Pokemon Sun and Moon image courtesy of Nintendo

Meet the Hackers Taking Pokémon Into Their Own Hands

From ROM hacks to modded monsters, these hackers are breathing new life into their beloved franchise.

|
Apr 17 2017, 7:21pm

Pokemon Sun and Moon image courtesy of Nintendo

Pokémon Prism was just days away from release when developer Koolboyman was hit with a cease and desist from Nintendo. At that point, the Pokémon fan-game had been in development for eight years and some change.

Prism, a ROM hack of Pokémon Crystal, featured a Pokémon league with 20 badges to collect, an entirely new region—the Sevii Islands—and introduced Pokémon from more recent generations in old-school 8-bit form. It was an impressive undertaking that gained attention after the game first appeared on Twitch Plays Pokémon and various gaming publications.

When Nintendo brought its DMCA down on the project, though, Koolboyman was quick to comply, though an early build of the game was leaked on 4Chan and picked up by a team of new developers who continue to work on the game, providing updates on the Pokémon Prism subreddit.

The Pokémon hacking community is resilient. There's always been an innate mythos and curiosity surrounding the Pokémon games, rife as it is with mysteries like Missingno., who appeared as some sort of liminal messenger between the captivating world we spent hours in as children and the inner workings that made it happen. The hackers just take it one step further.

All Pokémon Prism screens courtesy of RainbowDev

Setting up shop on the Pokémon ROMhacks subreddit and the longstanding Project Pokémon Community, they are a passionate, and surprisingly not-so-secretive bunch, though they tend to keep to themselves and maintain a tight check on illicit activities. ROMs are not to be distributed—instead folks who wish to play a ROM hack can download it as a patch for a ROM they've made from their own retail copy of the game. Some modders have even created tools that make it easy for people to apply patches to their ROMs.

The hobby isn't without legal risks, but that hasn't put a stop to these dedicated Poké-fans, some of whom who have been at it since they were children.

One hacker, Kobazco, recently launched Pokémon Rising Sun and Waning Moon. These mods give trainers and kahunas in Pokémon Sun and Moon a serious difficulty boost, with improved trainer AI and fully EV and IV trained Pokémon teams with professional movesets. It is not for the faint of heart (or faint of Popplio). He's one of many modders who see hacking as a way of adding the features they personally want to see in their beloved games.

"With Pokémon games . . . the main thing that drew me into difficulty hacks was likely the Nuzlocke challenge and the potential to think more strategically," Kobazco explains.

Another hacker, Dio Vento, also got into hacking when he noticed that difficulty hacks were a dime a dozen. He wanted to see a mod with some real polish and an official sheen, so he created Pokémon Nova Sun and Umbra Moon.

Above: the trailer for Nova Sun and Umbra Moon.

To get started, Vento wrote up formulas and projected leveling curves before delving into the actual modding itself. He takes the most joy, though, in the finished project.

"Seeing positive feedback on my hacks feels wonderful, and when people tell me that my hacks have rekindled their enjoyment of the Pokémon series, I feel like I've done something good with my free time," Vento shares. "I suppose that's the main payoff for ROM hacking for me. I get to help people enjoy my favorite game series in a whole new way."

Shiny Quagsire, or Max Thomas, an administrator at Project Pokémon, got his start in the Gameboy Advance era, honing his coding skills. A curiosity about the inner-workings of the games encouraged him to delve into hacking.

"Emulators and modding tools were within easy reach for the GBA, and since I was fairly young with time to burn—I think I was around 11 or 12—I ended up going from simpler things like mapping to picking up scripting and programming relatively quickly," he says.

"I get to help people enjoy my favorite game series in a whole new way."

He quickly developed a fascination with the hidden underpinnings coded into games. He saw hacking as a way to uncover a game's secrets that would otherwise stay buried. For him, the process provides a captivating glimpse into the original designer's thought process.

"What I find fascinating is being able to take a program and find weird things you wouldn't see otherwise," Thomas posits. "Looking at Yoda Stories for PC has led me to find key combos which went undocumented since the game's release in the '90s, and reversing scripts lets me find out that they keep variables by changing hidden map tiles. Weird things like that are always fascinating."

