Pokémon is the biggest media franchise in the world, looming over not just fellow video game icons like Mario but surpassing the godlike status of Mickey Mouse and his gang of animal friends. Growing from a set of Gameboy games the franchise has evolved into a multitude of anime, manga, movies, and of course every imaginable form of merchandise. Surely, with so much success the games must be universally beloved right?
Of course not. For many hardcore Pokémon fans, the franchise’s golden age was somewhere in the past. Of course, the fandom can’t agree on when exactly the franchise started going downhill. After the first generation? The Switch era? It’s all arbitrary, but my personal point of delineation is the switch from sprites to 3D models with Pokémon X & Y.
Don’t get me wrong I still play every new Pokémon game, but I bitch and moan the whole time like a real gamer. When I see the weirdly plastic monster designs and the lifeless open worlds I can’t help but imagine a world where The Pokémon Company had chosen to stick with sprites but continued to refine and experiment with the gameplay. A magical world where Pokémon looks and feels like the sprite era with all the modern features that make modern Pokémon games so much more user-friendly. Well, a fan-made version of that world exists in the form of ROM hacks.
For the uninitiated, a ROM hack is an edited version of an emulated game. These changes range from adding quality-of-life additions to a pre-existing game to using the original game’s assets to make something almost entirely new. There are hundreds of these ROM hacks for Pokémon games and whatever weirdly specific changes you’d make to Pokémon has likely been attempted in one of them. I’ve only dipped my toes into the world of ROM hacks but let me guide you through some of my favorites.
I was introduced to Pokémon ROM hacks through Pokémon Radical Red, a hack of Fire Red focused on updating the game and making it more challenging. It adds features from later games like mega evolutions, Pokémon up to generation 8, and the physical/special split. It also adds quality-of-life improvements like allowing you to use HMs without wasting a move slot. All of these improvements make the gameplay smoother which is needed because the game is also much more difficult with an updated AI, min-maxed enemies, and no items during boss battles.
My favorite ROM hack is also based on Fire Red and it’s Pokémon Unbound. While Radical Red feels like a vastly improved version of Fire Red, Unbound creates a new game using the original as a basis. It has most of the quality life improvements and additions from later games that Radical Red had attached to a new map with a new, surprisingly good, story. It scratched the itch of exploring a new Pokémon region with the old-school aesthetic and some truly innovative ideas like a robust quest system and unique combat modifiers in every gym making them feel special.
If you’re seeking something that shakes the pocket monsters themselves, Pokémon Fools Gold takes Pokémon Crystal and reimagines every single monster. There aren’t new Pokémon, instead, they take the monsters you know and change their type and moves. While it doesn’t have as many modernizations and quality-of-life changes as other ROM hacks its type-swapped gimmick is a fun way to shake up classic Pokémon and it comes with some fantastic custom sprites and Pokedex entries.
The last ROM hack I want to highlight is also the most radical departure from the source material: Pokémon Emerald Rogue. While the other hacks I’ve written about here follow the standard Pokémon structure, Emerald Rogue turns the game into a rogue-lite. Instead of a region, you’ll journey through a series of procedurally generated maps with randomized Pokémon, trainers, and items. In true rogue-lite fashion, you will frequently die and have to start over, with some ability to take specific Pokémon in as starters or gain access to better items. It’s a great way to shake up the Pokémon formula.
Pokémon ROM hacks are great if
- You’re nostalgic for old-school Pokémon
- You’re still kind of mad about Dexit
- You’re willing to do a little digging to figure out what ROMs to get and how
Pokémon ROM hacks aren’t for you if:
- You’re a console-only gamer
- You don’t long for the days of sprite art
- You think emulating old games is stealing
If you’re on the other side of this, and would rather have less Pokémon in 3D, you may be interested in Let’s Go Pikachu & Eevee.