Everything you thought you knew about Pikachu is a lie.
Speaking in an interview with Japanese outlet Yomimuri, Atsuko Nishida, a graphic artist who worked on the earliest versions of the Pokémon games, revealed that Pikachu once originally had a third evolution, and is—contrary to its Pokédex classification—a squirrel, not a mouse.
“At that time, I was really into squirrels,” Nishida told Yomiuri (translated by Kotaku). “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.”
Pikachu’s signature red cheeks were also inspired by squirrels.
“For example, when hamsters stuff themselves with food, their entire bodies become round, right?” Nishida said. “But for squirrels, it’s just their cheeks.” She added that she pictured Pikachu amassing electricity in its cheeks the same way that squirrels store food.
Despite Nishida’s intentions, Pikachu appeared in the Pokédex as the “electric mouse Pokémon.” What’s more interesting, perhaps, is that several years down the line, Nintendo introduced an official squirrel Pokémon: Pachirisu, the EleSquirrel Pokémon, which more closely resembles a real-life squirrel with its large fluffy tail. It keeps the cheek pouch idea, however.
Perhaps Pikachu’s forgotten third evolution would have returned to the squirrel theme, though It sounds rather devilish in appearance from Nishida’s description.
“It was Pika(chu), Rai(chu), and Goro(chu),” Nishida said. “The Pokémon known as Gorochu bared fangs and even had a pair of horns.”
Nishida added that this was before the first Pokémon games were released, and before Pikachu had attained mascot status (originally, Nintendo had planned for Clefairy to have that honor). However, Nishida said that the third evolution was cut more for balance reasons in the game than for marketing. Since Ash’s Pikachu in the anime never evolves anyway, that seems plausible.
Pikachu’s design has continued to evolve, becoming gradually taller and slimmer throughout the years. Perhaps now fans can watch Pikachu in a new light, seeing what traits might have carried over from the cute Electric Pokémon’s origins as a squirrel.