Inside the ultracommitted world of the hackers reconfiguring old console titles to make them do things their creators never imagined
Meet the hackers tweaking ROM files to breathe new life into console games of yore
“It was something I was good at, and at the same time I could talk wrestling with folks,” he says. However, No
Mercy was the last of its line. Its developer, AKI Corporation, lost its contract to develop THQ’s wrestling games, and so Earley set about hacking and modifying the game’s ROM file to add moves and wrestlers. He helped build a fan community, Old Skool Reunion, where other No Mercy hackers could swap notes on how best to dismantle and reassemble a game that was never built for modification.
In so doing, Earley joined a burgeoning underground movement that dates back to the mid-’90s, when emulators for old consoles first spread across the emerging Internet. In message boards and forum threads, curious fans started to wonder if they could tinker with games that had been locked away within the ROM chip on cartridges the way they could modify PC games of the era. ROM hacking shares much of the same spirit of PC game modding, except it’s never legitimate, and usually mired in hexadecimal maths.
The scene has many dispersed clusters of special interest hackers, such as Old Skool Reunion, but operating as a hub is romhacking.net (AKA RHDN). RHDN’s founder,
Nightcrawler – who requested that we omit his real name – was there soon after the beginning. “We were
working on inaccurate ROM dumps of Super Mario Bros with pencil, paper and a hex editor,” he recalls. “There was no central location [where you could] learn the trade. You were lucky to find some notes someone posted on their personal web pages on what they were doing.”
ROM hacking was uncharted territory, and Nightcrawler was among its earliest explorers. It’s a very different state of affairs today, with thousands using advanced debuggers built into emulators for most of the ’80s and ’90s game consoles, able to access detailed technical documents and armed with powerful tools such as FuSoYa’s Lunar Magic Super Mario
World level editor. ROM hacking has grown up, and the results are startling.
Earley and a handful of friends are four years and a fraction of the way into developing Showdown 64: an enormous No Mercy hack that, thanks to emulator Project64’s limitless allowance for immensely long GameShark codes, will more than quadruple the playable wrestler roster to somewhere in the vicinity of 400. The idea is to squeeze in every single wrestler the team has ever heard of, with characters dating back to the ’50s, and to remake the arenas. Each wrestler gets his or her own custom skin and moveset, with the former crafted in Photoshop and the latter generated by splicing together existing move animations with help from community-created OpenOffice tools. If they’re lucky, Earley jokes, the project might be finished by the time he retires.
Earley points to a hacker with the handle wldfb as the mastermind of No Mercy hacking. “I don’t know how he finds values,” Earley says, “but he’s managed to change a few fundamental things in the game [and] fix bugs.” It was wldfb who figured out that you could expand the roster by modifying the extra attire slots every wrestler has, and it was wldfb who made WrestleMania legend The Undertaker nigh-on unbeatable – just like his real-life counterpart.
But between Old Skool Reunion and its many now-defunct forebears,
No Mercy’s hacking scene is much bigger than a few individuals. “I’m willing to say that No Mercy has been hacked, modded, redone, ripped apart and just overall had more work done to it [by fans] than any other N64 game,” Earley says. “It’s unreal. There are guys that still dig through bare code looking for values and how we can manipulate them, just to get one more new thing in the game.”
Like digital archaeology, ROM hacking is big on discovery and exploration, except with an added element of creation; as RHDN staff member and former translation ROM hacker Markus ‘KaioShin’
Hildebrand says, it’s a thrilling kind of detective work. “Every script control code deciphered and every menu understood and changed is a
little puzzle on its own, with a ‘Eureka!’ moment at the end.”
Such hackers dig carefully through executable code in search of secrets and a comprehensive understanding of how the game works, then they twist and reshape that knowledge to their own ends, whether it be to give Mario a new hat, make Pauline the hero of Donkey Kong, drop Sonic on the planet Zebes, or update player rosters and expand mechanics.
The fact that NES hit Tecmo Super Bowl is nearly 23 years old and has long been surpassed by the likes of EA’s Madden series isn’t lost on
Dave ‘bruddog’ Brude. But he loves its simplicity, and he’s been actively engaged in tournaments – first with friends, then with strangers over the Internet – since the very beginning. Brude gradually waded into the hacking side of things via online tournaments and leagues played with emulators, with over half the community participating through dial-up Internet connections.
“One of the things that bugged me with the original Tecmo Super Bowl,” he says, “was the fact that it is nearly impossible to return interceptions, because the defender is too slow to deal with offensive players that become defenders on interception returns.” Most of Brude’s hacks overcome issues of this nature. They fix the flaws that drive some players crazy, or add a touch of realism where it was lacking before.
