Pikachu might be the most iconic fictional animal ever created. He's the face and mascot of the top selling multimedia franchise of all time, so his chubby cheeks have been emblazoned across more merchandise than Godzilla, King Kong, and the Loch Ness Monster combined. It's a strange twist of fate that so much of our pop culture is influenced by two cartoon mice—Pikachu and Mickey are the kings of capitalism.
It should come as no surprise that Pikachu has more unique cards than any other Pokémon—easily over 100—with many of the niche promos never escaping the confines of Japan. We'll barely have time to scratch the surface here (the powers that be will not let me take 6 weeks to write a 10k word article about Pikachu), but even a flyover of the crazy land of Pikachu reveals a lot of oddities and absurdity you can't get anywhere else but Pokémon.
As has oft been pointed out, Pikachu's earliest iteration was a lot, well, chubbier than the current mascot. This was a mouse you could use as a bedroom pillow, with a plush tummy and stubby appendages. There's an almost alien unreadability to its flat brown eyes—it evokes staring down a gerbil. This Pikachu might very well use its first attack and then take a nibble out of you. Similarly, most children were introduced to Pikachu via the anime, and the initial episodes feature a much more hostile animal compared to its later portrayals.
As far as actual abilities go, this Pikachu was your standard weak Basic. It wasn't going to win games, but the background sure is pretty, isn't it?
Back in the early days of Pokémon, it was rare to see a Pokémon printed on a card twice. However, as early as the second set, Pikachu was already setting the standard for how often we could expect to see its red-cheeked face. This Pikachu is superior in terms of power. Being able to touch Benched Pokémon was another rarity in the early days. All told, you were doing 30 damage with Pikachu's Spark attack—not too shabby for a Common.
You'll notice that Pikachu's design is also firmed up a bit here—literally. Its shape is less amorphous blob and more the curves of an actual creature you might see in the wild. That might be because Ken Sugimori himself did the artwork. He was key to solidifying most of the Pokémon characters, turning loose concepts and ill-defined pixel art into the designs we know and love today.
Here we have one of the first weird Pikachu promos. Flying Pikachu was originally released in Japan in 1997, which was still quite early in Pokémon's journey. The flavor on this card is funny—Fly is obviously not a move Pikachu can normally use. It's a Flying Type move, usually reserved for birds (or Tropius, terrifyingly). However, Pikachu is a resourceful Pokémon, so with the help of some helium balloons, he makes do. The concept is whimsical, and it definitely brings a smile to my face. Another nice touch is that this particular Pikachu has Resistance to Fighting (again a feature usually found on Bird Pokémon like Pidgey), whereas normally Pikachu is weak to Fighting.
This card didn't get an official North American release until several years later in 2001, and we're lucky to have seen it at all. Many of the more silly or weird promo cards never left Japan. It's a shame, because seeing the series mascot presented as light-hearted and wholesome is something I can never get enough of.
I've always loved the artwork on the Neo Genesis version of Pikachu. The contrast of bright yellow with the black and blue background makes the little creature pop from its surroundings. Most of the early Pokémon cards featured art that was very basic: the creature standing in ¾ perspective, lightly rendered, with an abstract background. When you're working to first establish what these monsters look like, that kind of art makes sense. You want children to clearly see the designs so they can easily appreciate them. It's no coincidence that the first set to largely feature Pokémon that had already been printed on a card (the Team Rocket set) was the first to feature more artistic or "off model" art. Everyone knew what these creatures looked like, so they no longer had to stand still and pose for the camera.
If you're browsing the Neo Genesis set on TCGplayer, most of the new Pokémon are shown in that same style (with a shocking number of the cards featuring art by Ken Sugimori—does the man sleep?). Then you have older Pokémon from the same set, like Clefairy, Onix, Horsea, and this Pikachu, represented in a markedly different style. That's not to say one style is superior to the other. A Pokémon's first appearance basically serves as its character reference sheet for the children collecting the cards. However, I've always been fond of the more "artsy" depictions, and this Pikachu remains a favorite.
Time for another very strange promo. It feels like whoever designed this card knew it would be abused before it even got out of R&D, but couldn't resist printing it anyways. Commonly known as "Birthday Pikachu," the card was never tournament legal...probably because people would lie about it being their birthday to make the attack more powerful.
The method to get the card was even stranger in North America. You had to mail Wizards of the Coast a drawing of your dream card, and then they would mail back a copy of this card. Frankly, if I had lovingly rendered a Charizard and got a 50 HP Pikachu in return, I would have felt a little short-changed as a child, but this card still commands a decent price. That is—provided you haven't filled in the blank spots with Sharpie.
Do you remember the e-Reader? No? That's probably for the best. It was an over-priced, under utilized peripheral for the Gameboy Advance. It was early toy-video game integration, later done to much greater effect with Amiibos. The idea was that you could buy cards with these strips on them that you fed through the card reader, and then you could make…stuff…happen.
