ROM hacks are fan made games which usually utilize the assets of the game they’re based off of, add the creator’s flare to it, and there you go.
Pokémon has quite a popular ROM hack scene. On this very website, I reviewed Shock Slayer’s “Crystal Clear,” and rightfully gave it a very positive review.
That said, seeing as how these games are ultimately made by amateurs, there will clearly be bad ROM hacks just as there could also be well made ones.
Enter Radical Red and Dark Rising. Both are ROM hacks of the first generation remake “Pokémon Fire Red and Leaf Green.” The overall quality level of both, however, is drastically different. Both ROM hacks are very well known amongst the Pokémon fan base.
This piece will aim to compare and contrast the two, with the goal of highlighting what makes a good and a bad ROM hack.
Reader discretion is advised, as the poorly developed ROM hack does make a terrible joke about suicide, and the mentioning of it in this article could be a trigger.
We don’t go to the trouble to download or purchase these games so that we can just play the same exact thing as the original. Likewise, creators wouldn’t waste their time just making the same thing all over again. So when edits are made, they should be done with the interest of refining and enhancing the gameplay experience. The gameplay is the absolute #1 most important aspect of any video game, so it is imperative for a ROM hack to do this.
Does Radical Red perform well in this aspect? Absolutely. It hits on all cylinders. Gameplay is challenging, but players are given plenty of tools, unique and fresh, to succeed. It is accommodating to all play styles possible, and as the difficulty is kicked up several notches from the original work, Pokémon battles are consistently entertaining and even thrilling in some cases. Radical Red smashed it out of the park with this one, easily garnishing a grade of an A+. Or S if you prefer that.
Does Dark Rising accomplish this? Absolutely not. Gameplay is very clunky. Challenges are artificial; the only reason any battle ever gets even slightly hard is because opposing Pokémon spike in level dramatically, and the game doesn’t give the player anywhere near enough tools to compensate. This forces the player to extreme amounts of tediously boring grinding, made worse from the fact that the under-leveled wild Pokémon they have to work with make the grind even longer and more annoying. When the player finally amasses the tools to competently make their Pokémon of a comparable power level, gameplay becomes jokingly trivial. Opponents just seem to pick moves at random, using seemingly deliberate, ineffective strategies. The AI is even poorer than the original games. That’s to say nothing of how many development oversights create annoying game breaking bugs quite commonly. Simply put, Dark Rising gets an F for gameplay.
Right up there behind gameplay is the game’s storyline. Some popular video games, such as the DOOM franchise have been successful with little emphasis on the storyline, but Pokémon is different. As a slow, turn paced game, it doesn’t have the flexibility to just sell out the storyline in favor of maximizing the gameplay anywhere near as hard as the heart thumping DOOM games can. So the storyline should be interesting and rather captivating. As these are ROMs done in the creator’s vision, they are just about always leaving their fingerprints on an original game’s story. These could be significant tweaks, or they could even be complete overhauls.
Does Radical Red perform well in this aspect? Yes, it does. It’s a game that is based predominantly around the gameplay, but it packs some short and sweet goodies in its storyline. It stars Team Rocket leader Giovanni in a much larger, villainous role as the player actually has to directly, in the Cerulean Cave, intervene on his efforts to use Mewtwo to take over the world. This results in a jaw-droppingly epic double battle, where the player joins forces with the Champion Lance to put an end to Giovanni’s scheme once and for all. Overall, the storyline is done up well, the game seems to know its place and doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. I’d give it a solid A.
Does Dark Rising perform well in this aspect? You can tell that the creator, at some point, had a large schematic for putting together what should have been a really interesting storyline. However, it all flops because the end result totally lacks refinement and enough effort to see it through. Dark Rising totally throws out the entire original storyline, isn’t based in the Kanto region as it creates its own region and cities, and there is a slew of original characters and a new evil team for the player to contend with. Unfortunately, the design is so laughably poor that it impedes these efforts entirely. Many major characters are just slightly reskinned versions of the original game’s major characters. Darugis is the main villain, and his two generals, Vladimir and V, are just Team Aqua’s Maxie and Team Galactic’s Cyrus with different clothes and new names, respectively. That trend basically stems throughout the entire game, and it makes it hard to actually recognize them as the characters the game is trying to portray them as. This lack of identity isn’t helped by the fact that territories are named exceedingly barebones names, such as “Lavaburn Forest,” “Grass Isle,” and “Icetown.” It looks like the developer tried to fit about a year’s worth of storyline crafting into about two weeks. For that reason, I’m unfortunately inclined to give it a D-. I only refrain from giving it an F because the creator, at least on paper, actually seemed to have an interestingly new layout, but didn’t actually go to the effort to see it through.