The Tecmo Super Bowl community, meanwhile, collaborates on a yearly roster update complete with correct names (and all 32 of the teams, too, thanks to an older hack by cxrom that overcame the original 28-team limitation). These dedicated fans have a multitude of tools and notes to assist them. “We have powerful tools, such as the FCEUX emulator, that allow inline debugging, breakpoints, the ability to see what part of the ROM has been accessed, the reloading of game states and so on,” Brude explains. “Today, we also have parts of the game disassembled and [the code] commented.” The group developed tools to make alterations
“ROM hacking allows bugs to be fixed, new levels to be created, or even for completely new works”
such as roster updates possible for anyone, too, even the code-illiterate.
When it comes to opening ROM hacking up to a wider audience, few operate on the level of FuSoYa. His
Super Mario World level editor, Lunar Magic, first appeared in 2000, rapidly gathering attention and pulling the scene’s focus away from NES Mario games. It came from humble origins, its idea born of a rudimentary map editor that FuSoYa created simply for translating street signs in Japan-only Super Nintendo RPG Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon: Another Story. It blossomed. A dedicated Super
Mario World hacking community soon appeared, mostly built around Lunar Magic, and FuSoYa’s tool became the perfect entry point for ROM hacking. “A casual user can sit down with the program and make a basic level within minutes,” he explains. “But if you want to get a little more into it, you can replace the graphics and use other tools to insert pre-coded blocks and sprites that customise the gameplay. And advanced users can go even further by learning assembly and coding their own blocks and sprites.”
People have hacked in marriage proposals, designed levels that play themselves, created custom graphics and music and much more. As a result of all this, the game endures. Lunar Magic has been regularly updated throughout its life, but it’s still just a level editor for a 24-year-old videogame released on the launch day of Nintendo’s Super Famicom.
“If someone had told me back in 2000 that, over the next 14 years, this many people would have used Lunar Magic to create countless Mario
World hacks and would still be doing so, I wouldn’t have believed them,” FuSoYa admits. “Sure, Mario is popular, but 14 years of Super Mario
World? When the editor was first released, I figured I’d just spend a couple of months touching things up in the program and it’d be done, and people would play with it for a couple of years. Yet here we are, and it’s still being actively updated and used.”
He suspects the appeal rests partly on Lunar Magic’s easy extensibility, and partly on Nintendo’s penchant for re-releasing the game on newer platforms, thereby exposing it to new audiences who in turn take up hacking the game.
Quality is an enduring factor, too. There are plenty of fans prepared to argue there has never been a better 2D platformer than Super Mario World, nor a better wrestling game than No
Mercy. “Whenever I would buy a new SmackDown Vs Raw or something like that,” Earley recalls, “we would instantly compare it to No Mercy, because I think the mechanics of it are just perfect. I’ll go on forums or even Reddit [and] see people talking about it. ‘Isn’t it great? Wouldn’t it be cool if they’d just make a new game based on the AKI engine?’ Most of the time, that’s where I snag new players: ‘Well, you can’t get a new No Mercy game, but there’s new moves and new rosters; people have been updating this sucker since 2003.’ It’s kind of a testament to how damn good that game is that people are still doing it.”
It helps that the professional wrestling scene is splintered, with dozens of rival promotions that will never appear together in a licensed videogame, but that can all be hacked into No Mercy. “Since you don’t have to worry about likeness rights or anything like that, you can put anybody you want in there,” Earley says. “You can have any dream roster.”
Earley’s motivations run deeper than that, though. “I think anybody who’s ever loved a videogame has kind of wanted to make one,” he says. “For me, I get a strange high from being able to take something like a game I love and manipulate it and change it. It kind of brings you closer to the game in a weird way. You’d be sitting there and you’re playing a game and you’re like, ‘You know what? I don’t like this aspect. I wish, if that thing would change – if this one little thing would change – man, it would be a lot more fun to play.’ And then when you figure out, ‘Hey, I can do that,’ that’s huge, you know. It’s like this explosion in your brain.”
Nightcrawler is driven more by preservation. A great many ROM hacks are about translating games for other audiences, often Japanese titles into English, and as such he considers his work to be setting certain past injustices right. “Many games were never released to certain regions simply because naïve executives [thought they] couldn’t handle complexity,” he says. “For general ROM hacking, it’s about letting the classics live on.
“ROM hacking allows bugs to be fixed, new levels to be created, abilities to be enhanced, or even [for] completely new works running on a classic game engine. These types of things allow classic games to continue to grow and live on long after their creators and publishers have abandoned them.”
This is exactly how Chrono Trigger hack Crimson Echoes came into existence. Intended as an unofficial sequel that would continue the story where Square left off, Crimson Echoes was hotly anticipated far beyond the hacking community, and its development had almost finished when Square Enix swooped in with a cease-and-desist letter in 2009, mere weeks before the scheduled release. Lacking the coffers to handle a legal fight, the developers promptly abandoned the project and pulled all the associated materials offline. In January 2011, however, one of the team anonymously leaked a beta ROM online, ensuring that all of the team’s work would not be wasted.
