Nearly every Pokémon player I know has, at one point during their career as a trainer, handled a hacked Pokémon. Even prominent Pokemon players have been suspected of cheating, and in a single competition, The Pokémon Company has caught thousands of cheaters at once. Pokemon's online bank system, which stores monsters for players, has also been flooded with impossible Pokemon. The online trading system, where players exchange Pokémon, has plenty of impossible monsters that shouldn't exist. Cheaters and hackers are everywhere -- and even worse, many of them are very smart.
Pokémon has always had a healthy community of hackers and cheaters that circumvent the game thanks to tools like Game Shark, Action Replay, Powersaves, 3DS card readers, and special programs that can save and edit Pokémon files. Game Freak has never been particularly good about stopping people using these devices: in earlier generations, it was fairly easy to cook up a fake rare Pokémon with boosted stats, and incredible configurations that aren't normally possible in-game. It was so easy that it wasn't uncommon for hackers to, in their endless generosity, introduce many hacked Pokémon into the trading economy.
Programs used to hack Pokémon allow players to dictate everything from a Pokémon's levels, to its abilities and moves. A smart cheater will put care into their fake Pokémon by taking into consideration what the real Pokémon looks and acts like. A Pikachu in Pokémon X & Y can only be captured in certain locations, and it can only learn certain moves, for example. Anyone that wants to trick someone else into thinking the Pikachu is legit could dictate all the information that makes up a Pikachu, down to things that aren't even typically visible to a player under normal means -- like the way the game codes a Pokémon's name.
All you have to do is put in the right information in the right boxes in the right program. Alternatively, players can also create fake Pokémon with the right stats, breed them, and hatch a Pokémon in-game with the right configurations passed down genetically by the parents. Technically, the offspring would be legitimate in every way as far as the game is concerned, even if its parents were manufactured by the player. And this is all assuming that the hacker actually cares about getting away with it, which often isn't the case -- it's not uncommon to find hacked Pokémon with wildly unfair/impossible configurations.
Pokémon with wildly unfair or impossible configurations are easy to find thanks to hacking.
Back when I dabbled with Pokémon hacking as a teenager, it only took me a few minutes to cook up a fake Pokémon. Within a day, I had a box full of fake Pokémon that I didn't know what to do with. While it took part of the fun out of the game for me, it highlighted just how easy it is to become a Pokémon hacker in the first place. Many of the people I've talked to that have opinions on the subject have admitted to me that when cheating is so prevalent in the community, it's very tempting to just give in and start cheating. When in Pallet Town, right?
Of course, not everyone feels the need to tamper with Pokémon -- but it's still a constant concern for some players. Now that Pokémon has become an increasingly online game, trading has become easier than ever -- and with it, so has the proliferation of hacked Pokémon. There are systems in place that prevent users from bringing hacked Pokemon into the online trading system. Notably, recent games prevent users from uploading Pokémon that are too hacked -- as in, if they have ridiculous stats, or if the game knows the Pokémon can't exist under normal means (like say, a shiny monster at level one that only exists in the game as a standard-colour monster at level 70), then a hacker can't send the monster online. This stops the hackers that don't put care into making convincing Pokémon, but as always, players have found ways around these roadblocks. Hackers are just making slightly less broken and ridiculous fake Pokémon now, but hacked Pokémon still exist. That's why, throughout the years, unreleased Pokémon have spread around the Pokémon community.
Shortly after Pokémon X & Y were released in 2013, for example, pictures of three strange, exotic Pokémon started floating around. These were Pokemon that nobody had seen or captured in-game. Well, nobody aside from hackers and cheaters, that is.
The Pokémon, which we now know as Diancie, Hoopa and Volcanion, were creatures that series developer Game Freak hadn't technically released yet. It took Game Freak months to officially reveal Diancie, the rock/fairy critter that was the star of a recent Pokémon movie. And they didn't officially acknowledge the existence of the menacing-looking Hoopa until this week -- over a year after the Pokémon was leaked. Volcanion, the third legendary Pokemon of the trio, still hasn't been acknowledged by Game Freak yet. At this point, officially announcing the Pokémon would just be a formality: hardcore players everywhere have seen the unreleased legendary Pokémon, or have heard rumours about them. A dedicated fan wouldn't have to try very hard to get their hands on the unreleased Pokémon either, thanks to a bevy of hackers that give the monsters out like candy online.