Thomas is now an accomplished programmer in his own right, and has even branched off into hardware mods. It's difficult to take advantage of software exploitations without a true understanding of how the hardware itself works. "I guess between GBA, 3DS and Wii U I've found it interesting to also look at other hardware as well," Thomas explains.

His consequent forays into reverse hardware engineering have had real-life applications, too. "At my last internship, my team had a period of time where we had to work with less than optimal documentation for the hardware we had, and having worked with weird Nintendo hardware helped a lot, personally, in working out some unknowns."

Fellow Project Pokémon admin Michael Scires shares similar motivations when it comes to hacking—he loves seeing what's under the hood, though his interests largely lie on the software side.

Image courtesy of Project Pokémon

"I really enjoy understanding how the things I use work, and enjoy learning what makes them tick on a deep level," Scires notes. "That and the challenge of documenting formats and figuring out how to accomplish cool things with no external guidance provides all the interest and motivation I really need."

Scires got his start helping to develop tools with Kaphotics, another prolific Project Pokémon coder. "I love seeing people use the tools I've worked on to make new, creative projects," he says.

"Spending hours and hours learning precisely what makes games tick is amazingly fun, and has led to all sorts of fascinating discoveries," Scires says. "When Game Freak implemented anti-tampering protections for Pokémon Sun/Moon (which I've affectionately dubbed 'memecrypto'), they made some mistakes in implementation that resulted in non-standard encryption modes I've never seen used anywhere else, and which my simple analysis suggests falls prey to some interesting flaws."

Scires takes a certain pride in uncovering these subtle mistakes in Game Freak's code. "There are certain areas where I feel, at times, I might understand the intricacies of what the code is doing better than Game Freak does, and those kinds of moments are among the best," he admits.

Luckily for Scires, Game Freak hasn't taken an especially hard stance on hacking. Sun and Moon Producer Junichi Masuda didn't necessarily object to the modding community, instead encouraging interested players to apply for a job with the studio.

PKheX image courtesy of Project Pokémon

Scires is largely interested in tools like PKHeX, which allows players to check the legality of their hacked Pokémon to ensure they're safe for online play. If a Pokémon is stored in a ball that it would not normally be caught in, or if it knows a move that it can't learn in unaltered versions of the game, that trainer runs the risk of getting hit with the ban hammer.

What started as a project solely between Scires and Kaphotics has now branched into a group effort within Project Pokémon, and members of the competitive community are looped in. Scires still adds updates to the tool as he sees fit, but as it stands now, PKHeX has 45 contributors, and twenty changes to the base code were logged in the week of this writing based on community requests.

PKHeX is a vital tool for ensuring Pokémon from modded games hold up in online play. Many Project Pokémon members, Scires says, are participants in the Pokémon Video Game Championships (VGC).

All Pokémon Sun and Moon images courtesy of Nintendo

"When Sun and Moon released, one of the first things we did was document all of the new moves/stats and send them to Project Pokémon members involved in Smogon [a competitive Pokémon community] so that battle simulators could be updated quickly."

Of course, using hacked Pokémon opens up a brand new can of worms separate from the DMCA's sweeping through fan-games. Hacked Pokémon are not uncommon in the competitive scene, which has raised some controversy within the community.

Game Freak has made it much easier to train competition-grade Pokémon without hacking. Players can now see their Pokémon's EVs and IVs, stats that can be perfected through specialized training and breeding, and new mechanics like Hyper Training, which allows players to use in-game items to boost their Pokémon's IVs quickly. It's still a time-consuming process, but nowhere close to the grind serious VGC players faced in the past.

Despite these measures, hacking within the competitive sphere still exists. "People will always do it and will always try to justify it," Joe Merrick, who runs longstanding Pokémon fansite Serebii, stated. 

Merrick says that hacking has spoiled the competitive metagame for some players, though he appreciates the creative efforts of modders who keep their work out of the VGC.

