There’s something about playing Pokémon Uranium that feels strangely illicit for a game about collecting cute critters. The developers behind the massive fan project took down the ‘official’ download last weekend to avoid any potential legal action by Nintendo, so the only way for me to play the game was to track down someone else who could send me the file.

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Elsewhere, Pokémon fans are circulating the game however they can, be it through private smuggling between users or through online torrents. One torrent site I checked had a handful of different download sources, each one with hundreds of seeders and leechers. Pokémon Uranium is far from dead: actually, the developers plan to continue supporting it through an in-game patching system, only available to those who already downloaded the game, or those who figure out how to obtain it through other means. Before the shutdown, Uranium devs reported downloads to the count of over a million players, but it’s likely that the actual number is higher than that, given that they can’t possibly track everyone who downloads the game through other means.

“We’ve released a 1.0.1 patch already that fixes some [bugs],” said Involuntary Twitch, the creative director behind Pokémon Uranium. Pokémon Uranium was 9 years in the making, and Twitch is 22—which means she’s been working on the game ever since she was a young teenager. “We’re listening to feedback, and trying to improve the game even more. In the future, I hope to add on additional content to the game in the form of ‘Sidequests’ that will allow players to capture the 8 missing Pokémon in the Tandor Dex, and more.”

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Between Pokémon Uranium and the fan-made Metroid II remake, there’s been a clamor surrounding fan games recently. Curious if Uranium was actually worth the hype, I decided to try it out myself. My version of Pokémon Uranium can’t seem to get the in-game patching to work, so I ended up playing the first version of the game released to the public. You can watch me play through the opening moments, as well as the first gym, in the video below, if you’d like:

I’m only a few hours into the game, but the biggest thing that’s stood out to me is the difficulty. Official Pokémon games are notoriously easy if you stick to the story mode, rather than the multiplayer. You play a Game Freak Pokémon game less for a challenge, and more for the charm and monster collecting.

Uranium is different. I actually fainted during my second battle, right outside my home town. That’s never happened to me in an actual Pokémon game. My battles in Uranium had to be more tactical, which is a good thing. I almost never use status effect moves in the main Pokémon games, but in Uranium, they’re very useful for survival. I don’t have the confidence that I can win every trainer battle on my first try, and I’m a Pokémon veteran. This, to me, is the most exciting part about Uranium. For those of you who are masochists, the game even has a built-in Nuzlocke mode, too, though it may be too brutal for most people.

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As for the themselves, Uranium features a mix of official monsters and 100 fan-made ones. Some creatures definitely carry a whiff of off-brand Fakemon. For all the shit that people give official Pokémon designs, you’ve got to hand it to Game Freak: they know how to design iconic critters. And to be fair to the Uranium devs, they did get some good designs in there too. I’m particularly fond of one of the starters...

Uranium does not let you just pick a starter, however. Instead, you take a small test at the start of the game, and it assigns you a starter based on your answers. That’s how I got this guy:

It’s OK. I still kicked my rival’s ass. Actually, it almost felt like Uranium was poking fun at the rival more overtly than the games would, which tickled me. The writing goes between being very serious and potentially dark, to silly. There’s some whiplash there, but then again, who plays Pokémon for the writing?

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Production-wise, the game feels slicker than you’d expect from a fan project, you can tell that the developers put a lot of care into making a high-quality game. The creators have done what they can to make the 2D sprites pop, even when it comes to smaller things like menus. I consider the modern 3D Pokémon games an improvement, but Uranium still manages to ping my nostalgia with its visuals.

I didn’t get far enough in to see things like the new Nuclear type, or the mechanic that allows you to speak to Pokémon. I did however try the online features, and to my surprise, they worked perfectly. I put up a Pokémon for a Wonder Trade, and got a random monster back from a stranger. I was playing very late on a weekend, which tells me that Uranium is indeed as popular as the developers say, even after taking the main download link down. Hell, there’s even a Twitch Plays Uranium happening right now, as you read this.

“A lot of people seem to be experiencing a strong emotional reaction to the news that we decided to remove the official download links—and this was bolstered by plenty of news articles & blog posts about the game claiming we ‘shelved’ the project after 9 years, or that Nintendo’s vindictive corporate suits got the better of us,” said Twitch.

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“But our own feelings about this situation are completely different. Our game project, the one we devoted so many hours of our lives into and the thing that was for both of us the single greatest creation in our young lives, had been download more than 1.5 MILLION times. That’s an incomprehensibly huge number of people playing our game. We are seeing the joy that players get when they enter the Tandor Region, this world that we created. They are sharing the game with their friends, and documenting their playthroughs on YouTube and on every social media site. They are rejoicing in finding shiny Pokemon, breeding to get that perfect 6IV competitive set, and are helping each other to formulate strategies and discover secrets we hid deep within the game.

“You’d only need to glance at our Forums or Discord to see the sheer numbers of people that have been inspired and brought together by this game. So, for everyone who’s saying this game is dead—far from it. It’s more alive than ever before.”

We’ll have more in-depth coverage of the Pokémon fan game scene in the weeks to come.