For Pokémon fans, this frenzy around unreleased Pokémon is nothing new: people have been hacking and glitching the franchise to acquire rare, unreleased Pokémon since the original games. It all started with Red and Green. Development on these titles was nearing an end in 1995 -- nothing more could fit on the cartridge. Well, almost nothing. Right before development was finished, game designer Shigeki Morimoto noticed that there was a teensy amount of space left over. He knew that nobody was supposed to change anything in the games anymore: the development process was supposed to be done. Morimoto went ahead and programmed one final thing into Red and Green anyway: the legendary Pokémon called Mew.
"We put Mew in right at the very end," Morimoto explained in a Iwata Asks interview. "The cartridge was really full and there wasn't room for much more on there. Then the debug features which weren't going to be included in the final version of the game were removed, creating a minuscule 300 bytes of free space. So we thought that we could slot Mew in there. What we did would be unthinkable nowadays."
Pokémon would go on release in Japan in 1996, and initially, it had a slow start. The games didn't crack the top ten on the Japanese charts after release. But then, fans started telling other people about how good the games were -- and about this secret Pokémon hidden inside of them.
"It wasn't actually supposed to appear in the game," Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo, said in an Iwata Asks interview. The pink legendary's in-game description seemed to echo this, as it says that Mew is "so rare that it is still said to be a mirage by many experts. Only a few people have seen it worldwide."
Those people weren't normal, everyday players. The players who encountered Mew were often cheaters who had learned through word of mouth how to exploit the game so that it would spit out Mew in an encounter. Countless guides over the years have been published which explain the process -- but on a technical level, what happens is that the players figured out how to manipulate the game's memory in their favour. Since Mew's information was stored on the cartridge, they found a way to brute-force the game into using that information. Voila: Mew could appear in battle, if you knew which trainers to battle and when.
Pokémon blew up in the way that it did because people became obsessed with an unreleased monsters.
Nowadays, Mew lays claim to one of the biggest gaming myths around: the S.S. Anne truck. According to this myth, a truck found somewhere in Pokémon Red & Blue could be pushed using the move strength. Underneath this truck, the legend goes, was Mew -- the unreleased Pokémon that Game Freak hid in the game. We now know that this myth is false, but the rumours floating around Mew were so intense, that even Game Freak partially attributes Pokémon's wild success to Mew's reception. That is to say: they think Pokémon blew up in the way that it did because people became obsessed with an unreleased Pokémon -- so much so that they were willing to tamper with the game to acquire it. This was back in 1996. Players are still reacting similarly to unreleased Pokémon now, in 2015.
In response to the Mew hype back in the 90's, Game Freak devised a plan that would give select players a chance to acquire Mew. Using a Japanese magazine called CoroCoro, Game Freak launched a contest. Nearly 80,000 people entered the contest. Only twenty people won, and they had to physically send in their cartridges to claim their prize.
"There was a really incredible response to CoroCoro Comic's announcement of the Mew offer," Satoro Iwata recalled in an Iwata Asks interview. "I feel that's really when things turned round for Pokémon."
"I remember feeling that I'd never really witnessed a game selling like that before," Iwata continued. And sure enough, a year and a half after its initial release date in 1996, after the contest in CoroCoro, Pokémon went on to become number one on the Japanese charts -- eventually becoming the huge phenomenon it is now. All because one game designer threw caution into the wind and programmed a surprise into the original games. Or, more accurately, all because players were determined to hack the game to get a Pokémon they weren't supposed to have.
If cheaters are smart, there might be no telling whether or not the Pokémon is hacked.
