Everyone that knows about Pokemon is familiar with the series mascot, the absolutely adorable Electric-type Pikachu. However, a lot of work went into designing the little guy, and Pokemon bigwigs Ken Sugimori, Atsuko Nishida, and Koji Nishino all went into detail on the design process for Pikachu’s development.
Nishida was the one who was first put in charge of Pikachu’s development, and it came out of the very name that Pokemon is short for: Pocket Monsters. While there were a lot of tough and fierce-looking Pokemon that were being made for the game, there were still some people on the development team that wanted to see more cute monsters.
There were only three designers to create Pokemon at that point in time, so Sugimori got Nishida, as a woman, to design the cuter Pokemon, while he was able to work on the big tough Pokemon like Mewtwo, Snorlax, Gyarados, and Lapras.
Nishida’s design requirements were actually pretty light: they wanted an Electric-type Pokemon with two evolutions, with no specifics on animals to base it on. Nishida immediately went to drawing it via pixel-art, and the first version of Pikachu that she drew looked like a daifuku (a rice cake with sweet filling).
At the same time, she named it Pikachu, after the “Pika Pika” Japanese onomatopoeia, which meant to sparkle or shine. The “Chu” part came from the sound a mouse makes, hence why Pikachu is known as the “Electric Mouse” Pokemon.
The daifuku design went over well, and Nishida was actually asked to make it “cuter”, and so the design evolved. Nishida based Pikachu’s electric cheek pouches on those of a squirrel and how they store food in their cheeks. Pikachu’s back stripes were born out of a desire to make its back less “lonely”, since you always saw Pokemon from behind.
Pikachu’s rise to popularity was positively meteoric even in its development stage. Several Pokemon were shown to the company, and Pikachu was the most popular among all of them. Its rarity in Generation 1 of Pokemon (which came from Nishino being oddly possessive about it) also contributed.
Pikachu was also supposed to have a third stage of evolution known as “Gorochu” (after the onomatopoeia for thunder, “goro-goro”), which would have had protruding fangs and a pair of horns. However, for issues of game balance, Gorochu never appeared.
If you want to see the whole interview about Pikachu’s development in Pokemon, take a look at the interview here.