Although the Pokédex has always described Pikachu as a “Mouse” type, the iconic Pokémon character was actually based on a squirrel. Atsuko Nishida, who used to work for Game Freak (the primary developer of the Pokémon games), recently revealed that—contrary to popular belief—she based the original Pikachu character designs for Pokémon Red and Green on a squirrel.
“At that time, I was really into squirrels, so I wanted the character to have puffy cheeks,” she said. “Squirrel tails are cute (so I wanted it to have a tail). However, I wanted the character to have a lightning element, so I made it shaped like lightning.”
Pikachu’s design—most noticeably its cheeks—were inspired by squirrels, which makes the character’s long shape make more sense.
“I didn’t have a squirrel, but at that time, I wanted to have one,” Nishida said. “It’s not like squirrels were popular [in Japan] then. I like animals, and then I had a ferret and a turtle at home. Since I thought the ways squirrels moved were comical and cute, I wanted one.”
When considering a spot to gather electricity, Nishida looked to squirrels.
“For example, when hamsters stuff themselves with food, their entire bodies become round, right? But for squirrels, it’s just their cheeks.”
After the character was named Pikachu, it was then decided that it would be a “Mouse” type Pokémon, and Satoshi Tajiri came up with the “Electric Rodent” classification.
Pikachu is probably the most iconic part of the Pokémon series, and Game Freak actually decided to make it the mascot because yellow is easier for children to recognize and the only competition at the time was Winnie-the-Pooh. But the name was bit more difficult to come up with, as they needed to decide on one that would work in both English and Japanese.
Game designer Junichi Masuda described the tough process of coming up with new names in an old GamePro interview.
“Yes, it’s incredibly difficult! Especially [coming] up with a name [that] is universal here, in the U.S. or Europe, such as Pikachu, Dialga, Palkia, and Lucario. Those are the names that you have to come up with, appealing to all of the audiences. That’s very difficult.”
And while the name has stuck, Pikachu’s design has continued to evolve long after the series’ anime debut 1997 and the many games over the years. But remember: the original inspiration will always be a squirrel.