Folk-roms and Art-hacks

I am fascinated by rom hacks.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a rom refers to a copy of a video game that can be played through an emulator (a program which basically acts like a video game console in your computer. I’m no coding expert, so as far as I’m concerned its essentially magic). Usually it refers to older games like those of the 8bit or 16bit era. Clever nerds have learned to do some pretty amazing things with these roms and emulators. Back when I was growing up, this usually meant that someone had put a bunch of swears into the game’s text or replaced Mario’s power-ups with crudely drawn genitals. However, as more people became familiar with the workings of these old games, more options became open. Today you can find specific programs which, with a little technically knowledge, will let you replace graphics, alter colors, rewrite text, even edit the fundamental rules of the game. There are even programs specific to one game which easily let you alter huge aspects of the game with hardly any technical know-how.

As of writing, there are 653 hacks for Super Mario World alone at SMWCentral, the largest resource for Super Mario World hacking. Pokemon, Earthbound, Final Fantasy, Super Mario 64 and many other games all also have programs designed exclusively for hacking them and there are already many hacks available for each. But why do people bother with it? That is what I find fascinating about the rom-hacking world. There are hacks created to fix problems or bugs in the game the designers ignored or missed. There are hacks created by fans who are convinced they can do the story better than the official version. There are hacks created to make a game fit within a different culture, identity or set of values. There are hacks created just to be bad jokes. What drives someone to say “this game does not meet my specific need for ____” and then go out and learn to do it themselves with the original game’s software?

The question of ownership has come up in the few discussions of romhacks I found. There are many who would dismiss romhacks because they are based on pre-existing games and code. But collage is an important tool in art. Creating a new experience from a copyrighted game can be just as much art as Pogo making music from Disney movies or Andy Warhol’s Pop Art. Another, more obscure example would be Lewis Klahr’s film Pony Glass, made from old issues of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. I consider romhacks to be an under-explored medium of outsider art. Below I’m going to discuss just a few romhacks which I feel are worth exploring in this context.

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Its no secret that old games tend to be gender-essentialist, I’ve even talked about it on this blog recently. Girls are hostages and prizes, boys are the ones who actually affect the world around them. Even when there is a huge audience of women who play games, we seldom see female gaming icons like Peach, Zelda, Jessica or any other standard damsels get to star. Recently, a few romhacks made the gaming news because they were made by parents or fans who wanted to provide their daughters with a version of their favorite game with a hero closer to them. The game companies refused to cater to their needs, so they bypassed them and did it themselves.

There are also a few hacks which do the same thing in regards to ethnicity or culture. Not all gamers exist inside the Western hegemony, so some players have attempted to adapt their favorite characters and games to their own cultures. There haven’t been as many of these hacks as there have for replacing gender roles, but the potential is fascinating.

Below are a few examples:

Emily Hearts: Earthbound for Girls
Donkey Kong: Pauline Edition
Mega Man in Java
Mega Man: Dr Wily Visits Indonesia
Present Panic: A Princess Adventure
Sonic 3 and Amy Rose
Super Mario Brothers: Peach Edition
Zelda Starring Zelda

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There are also hacks which completely change the way one plays the game. The hacker essentially breaks out of the role assigned to them by the game. Karoshi Mario and Mario Lemming change the nature of Super Mario World from a game where you must keep your character alive to a game where you advance by finding a way to kill your character. There are a number of Japanese hacks which are designed to not be played, but rather to leave Mario alone so that the game automatically moves him through the level, causing the sound effects to sync with music. Here’s a video that combines four different hacks that sync with Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.

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Brutal Mario is perhaps the most famously complex hack of Super Mario World (or arguably any game). Graphics from tons of other games have been added in. The Koopalings have each been given a different battle with new behavior, and new bosses have been created based on enemies from Mega Man, Kirby, Final Fantasy, and Secret of Mana. Levels build on the foundation laid by the original game, but subverts them in strange ways. P-Switches that stop time, switches that change the time of day and Fire Flowers that burn through trees. The final battle features a monstrous fusion of all the Koopalings, complete with melodramatic rpg boss music. In a parody of the Romancing Saga game series, Mario learns special techniques in mid-battle.

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Other Japanese hackers have created equally complex and intricate hacks. The VIP and Wall series showcases the work of multiple designers, each giving their take on a single level. This was followed by A Super Mario Thing, a collaboration hack by American and European hackers.

Of course, very few hacks have taken the source game and created something entirely new with it. In the end, Brutal Mario or Karoshi Mario are still Mario games. Even games which completely replace all the graphics with entirely original characters and settings still use the same rules and gameplay. Part of the appeal of romhacks is seeing a familiar game in a new light through the lens of the outsider or amateur who has created it. But how far can the original game be stretched or manipulated? Other than the gender-swap hacks, none of the hacks we’ve seen have any political, social or ecological commentary innate to them. Even within the gender-swap hacks, none of them are as challenging to our concepts of sexuality and gender identity as Pony Glass. I’ve only just scratched the surface of what romhacks have done and what they are capable of in this post, and I hope you will agree that even what little I’ve shown is fascinating, but there is even greater potential in romhacks to create experiences that challenge the audience’s reality and identity both inside and outside the original game.

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One Response to Folk-roms and Art-hacks

  1. cameron basquiat says:

    Great essay. I too am drawn to ROM hacks. If you have any others of interest I’d love to know which ones you are drawn to, especially any hacks that deal with culture/ethnicity or anything that gets political. Thanks!

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