‘Pokemon’ Dev On The Birth Of Pikachu, Concerns About Failing Overseas

Junichi Masuda has been working on Pokemon games since the very beginning, starting as the composer for “Pokemon Red” and “Blue.” Since then he has moved up the ranks, directing and producing more recent Pokemon titles, including the latest release, “Pokemon Black” and “White.” During an interview MTV Multiplayer, he discussed the early days of the franchise, as well as how Pikachu came to become the face of the franchise.

Back in 1996, no one had any idea of the tremendous success that the Pokemon franchise would see, and that even included members of the development team. “When we were first making them, we weren’t really thinking about how big it would become,” said Masuda (through translator David Numrich).

In fact, the team was a bit concerned about whether Pokemon would see success outside of its own territory:

“I wasn’t too worried about Japan. Role-playing games were popular back then. I was primarily worried about the overseas market. At the time they were making the game, Japanese RPGs still hadn’t found a lot of traction overseas, so we were worried whether it would be successful over there, as well.”

Of course, Pokemon ended up being a massive hit worldwide, and the franchise quickly adopted an unlikely figurehead: an electric mouse named Pikachu. I say unlikely because, in the first two games, Pikachu was just another random Pokemon milling around in the weeds. Later entries, like “Pokemon Yellow,” would heavily feature Pikachu, but I was curious whether Pikachu initially stood out from the pack during the development phase, and if Masuda expected him to be such a huge hit. Here’s how the world-famous electric mouse came to be:

“In the beginning, we had a few graphic designers working on drawing designs, coming up with ideas. We also had a few programmers who also came up with design ideas. Within the company, we would vote and decide which one everyone likes. 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 Pokemon in the game.’ It was a Pokemon he just wanted to catch, just for himself. [The fact that Pikachu] is a rare Pokemon that doesn’t show up very often in the wild was another reason [he was popular]. When people actually encountered it, it was a really big impact. It was like, ’Wow, this is a cool Pokemon.’ At the same time, in the animation, Ash had Pikachu as his Pokemon, so those two things combined helped the popularity of Pikachu rise.”

“Pokemon Black” and “White” releases next week here in the US and it features an entirely new cast of creatures to catch. Is the next Pikachu waiting in the wings? Only time will tell.