Game Chang­ers

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 romhack­ (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

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