Diving into Pikachu’s most electrifying design.
Pikachu has had many many many iterations since Pokémon’s conception, most of which hardly differ from the Pikachu in society’s mind. Slight variations here and there are to be expected, and overall never affect the character. Yet the Pikachu used in promotional material and merchandise for the Pokémon Center store presents a pretty big departure from its past. Because of this, it’s the best style of the electrified rodent.
At first, it may look an ordinary Pikachu. And that’s understandable.
Pikachu’s evolving stylization, albeit slight and largely unnoticeable unless looked for, has fascinated me about the yellow mouse in recent years. In Pokémon Red and Blue, the little sparker began as a round mouse-like creature with a thin tail, before slimming down into the shape we know today. The original design was too clunky to become a mascot. It was not emotive enough, not colorful enough, and not cute enough.
So, alongside the launch of the original anime in 1997, Pikachu was redesigned and updated. Its head shifted, becoming a curvier bean-shape that could be distinguished from the rest of its body. Its colors brightened, lost most browns in its palette, and its body took a vaguely humanoid shape. Pikachu was now cuter and more colorful: a form that could perfectly sell Pokémon to kids. This style debuted in the handheld games in 1998, with the release of Pokémon Yellow.
This began a long chain of slight changes throughout the series’ history. Between Pokémon Gold and Silver and Pokémon Black and White, Pikachu slimmed down even more; the front cheek became more pronounced; and the back of the head melded into the back of the silhouette. With the release of Pokémon X and Y, its colors were muted by a large margin, as they were with every other creature. Pikachu’s body turned a banana-yellow, while the cheeks turned salmon.
The slimmer, dulled-palette mouse is currently the model used in spin-offs and promotional material for the games. Here, Pikachu appears more as a symbolic creature than a traditional, modern-day mascot. It depends on recognition alone, not a truly sensational design. While not unappealing, it’s a far cry from the vibrant, emotive character introduced in the anime.
Enter, the Pokémon Center Pikachu—known henceforth as “the greatest Pikachu.” As I mentioned, the differences are slight. Yet the sum of their whole is apparent: though you may not immediately notice why, it’s noticeably more stylized and subjectively appealing at first glance.
For starters, this spunky sparkler is the most spectacular, vibrant shade of yellow imaginable. It stands out in a crowd, which seems only fitting for the mascot of one of the highest grossing franchises of all-time. While X and Y introduced a faded color scheme, Pokémon Center understands that a bright palette choice is part of what makes Pikachu so lovable and unique. This is a carryover from the anime, where Pikachu stayed lemon-yellow with ketchup-red cheeks.
It’s also obvious that, with this slight redesign, illustrators wanted to hone in on the kawaii aspect of Japanese culture. This market is home to none other than Sanrio, the company behind Hello Kitty, and more recently, the cute, death-metal fueled anime known as Aggretsuko. Their mascots tend to have large, rounded heads with small, squat bodies. These cute traits have spread into many mascots throughout Japan, becoming hallmark traits.
As such, Sanrio characters—and more generally, kawaii merchandise—catch on easily in Japan, where Pokémon Center was initially an exclusive store. It only makes sense to modernize Pokémon’s figurehead into something a little more stylish and appealing for younger generations. Small tweaks were made to update the look, but it had to stay Pikachu.
Of course, in keeping with kawaii tradition, Pikachu was once again fattened up. It wasn’t a radical change, but the critter looked too real beforehand—something that’s hard to capture, brand, and sell. Cute and plump sells, though. Think of all the chunky kitties online, and how one inevitably made you want a cat.
But plumpiness matters much less than emotion, of which the Pokémon Center Pikachu is chock full of. Its face was changed to a full oval, giving a clear distinction for Pikachu’s head on both the front and back of its body. The head was also enlarged, and with it, the eyes and mouth. These giant, sparkling eyes once again upped the cute factor, while the overall larger face would allow the mascot to show a full range of emotion.
This alone opened many doors when it came to branding and promotional art. The game-style Pikachu needed to be viewed from the front in a neutral pose, else silhouette and anatomy logistics could make different poses look odd. Since the head melded cleanly into the back with no segmentation, what would happen if you viewed Pikachu from behind, with his head turned toward the camera? Of course, this would recognizably be Pikachu, but the form would become minutely different from the one we’re used to. It’d look…strange, which is not something you want when you’re selling a character. Instead, it’s preferable to have something that would look great in a variety of poses, from a variety of angles.
The oval head on the Pokémon Center Pikachu solves this problem. From almost any angle (except extreme ones), the head shape is constantly round. The silhouette remains the same. It’s undeniably the cute shocky mouse, Pikachu, with no awkward poses or angles. The designation between head and body helps tremendously if one were to dress Pikachu up, which is exactly what most Pokémon Center merchandise does. A clearly-defined head means a clearly-defined body for clothing.
From here, the large eyes and mouth take center stage, offering a wider array of emotion. Since this form is not realistic or grounded in a larger world, as the game’s Pikachu is, the art can take liberty in drawing faces. The mouth doesn’t have to have the typical indention, nor do the eyes need to stay large and perfectly round. Either one can be adjusted for the sake of a cute, capturable emotion.
Not to mention, the new head, body, and eyes are all perfect for mascot outfits:
The end result is more than just a mascot that relies on brand recognition. Art, merchandise, and videos no longer catch on simply because there’s a Pikachu lingering. They catch on because they have a cute, emotive, lovable Pikachu, showcasing a variety of poses, outfits, and emotions. The original creature in a static pose sold kids on Pokémon, and was an easy image to latch onto. The Pokémon Center Pikachu sells people on Pikachu, making it the greatest Pikachu of all time.