Earlier this year, Pokémon Legends: Arceus reinvigorated developer Game Freak’s iconic series by shaking up a formula that had gone largely unchanged for more than 25 years. But that recent bout of experimentation doesn’t diminish just how long the Poké-formula has remained mostly static. For two and a half decades, the developer essentially released the same game over and over, and fans like me ate it up like pulled Lechonk. Perhaps disappointingly, the series appears to be resuming its usual course with the more traditional Scarlet & Violet launch this November.
Whether Legends will form an enduring and fresh new branch on Pokémon’s franchise tree is the kind of philosophical quandary that could make Xatu spend all day staring at the sun.
But for those who look beyond Nintendo’s official releases, the Pokémon series is anything but stale. While Nintendo, the games’ publisher, hasn’t worked to make older Pokémon games accessible on modern hardware—or affordable on older gear—a certain demographic of dedicated fans has taken it upon themselves to not just preserve legacy Pokémon titles but to actively improve them. These volunteer ROM hackers and preservationists work to keep the passions of an aging generation of Pokémon masters alive, all while fighting occasionally brutal legal crackdowns from Nintendo.
A growing tradition
After falling in love with Pokémon, ROM hacker Spherical Ice spent hours designing custom sprites on forums when he was just seven years old. “That inevitably led to me discovering ROM hacks, but I was really scared about 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 Pokémon Saiph and Pokémon Sors, has also had to consider the legal issues inherent in the hobby.
“From a certain point of view, I can understand [Nintendo’s] behavior toward fan creations,” Vytron said. “However, I do think it’s a bit over the top. The base games are titles Nintendo does not redistribute nowadays. [ROM hack] creators always point to Game Freak and Nintendo as the creators of not just the base game but Pokémon as a brand, and they don’t charge money for the games—they don’t harm the business of the company.”
Many other Pokémon ROM hackers feel similarly. Since these projects tend to rejuvenate interest in older games—most of which are only playable on the hardware they were originally developed for—they can increase the overall popularity of Pokémon without laying claim to any profits. Proof of this effect isn’t hard to come by; a cursory glance at YouTube or Twitch immediately demonstrates the immense draw ROM hacks have today. In many ways, it’s difficult to imagine contemporary Pokémon without them.
This is especially true when considering the vibrant history of Pokémon ROM hacks. While there has been a sharp increase in awareness of the space in the last few years, today’s ROM hackers were playing the hacking work of others as early as 2007—and some hacks date back even further than that.
ShockSlayer, the creator of ROM hack Crystal Clear, remembers encountering publisher Natsume’s Telefang games, an unrelated series of Japanese monster-catching titles that bootleggers famously translated as Pokémon Diamond and Pokémon Jade in an attempt to capture Western Poké-mania. One of those bootlegs would eventually lend its name to an official Pokémon game, while the other featured the Forest Spirit from the Hayao Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke on its box art (the Forest Spirit, obviously and unfortunately, wasn’t catchable).
While these projects weren’t necessarily ROM hacks in the conventional sense of the term, they were at least partially responsible for instigating the first wave of Pokémon fan games like Shiny Gold, Chaos Black, and Quartz—names that cropped up as often as Red & Blue in the conversations I had with nine different ROM hackers for this article.