Games often inspire their fans. Sometimes they make tournaments. Sometimes, players bring themselves into the world of the game. The core of this inspiration, though, is when players take a game they love and mould it into something completely new. This is the way of the Pokémon ROM hacking community; people who dive into the source code of the Pokémon games we know and love, and bring out the creativity within.
There’s a whole world out there of passionate creators showcasing the potential Pokémon has, and it’s filled with unsung heroes and unique origins.
One of the most notable things about these reimagined Pokémon games is the great level of detail that goes into them. With such a strong shell, taking the tried-and-tested Pokémon format and extrapolating it into something larger, players are able to build on those strong foundations.
Pokémon Prism, created by Koolboyman, is a brilliant example of this. As soon as you start the game up, you’re greeted with fully-fledged character customisation, with choices of skin tones and clothing colours, as well as a whole host of sprites to pick from. The game also has a delightful segment close to the beginning where the player sends their newly met Larvitar into a cave to chat to another Larvitar who had run away.
There are so many mechanics at play, but they aren’t used to the game’s detriment. Rather, they are mixed into the more traditional gameplay loop in a way that fits fantastically. Koolboyman (henceforth referred to as Adam), mentioned that he "had the idea before Game Freak presented theirs, but their use of it inspired me to go forward with my own customization system, with even more options than X and Y." Adding such a feature that came in the later games whilst retaining the old-school style is a fantastic combination of modernity and nostalgia that you don’t find anywhere else.
Have you ever thought about how much more player-friendly early Pokémon games would be if they implemented just some of these little ease-of-access features? We were somehow awestruck at the text "you found 2 repels". Sometimes these feel prophetic, such as being able to gain experience points for catching Pokémon, and allowing players paths to wander through routes in the Naljo region without having to face nine Weedles and a Pidgey. The way that Pokémon ROM hacks iterate on the Pokémon world in numerous subtle-yet-beneficial manners is a delight, and with each different game you’ll find a host of new and exciting mechanics.
"People have been trying to break out of the repetitive 'eight gyms, Elite 4 and Champion' story for as long as I can remember, and there have been plenty of creative ideas that still give a satisfying sense of progression while not being nearly as rigid. One that always comes to mind when I think of hacks like this is Pokémon Ruby Destiny: Rescue Rangers."
This hack, led by Joseph "destinedjagold" Demium, channels the Mystery Dungeon series in a big way. The player character, who has turned into a Pikachu, is forced to team up with two companions, a Torchic and Chikorita. You form a rescue team together and go on your own adventure.
In something completely different, Cutlerine’s Pokémon Snakewood brings with it a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested Hoenn region, filled with undead versions of existing Pokémon with punny names (Boilbasaur and Gorelax are personal favourites). It’s a hack that really opens your mind to the potential these games have; you never know what you’re going to get, and these are just singular experiences in a wider world of reimagined Pokémon stories.
This isn’t to insult or diminish the Pokémon games in the main series, of course. It’s just cool to see the lengths people are able to stretch the existing Pokémon formula, and the unique stories that can be told if that formula is deviated from.
Where Do You Even Begin?
One reason the ROM hacking community has been challenged recently is that it’s hard to know how to go about starting. Maybe the idea of going out of your way to play something that could be broken and time-consuming is a hurdle many don’t want to jump. The subreddit often devolves into ‘recommendations for ROM hacks?’, which isn't conducive to a solid discursive platform, so how do you have any idea where to start?
As Reddit user Kaphotics told us, "don't try to find the perfect hack to play right at the start. Play some commonly talked about ones, figure out what you like." It’s a big world, and if you just can’t get enough Pokémon, or you’re getting a bit sick of playing through Platinum for the eighth time, browse the subreddit and have a gander at the ones people speak glowingly about. It’s all on you from there.
Adam, of Pokémon Prism fame, says that it’s all a learning experience. "My first big ROM hack was Pokémon Brown, a pretty vanilla hack of Gen 1. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I thought 'what if I change this game into another game, why don’t I expand on a universe the game has already established, and that’s exactly what I did."
Creating Them Is Hard
How do you make a ROM hack though? According to Kaphotics, it’s a far more intense task than most would think. "If you're new, don't try to make a full-blown hack. Don't be an 'ideas' person. Start small; modify a Pokémon's colours or stats. Create a town. Create a new Pokémon. Do it a few times, a little bigger in scale each time." You’ll probably make an unplayable mess before anything good happens, but that’s just how you learn. That’s the main thing about ROM hacks, really. It’s all a learning experience.
"I just wanted to make a game people would enjoy and go ahead and do something like it," Adam told me. "I did things with Prism that I'm very proud of, but I also made a lot of mistakes. I want people to learn from both aspects and ultimately do better than I did. If Prism inspires them, whether they think it’s good or bad, they can use that to make their own work and inspire people themselves." Pokémon ROM hacking has clearly been a helping hand, as in his free time, Adam is creating a Pokémon-inspired monster-fighting adventure named The Wu Xing. The creative spark is blatant. "Progress is slow but I have big plans for The Wu Xing that I hope to work out. I have a modest budget and I'm slowly building up an incredibly talented team to help me fulfil my vision. It obviously takes inspiration from Pokémon, but I also want to try things that no games have done before and let it hold its own identity. Most importantly, I want people to have fun with it."
Are These Things Even Legal?
It is hard to draw the line legally with this sort of thing. The ROM hacker isn’t making any money, but Nintendo does have the right to tell anyone to stop using their game to make a new game, no matter the good intentions. We wanted to know whether this is something seen particularly regularly.
"It's not a common part of ROM Hacking, but it's a common fear," says Adam. "I'm contacted by people all the time about my experiences with being told to stop and the truth is there's always a chance if you're doing a fan game, and you should mentally prepare yourself for such a situation if you're going to invest a lot of time in a fan game project." He worked with the Twitch Plays Pokémon team to get the hack finished, in exchange for premiering it early on their channel, which only served to make the hack more popular – and that brought it to the attention of Nintendo.
"I made a lot of mistakes with Prism," Adam continues. "I wanted to get the word out a little bit, but I didn't know it would get as big as it did. My mistakes were incredibly obvious in hindsight. I got a Cease & Desist from Nintendo and I understand why they had to do that. The only thing to do after that was to move on and start developing a new game using my own IP."
The Cease & Desist order that Nintendo sent Adam is a worry to a lot of ROM hackers have, but the fear is the main issue, rather than it being something most people have to deal with. There’s no denying that ROM hacking inspired and educated Adam about his future game development in a big way though, and it’s clear there are far fewer regrets than learning experiences.
Despite the fear, the community is growing all of the time and if you're keen to get involved, then the subreddit’s a great place to start. There are also tons of fan wikis out there for the most popular ROM hacks. You might just find something really special. These hacks will clearly never replace the mainline Pokémon franchise, but they definitely add another layer to the series and prove just how dedicated and committed some Pokémon fans can be; ultimately, these hacks are borne out of the desire to improve the original work, rather than capitalise on its success.