How do hobby hackers preserve a Pokémon’s past and shape its future?

Aurich Lawson

Earlier this year, Pokémon Legends: Arceus revived the iconic Game Freak franchise by changing a formula that has remained largely unchanged for over 25 years. But this latest attack on experiments doesn’t just reduce how long the Poké formula has remained mostly static. For two and a half decades, the creator essentially released the same game over and over, and fans like me ate it as he pulled Lechonka. Disappointingly, it feels like the series is returning to its usual run with a more traditional one Scarlet and purple take off in November.

Whether Legends will form a permanent and fresh new branch on the Pokémon franchise tree is a kind of philosophical dilemma that can make Xatu spend all day staring at the sun.

But for those who are way beyond the official Nintendo releases, the Pokémon series isn’t out of date. While Nintendo, the game publisher, hasn’t worked to make older Pokémon games available on modern hardware – or affordable on older hardware – a certain group of devoted fans have taken to not only keeping the older Pokémon titles, but also actively improving them. These volunteer hackers and ROM restorers work to keep the passions of an aging generation of Pokémon champions alive while fighting brutal legal attacks from Nintendo from time to time.

Growing tradition

After falling in love with Pokémon, the ROM hacker Spherical Ice spent hours designing custom sprites on forums when he was just seven years old. “This inevitably led me to discover ROM hacks, but I was really scared of the law, so I remember hiding it from my brother and parents because I thought I would go to jail,” Spherical Ice told me.

ROM hacker Vytron who made the hacks Pokemon Saiph and The fate of Pokemonshe also had to consider the legal issues related to the hobby.

“From a certain point of view, I understand [Nintendo’s] behavior towards fan creations, ”said Vytron. “However, I think it’s a bit exaggerated. The staple games are titles that Nintendo is not currently distributing. [ROM hack] The developers always point to Game Freak and Nintendo as creators of not only the base game, but also Pokémon as brands, and they don’t charge for the games – they don’t hurt the company’s business.

Many other Pokémon ROM hackers feel similar. As these designs tend to rejuvenate interest in older games – most of which can only be played on the hardware they were originally developed for – they can increase the overall popularity of Pokémon without claiming any profit. Proof of this effect is not hard to come by; a cursory look at YouTube or Twitch immediately shows you just how massive ROM drawing hacks they have today. In many ways, it is difficult to imagine modern Pokémon without them.

This is especially true given the living history of Pokémon ROM hacks. While there has been a sharp rise in awareness of this cosmos in the last few years, ROM hackers today have been toying with hacking others as early as 2007 – and some hacks go even further.

ShockSlayer, creator of the hack ROM Crystal clearrecalls meeting the publisher of Natsume’s Telefang games, an unrelated series of Japanese monster-catching titles that smugglers famously translated as Pokémon Diamond and Pokemon Jade in an attempt to capture Western Poké-mania. One of these bootlegs eventually gave their name to the official Pokémon game, while the other featured the Forest Spirit from Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Princess Mononoke on his box art (Forest Spirit, of course, and unfortunately he didn’t get caught).

While these designs weren’t necessarily ROM hacks in the conventional sense of the term, they were at least partly responsible for triggering the first wave of Pokémon fan games such as Shiny gold, Black chaosand Quartz– names that appeared as often as Red blue in interviews I had with nine different ROM hackers for this article.

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