Pokemon Uranium kicks ass and you should play it

Ah fandoms. While they can do terrible, terrible things, sometimes, they can achieve wonders. Like spending nine friggin years (NINE!) working on Pokémon Uranium, an original Gameboy-style Pokémon game, complete with a brand new geographic region, a truckload of shiny new features, and a metric f-ton of wholly original Pokémon. Released for free. Yep: a nine-year development period, for a game released for free.

Of course, this being 2016, the story doesn’t just end there. After 1.5 million downloads, the Uranium Team, in response to lawyerly threats from Nintendo, decided to take down the game.

Yet, it’s hard to miss the *wink*wink*nudge*nudge* in their official statement: “We will continue to provide Pokémon Uranium-related news and updates through our official channels.” Meaning that those who’ve already downloaded the game can continue to receive updates, and those who haven’t, well, you’ll find a way, right?

Amid all the Pokémon Go hype, Pokémon Uranium quietly released a little more than a week ago. Driven by middle-school nostalgia (as well as, let’s be real, an adult fascination with what amounts essentially to magical fighting cocks with Stockholm Syndrome), I snapped it up almost immediately. Of course, as an avowed completionist who insisted on fully levelling up and evolving their first Weedle and Rattatta from the Pokémon Red Version, I have yet to finish the game. But I played enough to conclude that Pokémon Uranium is great!

While the Uranium Team has taken pains to maintain an old-school Game Boy Color vibe, right from the start of the game, you’re treated to something not found in the original titles: an intriguing plot.

You begin the game with an ominous prologue, where your mother, a badass nuclear physicist, seemingly sacrifices herself to save an entire city from meltdown at a nuclear power plant. I say “seemingly” because she’s obviously going to return, especially since the game promises the appearance of the dark and corrupted “nuclear-type” Pokémon, who are simultaneously super-effective and weak against all elements, and won’t always listen to you if you use them on your team. Oh, and there’s a new nuclear Evee-lotion, so all my hopes and dreams are fulfilled.

Right after the portentous intro, the game reverts back to the lighthearted, laissez-faire  atmosphere familiar to all Pokémon fans. It’s a tone shift that really harkens back to 90’s era video game storytelling, where mixing high action, moving emotion and ridiculous comedy was the norm.

Treading this familiar thematic landscape adds to the nostalgia-factor of Pokémon Uranium, which manages to be a true sequel in all the right ways. Familiar gameplay concepts are largely unchanged: catch Pokémon, level and evolve ‘em, beat trainers. Explore a dark cave or two (mercifully shorter, but with a new set of annoying chiropteran Pokémon). Hopefully earn some badges.

Yet, sequels only work well if they add new features that complement the core gameplay and Uranium does that in boatloads. Some, like the Pokémon speech-translator, I have yet to reach, but the new Pokémon, for example, are awesome.

Weird type combinations seems to be a theme: your starter choices are all dual-type, and include a water-electric horse, and a grass-steel kitten. Oh, and you don’t just pick a starter: the professor quizzes you on which one best fits your personality. Later Pokémon include specimens like the rock-psychic sentient meteorite Cometeor, and my team favorite Baashaun, a sheep who fights dark and dirty.

(Also there’s no Pikachu in sight because OMG there are so many cooler Pokémon out there and can we just forget that stupid electric rat?)

The Uranium Team has also made the game much more challenging. Trainers are credible threats. Even wild Pokémon can knock out your whole team if you’re not careful. And you actually have to care about status effects (“Tail-Whip” and “Growl” were actually useful, you guys!)

Furthermore, the team decided to codify the popular “Nuzlocke Mode” of tackling the original games into a fully-fledged gameplay mode for diehard thrill-seekers gamers, where your Pokémon die instead of faint, item use is limited, and you can only catch one Pokémon per route.

I’m only a fraction of the way into the game, and I’m already loving it. Sure, there’s some grinding involved, and you have to run back and forth between towns only to be waylaid by irritatingly aggressive avians, but again, that’s true to the spirit of the Pokémon series (and maybe I’m just fanboying, but it’s not that bad…).

Maybe Nintendo’s legal threats are wise: the Uranium Team has made a Pokémon game that rivals many in the series.