RetroVision – Pikachu and the Making of a Mascot

Nowadays, when anybody thinks of the gaming giant Pokémon, they think of Pikachu. However, this wasn’t the original intention of series creator Satoshi Tajiri, and when Red and Green first launched in Japan on 27th February 1996, this wasn’t the case. In fact, it wouldn’t be a while until the yellow electric mouse became the all encompassing mascot for the mega-brand.

Pikachu may be the mascot of the brand, but start any Pokémon game, and you won’t find the series’ mascot greeting you. This is especially true when it comes to the very first games in the series Red / Blue / Green. Here each game is represented by the final form of the starter Pokémon that are available to the player at the start of the game. Namely Venusaur, Blastoise, and fan favourite Charizard.

Pokemon Boxes Japan
From left to right, Charizard, Venusaur and Blastoise.

This is also true when looking at which Pokémon you can select as your very first one, on arrival at Professor oak’s laboratory at the start of the game. Here players won’t find a single Pikachu in sight, despite Ash’s experience in the anime. Instead players are only able to select from the grass-type Bulbasaur, water-type Squirtle, or fire-type Charmander.

What’s more, Pikachu can’t be caught until the Viridian Forest, and even then you’re not going to find it easy to find the little mouse given its rare status. Pikachu isn’t even Pokemon #1 in the Pokédex, with the electric mouse actually being entry #25. So just how did number 25 become number 1?

Pikachu Over Time
The evolution of Pikachu’s design over the last 20 years.

Well, the answer to this one is simple as far as Satoshi Tajiri is concerned. These comments came in a 1999 interview with Time Tokyo, one year after the 1998 American release of Pokémon Red and Blue. Here he points to one clear factor for why a Pokémon “which is sort of marginal in the game”, became the mascot we all know and love.

That reason is quite simple, the tie in Pokémon anime. Wherein Pikachu is portrayed as both cute yet strong, with heaps of personality.

When they did the anime, they wanted a specific character to focus on. Pikachu was relatively popular compared with the others and potentially both boys and girls would like it.

The relationship between Ash and Pikachu is also one of the main focal points of the anime, and as such means that Pikachu is given considerable screen time. As such the viewer inevitably becomes heavily invested in the character.

Interestingly though, Tajiri in the same interview did stress that there were other options, and that the decision to use Pikachu was not his. A point that is actually quite ironic all in all. This is because the anime’s lead protagonist “Ash”, is actually named “Satoshi” in the original Japanese version after the series creator. Thus the mascot he didn’t select, is actually represented as his Pokémon in the Japanese anime. Neverheless, who can complain with having Pikachu as their number one Pokémon? I certainly wouldn’t.

Ash & Pikachu
Ash & Pikachu in the Pokémon Anime.

Aside from this, there is also one other clear reason for selecting Pikachu as the series mascot as far as series Composer / Director / Producer Junichi Masuda is concerned, Pikachu is really cute.

One of the planners saw Pikachu and was like, ’This is a really cute Pokemon. Maybe it’s not a good idea to have it be a really common Pokémon in the game.’ It was a Pokemon he just wanted to catch, just for himself.

This is also compounded by the difficulty to catch Pikachu, meaning that the electric mouse was not only cute, but highly desirable.

These facts, joined with the selection of the electric mouse as Ash’s main Pokémon, all combined to make Pikachu the series mascot as far as Masuda is concerned.

At the same time, in the animation, Ash had Pikachu as his Pokémon, so those two things combined helped the popularity of Pikachu rise.

Thus, whilst the anime was arguably the primary factor in turning Pikachu into the face of the mega-brand, the electric mouse may never have been selected if not for Ken Sugimori’s multi-appealing design, and its rare status.

Japan Football Mascot Pikachu
In 2014 Pikachu even became the mascot for the Samurai Blue, The Japanese National Football Team.

Nevertheless, by the time the series launched in the West in 1998, Pikachu was already well established as the series mascot. As such all of the marketing efforts were directed in this manner outside of Japan. What’s more, tapping into the popularity of the anime series, Game Freak and Nintendo would actually go on to re-release the original game as Pokémon Yellow, in 1998 in Japan and 1999 in America. Here the game’s plot would follow that of the anime, and importantly, player’s would have their very own Pikachu starter who would follow the player around.

Nowadays you can’t go far for seeing Pikachu, with the electric mouse absolutely everywhere when it comes to Pokémon, even all these years later. Moreover, in terms of the anime, Pikachu is still Ash’s close companion 19 seasons and 17 films later. Game Freak may never have been intended on making Pikachu the series mascot, but now 20 years later the electric mouse is still one of the most iconic figures in gaming, and we’re all better for it. I choose you Pikachu!

Simon Aubrey Drake

A lifelong gamer with a fanatical love of all things Nintendo and Japan. So much so that I've written a thesis on one and lived in the other. Currently on a quest to catch every last Pokémon. Follow me on twitter via @DudeXChill or @RingsandCoins.

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