By now finding a "haunted" cartridge is a scary video game story cliche, but one series in sells the tale better than the rest. Pokémon's piracy problem, coupled with fan's' hunger to see a mature monster-collecting game allowed "Pokémon Black" to become one of the most famous Pokémon creepypasta to ever dwell on the internet.
On YouTube, videos covering the fake Pokémon Black have hundreds of thousands of views, and the original story has been posted on a ton of online forums and wiki pages.
It goes like this: The author, who is of course anonymous, tells the reader that he collects bootleg Pokémon games. He happens to come across a peculiar black Game Boy cartridge with a blank label. On the surface, the game functions more less the way you'd expect it to - there are Pokémon battles, gym skirmishes against bosses, dozens of monsters to collect, and so on. The big difference is that the player is also given a level one "Ghost" creature, who only has a single move, Curse. The narrator goes on:
Defending Pokémon were unable to attack Ghost -- it would only say they were too scared to move. When the move "Curse" was used in battle, the screen would cut to black. The cry of the defending Pokémon would be heard, but it was distorted, played at a much lower pitch than normal. The battle screen would then reappear, and the defending Pokémon would be gone. If used in a battle against a trainer, when the Pokéballs representing their Pokemon would appear in the corner, they would have one fewer Pokéball.
The implication was that the Pokémon died.
While Pokémon's identity is largely peppy, there's always been a darker undercurrent to its world. The original releases famously had Lavender Town, a place where trainers buried their dead Pokémon and where some even came back to haunt their masters.
Pokémon has continued to etch out more somber tales in follow-up games, with one generation briefly questioning whether or not people should be enslaving monsters at all. But none of it has gone very far - many of the darker elements are relegated to things like Pokedex entries or smaller moments. And while you know that Pokémon die, it's never your own pets - and you certainly never kill other trainer's critters.
Monsters only ever faint or black out. This is why a creepypasta like Pokémon Black has lasting power.
Image source: Pokemon Origins
While the internet yarn isn't an impressive piece of writing, there's an air of taboo to its subject matter. What if the monsters you fight actually get hurt and die? Could your conscience bear it? Would you look at Pokémon in the same way? Through things like creepypasta, fans go where Pokémon will not follow.
While many Pokémon fans have gotten older, the games don't seem to have matured with them, leaving the door open for fan-led remixes.
In the case of Pokémon Black, the narrator finds out their Ghost also kills the player, leaving only a tombstone in his place. After beating the game and having no one left to battle, the game becomes empty. Eventually, the Ghost turns on the player:
Regardless of the buttons you pressed, you were permanently stuck in this black screen. At this point, the only thing you could do was turn the Game Boy off. When you played again, "NEW GAME" was the only option -- the game had erased the file.
Reading Pokémon Black in 2017, it doesn't feel particularly frightening, but I can't deny its influence. Part of the reason so many people latched on to the story is because it's ordinary enough that it could be true. I've spoken to dozens of fans, and they have told me they have all found a Pokémon bootleg at some point, or have wanted to.
"The [Game Boy Advance] ones used to come through ALL the time when I worked at a GameStop (2005-6)," Twitter user Kate Cox told me. "Someone would try to trade one in weekly at least."
Like Pokémon Black, many of these real-world bootlegs appeared to function normally, only to reveal some huge discrepancy in the experience, like poorly-translated games that sometimes weren't Pokémon at all. One fan I spoke to, for instance, described a "Pokémon Pearl" that turned out to be a side-scroller, and a "Pokémon Diamond" that was a top-down Digimon game.
Unsuspecting parents or young children would often buy these cartridges without knowing what they were getting, because they didn't know what the packaging should look like.
"I got Pokémon 'Silver' from my grandma," Twitter user Murillo Carvalho recounted. "It was a yellow cartridge and one of my Exeggcute transformed into a Charmeleon that [leveled] up past 100."
Then again, even aficionados got duped from time to time. Recently, there was a viral video where someone becomes enraged after discovering two Nintendo DS cartridges that are supposed to be HeartGold and SoulSilver actually turn out to be Spongebob games instead. This happened in 2017!
Worse, many of these bootleg Pokémon games cost money yet are profoundly broken.
"Had a copy of Fire Red for twenty pounds that overwrote my save data every time I booted it up on my DS," Twitter user Holly told me. "Left my DS running for a year."
Some bootlegs, like Pokémon 'Vietnamese Crystal,' have such strange translations that they are now collector's items sought by hardcore fans.
"Pokémon is the second-best selling game franchise of all time, so it only makes sense that it would be a target for copycats," said Racie Briggs, proprietor of Telefang.net. Telefang, as many fans know, is infamous for being a common franchise found in bootleg Pokémon cartridges, often appearing as "Pokémon Jade" or "Pokémon Diamond." Like Pokémon, Telefang was also a monster-focused game, except it was never released overseas. That's where the bootlegs came in.
Image source: TV Tropes
Actually, cartridges with Pokémon games are still manufactured to this day. Late last year, for example, pirates leaked a Pokémon fan game that was shut down by Nintendo, and not long afterward, it ended up playable on an actual Game Boy. Mostly, though, many bootlegs are old, and nobody has much of an idea of where they come from. Briggs speculates that many might have a similar origin.
"Diamond and/or Jade are often included on multicarts alongside the infamous 'Vietnamese Crystal' bootleg, suggesting they may have possibly come from the same company," Briggs said. "Hard to say though, really, since game pirates tend to copy from each other a whole lot too. Graphics and music ripped from Telefang have been found in several other unrelated bootleg games, for example."
Playing Pokémon games, then, involves constantly worrying about bootlegs. And bootlegs are inherently mysterious, because you never know who is making them, why they exist, or what you're going to find inside.
"I saw Diamond featured on a Pokémon fan site, where commenters were speculating on the strange monster designs," Briggs said. "'Is that snake thing a Lapras evolution? Your starter looks like Sandslash??' and so on. I recognised that it obviously wasn't a real Pokémon game, and found its true origin to be incredibly intriguing in its obscurity. It really bothered me that they got such a bad rap as 'Pokémon ripoffs' because there was clearly something unique underneath the bootleg hack."
The more bootlegs Pokémon fans encountered, the more whispers of forbidden or secretive cartridges would spread.
"I also remember playground rumours about Pokémon Jade, and one kid had it, but wouldn't share it," wrote Twitter user Scott Geldzahler.
Sometimes these bootlegs genuinely sound like creepypasta - or at least, that would be the hype surrounding them. One fan I spoke to this year said he once played a game that seemingly froze within a dark cave, with no way to escape or make progress. I have no idea if the story is legit, but these are the sorts of stories that keep my eyes peeled whenever I'm going through a flea market or a used-goods store.
I know the creepypasta version of Pokémon Black isn't real, and I'm probably never going to find a disturbing fan game out in the real world, but it doesn't matter. Through bootlegs, Pokémon culture becomes deeply intertwined with mythmaking, meaning that a fictional story has the capacity to reflect a deep truth about the series as a whole.
We'll all play the newest official releases, but many fans are still yearning for a chance to find a cursed, unexplained Pokémon cartridge.