Since then, Pokémon has seen no shortage of special monsters that players can only acquire through special events held by Game Freak. Game pre-orders, movie tickets, visits to special locations, and even special downloads have all been graced with legendary Pokémon that players can't acquire anywhere else. Unless, of course, these players cheat or hack the game. This is where one of the biggest frustrations that Pokémon fans have with the franchise lies: unless you spend more money, or happen to be lucky enough to live in the right city, you can't acquire the full compendium of Pokémon available. While the Pokémon lore does say that some Pokémon are rarer than others, it's a staple of the franchise that means that, no matter how hard a player works, it's entirely possible that they won't catch em all. For a completionist, this is no good.
Adding to this frustration is the existence of hidden values which determine a Pokémon's stats. Pokémon caught in the wild are not made equal: some have better stats than others. While the game has a system in place that allows trainers to train and breed Pokémon with good stats, abilities and natures, and while it's gotten easier to train perfect Pokémon over the years, not every player feels like they should have to put in the time to get competitively viable Pokémon. For these players, Pokémon's complexity only shines once you have souped-up Pokémon that have been trained to perfection, because that's where players have to actually think about strategies and tactics. Anything before that is considered a useless grind that serves little purpose other than getting in the way of the 'real' game.
Players that feel strongly enough about this might resort to abandoning the game altogether, instead opting to play online versions of the game -- like Pokémon Showdown, an online competitive Pokémon simulator. Here, players can create a digital team with ease, without having to raise or train them as they would in the handheld version of the game. One of the modes available is called "Balanced Hackmons," and it allows players to use any Pokémon with any move with any item. Curious players can let loose, without the restrictions of the actual game, or what it considers "legal" monsters.
Many players, however, resort to cheating and hacking. While many games are affected by the whims and desires of cheaters, few games feel as profoundly defined by the actions of cheaters as Pokémon does. Every time I trade Pokémon, I examine it for a while. I'm not alone in this practice: there is a certain paranoia that defines the Pokémon community, the likes of which seem more fitting in a dystopia written by Philip K Dick than they do in a game published by Nintendo. That's because hackers coach each other on how to make convincing hacked Pokémon.
As a result, I usually, I look at all of a traded Pokémon stats, moves, and abilities -- I do my best to see if anything seems fishy. It's like a strange version of counting a newborn's fingers and toes in an attempt to make sure everything is in its right place. And eventually, I give up my digital examination, because there might be no telling whether or not the Pokémon is hacked. Besides, if the Pokemon is a rare one, or if it's one that I really want, would I really mind that it's fake? It's not like the game treats a "fake" Pokémon any differently from a "real" one. They all work the same in the game; sometimes they're virtually indistinguishable from one another. Wouldn't life be easier if I just didn't care?
Honest Pokémon players treat fake Pokémon as if they were abominations, not worthy of use. But the act of creating fake Pokémon, or tampering with the game to play with Pokémon that shouldn't exist in a legit game is an old one. Most famously, there's the glitch Pokémon Missingno, which countless players over the years have hunted down and captured. Its taboo nature only makes it more enticing for curious Pokémon players.
Pokemon cheating isn't always done with malicious intent. Players have created hacked Pokémon to give out on Wonder Trade, just so the system isn't flooded with offensive hacked Pokémon. Just this December, Pokémon players banded together to give out special Pokémon during Christmas in mass quantities -- something that can only be easily done with the help of hacked Pokémon. Some players are hacking the game just for laughs:
Many players that hack Pokémon choose to keep their creations within the game's limits of normal stats, moves, and abilities, not to trick people into believing the Pokémon is real, but to keep a semblance of fairness to the game. It's also not uncommon to see online forums where hackers discuss hacked Pokémon, but punish anyone that asks about how to get fake Pokémon past Pokémon's online systems. That's not to say those conversations can't happen in private, but my impression is that even cheaters have a conception of fairness, and they like to stick to it. Whether or not this idea of fairness matches that of the average player is another matter altogether.
Most Pokémon cheaters aren't particularly hardcore -- anybody with a bit of extra cash can buy devices and use ready-made programs to do the deed for them. But over the years, a new class of Pokémon cheater has arisen -- ones with deep technical know-how. I had the chance to speak to a Pokémon hacker recently, who is a part of the group called "Project Pokemon." This is the group that originally leaked much of the newest information surrounding the most recent secret legendaries -- Diancie, Hoopa and Volcanion.
