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How an ambitious fan project reinvented a Pokémon classic

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Crystal Clear is a ROM hack that adds features Pokémon fans have been wanting for years

Pokemon is the highest-grossing media franchise of all time, having amassed $90 billion in revenue since its creation in 1995. Despite this, the games tend to evolve at a glacial pace, rarely making major shifts from one entry to the next. That’s why it’s so exciting that the series’s newest games, Pokemon Sword and Shield, are set to change up Pokémon’s formula in a big way. There’s a new Wild Area kitted out with a rotational camera and online support, the National Dex is no more, and instead of mechanics like Z-moves and Mega Evolutions, pokémon can now be Dynamaxed in stadiums, causing them to grow in size and take on brand-new forms.

While these changes are drastic for a slow-moving franchise like Pokémon, they’re not quite as ambitious as those of Crystal Clear, a ROM hack designed by a modder who goes by the name ShockSlayer. Crystal Clear built upon 2000’s Pokémon Crystal in order to prioritize player freedom by implementing a range of new mechanics that drastically improved upon the vanilla game. Late-game species could be encountered almost immediately after starting, trainers could challenge gyms in whatever order they pleased, and even the bothersome “evolve via trade” mechanic was rectified by introducing a brand-new NPC known as the Tradeback Guy.

ShockSlayer started modding as a young kid and was primarily focused on hardware and “portablizing stuff,” which is modder lingo for making things portable. He got into programming to supplement that. “CC was originally made as a Christmas present for a community completely outside of romhacking,” he explains. “I’d say it’s my first real software project.”

ShockSlayer started on Crystal Clear in June 2017 and mostly worked on it alone until its v1.0 release in December that year. He was determined to launch it before Christmas and for it to be fully playable, with as few bugs as possible and all the key features intact. “I basically had to learn how to program as I went, and there was a lot of data that needed to be created,” ShockSlayer tells me. There were 16 datasets for every trainer class, and ShockSlayer entered a substantial amount of that by hand. “I did the gyms first, following the same format that was already in-game,” he says. “The trainers just have species and levels, but the leaders have custom movesets.”

That aspect introduces one of the most intriguing paradigms of Crystal Clear’s ambition. Trainers all across Johto automatically scale with your level, which is important given that Crystal Clear allows you to take on all 16 Gyms across Kanto and Johto in whatever order you like. “With the outside trainers, I used a formula to automatically generate the levels,” ShockSlayer explains. “I also kept their levels lower, so that trainers wouldn’t ambush you with the same strength a gym leader would.”

On top of this, HM barriers like trees requiring “cut” are removed, while trainers along routes have their levels synced based on how many badges you’ve earned. But it goes further: although this alone turns a linear game into a sandbox, ShockSlayer has added a range of side quests and extra non-playable characters (NPCs), attaching significance to the narrative outside of your Indigo Plateau aspirations.

Crystal Clear

In particular, ShockSlayer has received a lot of positive feedback about the quest involving a Suicune-obsessed NPC named Eusine. However, his favorite additions have to do with arbitrary characters in the overworld. “One interaction I’m fond of is the receptionist in the Pewter Museum,” he tells me. “If the player doesn’t have enough money to get in, she’ll take pity on you and pretend to be distracted — ‘Wow, a FOSSIL! I’m so distracted from my job right now!’ I like to think that she wouldn’t want to deny a kid higher scientific learning because of financial limitations, so she lets them sneak in.”

Perhaps the most well-received addition, however, is the aforementioned Tradeback Guy. Back in the days of link cables, filling out your pokédex was a nightmare because some species only evolve when traded. The Tradeback Guy rectifies this, allowing you to quickly trade whatever pokémon you want before instantly getting it back, fully evolved. “A lot of hacks change evolution requirements, which I think distances the player because it drops the immersion,” ShockSlayer explains. “But with the Tradeback Guy, you have the vanilla requirements without requiring additional hardware or setup.”

Interestingly, the Tradeback Guy’s code is a mess. This was one of the first features ShockSlayer implemented into Crystal Clear, and he’s had to update it regularly since the game launched. “I really like making NPCs with a lot of dialogue,” ShockSlayer says. “For example, if you try to trade while holding an Everstone he’ll be like, ‘Dude, it won’t work, trust me.’”

Crystal Clear also ensures that you can get almost any species early in the game, which is something ShockSlayer is particularly passionate about. “I had to resort to cheating to skip Sudowoodo and unlock Eevee early, or start the game with Swinub, Larvitar or Misdreavus,” he explains. “They weren’t available to the player until after eight or 16 badges, which was too far into the game to be fun to use.”

Crystal Clear

In fact, Crystal Clear eschews Suicune as its mascot for a Swinub named Pigy. One time, ShockSlayer streamed his follower update, during which Pigy was accidentally made to do all sorts of strange things. “I was trying to get a script to work, but something went awry and his colors started to flip out at high speed,” ShockSlayer tells me. “It looked like he was at a rave — it’s actually the inspiration behind one of the Discord emotes.”

ShockSlayer is still hard at work on Crystal Clear, and he has decided that the next point of order is to introduce new narrative strands. “It’ll take me a long time to do properly, because ‘ROM hack’ and ‘good story’ seldom go together,” he explains. “Plus I want to avoid any common tropes or themes so that it’s not predictable.” In particular, he wants to remove any “chosen one” tropes. “That’s something I worked really hard to remove from CC in the first place,” he continues. “Part of being able to get lost in a world is having it not revolve around the player, and instead have its own things going on.”

At this point, even fans have gotten involved with updating Crystal Clear. The last update gifted players the ability to upload their own sprites, which they could map onto the main character — a customization option the mainline series has yet to offer. “It’s been a blast to see all the different varieties,” ShockSlayer explains. “There are some really talented artists out there and I’m glad they’re able to see their creations in the game. It’s nice to have built a community where people genuinely want to help each other improve.”

There have been some funny hiccups along the way. For example, the person ShockSlayer originally worked on Crystal Clear with visited him early in development. “One of the things we did was work on the game together, and he wanted to make a ferry service to help the player get around bodies of water without having to ‘surf,’” Shockslayer explains. Like the removal of ‘cut’ trees, this was to help with HM-less open-world traversal.

“After a lot of effort getting the boat’s animation to load properly, he started working on getting it to go the opposite way,” ShockSlayer continues. “Eventually he got the code to compile, and both of us watched as the boat went across the water... facing backwards. It was hilarious to see it working so horribly, and we joked about the boat’s captain telling the player, ‘Hold my beer!’ and then going across the ocean in reverse. Those are some pretty warm memories for me.” In fact, there’s an out-of-bounds sailor in one of the ferry maps that references this mishap. But according to ShockSlayer, nobody has found him yet.

Crystal Clear revamped the highest-grossing entertainment franchise in the world and added a plethora of details fans have been clamoring for. While Sword and Shield will be kitted out with a range of their own changes, they’re not quite as ambitious as ShockSlayer’s ROM hack, which has become illustrious within the community at large and produced a genuine sandbox experience focused on player freedom. Although Crystal Clear 1.0 was finished almost two years ago, ShockSlayer doesn’t plan on stopping yet.

“It has a special place in my heart,” ShockSlayer explains. “Hopefully I can continue to work on it until it reaches a natural conclusion. Even though thousands of people are playing CC, in my heart I’m working on all this stuff for the people who’re around me.”