Let’s Go doesn’t let Pokémon hold items, so there’s no Light Ball, but this is one Pikachu that doesn’t need it. It has better stats all-around than a normal Pikachu, especially in speed, attack and special attack, and it has multiple powerful signature moves acquired from move tutors in major cities throughout Kanto – not as many as the partner Eevee from Let’s Go Eevee, but enough to add a lot of versatility. Pika Papow, an Electric-type special attack, never misses and will increase in power with the closeness of your friendship with the partner Pikachu, remaining useful throughout the game and capping out as a perfectly accurate Thunderbolt+. Splishy Splash is basically Surf, but with an added chance to paralyse the target, and Floaty Fall is a powerful Flying-type physical attack that can cause the target to flinch (which works well with the partner Pikachu’s incredible speed). Finally, if you for some reason ever encounter something faster than Pikachu, you can fall back on Zippy Zap: a physical Electric attack that always scores critical hits and has a speed priority of +2 (the same as Extremespeed, which means that it automatically outruns not just standard moves, but moves with ordinary speed priority like Quick Attack and Mach Punch). The competitive environment of Let’s Go is kind of crazy because so many of the game’s underlying mechanics function differently to the rest of the core series, and I’ll refrain from trying to comment on that. However, in contrast to Yellow, where the partner Pikachu (who can’t evolve into Raichu and has no particular advantages over a regular Pikachu) really starts to feel like a drag on your team during the midgame, Let’s Go’s partner Pikachu, like the partner Eevee, is a really solid companion who remains worth using throughout the story.
If you’re playing Alpha Sapphire or Omega Ruby, additional options come in the form of Cosplay Pikachu, a unique female Pikachu given to you in Slateport City who specialises in Pokémon Contests (Cosplay Pikachu, sadly, cannot be transferred to Poké Bank, so cannot join you in any later game). Cosplay Pikachu has five costumes for the five different contest categories you can compete in – coolness, beauty, cuteness, smartness and toughness – and each one comes with a different signature move. The cute Pikachu Pop Star’s Draining Kiss and the smart Pikachu PhD’s Electric Terrain have since gotten into Pikachu’s movepool by conventional means, but the others are still unique to this specific Pikachu. The tough Pikachu Libre’s Flying Press is a nice answer to Grass-types, who resist Pikachu’s Electric attacks, while the cool Pikachu Rock Star’s Meteor Mash is mostly good for style points; the best one is beautiful Pikachu Belle’s Icicle Crash, capable of dealing heavy damage to Grass, Ground and Dragon Pokémon. All three are decent additions to Pikachu’s otherwise lacklustre physical movepool. Sun and Moon give Pikachu not one but two exclusive Z-moves, Catastropika (upgrades from Volt Tackle) and 10,000,000 Volt Thunderbolt (upgrades from Regular Thunderbolt), the latter of which is exclusive to the special Pikachu-with-a-cap that you could get in several event distributions. Both moves are more powerful than the standard Electric-type Z-move, Gigavolt Havoc, and 10,000,000 Volt Thunderbolt additionally has a base critical hit rate of 50%, in case its base power of 195 somehow wasn’t enough for you. These are both cool, but unfortunately they force Pikachu to hold one of its signature Z-Crystals (Pikanium-Z or Pikashunium-Z), which means it can’t use a Light Ball, and at that point you’ve sort of forsaken the best reason to use Pikachu in the first place. Finally, in Sword and Shield, Pikachu has a Gigantamax form, which revives the Thiccachu design of old and gets the exclusive move G-Max Volt Crash. As well as inflicting damage, this attack automatically paralyses the target and all its allies. That’s… good, I guess, but not really better or more interesting than the standard Electric-type Dynamax move, Max Lightning, which sets up Electric Terrain. Again, although we have to appreciate the effort to give Pikachu cool stuff befitting its special status, you should probably give this one a miss.
There is a certain amount of “Pikachu is overrated” discourse in the Pokémon fandom, and I’m not unsympathetic to it, because the way certain Pokémon are selected for media prominence over and over again does, to a certain extent, do a disservice to the variety that has always been Pokémon’s biggest strength. On the other hand, Pikachu is so recognisable and has such a powerful “personal” brand that not putting it front-and-centre on a wide range of products sacrifices a lot of free publicity and engagement, so I can understand why Pikachu’s role as brand ambassador is so heavily emphasised. I think exasperation with the “Pikachu clones” is also fair (I mean, I’ve basically been in a state of open war with the whole lot of them ever since I started this blog; I’m committed now), but eclipses the fact that Pikachu’s design, which they all mimic to a greater or lesser extent, is genuinely really good; it’s distinctive, it’s bright, it’s cute, it takes the traits of real animals and puts an elemental twist on them the way all the best Pokémon designs do. Pikachu wasn’t originally singled out for a special destiny by a decree from on high; it became Pokémon’s mascot as a result of being legitimately popular. What can I say, but “don’t hate the player; hate the game”?
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