2016 has been a big year for the Pokemon franchise. Pokemon GO has managed to bump media attention and interest in the Pokemon brand to the highest it has been since the 90s. Sun and Moon are coming in November and are looking to be the most innovative take on a mainline Pokemon game ever. And on the fanwork side of things, Pokemon Uranium got released. Boasting 9 years in development Pokemon Uranium is a fangame blending the 3rd generation of Pokemon games – Ruby and Sapphire – with the series’ modern improvements. It then takes that blend of nostalgia and polish and wraps it up in what, it feels, fans want out of a Pokemon game. Ideally, I’d’ve liked to have looked at Pokemon Uranium as a stand alone thing. To look at it’s merits, themes and systems as if they weren’t part of a much messier web of fan-creator relations. But that doesn’t seem to be possible. Despite not having played a Pokemon game since 2007, Pokemon Uranium is as deeply entrenched in what it means to be a Pokemon game – to be a Pokemon game like those from my youth – as possible. Because of this I’m going to be looking at Pokemon Uranium from that perspective. That this is as much a love letter to Pokemon, as it is a game inspired by the franchise.
(On the off chance you care about spoilers about this game you might want to avoid this piece. Whilst I don’t go into too heavy detail about the plot of the game that’s mainly because there isn’t much detail to go off of. I don’t make any particular effort not to spoil anything, so you have been warned.)
Traditional Pokemon games tend to be easily ‘broken’. For the most part, you can just use your starter Pokemon, or another strong pokemon you like the look of, and beat the entire game rather easily only using it. That Pokemon will get over-levelled, and so long as it’s strong enough with decentish moves it will solo most every battle in the game. Similarly, the amount of experience your Pokemon get from just fighting everything you come across will result in your whole squad getting over-levelled, though to a lesser degree. Pokemon games do not tend to be particularly hard. Pokemon Uranium aims to fix that. Instead of naturally getting over-levelled, in Uranium you will be under-levelled. And not just that, wild Pokemon and Trainers are harder than ever. With smarter AI, and higher stats compared to Gamefreak’s games, Uranium will not hesitate to wipe your team if you make even a single mistake mid-battle, or even just not level enough.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Changing the pacing of a Pokemon game could allow a different, yet interesting, exploration of that kind of world. But Uranium doesn’t do anything to facilitate that. The game requires you to grind battles in order to keep up with the opposition you’ll face, but gives you no way in order to sensibly do so. Wild Pokemon are tough and give little experience. Whilst revisiting Trainers both takes time and they get much tougher on repeat visits.
Which makes it’s inclusion of a Nuzlocke mode – a mode where your run is heavily restricted and where you lose Pokemon if they ever faint – remarkably strange. If you were to lose a ‘good’ Pokemon at any point, you could easily be in a situation where you’re soft locked out of playing any more. Running back to the start of the game in order to grind Pokemon closer to your weaker Pokemon’s levels might be impossible. Either because you can’t beat the wild Pokemon on the way there, or because you’re at one of the many points in the game where you cannot leave certain portions of the map. Money, early on, is scarce. You need to beat trainers to get money. You need healing items to keep your team alive.Trainers can be incredibly tough. If you don’t fight them you won’t get money. If you do fight them you could end up using more healing items than you’d earned beating them. This is true even without playing Nuzlocke. Multiple times I only barely got through an area, my Pokemon no longer being able to even attack let alone win a fight. Multiple times I ran out of money early on, spending it all on healing items. Healing items which were all gone by the time I got near the end of the next route. You could argue that just scraping by is testament to the knife edge they’ve balanced their game around. I’d probably say I got lucky with the moves my Pokemon learnt near the end of these routes.
This brutality isn’t limited to just how fights work in the game. The opening cutscene shows the protagonist’s (who no matter what avatar you pick will be referred to by they/them) Mum being ‘killed’ in a nuclear meltdown. This loss negatively impacted the protagonist’s father to such an extent that he ceased to act as their parent any longer. Eventually leaving them with a Grandparent to dedicate himself to his job for a decade. If you were to ask the pokemonuranium subreddit about the story in Uranium you’d get responses praising it as a more mature and engaging story compared to the main games. I disagree with this completely. Whilst the events of the plot rule the game, you are often ‘locked’ into certain areas of the map due to plot, and the game world does change due to them, the plot is minimal. Lots of things ‘happen’ in the sense you’re told to go fight these Pokemon time and time again, but that doesn’t really build up to anything. It doesn’t really matter that you beat up Pokemon here, or beat up Pokemon there, because that’s all that is happening for most of the game. It isn’t until you get towards the end of the game that there is anything more than that going on.
