Pokemon Versus Fans: A Complicated Relationship

The Pokemon Company recently made headlines when two former employees said it considers Nuzlocke runs to be “on the same level” of illegality as ROM hacks, igniting a passionate discussion on the role of fan modifications to the popular video game franchise.

The company responded quickly, clarifying that it “does not have any issues” with players following Nuzlocke rules on their playthroughs, but this fiasco is just one more development in the long, sometimes contentious relationship between the Pokemon Company, its parent Nintendo and fans of the Pokemon games.

ROM hacks have been a part of Pokemon for as long as the games have existed. Early ROM hacking devices like the GameShark, Action Replay, and Game Genie would modify a game’s files to give the player free items or access to region locked events. They were rudimentary though, and wouldn’t modify the structure, storyline, or base mechanics of the games.

Despite the relatively minor modifications these devices made, Nintendo had its sights set on them before Pokemon was born, l suing Game Genie’s parent company in 1990 to try and prevent the product being sold. The courts eventually decided in Game Genie’s favor, but the precedent was set that Nintendo was willing to vigorously defend its intellectual property, in stark contrast to Sega, who actually partnered with Game Genie to sell an official model for the Genesis.

The lawsuit’s failure also didn’t mean that the Pokemon Company wouldn’t try other, more creative ways to discourage ROM hacking. Starting in Gen 3, code was added to the games to put a humorously named “bad egg” in a cheater’s party if the game detected a ROM hack.

Over thirty years after the original court case was decided, ROM hacks remain popular even as the original ROM hacking devices have fallen out of favor. Instead, players use ROM hacks to make drastic changes, like making old games playable on new devices, adding custom storylines, new mechanics, and even making whole new games within the Nintendo’s engine.

Some players also used ROM hacks to add Pokemon back into Sword and Shield after hundreds were not included in the original version of the games. The Pokemon Company responded by threatening to ban those players from online play, further straining the already-fraught relationship it has with its fans.

While Game Genie successfully fended off Nintendo’s lawsuits, Pokemon fangames have had a harder time evading legal action. Despite being made by enthusiastic fans of the franchise who don’t profit off their work, the Pokemon Company and Nintendo still find it necessary to shut them down at every turn.

While many fan games are ROM hacks themselves, the important difference is scale–while a typical ROM hack makes smaller modifications, all of the best Pokemon fangames take herculean effort and often years of the developers’ time to create. They’re also almost always free for download.

That makes it especially tragic when these labors of love end up getting shut down due to copyright claims. One of the most popular Pokemon fangames was Pokemon Uranium, which included a full region, 166 new Pokemon, an original storyline, and even a new Pokemon type.

The efforts of the two developers in putting together such a robust project were lauded by the fan community, who downloaded Uranium more than 1.5 million times. Unfortunately, the game was shut down in 2016, just days after its launch. While it was nominated for a prestigious prize at the Game Awards, its nomination was taken down for unknown reasons–although Nintendo’s sponsorship of the event caused speculation that it was involved in the decision.

Nintendo has continued this pattern by taking down a prominent platform for creating new Pokemon fangames, suing ROM and emulator websites for $12 million, and issuing a mass DMCA takedown against 379 fangames on a single website.

Despite the ongoing pressure from Nintendo’s lawyers, Pokemon fans keep creating new, innovative projects to celebrate their love of the franchise. Modifications remain popular ways to tweak the more frustrating parts of the original games, and there is still a thriving community building entire fangames.

Pokemon Xenoverse was released in 2020, and Pokemon Rejuvenation is older but keeps getting updates well into 2022. Pokemon fangame and ROM hacking forums remain active, and classic fangames continue to be updated.

As fans anticipate the release of Pokemon Scarlet & Violet, they’re tapping into that nostalgia by playing lovingly-made Pokemon fangames in the meantime. While Nintendo and the Pokemon Company have done their best to discourage those creators, they’ve inadvertently created a series of games so imaginative that they can’t help but inspire others.

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