Romhack Thursday: Vs. Super Mario Bros on NES

On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.

Nintendo is a company with a long history, having gotten started making playing cards. They jumped into the video gaming market, like a lot of companies, making dedicated consoles that were released only in Japan. It was the release of the arcade game Donkey Kong that started them on the path to becoming the worldwide success they are today.

Title screen for the Vs. Super Mario Bros hack

The sales of Donkey Kong, and successor games like Donkey Kong Kr., Donkey Kong 3, and Mario Bros., put a lot of Nintendo cabinets out there. In the mid 80s there arose a market for upgrade kits, an alternate set of internal components for an arcade machine that could make it into a new game for players to enjoy. Simultaneous with the success of the Famicom and NES, Nintendo sold a kit called the “Vs. System” that their old cabinets could be converted into, as well as dedicated cabinets that used it.

Among the software Nintendo made for their Vs. cabinets, so they made special arcade versions of many of their NES cartridges for it. Many of these are expanded versions of the originals, with new features. We’ve already looked at Vs. Castlevania, a version of Castlevania remixed for the Vs. Unisystem by Konami. One of these updated versions was of Nintendo’s first huge Famicom hit, called Vs. Super Mario Bros.

Hey, that flower’s supposed to be a 1 Up Mushroom!

Vs. Super Mario Bros. seems, at first, a lot like the original game. It’s got a high score screen and some other minor changes. Players familiar with the Famicom/NES version will find that it changes significantly as they get further into it. Many later levels are completely changed, and much harder. When Nintendo released the Japan sequel to Super Mario Bros., they used levels from the Vs. System port to help flesh it out.

Many changes were made to the game to support arcade play. “Loops” where players could farm extra lives were toned down or removed, extra lives in general were reduced in number, and warp zones don’t take the player nearly as far into the game. Another change made was to add operator adjustable difficulty, allowing the cabinet owner to set how many coins were needed for an extra life.

SUPER PLAYER’S

Through emulation, Vs. Super Mario Bros is completely supported in MAME. But for technical reasons, you can’t just play MAME roms in an NES emulator. If you’d like to play it in the emulator of your choice, or have a means to get it running on actual hardware, creator BMF54123 applied all of the play changes of the arcade version back into the NES version of Super Mario Bros., and even added a title screen that allows you to apply the same difficulty settings that were available to an arcade operator.

Expect a number of tricks that would later get reused in the Japanese sequel to Super Mario Bros.

If you’ve never played Super Mario Bros before… then wow, I’m impressed you even found this blog. But also, this is perhaps not the best way to experience the game now. The demands of arcade design make for a much more challenging experience than the original. If you’re very familiar with the home versions, though, it can be an interesting new way to experience it.

Vs. Super Mario Bros for NES (romhacking.net)

Romhack Thursday: Junkoid

On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.

A hack of NES Metroid, Junkoid doesn’t offer many changes to the original game besides graphics and area maps. Most of the engine changes it has are pre-existing patches made by other people. It uses the Metroid map and save game patch, but only offers a map for the starting region. Fortunately, while it has some cool secret areas to find, its mazes aren’t particularly complex, and I was able to complete it without keeping any maps on paper.

Junkoid’s premise is that the game world is a dream had by its protagonist, which is its excuse to provide a variety of imagery without any great coherency to it. One area seems like it’s drenched in blood, which I am not usually a fan of) Another like it’s a cloning factory, dedicated to making clones of the heroine, but its boss is a penguin that acts mostly like Ridley.

For the most part it’s not too difficult going, but I found that the final boss could be very frustrating. It uses Mother Brain’s coding most as-is, and doesn’t have the Zebetite gates immediately before it so you can get by with fewer missiles, but it’s very easy to get tossed around by the various hazards of the final area, and the boss’s weak spot, which can only be harmed by missiles, was a bit too finicky when registering hits. Still though, I can vouch that it’s possible.

Have some more screenshots:

Junkoid’s Romhacking.net page

Romhack Thursday: Advanced NES Rom Utility

Edit the Frog would like you to know that he has no relationship with that meme frog going around.

On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting items from the world of game modifications.

