sometimes i think about a pokémon romhack

I’m a fairly big fan of the Pokémon game series. (Hopefully, based on the alias i use around the internet, that’s not a big surprise.) The main-series games have grown over time to typically include a story where the player-character has some previous contact with the “leading research professor” in the region where they arrive in, gain some special/rare pokémon via this contact, take on the “Pokémon League Challenge” (which is a highly-structured region-spanning event but you don’t really see many other people taking it on, other than your “rival”), and somehow along the way foil a plot to steal some pokémon/destroy the world/do something Bad by single-handedly beating all the “bad guys” in pokémon fights. This is a critique that has happened countless times before, but i wanted to state it here for context for what this post is actually about.

There is also a fairly robust “romhacking” community around the first few Pokémon games, where people take ROM dumps and edit them to create a different experience out of it. These range from rote edits that swap the locations of the monsters (which can be abstracted into a sort of meta-romhack if all you want to do is randomize the locations; called a “randomizer”), to small tweaks to enhance the game experience for repeat playthroughs, to fully-fledged overhauls that turn the base game engine into something new altogether.

the idea

With these two elements of context in mind, i can bring in the title of this post. Sometimes i wonder about an alternate story structure for a Pokémon game that makes the protagonist “less special”, but still provides a similar game structure overall.

For example, a Pokémon game usually starts by receiving the usual game intro by the region’s “professor”, who is usually actively researching something in the region where the game is occurring. This is also where the player picks the player-character’s name and player sprite (by way of their gender, hence the occasional meme where some clueless old man looks at a kid and goes “are you a boy, or a girl??” despite it being visually apparent). Instead of having some personal connection with a leading researcher, i’d want to have it be something like “filling out the Pokémon Trainer Application Form” (with the choice of player sprite sidestepping the meme by going “gender? it’s just for the form, you can put whatever”).

The player is usually granted their starter pokémon by their connection with the professor, but i would probably have it be given as part of the Trainer Application being granted. The typical “starter pokémon” are also usually extremely rare - there’s no way to get them without this connection to the region’s professor; they don’t appear in the wild at all. As a sort of difficulty bump (and a concession to the fact that the protagonist is going through an agency to start their journey) it would make more in-world sense to get something maybe uncommon, but ultimately mediocre. The starter pokémon are usually quite capable of carrying your team throughout your entire journey, but starting by being granted a middling-tier creature allows you to pick up your team as you go, forcing you to adapt to your surroundings and take more care as you go along.

The only other major idea i would add is a concession to the pattern where the “gyms” (read: bosses) you face linearly increase in difficulty over time. Even if you didn’t expand the map into some “open world” where you’re not actually stopped from freely walking between towns, some throwaway line like “oh, you’re just starting out? welcome! let’s get your journey started off right” for the first gym, but something like “almost done completing your badge collection, i see? well done! it’s time for a real challenge” for the last one, would create this sense that the gym leaders scale their team based on the Trainer facing them.

…of course, it’s also possible to include this “open world” mechanic, as evidenced by a fairly popular hack of Pokémon Crystal that apparently got Too Popular For Its Own Good and i won’t mention here because there’s no official website for it any more. It includes this idea of “gym leaders scaling to the player”, so i know it’s not super outlandish to propose. There’s also a related idea about having the wild pokémon also scale to the player’s levels (maybe just the lead pokémon’s levels? this would make the “repel” items harder to use/useless so maybe there’s something else that would be better), like having various “level tiers” for the available wild encounters, or something like that. This one is admittedly less thought out than the others, so i’m less sure about its implementation.

And… that’s really the whole idea. I know that messing with romhacking tools, or editing one of the disassemblies of the earlier games, would involve a rather steep learning curve, so i haven’t really bothered fleshing out any of these ideas or trying them out. Maybe making the protagonist “less special” makes the game way less interesting, by dropping the “evil team” subplot entirely! Maybe it would actually be interesting but it would be really tedious to get there! Maybe something like this already exists! Admittedly, playing romhacks or randomizers isn’t really my forte, so that’s also contributed to me never starting the project. But the idea is stuck in my head, so i wanted to write it down.