A Decade of EarthBound Hacking

Unearthed: REvisited

On June 12, 2017, I released a playable demo for my videogame hack Unearthed. Built entirely within the framework of the Super Nintendo game EarthBound, Unearthed is a role-playing adventure influenced by the videogames, cartoons, and movies of my childhood. While sharing many of the core mechanics of its predecessor, the game features an original narrative, a new game world, and a even few novel gameplay innovations. Although the demo is only about sixty minutes long, it represents the culmination of years of on-and-off hacking work – not just by me – but from a dedicated community of programmers, musicians, and artists online.

I recently found myself revisiting Unearthed for Camp Fangamer, a convention revolving around various types of videogame fandom. The event’s organizers put together a panel featuring members of the PK Hack community, a collective that developed the tools I utilize for my own EarthBound hacking work, and invited me to contribute. Although Tucson was a bit too far away for me to attend in person, I decided to cobble together a lighthearted trailer for the panel to show off my work.

Why did I decide to focus this first blog post on my previously released game projects? It’s not just for a bit of publicity, I assure you. In many ways, Unearthed  is representative of the hacking work that I have  undertaken over the past decade. Before reaching out to hackers and hacking communities in pursuit of my own research, I felt it necessary to acknowledge my personal experiences with the practice. Think of it as a way of acknowledging that, yes, I do have some skin in the game, and that my own perspectives are influenced by years of hands-on hacking experience.

HyperBound and a Decade of Change

Although Unearthed has dominated my hacking practice over the past ten years, it isn’t my first foray into the world of hacking nor is it the most well-known. As part of my senior project at Ryerson University, I created the (relatively) simple videogame hack HyperBound. Another EarthBound hack, the game follows the trials and tribulations of an unnamed amnesiac who is thrust into a world that is completely unknown to him. Since its completion, HyperBound has been featured at the 2007 Ryerson Axis New Media Festival, the 2007 iteration of Nuit Blanche, and even found it’s way into Auntie Pixelante’s book Rise of the Video Game Zinesters.

Following HyperBound‘s initial release, EarthBound hacking has occupied a somewhat strange place in my life. Over the past decade, a sizable portion of my free time has gone toward tinkering away with ROMs – an ostensibly illegal pursuit that cannot be monetized and which has only granted me a meager amount of cultural capital. Despite this apparent lack of tangible benefits, my work as a hacker has helped me cultivate a life-long interest in game design and has allowed me to network with fan communities across the internet. I certainly wouldn’t be back in school, studying videogame hacking cultures, if it wasn’t for my continued engagement with the hobby.

But a lot has changed since I began working on the project in the early aughts. Online games marketplaces have flourished. Game development tools have become accessible and affordable. Publishers have launched offensives against online emulation and hacking. PK Hack community members have left to develop their own highly successful commercial game projects. Yet despite the variety of obstacles, and the proliferation of legitimate avenues for game development, hacking remains to be a widespread practice online.

My project, Sub-Versions, will explore why game hacking persists even as the environment around the practice rapidly changes. Beginning with my own experiences, then moving onto work being completed by a variety of other hackers, I will purposefully and productively generate knowledge about the novel gameplay mechanics and narratives that emerge through video game hacking and the motivations that inspire hackers to challenge a variety of legal and technical barriers.

This blog will be the landing point for much of the “raw” knowledge I produce: game hack analysis, reflections on literature, and much more. This iteratively written content will help me form tentative propositions from my thesis, presenting them in an accessible manner while also inviting feedback and scrutiny. So feel free to comment, ask questions, or even critique. This post is just the beginning of a months-long exploration of videogame hacking subcultures.

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By Michael