Also, Pokémon character designer reveals that his name is NOT supposed to mean “electric mouse.”

Close your eyes and imagine Pikachu (oh, and also remember to open your eyes back up again so you can continue reading this article). You can see him clearly in your mind’s eye, right? That cuddly build, friendly smile, and rosy cheeks are just the ultimate in disarmingly cute character design, aren’t they?

Okay, now close your eyes again, and this time imagine Pikachu with fangs and horns.

Crazy as it might seem, 22 years after the release of Pokémon Red and Green, the initial installments of the video game series, those fearsome features really were part of the initial concept for Pikachu’s evolution path. Earlier this month, we learned that Pikachu, which evolves into Raichu, was originally planned to have a third evolutionary tier, and in a recent interview Pokémon Red and Green character designers Ken Sugumori and Atsuko Nishida shed more light on the lost Pokémon.

Following Raichu, Pikachu’s next evolution was going to be called Gorochu. “Goro” is a relatively common, if somewhat old-fashioned, Japanese men’s name with a bulky, masculine ring to it, and Gorochu was going to be suitably macho in design. The Pocket Monster would have had sharp fangs and horns protruding from his forehead. “He was going to look something like Kaminari-sama,” recalls Nishida, referring to a thunder deity (more formally called Raijin) often depicted in Japanese religious or mythological art.

▼ Pika…?

So why was Gorochu cut from the final version of the game? One reason was for gameplay balance, but another major factor was memory space. Pokémon Red and Green was made for Nintendo’s Game Boy, which was much more a workhorse than a powerhouse in terms of hardware specs. There wasn’t enough memory available in the cartridge for every Pokémon to have two evolutions, and since Pikachu wasn’t originally one of the selectable starter Pokémon, Gorochu was axed.

The technical limitations of the Game Boy also affected the Pikachu design itself. Ever wondered why the tips of Pikachu’s ears are black, as opposed to yellow like most of his body? Because the standard Game Boy had a black-and-white screen, and adding color to the tips of his ears made them more expressive by allowing artists to show which way they were pointing or leaning. Another bit of trivia: there’s no special significance to Pikachu’s Pokédex number being 25, as the game’s staff simply numbered the Pokémon in the approximate order they expected players to encounter them in when playing through the game.

While reminiscing about Pikachu’s origins, Nishida, who chose the character’s name, also dispelled the often-repeated explanation that Pikachu comes from pika (the Japanese onomatopoeia for a flash of light) and chu (the onomatopoeia for a mouse’s squeak). It turns out that popular theory is only half right; the “pika”/flash part is correct, but Nishida says she chose the “chu” simply based on its sound and length, reiterating that she never consciously intended to make Pikachu look like a mouse. “By the time I was designing Pikachu, we already had a mouse-like Pokémon with Rattata,” she says.

▼ Rattata

But while Pikachu was never meant to be a cute mouse, he was undeniably cute. One of his earliest fans was Koji Nishino, a planner for Pokémon Red and Green. Nishino liked Pikachu so much that he actually got a little covetously protective, purposely lowering the encounter rate for the now-famous Electric-Type. In doing so, however, he inadvertently made Pikachu one of the first “rare” Pokémon players are able to find, making him all the more popular and helping to propel him to his status as the long-running series’ biggest star.

Source: The Pokémon Company via Hachima Kiko
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Insert image: Wikipedia/Kca

Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’s finding having a sizable stash of Pikachu visors in his home to be quite handy.