Every Pokemon nerd out there can tell you that Pikachu is inarguably a “mouse type” pokemon, and that makes sense. He’s small, round, pretty cute, and can run super fast. After all, kids love mice and bunnies, witness Mickey and Bugs, who could be mistaken for cousins. Pikachu had long felt like a distant relative to those two, but, during an interview, game designer Atsuko Nishida, who worked on the original Pokemon Gameboy games, noted that the iconic character isn’t based on a mouse at all. Pikachu is a squirrel.
“At that time, I was really into squirrels,” said Nishida. “so I wanted the character to have puffy cheeks. 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.”
Nishida also explained that Pikachu actually stores electricity in its cheeks because, unlike a snake that simply gets fat with food, a squirrel hides food in its cheeks. Though Nishida explains that squirrels weren’t popular in Japan when she came up with the design, she described their movements as “comical and cute,” which is arguably true when they aren’t tipping over bird feeders.
That’s a surprisingly low key explanation for the design behind what has become arguably the most recognizable characters in the world, behind, say, the likes of Mickey Mouse. In fact, it’s actually really hard to understand the popularity of Pokemon. The TV show and video games associated with Pokemon have made it the highest grossing franchise in history. Since 1996, Pokemon has made upwards of 53 billion dollars. That’s just over 10 billion more than the next most popular franchise in the world, Star Wars. All on the back of an imaginary squirrel surging with electricity.
As a VentureBeat article about the longevity of the series explains, Pokemon was able to become ubiquitous for a few reasons. For starters, Pikachu, the series mascot, has a design that is instantly recognizable. The iconic pokemon is also yellow—a color that gets people’s attention faster than all the others. But, most interestingly, the article notes that the pokemon universe gives fans the ability to “learn and specialize in complex databases of knowledge,” which is a huge hit with kids. The mythos is esoteric for sure, but easy for kids to wrap their head around.
What is hard to wrap one’s head around is this: Pikachu is a squirrel.