In ROM hacks, you can get a glimpse as to the type of person who made the game by how they utilize self-inserts, such as putting their own self into the game for a cameo appearance, adding friends and/or fellow contributors in a similar capacity, to how they create unique dialogue lines, territories, and even Pokémon. This gives the game some surprising depth and makes it easier (or harder) to appreciate.
Does Radical Red perform well in this aspect? It performs absolutely astoundingly. I would go out to a bar for a drink with their creator, and I’ve never even met the guy before. Various adult, but not NSFW (mostly) humor is sprinkled throughout the whole game. It doesn’t overwhelm the player, but these comedic relief appearances occur just frequently enough to feel fresh, and the humor is amazing. From a vendor who sells the Pokémon move “Play Rough” and markets it as “a move just like your Mom in bed!” to Nurse Joy at the Indigo League telling the player “go get your ass beat lmao” completely out of nowhere, all the way to the creator himself implementing himself as a boss fight in the most humorous way possible, this game is oozing with personality. This relatability makes the game feel warm and fresh. Definitely would give this a strong A+
Does Dark Rising perform well in this aspect? Unfortunately not. The game absolutely suffocates the player with cringy material throughout the entirety of the game. Unique dialogue seems to venture wildly out of character at numerous points. One of the most prominent personality traits to be gathered from this game is ‘laziness’. Virtually every part of this game, which markets itself as a brand new, standalone, totally original game, is a simple and rehashed version of something taken straight from the original game. To give an idea, when touring through the Numasitty City corporation building and trying to free it from Team Dark Rising’s evil clutches, there are signs in the building that read “Silph Co department building” and the interior of the building is the exact same thing as the original game’s Silph Co department building. The creator wasn’t even diligent enough to take off the original name, for Pete’s sake.
The most egregiously horrible trait Dark Rising commits however, is when it makes fun of suicide. The player enters a town called “Montage Fortress” and witnesses what appears to be a man named “Nerd” seeming to be about to jump off a several story high building. The main character tries to encourage the man not to jump, but the man then proceeds to make a stupid joke about how hard the Pokédex is to fill, and the scene is over.
Overall, the grade for this game in that regard is clear: F across the board.
Normally, the original assets used can deliver quality enough graphics and textures to the point where presentation is never usually a serious issue. Still, in order to have your cake and eat it too, it would be best if the chef didn’t accidentally drop any cockroaches into the frosting…
Did Radical Red perform well in this aspect? Without question. In fact, the creator reshapes the user interface completely and styles it very well. It looks like a fifth generation game on the DS has been seamlessly integrated into a third generation Gameboy game. All Pokémon, which the game ends up including up to the eighth generation, are added into the game with their original cries, good looking poses/avatars, along with their move sets and abilities. The creator even goes to the length to include Mega evolutions and Dynamax Dens into the game. This game has all the feel and design of an eighth generation game, a game that is in fact sixteen years older than the original third generation product is. Overall, extremely solid work, definitely worth a grade of an S (above an A).
Does Dark Rising perform well in this aspect? Sadly, this is probably the game’s biggest shortcoming. There are typos very frequently in dialogue lines that frequently accompany horrible grammatical errors, any Pokémon newer than the third generation looks horribly compressed, and wasn’t given their own cry but rather that of a third generation Pokémon or older. When half of the National Pokédex has the same cry as Unown and their avatar is mangled up and looks like a ten year old painted it, the presentation is going to suffer. Overall, awful presentation just reminds you through and through out that you could, and should, be playing a much better game.
So go out and play Radical Red, which I’d give a grade of an incredible S. Not Dark Rising, which only gets a D- because I felt generous and respect that the creator, for at least five minutes at some point, had ambitions and made something totally new. Even if it sucks.
And for prospective creators out there, please take note of what Radical Red does. It sets the blueprint for how to make a truly amazing ROM hack.