Even then the central themes of Nuclear power, Pokemon slavery, and the passage of time, are only ever really handwaved. You’re given a lecture about how nuclear power works at one point. This lecture doesn’t really serve any purpose. The meltdowns (yes plural) in the game don’t actually make any sense. They only really serve as an Evil Force to allow Mountaindew coloured evil Pokemon act threateningly. The ethics involved in using Pokemon for power? You’re just told “it’s bad” and then it is never touched on again, unless you count Evil Scientist Who Is Evil And Does Evil Things as being along those lines.
Is this kind of ‘edgey’ themed story telling unique to Uranium? No, not at all. In fact, Uranium wears it’s influences so blatantly by more or less stating where it got it’s ideas from at every opportunity. You have an old man who tells you that the Legendary Pokemon of creation talked about in this game are like Those Legendary Pokemon from Those Games. You have the aforementioned evil scientist who’s working on the device behind the events in Pokemon Colosseum. All the children in the game are playing Pokemon Red and Blue, or Gold and Silver. At every possible instance, Uranium states what it likes, over and over. Even the Evil Pokemon of Uranium are more or less a reskin of shadow Pokemon from the Gamecube spinoffs, with a ‘unique’ twist of being incredibly obnoxious. These Pokemon take and deal an incredible amount of damage, do not listen to orders, and are more aggressive than Wild Pokemon tend to be. In a mechanical sense this just makes all the key story battles you getting your team wiped by them easily, or you wiping them easily. No inbetweens. In a thematic sense, it’s just the Gamecube games again, except the world of Uranium does little to manage that grit. Nuclear Pokemon, the negligent Dad, the missing Mum, none of them really conclude or go anywhere. They are just things that exist.
My issues with the game’s plot could be really minor ones. It isn’t like mainline Pokemon games, for the most part, have particularly deep, compelling or thought provoking storylines. What they tend to be powered by is a charming setting and twee optimistic adventures. But Uranium’s incidental writing also tends to be abysmal. -chan and internet culture memes are the bulk of other Trainers dialogue. Not even threaded within their speech, these references are simply stated. This is most troubling in the game’s treatment of women. The very first gym you visit you have to unlock via breaking into the Gym Leader’s house using a copy of the key given to you by her stalker (don’t worry he makes sure to state he has many more). The game then proceeds to make jokes about how she is no longer the Champion of the region and is just an early game Gym leader so give back those keys. This is both demeaning in the sense of it making a joke out of incredibly dangerous and stressful real world harassment. And in the sense that it clashes with the actions the game intends you to make. That being exploring people’s houses, talking to everyone, and just having a fun adventure with the friendly Pokemon you catch on the way.
If this was an isolated instance I could perhaps overlook it as meaning well but ultimately messing up, but most women’s text in the game is atrocious. I’ve already mentioned the -chan culture memes but they are present in often the worst ways. You have your Fake Gamer Girl, your tentacle porn references, the general early Pokemon game issues of women taking the backseat to a bunch of boys having an adventure. There’s an overbearing tone of that kind of internet discourse smeared over most of the game’s dialogue and plot progression. Your rival, for instance, starts the game as a literal cry baby self obsessed kid. He’s egotistical. He breaks down in tears over you beating him and hides in his room. It’s incredibly obnoxious, and purposefully so. As by the end of the game, after going through multiple bouts of tragedy, trauma and abuse, he’s grown into a much more mature character. It is the perfect example of someone thinking “character development is good writing” rather than realising that it’s just a buzzword. Character development can be good, bad, and many other things. It isn’t an intrinsic good in and of itself. And in Uranium’s case, this character development is the only real things that happens in the game. Your rival forfeiting the championship to you is the closest thing to a resolution anything else in the game ever gets.
Moving on from just the text of the game, Uranium’s own Pokemon are quite the mixed bag. On the one hand you’ve got your Pokemon that look like they came out of a Pokemon Fusion app. You have your double headed Charizard Diglet, and your Sonic x Pikachu hybrid. There’s also your Pokemon that really look like they’ve strapped bits of Digimon to them. A razorbladed plant cat, a Shrimp (with gun), Fallengel because we’re Persona now. And lets not even start on how Uranium’s fakemon (the fan-name for their unofficial Pokemon) creators decided “lets stick a brain on a fish and call it a good one”. Or even the literal Xenomorphs in this game. Because having a character named Ripley and multiple shoutouts elsewhere wasn’t good enough. There’s little in the form of cohesion towards the Pokemon in this world. Whilst I do not know enough about Brazil to know whether this region supposedly being based on Brazil has succeeded at that goal or not, but at least with the Pokemon in the game there’s very little thematically tying them together outside of Uranium’s love of ‘unique’ type combinations.