We’re starting another weekly feature on Set Side B, where we try to regularly bring you news on new romhacks and romhack-related items. Big websites sometimes seem like they try to appease publishers, whose good graces they rely upon for news and review copies, by not mentioning hacks too prominently, at least if they’re of console games. Whether this happens, or if it merely seems like it may happen, we don’t ask big publishers for review copies so we don’t have to avoid talking about them, and are free to tell you about the most interesting of these game edits that we can find.

To start us out though, something you’ll find you’ll need if you make heavy use of hacks, are good rom patchers. To shield themselves from legal liability, hack authors usually distribute their modifications through the use of patches, which are in essence lists of modifications that can be applied in an automated way to a source rom file, which you’ll have to source by some other means.

Two good such utilities are Floating IPS, which can apply IPS patches, and (the sadly departed) Near’s beat, which can apply BPS patch files. IPS is the most commonly-used utility, and functions mostly as a kind of binary diff, but it’s limited to source files of a maximum size of 16 megabytes, and doesn’t offer any error detection features, so if the file you’re patching isn’t exactly what the patch expects (which happens frequently, as bad dumps or headerless roms often turn up), not only will you end up with a corrupted file, but you won’t even have any indication something has gone wrong-in most cases, you’ll still be told the file patched successfully. BPS is a more intelligently-designed system, and has some error detection built-in.

A new utility that can be of use is “Advanced NES Rom Utility,” a program that can not only apply both IPS and BPS patches but several other types as well, and can also fix many common problems with NES dumps in particular, including fixing checksums and metadata. But patches are usually source platform agnostic, so you might get some use out of it even if NES romhacks are not interesting to you.

Romhack: Elvira’s Monster Party

Someone worked hard to make that pixel art.

Most, maybe like 90%, of romhacks are pretty dumb. Of the remaining 10%, nine out of ten are somewhat intersting. Then you have that last percentile that achieves greatness. The jury is out, but this one could be in that category.

This hack changes the cult NES classic Monster Party and repurposes it as an episode of Elvira’s B-movie show! It also changes game graphics to make the main character Elvira, and many of the bosses and their text to make them into classic horror movie monsters. It seems like it should be worth a look from that pixel art image of Elvira alone.

Beyond that, the patch file’s ZIP has some other bits of artwork in it, including a poster, and box art:

I should point out that this is not actually a hack of the release version of Monster Party, but of the prototype of the Japanese version that showed up a few years ago. So you’ll have to hunt that down if you want to try it. And it is worth noting that that version had been held by some time by collectors who were unwilling to let it be dumped. So the construction of this particle of greatness was effectively blocked for an age by their greed. Please remember that.

In monster form, Elvira’s black gown switches to something rather more revealing, which is kind of keeping in character honestly.
Monster Party’s collection of B-movie goofballs have been replaced, with a new series of B-movie goofballs. I love the Statue of Liberty’s face in the background.

One of the folk responsible for this patch is Garrett Gilchrist (Twitter), who as it turns out was also one of the people behind the Raggedy Ann and Andy patch we reported on a few weeks ago. They’ve made a number of other patches hosted on Romhacking.net that, if you have an interest in such things, you may want to take a look at. Another person who helped in the making of Elvira’s Monster Party, through research, is Rani Baker, who has a Ko-Fi if you’d like to throw them a dollar or two.

It wouldn’t be Elvira without a heaping helping of playful innuendo.

Elvira’s Monster Party, at romhacking.net (via Frank Cifaldi’s Twitter feed)

Romhack: Raggedy Land with Ann & Andy

Here at Set Side B our purview is “Indie, Retro, Niche,” and we consider romhacks, of the niche, to be among the the nicheist. (Nietzsche-est?) But there are lots of romhacks, with more every day, and most just aren’t that newsworthy.

This one’s pretty interesting though? As the Romhacking.net entry mentions, Raggedy Ann, while once a pretty big pop culture property with an animated movie and two TV specials directed by Chuck Jones, has fallen into disuse for decades due to rights issues.

The linked hack, for Data East’s Famicom McDonalds tie-in game Donald Land, is an attempt by Garrett Gilchrist and Brooklyn Williams to simulate what a Raggedy Ann game from the NES era would have been like, using graphics and characters from different iterations. Here’s a scene with The Greedy, from the feature cartoon, that once inspired many a nightmare:

Pretty cool, and rather more ambitious than your standard pedestrian graphics swap!

