ROM hacks are fun. It takes an already established concept and allows freedom to whoever chooses to put forth the effort to make their own mark. Almost like fan games, except they’re deliberately taking the code from the original game and tweaking it to their whim. Sounds kind of illegal, doesn’t it? Maybe. Seeing as I’m young and rebellious, I’m willing to look past this and indulge myself in the ideas and capabilities of people outside of the original creators’ intentions. I found out about Pokémon Christmas Hack through a Vinesauce streamer streaming “terrible” Pokémon hacks for the holidays. Thing was, he took names completely at random, so he had no prior knowledge of whether or not the hacks were bad—judging them mostly by their name or online reputation. Christmas Hack was one of the first hacks he played, and even stated that the hack wasn’t even that bad. I, growing curious at the possibilities put forth through the gameplay being shown to me, decided to look up the hack myself and experience it firsthand. The ROM hack isn’t bad at all. On the contrary, the ROM hack is actually ripe with a lot of potential.
Worked on primarily by a single person known as Mateo, Christmas Hack takes place the winter after the events of Pokémon Gold & Silver. Much of the core story remains the same, but slightly altered to reflect the passage of time. Most water sources have frozen over, the trees have a bluish tint to signify ice and frost, and rocks one could originally smash have turned to solid ice. Some architecture of the towns and areas have been altered as well; some important, some simply for aesthetic reasons. While this change in environment is an enormous contrast, the story doesn’t have the same amount of change. New characters and dialogue appear, but the story of a kid setting out on an adventure to catch ’em all remains the same, with a lot of story elements remaining the same. Starting off, the dialogue seems to have changed drastically, along with not one, but two rival characters to face off against. What’s more, these rivals are friendly rivals; gone is the smug jerk that the second-gen used to call its main rival character. Because of this, a lot of the emphasis and tension to start out the story, with the rival character stealing one of the starting pokémon and threatening you with a reason to be on your toes, goes away. The game is pretty easygoing.
I had noticed that as the game goes along, the effort put forth to change the dialogue within the game begins to decrease. At some point after the visit to a new area called “South Isle,” trainers (and specifically gym leaders all throughout) tend to speak right out of the original games. They remain in the same spot, the same sprites, and whatever else. While I was entranced with the changes to the beginning of the story, there doesn’t seem to be the same input to make the ending just as memorably distinct. In fact, there isn’t really an “end” in this version. Once the Elite Four has been taken down, the game does not continue. It’s still considered incomplete. There were times when I was playing this, especially later on, when I felt I was playing the original games, that the changes in effect were beginning to wear out and there wasn’t enough here to make me feel as though I was playing something else. The work it takes to code out all of these changes is sure to be a time-consuming and strenuous process, but it almost feels like Mateo was burnt out halfway through the process.
Of these changes, what exactly is notable, what exactly is highlighted within the scope of what people have to say? Mateo seems to have had fun creating a number of different ways that people could reflect modern times with their dialect. Specifically: memes. I’ve spotted numerous different references while playing through it, including “The [term] is too damn high,” Frozen references, references to other Pokémon titles, and a disturbingly higher emphasis on brony culture. Talking to a couple in the Radio Tower in Goldenrod City will reveal the boy being referred to as a “bronyta” for obsessing over his Ponyta. The girl next to him states that the boy gave his Ponyta a cutie mark. Hell, there is an entire character dedicated to referencing a specific character from the show! She doesn’t show up more than once, but her abrupt appearance, I’m sure, will leave many scratching their heads. That isn’t to say that this “internet slang” is present throughout the game, as it only appears maybe 5% throughout the game, but it certainly makes the game feel more memorable. Memorably good or bad depends on the player.
Regardless of the memes, I feel a decent job is done at making trainers and ordinary people feel more lifelike, more unlike the static advice-givers that they are in the original games. I found myself wanting to talk to as many people as I could just to see if their dialogue had changed and what they say. There are times when I feel the dialogue is too unnecessarily comedic, but I suppose it fits with the no-longer-serious nature of the ROM hack. Again, I wish more of the dialogue had changed later on in the hack, but I can’t ask for too much from essentially one person.
Something that really bothered me as I played is that the name of this hack is odd, as the game makes very few references to Christmas whatsoever, at least past the first two gyms. At a certain point, one will likely forget they’re even playing a “Christmas” hack. The title may as well be “Pokémon Winter Hack,” but I understand the relative vagueness of a title like that. Still, to say the hack is Christmas themed is almost a lie, at least when looking at the big picture. Perhaps that’s what attracted it to the streamer.
Another thing that bothered me was the exclusion of a number of once important areas. Slowpoke Well, Lake of Rage, Radio Tower, Team Rocket Hideout, The Lighthouse; these areas’ level of importance plummet within this hack, with a few of them not even being accessible anymore. What’s worse, one of them still hold the narrative of the original game. The Lake of Rage, which is still home to a red Gyarados despite no Team Rocket interference. The story elements that change to compensate for these now empty areas hardly do enough to fill the void left by their current state. Some, specifically the Burnt Tower, still have a little importance, but the events that transpire are so trivial and quick that one would miss it with a blink, and forget it regardless.
Enough of the narrative and aesthetic changes! What changes occurred with the gameplay? Well, new pokémon! Various pokémon (specifically ice type to match the season) have made their way into Johto, ranging from third to fourth gen. Pokémon like Zigzagoon, Ralts, Snorunt, Mamoswine, Relicanth, and Luvdisc are among the new entrants to the hack, though this also means a number of existing pokémon had to be replaced. None were really all that important, just some bugs and—Dunsparce. Dunsparce is no longer catchable… God damn it. Movesets were also slightly altered, along with updating the Special/Physical meter of the attack listing. It may just be me, but it seemed like grinding was easier than in the original, as I managed to stay within or above level range with current gym leaders without hardly trying. Again, a large majority of the game seemed too similar to Gold & Silver to feel as though I was playing a hack, and much of this is due to the unchanging battle system. It’s also become easier to obtain evolutionary stones, Rare Candies, PP Ups, and BERRIES! Lots and lots of berries!
One of the drawbacks to not really having much of a theme is the lack of a potent direction. The hack is supposedly a sequel to the Gold & Silver games, however it feels more like a reboot of sorts. Someone’s ambition to, say, update the game with modern Pokémon standards instead of making it their own thing, their own story. I feel a commendable attempt was made, and I had a good time with this hack and the potential is definitely there, but it’s not quite there yet. Some work still needs to be done to make this truly feel like a proper “sequel” as the creator states it to be. Thankfully, Mateo has come out and said that a 2017 version is in the works, promising a re-haul to make it feel far different than its current state. I’ll definitely keep an eye out, as what’s in place now is good enough to be something great with enough focus. As it is now, it’s recommendable for some of the kooky things put in, such as memes, snowy atmosphere, and new pokémon. The narrative focus, however, leaves a lot to be desired.
For those interested in trying out the hack for themselves, I’ll leave a link to a download source from the creator herself. The link also provides a place where Mateo occasionally updates the progress of this hack and other hacks she’s worked on, for those interested.