Twenty years ago, when Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green first released in Japan, there was no definitive mascot for the franchise. The games featured the evolved starters on the box — so, how is it that Pikachu, the electric mouse, came to be synonymous with Pokémon?
The first couple of Pokémon that a player actually meets in the game are a starter — Squirtle, Charmander or Bulbasaur, depending on the title — and a Nidorino duking it out with a Gengar in the introduction. There’s a whole bunch of Pokémon that fill the Pokédex before the mouse at #25, including several bugs and a couple of birds. There’s no way to pick up Pikachu or even see one at all until Viridian Forest.
It didn’t take too terribly long, however, for the yellow critter to make its mark. By the time the company released Pokémon Yellow in 1998, Pikachu was a force to reckoned with — and now, it had its own game. The mouse has gone on to great success for the company, and even has a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. However, why? There’s a number of factors, of course, but one seemingly stands above the others.
In a 1999 interview with TIME Tokyo, Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri basically points to one clear culprit when asked how Pikachu, “which is sort of marginal in the game,” in TIME Tokyo’s words, came to be the best-known pocket monster.
“When they did the anime,” he said at the time, “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.” Tajiri also noted that there were several opinions about this, and it was not his idea.
The Pokémon anime focuses on the story of protagonist Ash Ketchum and his journey across multiple regions. When it began in 1997, the anime chose to give Ash a Pikachu as a starting Pokémon rather than one of the traditional three, though he eventually came to possess those as well. The relationship between the two is a common theme of the series and features prominently in many of the hundreds of episodes.
On the other hand, a 2011 interview by MTV News with Junichi Masuda — composer, director and producer on various Pokémon video game titles — points more to the fact that Pikachu itself is adorable. Honestly? He’s not wrong.
“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,” Masuda said through a translator. He also pointed to the electric mouse’s relative rarity in the first games. They are pretty uncommon to find, and many players might make their way through the forest without ever finding one.
“At the same time,” Masuda conceded, “in the animation, Ash had Pikachu as his Pokémon, so those two things combined helped the popularity of Pikachu rise.” So, there you have it. Blame the anime.