"It's a bit of a double-edged sword," Merrick admits. "Many will argue that it allows for people to do things quickly and adapt to the metagame quicker, but conversely I know a great deal of people who have given up playing because it's so widespread that they feel like it gives an unfair advantage to the players and that they'd have to hack in order to keep up," he explains. "It's a shame that it has happened, but many people don't want to cheat and don't find it fun to face people who have just hacked their Pokémon and even have the literal exact same team."

Kobazco takes a similar, hardline stance. "In a competitive scene, I think they're making the right choice," he argues. "Players who modify their save files to gain an advantage in a tournament where money or other rewards on the line should not be allowed."

Others are more open to the idea of hacked Pokémon, as long as they're legal and don't give players an unfair advantage. Dio Vento, who started playing competitively in Pokémon Diamond used to be opposed to the idea.

"Back in those days, I was definitely salty if my opponent busted out a 5IV Heatran, because I knew it was modded. The chance of getting five 31 IVs on a legendary in Gen 4 was lower than one in 30 million!" Vento remembers. "Even bred Pokémon could only be influenced so much back then.

"In Sun and Moon, though, the new Bottle Cap system and the Destiny Knot for breeding make it a snap to get Pokémon like 5IV Timid Tapu Koko. Because of that, I don't mind if someone skips the two or three hours necessary to breed or Bottle Cap something in Gen VII. I think Game Freak has done a great job making competitive play more accessible."

Vento has even created a version of his own ROM hacks designed especially for competitive players. All Pokémon caught in the wild in Umbra Moon and Nova Sun are 100% legal, though rare Pokémon and Pokéballs are much more common. He feels that hackers and traditional competitive players are finally on even ground.

Still, mods have caused some commotion over the past few months, as the Pokémon Bank launched for Pokémon Sun and Moon in January. The Pokémon Bank allows players to transfer Pokémon from previous generations into Sun and Moon. Naturally, modded Pokémon got caught in the mix.

Trainers caught using illegal Pokémon online were thus banned by The Pokémon Company. These bans have barred thousands of players from online access, and while the Pokémon Company has refrained from commenting, many in the community believe it is because these players are using Pokémon with illegal moves or Pokéballs.

Despite the recent bans, however, Nintendo has so far had a fairly neutral relationship with the ROM hacking community. While they are quick to come down on popular fan games like Pokémon Uranium and Prism, ROM hacks that add cosmetic changes or alter a game's difficulty generally go uncontested.

"As someone who is very much a hacker just for the fun of it," Scires explains, "it's much easier to do what I do and not really worry about Nintendo sending you [cease and desists] than it is to be a creative type making your own derivative game."

Hacking has grown both easier and more difficult at the same time. Newer games have more intense anti-modding encryptions, but Scires admits they're pretty easy to crack if you've been at it for long enough—in his case, three years. Recent Pokémon games also share a number of core similarities that make them easier to hack more quickly.

"Pokémon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire and Pokémon Sun/Moon both use the same engine as Pokémon X/Y, and the file formats used in all three games are similar if not identical," Scires explains. "Every time we've made tools to make modding easier, those tools have been reusable going forwards, and documenting how things work once lets us much more easily understand how they work in newer games."

Pokémon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire screen courtesy of Nintendo

Thomas feels the largest challenge is in getting your work out there. Distributing ROMs is a sticky subject. Distributing full ROMs is illegal, but it's also difficult to patch personal ROMs derived from legit sources.

"DS and 3DS ROMs don't patch as well since they have real file systems instead of data in one giant blob," Thomas explains. "Easy distribution of mods on 3DS can also be tricky since it can sometimes require custom firmware which isn't always accessible to those on the latest firmware or even those who just use the homebrew launcher."

With all of the difficulties and controversy aside, mod hacking seems an unshakeable presence in the larger Pokémon community. Pokémon hacking has developed into a massive collaborative effort, and the collective knowledge-base that's been gathered over the years has made it easier to get around the obstacles that arise from increasingly complex technology and online gameplay. Whichever side of the fence you're on, it's hard to deny the level of creativity and technological talent Pokémon modding has fostered over the years.