"[Hacking Pokémon is] mostly for the knowledge of how things work, and I've always enjoyed modding games and getting them to do what I want," the hacker, who goes by the handle reisyukaku, explained to me over email. "Being able to customise things to your liking is great," he said. Reisyukaku says the members of Project Pokemon have similar ambitions. "We're all just a bunch of people that come together because we are interested in how the game mechanics and or file structures work and want to help the community with info," he explained.
An engineering student with a penchant for programming and computer security, reisyukaku started hacking Pokémon during the days of Ruby and Emerald. Back then, things were different -- reisyukaku describes early Pokémon games as having a "simple" structure that made it easy to dig into them and mess with things. Nowadays, it seems like Game Freak has put more effort into stopping hackers like reisyukaku, as more of the information stored in Pokémon is encrypted and hashed.
But with the help of other hackers that mentored reisyukaku, he ended up learning cryptography, which helped him figure out how to tinker with the save files of Pokémon games. It's not the sort of thing that the average Pokémon player is able to do.
"I came into the 3DS scene with already a solid background in computers," reisyukaku explained. "I already programmed and had some, but very little experience reverse engineering things. And I knew how to read CPU instructions. If that sounds like you, then jumping right in won't be too bad, otherwise, you might need to do some homework," he joked.
These types of skills allowed Project Pokemon to dig into the files of the Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire demos, released before the official launch of the newest games, and find out tons of information about the newest, unreleased Pokémon. Though Game Freak hasn't officially revealed all the Pokémon yet, thanks to Project Pokemon, players already have a good idea of what these secret legendaries are all about. While The Pokémon Company teases the latest movie's star, Hoopa, hardcore players have already determined that Hoopa is responsible for all the legendary Pokémon available in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. Still, the marketing for this Pokémon assumes it will be a surprise to everyone. Players also know that Volcanion is somehow tied to adventuring characters that appear in the Battle Frontier. Stuff can change between now and release, of course, but the fact remains: many players have already been spoiled when it comes to the upcoming legendaries.
Creative Pokémon hackers aren't stopping anytime soon. Reisyukaku has created a program that allows them to mess with models and textures in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, and he told me that it's not uncommon for Pokémon hackers to create specialised programs to do specific things. Playing as the game's villain, for example? Totally possible. Playing as the coolest character you meet in the game? Also possible:
"It's still in its infancy due to the fact there is a lot of stuff we don't know about...model swap[ping] was neat a few months ago, but now we're talking custom models and textures," Reisyakaku explained. "I cant really say how long that will take to get to an acceptable stage, but I've been making decent progress with it.
"My goals for future mods will be fully custom models for Pokémon games so far...I've been thinking about making an overhaul mod for the game, but I can't promise anything," he continued.
In general, Pokémon hacking for the newest generation of games seems to be at an early stage, but already, the results make it seem as if this might be the most tweaked Pokémon game yet. Another prominent Project Pokemon member, Kaphotics, published a video a few months ago that showed them toying with the text that the game displays:
MegaShaymin, another Pokemon hacker, is toying with changing the colours of Pokémon to a player's liking, instead of what the game dictates:
It's the type of mod that would make shiny Pokémon seem boring: why settle for the special Pokémon the game can generate, when you can make Pokémon any colour of the rainbow you'd like?
Hackers have also figured out how to fiddle with the game's wallpapers:
And they have even increased the, uh, assets of certain characters:
For Reisyakaku, the nature of these mods is harmless -- not at all in the same league as people who make fake or unfair Pokémon, even if they're both going outside of what Game Freak intended.
"I don't condone cheating online, that's not cool," Reisyakaku said. "I have tested to see if hacks work online, but only with other hackers."
Regardless of how you feel about Pokémon hackers and cheaters, one thing is clear: the franchise has actually benefited greatly from its secret, unreleased legendary Pokémon. People wouldn't bother hacking the game to get said Pokémon unless they really wanted them in the first place. Hacking Pokémon, for better or worse, is here to stay.