Over the years, the "Pokémon" franchise has solidified a formula for success: explore a region, defeat gym leaders, and power up an ever-growing roster of captured monsters. However, many older fans of the franchise crave newer, more complex experiences. The normal "Pokémon" experience is magical in its own right, but the "Pokémon" universe and fandom are ripe for expansion. That is where "Pokémon Uranium," a fan-made passion project developed over the course of nine years, stepped up to fill the void.
Unlicensed fan-made games only spring up in the most dedicated of communities, and "Pokémon" has an inarguably strong following across the globe. "Pokémon Uranium" is one the most expansive fan-made games ever, boasting 150+ custom Pokémon sprites, new Nuclear type Pokémon, and an original storyline. Released back in 2016, "Pokémon Uranium" deserves an in-depth revisit to uncover why it was so well-received by fans, as well as why it still lives on to this day.
Pokemon Uranium belongs to the fans
According to the game’s official website, "Pokémon Uranium’s" development consisted of a core team of two members, InvoluntaryTwitch and JV. A Reddit thread authored by InvoluntaryTwitch in 2017 cites they started working on "Pokémon Uranium" together in high school as an after-school project.
InvoluntaryTwitch designed new sprites, wrote the storyline, and managed the social media accounts for "Pokémon Uranium." When asked how her creative process didn’t burn out for over 9 years while working on "Pokémon Uranium", InvoluntaryTwitch responded by saying that she would often work on the project "at the end of a long day of classes as a way to unwind." About half of those designing sessions were livestreamed on Twitch, but InvoluntaryTwitch has said that the archives of those have been unfortunately deleted.
On the other hand, JV was responsible for the coding side of things — creating the maps, fixing bugs, and turning InvoluntaryTwitch’s vision into a playable reality. Over time, the two devs were joined by a larger team of scripters and sprite designers. Beginning all the way back in when the devs were teenagers, "Pokémon Uranium" is the definition of a passion project.
Moreover, the creative force behind "Pokémon Uranium" has since shifted, as it essentially belongs to the player community now. Active fans are still creating fanart, engaging in community forums, and translating "Pokemon Uranium" to other languages. InvoluntaryTwitch and JV may have birthed "Pokemon Uranium", but it has since grown up and now walks on its own feet.
"Pokémon Uranium" tells the story of a new Pokémon region, Tandor, which has been affected by nuclear fallout. Accordingly, the affected region is crawling with invasions of rabid, mutated Pokémon. Take a typical stroll through the tall grass of affected areas; instead of a purple-bodied Ekans appearing out of nowhere, now there is a Nuclear-type Ekans, coated in green slime and spewing radiation everywhere.
The game-exclusive Nuclear type Pokémon come in a few different forms. There are only 7 pure-nuclear type Pokémon in the game, many of which are main characters that the protagonist interacts with over the whole course of the story. Apart from those 7 pure Nuclear-types, 36 other Pokémon can become "corrupted" with radiation, giving them a nuclear sub-type on top of their original type.
Nuclear-corrupted Pokémon act more feral than normal Pokémon, only obeying orders sometimes. Also, both Legendary and Nuclear sub-types have unique move sets flavored with radioactive goo. For instance, Uranye is capable of casting Chernobyl.
Pokémon are normally cute and cuddly, but "Pokémon Uranium" is innovative for encouraging the player to stay as far away from these mutated monsters as possible.
Not your typical cozy Pokemon game
An apocalyptic setting is nothing new to the world of fan-made "Pokémon" games. As noted by Polygon, popular fan-edits like "Pokémon Snakewood" and "Pokémon Reborn" have likewise reveled in doomsday settings. Flipping the script on typical Pokemon themes, these doomsday settings provide experiences that are unique among the usual "Pokémon" coziness.
However, "Uranium" players will grapple with additional heavy questions, including: How can we coexist with nature? What can one do about exploitative relationships? And, is Dad (the in-game character, in this case) a proud father? "Pokémon Uranium," as noted by Gameranx, immerses players within digital landscapes and ethical dilemmas never before seen within "Pokémon".
The overarching narrative in "Pokémon Uranium" is its most stand-out feature. Throughout the gym-climbing gameplay, extensive lore-dumps occur every once in a while. "Pokémon Uranium" opts to take long narrative breaks in which tons of exposition is laid out before the player. Finding the truth behind the tragic death of the protagonist’s mother leads players down further rabbit holes. The darkness in "Pokémon Uranium" isn’t just for the shock value; it actually backs it up with big ideas.
Addresses Pokemon criticisms head-on
"Pokémon" games often frame the relationship between humans and Pokémon as symbiotic, showing humans are better off because of the powers of their Pokémon companions, and Pokémon are happier thanks to the care of their trainers.
In contrast, "Pokémon Uranium" brings exploitation into the forefront. A core driving force in the story is the revelation that humans have created mind-control devices which allow them to inhabit the body of a Pokémon. Humans also create machines capable of translating Pokemon speech, which leads to more horror as those Pokémon end up begging for mercy and release from captivity. If someone goes into "Pokémon Uranium" expecting an uplifting adventure bonded through friendship, then the morally gray and unethical actions of many characters will quickly remove those naïve preconceptions.