A new group of fans known as the Ruby Dragoons used this beta ROM to carry on development under a new name, Flames Of Eternity. The Ruby Dragoons initially planned to just fix the bugs but soon decided to add in even more areas to explore and make a handful of changes to the plot. For the erstwhile project lead, Giro – whose real name we’ve omitted because
he’s currently in service for the US Army – it was a way to get his mind off the war during a deployment in the Middle East. Giro grew up with
Chrono Trigger, and relished the opportunity to have a hand in continuing its story. “Who wouldn’t want to take a time machine and have a chance to save the world?” he wonders. “Who wouldn’t want that chance to be The Doctor?”
Giro stepped down as project lead last year to spend more time with his family, and an anonymous fan who calls himself imMUNEity took over the reins. ImMUNEity takes a defiant stance, declaring that he’ll continue development offline if Square Enix squashes the project again. He’s determined to continue Chrono Trigger’s story. “In the original Chrono Trigger, you never get a chance to explore the future after you’ve defeated Lavos and saved the world,” he says. “My favourite part of Flames
Of Eternity is that the saved future is wide open for exploration.”
Even after having diverged slightly from and greatly expanded on Crimson Echoes, the version of Flames Of Eternity that imMUNEity inherited was ripe for further development. “I am getting to add a lot of what I felt was missing from the original game into this one,” he says.
In some ways, it’s the fans who own Chrono Trigger now. Square Enix still retains the copyright, a looming threat for any burgeoning fan spinoff, but the story, the world and the characters all live on with those who have been clamouring for a sequel for 20 years (the tenuously connected
Chrono Cross and Radical Dreamers notwithstanding). “I honestly feel that Square Enix will never make a true sequel to Chrono Trigger or Chrono
Cross,” Giro says. “If they wanted to, they would have [done so] already. It’s up to the fans to continue and expand upon the universe and the story. Maybe years down the line, it will return to Square Enix, but for the time being the best stories are wellfleshed-out fan mods.”
Not all ROM hackers are obsessed with their game of choice. A network
“I honestly feel Square Enix will never make a true sequel to Chrono Trigger… It’s up to the fans to expand upon the universe”
technician who goes by the handle
Skelux made a name for himself in 2011 with the Super Mario Star Road hack, which squeezes an entirely new 3D Mario platformer into the Mario
64 ROM. But he feels “no particular attachment” to the original game. “No one had really touched on hacking any other 3D platformers at that point,” he says, so he thought he’d kickstart the scene, first with a single new level and then with a whole new game.
Star Road introduced 30 new areas, nearly 50 new audio tracks and 120 stars to collect in an imaginatively designed world that some players insist is better (and much, much harder) than Mario 64. Yet Skelux himself is unsatisfied. “I find some of the original Super Mario Star Road designs embarrassing in contrast to my present standards,” he says.
Skelux also thought the hack would go no further than the general ROM hacking community. “I would have put more work into it if I anticipated how much attention it would draw.” The Mad Musical Mess level, for instance, lacks polish and is far too hard. “It doesn’t even resemble a complete level. I didn’t even add strings to the guitar, despite having a string texture in the level.”
Now he’s trying to set things straight. Super Mario Star Road is being ported to DS and, much like Nintendo’s Super Mario 64 DS port, it’s getting tweaked and polished (or completely redesigned, in the case of Mad Musical Mess) to better suit the dual-screen handheld.
When that’s done, he’ll shift his focus back to making the Star Road sequel. “I feel that many people would enjoy playing through more of my designs,” he says, “and I can be more considerate of details such as difficulty ramps this time.” It’s tough work, though. Skelux finds coding easy, while creative designs and plot points don’t come so naturally. “Conceiving of that many unique ideas is very difficult for me, and I also want to avoid just repeating the same type of paths I used in other levels. I waste far too much time just rotating my level model in [Google] SketchUp and wondering what I should do next.”
It’s all done in the spirit of keeping the game alive and encouraging others to hack games too. “The more people we have in the community, the more fun remakes of these old classic games there are to play,” he says. “It breathes new life into something that could have died long ago.”
Phil ‘Keson’ Earley and his hacking comrades have ripped and modified WWFNo
Mercy to bits, giving 2000-era Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson some fresh competition
Released some 14 years ago and still popular today, FuSoYa’s Lunar Magic level editor for SuperMario World allows anyone to design new adventures for Nintendo’s mascot. Some of the results are spectacular
While Chrono Trigger fans wait for an official sequel to the much-loved collaboration between Square and Enix from 1995, hacking groups like the Ruby Dragoons have taken matters into their own hands