Pokémon Uranium, from Involuntary Twitch and JV, projects the very real dilemma of nuclear power into the fantastic Pokémon universe. This unlicensed fan-game is unique among many such offerings because nine years went into its development and it was released with a completed story. On August 13th, after a week of explosive website traffic and 1.5 million downloads, Nintendo issued a DMCA notice of copyright infringement, despite the creators' disclaimers that Uranium is a non-profit homage to the Pokémon franchise. Shortly thereafter the Pokémon Uranium Team shut down all official support of the game, only for an "Unofficial" server to continue support on Reddit. The takedown of Uranium is one of the latest in a trend regarding such fan-made works, but not all such projects have fared as well. Nintendo in particular has had a tenuous relationship with its fan-base as of late, often failing to satisfy demand for creative use of its adored intellectual properties while quashing the efforts of independent developers to do so. But Uranium is more than a good Pokémon game, it makes a political statement the likes of which Nintendo could never allow to sully its brand.
Like any great fan-project, Uranium needs to be understood in the context of the larger Pokémon universe. The catchy brand name is a portmanteau of the words "pocket monster" referring to a wide variety of creatures one can capture, collect, and train, mainly to use in battle against other trainers. It has become popular to suggest this premise amounts to glorified cock-fighting, and official games have made attempts to address this, but the ambiguous relationship between humans and Pokémon has always been the crux of the franchise. It is a metaphor for environmental balance. The weakness and resistance mechanic of the games associates Pokémon with natural forces and the villains of the franchise often seek to subdue "legendary" Pokémon akin to animistic deities that control climate, plate tectonics, or even space-time. Pokémon are one of Japan's many pop-culture products derived from the spirits of its ancient natural religion, the commoditization of which symbolizes the country's Western industrial transformation. But in the twenty years since Team Rocket vowed simply to harness the power of Pokémon to rule the world, no official version of the games has made use of this paradigm quite as incisively as Pokémon Uranium Version.
The protagonist is the child of a family broken by nuclear disaster, a nuclear physicist mother lost in the unexplained explosion of a power plant, and a workaholic father distanced by his resulting grief. The antagonist of Uranium is actually a Pokémon, Urayne, and its mysterious masked partner known as Curie. As Curie and Urayne begin sabotaging nuclear plants throughout the region, the fallout from the meltdowns causes the evacuation of Vinoville, the most rural city of the region, and contaminates wild Pokémon, causing them to attack people in rabid hordes. The game's message is not so simplistic as to outright condemn nuclear energy as being too risky, (though a citizen or two of Vinoville says exactly that), but the need for caution and accountability is abundantly clear. It is revealed that Urayne was created as an organic reactor core, a laboratory-engineered Godzilla, threatened with extinction as soon as it achieved the undesirable outcome of consciousness. Urayne's rampage is merely the result of fearful self-preservation and its unsustainable subsistence on pure uranium fuel. Its tragic insatiable hunger is the embodiment of the arrogance that led to its creation.
It is historically ironic, or perhaps appropriate, that this is an unlicensed American-made game using Japanese intellectual property to make a statement about nuclear power. Japan is still the only nation to have experienced the horror of nuclear weapons with the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The fear of nuclear destruction still looms large in the nation's collective consciousness, but that hasn't stopped Japan from investing heavily in nuclear energy. In fact, Japan's nuclear industry was relatively un-phased by the implications of the Three Mile-Island crisis (1979) in the U.S. and the Chernobyl disaster (1986) in Soviet Ukraine. While there was no shortage of opposition from Japanese citizens similar to that of environmentalists in the U.S., a combination of economics and politics made their protest less effective on the continued government approval of proposals for new plants. It may seem hypocritical to suggest that Pokémon Uranium's message applies particularly well to Japan, considering that the U.S. is the world's largest supplier of commercial nuclear power and that U.S. companies sold Japan its first light water reactors. However, what makes nuclear power in Japan especially troubling is the questionable resilience of such volatile reactors on a seismically active island riddled with fault lines.
On March 11th, 2011, the most powerful earthquake known to ever hit Japan caused a tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, disabling its cooling systems and resulting in meltdowns and explosions. The fallout caused over 100,000 people to be evacuated from their homes, most of whom still cannot return. The catastrophe re-ignited the anti-nuclear movement worldwide. In Japan the disaster confirmed the public's long-held skepticism of government safety standards. In 2012 The Chairman of the Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission admitted the organization had "…succumbed to a blind belief in the country’s technical prowess and failed to thoroughly assess the risks of building nuclear reactors in an earthquake-prone country".
Despite protests, in 2012 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began the process of restarting Japan's nuclear reactors shut down after the Fukushima incident. In 2015 the Abe administration pledged to the UN to reduce Japan's greenhouse gas emissions by bringing nuclear energy to account for 20% of its overall energy production (as compared with 30% pre-Fukushima) and bring renewable sources to account for 22% or more. Nuclear energy remains an arguable stop-gap measure to combat climate change until renewable energy can be fully implemented. To its credit Japan is one of the leaders of the world in solar energy production. Pokémon Uranium contains a definite promotion of solar power with the prominent feature of Gellin, a photosynthesizing single-celled Pokémon that resembles a walking solar panel.
Of course the nuclear issue of the game need not refer specifically to Japan, as the Tandor region encompasses a wide array of cultural allusions. The eclectic gym leaders have actual personalities and this combined with the compelling story makes for a great experience. The player's relationships with other characters feel slightly more nuanced than those of the typical Pokémon game if the same can't always be said of the characters themselves. The original designs of cleverly named Pokémon seem organic and inspired, though the dated battle animations leave more to the imagination. If Uranium version contains some of the flaws present in other Pokémon games, it makes up for it with the genuine affection it shows for those games and the impact they had on the developers' childhoods. In houses across the region you will encounter children spellbound by the original Red and Blue versions, as well as their suspicious parents. You will recognize familiar music expertly utilized. You will also meet a self-proclaimed "tinkerer" who speaks with contempt of the infamous Hidden Machine mechanic not altogether eliminated here. One welcome change is the raised difficulty throughout the game, along with designated spots to grind for experience. The scarcity of Pokémon that are not dual-type is strategically daunting but rewards the use of nuclear-type Pokémon that are both super effective against and vulnerable to most other types. Like nuclear energy itself, nuclear Pokémon are highly reactive, at once extremely problematic and immensely powerful.
The appeal of Pokémon Uranium perfectly matches its subject matter. It is a welcome mutation in the Pokémon franchise, a freak of nature that could never be approved by the powers that be. For me it succeeds as an homage to the adventurous joy of Pokémon rpg's while adding a bit of real drama. It combines my fascination with Godzilla with my love of Pokémon, and continues a legacy of incredible cultural exchange between the U.S. and Japan.
Check out Save Point Episode 8: Fan Made Games and Pokemon Uranium for full discussion.