Not every fakemon in this game is bad. There are some really quite cool visual designs in the game. Like we have Masking and Dramasama, two Theatrical Pokemon that take an ability from a special mainline Pokemon and work wonders with it. They are interesting visually, have a fitting aesthetic and are interesting mechanically. There’s also the Ditto replacement Pokemon. I don’t know why they decided to include a Pokemon that’s functionally identical to Ditto rather than Ditto but it has a cute design. But for every interesting and fitting design in this game, there’s two more that are either copy and pasted from other Pokemon parts, or worse, references in the crudest of ways. (I am aware Masking and Dramasama are basically lifted, design wise, from Hatoful Boyfriend. But I feel they work on their own merits, as opposed to literally a Xenomorph).
At least even the messy designs have a lot of mechanical variation. As I’ve already mentioned one of the few clear design goals for the game was to have a lot of interesting dual type Pokemon. Yeah there’s the Rattatta clone and the Pidgey clone in the game, but for the most part there’s a huge variety in type combinations you’re going to end up with in your team. Each starter is dual typed for example (no the fire one is not fire fighting, rejoice). Making them even more effective against each other, whilst also being stronger against a wider variety of Pokemon, for the most part. There’s a trio of elemental bugs that you encounter really early on and can train if you’re missing fire, water or electric from your team. Don’t want a bug? No worries, there’s a bunch of other fire, water and electric types available early on and more. Whilst the presence of a rock steel combination Pokemon in the very first cave you meet is utterly brutal balance wise, since early Pokemon tend to have moves that are abysmal against that type combination, it also serves to give you an early Steel type. Something that I have never experienced in a Pokemon game as Steel is often reserved for endgame Pokemon, with maybe the occasional midgame one.
Yet. All these dual typings clash hugely with the game’s Nuclear Pokemon. Nuclear is super effective against every non-steel or nuclear type. Meaning, all these interesting type combinations make your team really weak to the plotcentric Pokemon you’re going to meet. Even the presence of that early steel type seems to exist just to give you something to help you deal with these team wiping monstrosities. It’s a mess. On the one hand you have some clear dedication to bringing out some unique type combinations. And on the other, your only way of progressing will punish you for having fun with them. Trying out interesting Pokemon can just lead to a world of trouble later on if you didn’t pick up That One Steel Type.
There’s a lot more I could talk about in Pokemon Uranium. How the game making it easier than ever to see your Pokemon’s IV’s (traditionally hidden values unique to each Pokemon that makes them ever so slightly different to even otherwise identical Pokemon) encourages catching identical Pokemon when you get one with bad stats. And how this clashes even more with how brutal the early game is and how restricted money can be. I could talk about how none of the cities really feel like they’re part of a whole region. Or how the 6th Gym and it’s city is legitimately brilliant and how no other city in the game compares to the Venician design, and shoujo style stories held in it. And maybe some day I will write more about these things. But for now, I feel I’ve expressed how messy a game Uranium is. It’s a game made out of love for the Pokemon franchise, but it’s also a game held back by the culture that let it exist. It is a game constantly juggling what it wants to do with things it put it in that simply subtract from them. Pokemon games are charming fictional worlds, they’re compelling and hide depth beneath a simple and easy to learn mechanics. Uranium often loses sight of this. But it’s still an impressive fanwork. As a reminder about what makes Pokemon games great, it works amazingly.
I do not regret the time I spent with this game. Whilst I constantly found myself at ends with it’s writing, it still has a lot of what makes Pokemon games great. I can still explore this wide world, even if it is a lil lacking. I can still catch and train a variety of different Pokemon, even if the way they function as game mechanics is more prevalent than ever. And there still is some of those great incidental moments that really make for great games. As something to get me interested in the franchise again before Sun and Moon comes out, Pokemon Uranium is great.
(All screenshots were taken from the 1.01 patch + unofficial patch out at that time of the game. Pokemon Uranium technically speaking is no longer up for download ‘officially’ though it’s subreddit has download and patch links, since there are server issues at the moment, readily available.)