Unsurprisingly, outlets such as Vocal Media characterize "Pokémon Uranium" as "a darker side of the Pokémon world." Further reinforcing its aim at a more hardcore audience, "Pokémon Uranium" can be played in Nuzlocke mode from its loading screen. This is a popular fan mode that dictates players must only catch the first Pokémon they see on each route — and if that Pokémon faints, they are considered dead and cannot be revived. Where Nuzlocke modes typically are fan-imposed rules to increase difficulty, "Pokemon Uranium" takes it a step further and codes those rules into the gameplay. In more ways than one, this is not your typical light Pokémon adventure.
Pokemon Uranium was almost TOO popular
Released around the same time in 2016 as another renowned fan-made adaptation, "Another Metroid 2 Remake," "Pokémon Uranium" garnered tons of buzz from both critics and fans alike. Hailed by Kotaku in as the "Biggest Pokémon Fan-Game of the Year" — and applauded by Redditors as being comparable or even better than official "Pokémon" releases, "Pokémon Uranium" has earned a stellar reputation.
The title’s reputation exploded as more players flocked to it, resulting in unexpected consequences. On its launch day of Aug. 6, 2016, the website domain hosting the downloadable version of "Pokémon Uranium" crashed for hours due to the excessive amount of incoming traffic. After the site was back in business — and prior to the developers pulling the plug — "Pokémon Uranium" reportedly garnered over 1.5 million downloads.
Unfortunately, Nintendo is one of the more brand-sensitive game publishers on the market. The servers for the game were taken down just a few weeks after launch. according to a blog post by InvoluntaryTwitch, this was done before receiving any legal notices, but the group was served a cease-and-desist order from Nintendo. Sent with express shipping, the team knew that very real legal pressure from Nintendo sealed the deal for their 9-year long project.
In order to play "Pokémon Uranium" now, one would have to find one of those original files either from a friend who had downloaded it previously or hosted by a file-sharing site. As noted by Kotaku, there are still torrents of "Pokémon Uranium" available to download today, with hundreds of active seeders and a larger fan community keeping the project alive.
Original or not?
"Pokémon Uranium" gets tons of credit for the raw amount of content added through the original creative efforts of JV and InvoluntaryTwitch. Again, 150+ sprites and a new type of Pokemon were invented for the title, which demonstrates plenty of effort in the brainstorming process. However, what is often overlooked about those 150+ unique sprites is just how many of them seem to have one-to-one "inspirations" from the original series.
Upon closer inspection, some fans believe that most of the new Pokémon in "Uranium" were at least partially inspired by already-existing Pokémon (per TV Tropes). For instance, Jerbolta is a bit of a Pikachu clone (with elements of Sonic the Hedgehog), Birbie is basically Pidgey, Cubbug is similar to Caterpie, and the list goes on.
This is not to say that an incredible amount of original creative effort did not go into "Pokémon Uranium," but it is at least interesting to compare the derivatives in "Pokémon Uranium" to the source material.
Pokemon Uranium is packed with easter eggs
As an apparent result of InvoluntaryTwitch and JV starting development of the game during high school, "Pokémon Uranium" is packed full of anime, video game, and online meme culture references. After all, doesn’t it make sense for a couple of kids to put the things that inspired them into their own creation?
Playing "Pokémon Uranium" with a keen eye for these references makes the experience even more fun, as many of the references are pretty humorous and come out of nowhere. The "Pokémon Uranium" Reddit community has pointed many of these out, including an excellent "Naruto" reference: Deeper into the story there is a side-quest involving Ninja surfers protecting a hidden village. Upon defeating their leader, the player protagonist is declared the Hokage (a.k.a. the village leader in "Naruto").
Then there are the hilarious "Star Wars" prequel jokes. Early in the game, players meet a young man brooding about how his mother doesn’t understand how much he hates sand. Likewise, references to other "Pokémon" games are sprinkled throughout the narrative, with numerous instances of "Pokémon Red" being referred to as "all the rage."
"Pokémon Uranium" players can still enjoy the story with all these references flying right over their head, but meme-savvy fans will revel in the Easter eggs littered throughout.
Speculation of Nintendo copying "Pokemon Uranium"
The timing of the release of "Pokémon Uranium" and the features present in official Pokémon games "Sun" and "Moon" (released in late 2016) have attracted the attention of conspiracy-minded fans of the project. As previously noted, "Pokémon Uranium" stayed in development for over nine years, meaning that work on the project started all the way back in 2007, when the latest official installment in the franchise was "Pokémon Platinum."
Because of this, Reddit community members have pointed out some features in "Pokémon Uranium" that were ahead of their time. Examples include having a rival that takes a Pokémon with a type disadvantage to your starter, a professor who takes the remaining starter Pokémon as his own, a tournament of ex-gym leader battles replacing Elite Four, and tools to replace the series’ longstanding HM system.
A lot of these features can be found in "Pokémon Sun" and "Moon," which has led some fans to believe that the developers changed the development of these major with just a few months to go before launch, all in order to incorporate stolen ideas from "Pokémon Uranium."
It can be said with pretty much complete certainty that Nintendo did not copy "Pokémon Uranium." Regardless, "Pokémon Uranium" was innovative in a number of ways, which has ultimately helped it stand the test of time.