For the final period of WOTC's reign on the game, all Pokémon sets came with e-Reader markings. I was too poor to ever justify buying an e-Reader. Instead, I'd stare at those strips and wish I could decipher the strange series of dots. What was even more frustrating to me was that these strips replaced one of my favorite parts of Pokémon cards: the fact box at the bottom. It would give cute (or sometimes distressingly horrifying, as in the case of Ghost Pokémon) trivia about the monsters. That information was instead transcribed to the shorter strip on the bottom. After all, why just print the cute facts on the card when you can hide it behind a paywall? I'm still bitter.
This Pikachu was the first to make use of this 'highly advanced' technology. I've done some internet digging, trying to find out what exactly this card does when swiped through the over-priced precursor to a QR Reader. Some cards had minigames on them, and some contained little animations. As far as I can tell, this Pikachu was part of a line of jukebox-esque cards that would play melodies on your Gameboy Advance. This would have blown my mind as a preteen, although these days I think I'd still rather have an Amiibo. At least those I can display on my bookcase so that everyone who visits my apartment can verify my status as "way too invested in fictional monsters."
Here we come to the big money. Pikachu Star features a Shiny Pikachu (less lemon and more tangerine in color, still a citrus) striking a pose that might be intimidating if it wasn't for the rotund rodent striking it. It's a clutch card for tight games, which means that more often than not, it's useless.
However, the card doesn't need to be good to be worth a truly ridiculous sum. When you think about it, Shiny Pokémon have around a 1 in 8192 chance of appearing in the main games. If you take even a cheap Common Pikachu card and multiply its price by 8192, the price of Pikachu Star doesn't seem so ridiculous. Tell that to your significant other when they find out you spent over $200 on a Pikachu card. They'll love it, I promise.
Not many franchises can claim to still be going strong after 20 years. Most peter out, relegated to a footnote in pop culture history. However, Pokémon hit year 20 with a roar, and they threw an absolutely momentous birthday bash. All year long, they released special collections and celebratory merchandise. One of these promotions was a special kind of booster set known as "Generations."
The unique thing about this booster set was that, for the first time ever, a major tournament legal set couldn't be bought in the typical booster set configuration. If you wanted the packs, you had to purchase special boxed product. Eventually an Elite Trainer Box was released in the latter half of the year, but for a while, if you wanted these packs you had to be willing to pay a premium. It didn't help that in the early months of the year, these special boxes were frequently difficult to find, or sold out entirely. It guaranteed that the elusive cards inside held a certain mystique.
They also showcased some of the cutest card art you've ever seen. This Full Art Pikachu from the Generations set features a puddle of Pikachus, each looking ecstatic and adorable. It's enough sweetness to rot the teeth straight out of your head, even if the actual card is virtually unusable.
Pikachu also got its own EX card. It's unusual for a Pokémon with an Evolution to have the Basic get an EX card, but this is Pikachu—it's the exception to every rule. It also brought some friends to its card, resulting in art that wouldn't be out of place on an album cover. The card is decently powerful, with little Pikachu being able to power up and unleash massive damage.
Finally, we come to what is possibly the most unusual batch of Pikachu cards in existence—and the most valuable. Originally printed in Roaring Skies, this little Pikachu has some variants that are worth literal thousands of dollars.
Pokémon ran an illustration contest, called the Pokémon Art Academy Competition, where hopeful artists from around the world could send in their own version of the series mascot for the chance to have it printed on a card. The grand prize was 100 copies of the card they designed. Considering how much these cards sell for today, that's an absolute jackpot.
Other than the copies given to the winners, these cards were never distributed officially, meaning that they are still next to impossible to find. Some of the winners have remained pretty secretive, stating that they aren't interested in selling any copies of their prize. However, there is a legend (backed up by some photographic evidence) that one absolute high roller had a full set of these cards at Pokémon Worlds in 2016. So somehow, some way, some of these cards have been put into circulation. Scour the internet hard enough and you just might come across them.
By the way, let's talk about the theme of the contest: "Dress Up Pikachu." Boy, did artists rise to the challenge. Astronaut suits, galoshes, fancy suits, Kabuki paint—Pikachu wore all sorts of ridiculous outfits for this competition, like a spoiled Pomeranian being forced into tiny clothes. It's very rare that international artists get a chance to do the art for a card, and the adorable diversity is truly something to behold.
Finally, we look toward Pikachu's future. There are big things on the horizon for this diminutive mouse. The first Sword and Shield-era Pikachu card has made its way to North America as a promo, but the upcoming Vivid Voltage, releasing in November, will feature a VMAX Pikachu. It's Pikachu's biggest card yet—in more ways than one—and it's definitely an item that collectors and players alike will want to get their hands on.
This has been an extremely truncated history of Pokémon's most popular character, but if you want to peruse the vast library of Pikachu cards available in North America, head over to TCGplayer to explore the rest of the Pikachu family!