Zelda Randomizer + Infinite Hyrule

If you’ve followed the speedrunning scene for a while, you’re probably familiar with fcoughlin‘s Zelda Randomizer. It’s a program that can take a rom file of The Legend of Zelda and “scramble” it, in ways that the user can specify, in order to make it playable afresh, even for people who have played through it dozens of times already. It can move dungeon entrances, dungeon layouts, item locations, enemy placements and much more. And its changes can be encapsulated into a seed value so multiple people can be guaranteed of playing the same version of the game.

But for everything Zelda Randomizer can do, one thing it cannot do is change the game’s overworld. All of the familiar Zelda landmarks, the Central Lake, the Lost Woods, Spectacle Rock, and the rest, will be present and in the same places. That is where Infinite Hyrule (forum post, BitBucket) comes in. It’s a program whose purpose is to randomly create new overworlds for The Legend of Zelda, and to insert those into a rom file.

Gah, Lynels! Nice waterfall though.

I should take a moment to impress upon you how difficult that job is. There’s a good reason fcoughlin never built an overworld randomizer himself. The Legend of Zelda doesn’t store its game world in an obvious format. To get around this, Infinite Hyrule actually expands the rom file, so it can avoid the original game’s convoluted system, which stores each overworld screen as a set of links to vertical sets of tiles.

This partially explains the unusual structure of Zelda’s landscape, and why a number of structures, like the round boulders of Spectacle Rock and the dungeon entrances, are reused in multiple places: there is only room for so many vertical strips of surface tiles in the game’s ROM chips. To create a program capable of generating new overworld, a programmer must not only keep this limitation in mind, and work within its stricture, but must also follow the usual checks to ensure the game is still winnable.

Note that tree in the bottom-left

But it’s not even necessary to combine the two tools into one, for Infinite Hyrule can work work with Zelda Randomizer! You just have to make sure you use Zelda Randomizer first, and that you restrict yourself to only using certain flags. I personally find the flag string cHBRDMIhioEeNCb14OPhBo useful for mixing things up acceptably.

In addition to mixing up the overworld and maintaining the unique feel of The Legend of Zelda‘s map, it implements a few new kinds of screens, including a village with houses, and can produce a map of the generated world too. That should keep you going for quite a while. And, if you’re not 14 any more, it can even be set to reveal LoZ‘s infamous secret caves with graphical tells of their location. That’s such a nice feature if you want to explore a map in a reasonable time frame, instead of resorting to the original game’s technique of testing every square. Since, after all, none of us are 14 anymore.

Showing off the new village biome

If for some reason you want a similar treatment for Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, you sadist, there is no need. The randomizer for that game can generate new overworlds without need of a separate utility. I’ve played quite a bit of that, and will tell you, if you thought the original game was hard, the randomized version can be ludicrous.

Maze of Galious Enhanced

You want to know a great game that, statistically speaking, you’ve probably never played? Konami’s Maze of Galious for the MSX. It’s an early example of that genre we all now call Metroidvanias (Jeremy Parish, your royalty check is in the mail), and in Japan it was hugely inspirational. More recently, it was a direct inspiration for the La-Mulana games.

Well, more-recently-than-that, some romhackers have updated it to take advantage of the much more powerful MSX2 hardware. This results in much more detailed and colorful graphics and a number of other game improvements.

Playing it requires a rom of the original game (which you much seek out yourself), the patch file (here’s it’s GitHub site), and a patcher like Floating IPS. Or do you? Indie Retro News found a site that’s serving up the game and patch together, all ready to play!

Look at that murderous dungeon room. Now that’s what you call a video game.

If you’re prepared to patch the rom yourself and name it correctly (it’s explained on the project’s GitHub page), it can also be played in the online MSX emulator at webmsx.org.

So, what’s playing it like? Challenging! You have two characters, Popolon and Aphrodite, who have separate health and experience meters. Filling up your experience bar doesn’t actually improve your stats at all; it just heals that character up to full. And your characters’ jumps, while not as stiff as Simon Belmont’s, are not fully controllable in mid-air.

The two characters have subtly different abilities. Popolon’s attacks do more damage, he can jump higher, and his jump height varies according to how long the button is held. He’s also the only one who can push open doors. Aphrodite’s jumps are of constant height, but she’s also the only one who can survive in water! If one character runs out of health, the other can soldier on alone, but reviving the other is a difficult process.

