Big Hack, Small Hack

ROM Hacking and Scale

One idea that has presented itself in the early stages of my research is the notion of scale in the development of videogame hacks. Most of the projects I am scrutinizing are complete works – released and presented as finished products – but not all of them are equal in content. A small scale videogame hack may involve changing one or two elements of a game (say, the appearance of a main character) while a large scale hack can include a vast array of new or modified elements: levels, visuals, game mechanics, music, and more.

Hackers seem quick to differentiate between these types of projects. Smaller scale hacks are often framed as being more experimental or lighthearted – one-shot projects that show off a new discovery in a game’s code or serve as a “proof of concept” for a new hacking technique. Larger scale projects tend to be labours of love for the hacker, requiring hundreds (if not thousands) of hours and drawing upon techniques and resources from the community knowledge base. When completed these projects are usually held in high regard, and are frequently shared across social media and hacking databases. Especially well-executed projects may even even establish a presence on Twitch or other streaming platforms.

As a point of comparison, I’d like to present a few projects from the Super Mario 64 (SM64) hacking community. SM64 hackers are notable for being bolder than most other hackers, choosing to link to ROMs of their work on public websites while maintaining a strong presence on YouTube and across the web. Their general openness is on full display through the, which prominently features dozens of SM64 hacks alongside screenshots and videos. Their FAQ section offers an interesting insight into the community’s attitude:

Q: Isn’t Roms, Rom Hacks and Emulation illegal?
A: Emulation in itself is not illegal, but some ROMs may contain copyrighted material. As Rom Hacks are merely based on the original games, we consider them to be fan games, and Nintendo allows most of these as long as they are distributed for free.

It’s important to remember that our website does not host any ROMs, we only list them and guide you to their location.

Small Scale

a screenshot from the videogame hack Captain Toad 64Perhaps the most obvious example of a proof-of-concept hack is Captain Toad 64, a single-level recreation of Captain Toad Treasure Tracker (a puzzle game for the Wii U). Replacing Mario with the eponymous character, the hack allows players to navigate a single Captain Toad level built entirely inside the Super Mario 64 game engine. Although the transposition is not flawless – mid-90s game cameras are not particularly kind to the style of play found in Captain Toad – it is both immediately recognizable and eminently playable. Of particular note is how the hacker remixed elements from SM64 to serve new purposes, positioning established enemies as obstacles and carefully measuring platforms to enable or restrict progress.

a screenshot from the videogame hack Super Mario 64 3D WorldAnother hack that borrows elements from Nintendo’s back catalogue is Super Mario 64 3D World, which allows players to control a variety of new characters within SM64. Nintendo standbys Luigi, Peach, Toad, and Rosalina have all been ported to the title, each presenting new abilities – or at least new variations on well established game physics. For example, Peach can float through the air, hearkening back to her appearance in Super Mario Bros 2, while Luigi offers a higher-jumping but less-precise variation on Mario’s traditional moveset. Although these changes may seem relatively small, they enable new approaches for playing through the venerable N64 game.

Large Scale

fake box art for the hack Super Mario 64: Last presents a series of featured projects on their main page, advertised as the cream-of-the-crop amongst their vast collection of ROMhacks. These games are generally framed as huge undertakings and their descriptions are often ordered lists of new features that have been introduced into the game. Take, for example, the description for Super Mario 64: Last Impact.

This game has 130 stars, 12 powerups, many new bosses, and a large variety of completely new levels. Over 4000 hours of work has finally come together.

Last Impact is presented as both a technical achievement (look at all these new objectives and mechanics) and a intense undertaking (over 4000 hours of work). These types of descriptors are very common among completed large scale game hacks, emphasizing the dedication and expertise of the hackers themselves. Whereas smaller scale hacks are often treated as side-attractions, more to be perused than completed, these large scale projects invite the classification of “all new game.” They are sometimes even packaged as such – featuring trailers, mock box art, and fan created content.

As I progress through my interviews, it will be interesting to see if this distinction between small and large scale hacks continues, and what sorts of hacks fall into each category.

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By Michael