Pokemon Prism is a fan-made ROM hack for Pokemon Crystal. Over the course of eight years, creator Koolboyman and his team crafted a new Pokemon experience, which they hoped to release this Christmas. Nintendo hit them with a cease and desist four days before release. Thanks to a group of pirates, the project still made it to the internet.
ROM hacking involves editing the read only memory on video game software in order to change how the game is played. Pokemon Prism was going to add character customisation, the ability to play as your Pokemon, original gas-type and sound-type monsters and an entire new region to explore within Pokemon Crystal. The goal was to create a whole new experience.
The game was highly anticipated and an early build was played on the famous Twitch Plays Pokemon channel to show off the new features to fans. Everything seemed ready for an official release until December 21, when representatives of Nintendo sent a cease and desist to the project.
Following the cease and desist, Koolboyman shut down his website, which also hosted Pokemon Brown, a ROM hack for Pokemon Red, as well as Rijon Adventures, a hack for Pokemon FireRed. As a final build was never released to the wider public, Prism seemed doomed.
And yet, the next day, the files for Pokemon Prism surfaced on 4chan anyway. Attached with the files was a README file from pirates who claimed to be "a group of people interested in seeing ROM hacks succeed". According to the document, these folks allegedly have no affiliation with the actual team behind Pokemon Prism and instead got the files because "a dev got careless". Despite the looming threat of legal action, these individuals left an email address where anyone could reach them. So I did.
The Prism Distributors were understandably concerned with anonymity. Individuals found liable for ignoring a cease and desist can face thousands of dollars in fines. A perceived breach by Koolboyman or another member of the project could have dire ramifications. The group even denies knowing who first placed the files on 4chan. All that mattered was getting the game to the public.
"Regardless of Nintendo's legal rights, we do believe that they are destroying their fans' hard work for no reason and at no gain," they said. "Nintendo could have used this (and any other good ROM hack) as an opportunity to promote the Pokemon series in general. They don't even have to do anything other than let the games live."
The file distributed by the pirates wasn't an exact replica of what the public would have played. To avoid any problems for the Prism team, the leakers altered the game and deleted the credits.
"We would like the original developers to be recognised for what they did," the Prism Distributors said. "However, leaving their names in puts them at an unnecessary risk."
With the credits, the leakers instead opted to place a thank you message at the end of the game for fans who managed to complete it. While it might seem like these efforts required a great deal of planning, they were a last minute response to Nintendo's cease and desist.
"We assumed that if there was going to be a DMCA takedown notice or a cease and desist, it would happen long before now," the leakers said. "Prism had several pre-release versions. The cease and desist took us all by surprise."
After it appeared on 4Chan, the file spread quickly. While the team expected sites like 4chan or /r/pokemonprism to pick up the game, they hadn't imagined how far the game would spread. It's hard to get solid download numbers but fans are gleefully sharing how the game runs on their 3DS and uploading dangerous Nuzlocke runs for fans to watch.
"We did not expect was for the download links to spread to more random corners of the internet, such as YouTube video descriptions," they said. On YouTube, some are uploading Let's Plays of a game that was never officially released. Many of those videos contain links to help viewers find the game. It would see that fans took the Distributors' advice to heart: "Please do distribute it!"
2016 has cemented itself as a year rife with tensions surrounding fan games. High profile projects like Pokemon Uranium and the Metroid 2 remake AM2R were quickly shut down after pressure from Nintendo. The company also removed hundreds of games from GameJolt and another large scale takedown against itch.io on December 21.
"It is very clear to us that being extremely strict in copyright enforcement has done nothing towards reducing the number of fan games that appear," the Prism Distributors said. "All this does is attract more attention than it pushes away."
"To the various people that have reached out to thank us for distributing the game, make sure to thank [Pokemon Prism developer] Koolboyman and the nsomniart crew as well," they said. "Our work was done in 8 hours; his took 8 years."