Aww, they’re wearing matching armor!

In fact, the whole game is a difficult process! This is from that thankfully-brief time in the history of video gaming where developers seemed to revel in putting in secret features and hidden passages. Beating the final boss requires you find a very well-hidden item, the Cross, which is in a very secret passage. If you no longer have months to devote to finishing a game, you’re probably going to want to find at least a good FAQ for this one.

Via Indie Retro News.

Fixing E.T.

It’s nine years old, but I’m amazed by how few seem to know of these old projects that litter the internet, and this is one that’s definitely worth revisiting.

When people talk about reasons for the Great Game Crash of 1983 (which, it should be remembered, was mostly a crash in the U.S., other countries didn’t suffer much loss in popularity), one reason sometimes given was the lack of quality of one specific game: Howard Scott Warshaw’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, for the Atari VCS/2600. (That’s not really the point of this post. For more of this, seen the Addendum, below.)

I should emphasize that it was easy to get frustrated by E.T. Its development was rushed so that it could be in stores in time for the 1982 Christmas season. Warshaw’s previous work Yars’ Revenge was a huge hit for Atari, but its successor, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is possibly a bit too experimental. I think E.T. is a better game than Raiders, it’s easier to learn certainly, but it has some definite issues that make it very frustrating to play.

There were a number of issues, but the biggest by far was that it was extremely easy to fall into the many pits that dotted the landscape of the game’s version of Earth, and after floating up out of one, it was just as easy to immediately fall back into one again. You could fall into a pit merely from changing screens in the wrong location.

Back in 2013, a user in the AtariAge forums using the handle recompile produced a hack to fix the game’s problems, including this one. They made a page that the hack from which could be downloaded, and explained, in great technical detail, how it had been made. The result has slightly worse graphics than the original, but is much more playable, and reveals that there is a very interesting game hidden beneath the rushed product mandated by Atari’s managers. Not only is the page and his work still up now, nine years later, but so is the AtariAge thread he made.

Remember: a delayed game is eventually good, but a bad game is bad until someone with enough time, energy and technical know-how takes it upon themselves to fix it, which in E.T.‘s case was about 31 years from its release.

Addendum

Was E.T. the real reason for the U.S. crash? Honestly, I’m dubious. It’s likely a contributing factor, but a slight one. But the fact that it can’t be ruled out, and probably helped a little, makes it something that many writers can point to without much fear of contradiction. It’s the way many narratives are built.

But there were plenty of good games, by the standards of the time, to offset the fortunes of any single title. A more likely explanation was a deluge of bad games, and a market oversaturated by them produced by companies looking for a quick buck, so that unless a consumer had done their research, it was difficult to separate the worthwhile purchases from the cash grabs.

Video games had, almost overnight, turned into a billion-dollar business. For a few years, specifically 1978 to 1982, the success of arcades, and of the Atari VCS and a number of excellent games for it, tantalized a nation. For a brief period, almost everyone sold game cartridges. I remember seeing them on the racks of drug stores during that time.

Then, almost as suddenly as it had risen, it collapsed. No one knew which games were good and which were bad. Even the good ones were pretty expensive: a $30 game in 1982 was nearly $90 in today’s (2022) money. All of those stores that had jumped on the bandwagon were left with piles of unsold inventory. Console gaming died out almost completely for a few years, until the arrival of the NES, and some canny moves by Nintendo of America, resurrected the industry in the land of its birth.

Arcade Donkey Kong Romhacks

The website Donkey Kong Hacks has a number of interesting modifications of the original Donkey Kong arcade game. Some of these are intended for use in training, such as Free Run Edition (which removes all the enemies and deadly obstacles) and Skipstart (begins play at maximum difficulty). There are versions that only contain randomly-selected versions of the Girders (a.k.a. Barrels) screen, versions that change the maps, and more. Some, like Donkey Kong Wizardry, change the graphics and change the cutscenes too! The Readme for the Crazy Barrels version explains how to play these hacks in emulators.

There are other fan-made hacks floating around, some available as installable kits from the site DK Remix. Deranged Edition keeps getting harder after difficulty level 5, and Remix and Christmas Remix change the game up a lot, adding alternate maps, bonus stages, and some Rivets stages that fall apart as you remove rivets.