On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.
Gradius for Famicom and NES is a well above-average port of a game for very different hardware than the arcade original. It was good enough that it was converted right back into arcade game, released for Nintendo’s Unisystem arcade hardware as Vs. Gradius. Graphically and aurally, it is quite similar to the arcade game.
It’s similar, but not identical. Now this hack doesn’t change the major downgrades from arcade Gradius. There is no vertical scroll in levels two or three, and you still can only have two Options at once. But in a variety of subtle ways, the game looks a bit nicer. In particular, the game’s text fonts being changed from the boring old font used on the NES back to the arcade’s snazzy line-drawing affair is a nice change.
The original version of this is quite an old hack, created back in 2000, but it has been periodically updated over the years, most recently changed in 2018. That’s a long period of support for a romhack!
The Youtube channel Retro Game Mechanics has done a series of three videos on glitches in Super Mario Bros. One involves using the NES game Tennis, which has a certain property of its code that allows you to load all kinds of funky levels in SMB.
They’re all interesting, but the one that floats my particular boat is the third, which turns into a deep dive in the compressed manner that Super Mario Bros. stores its levels in ROM, and uses to draw them during play in real time.
On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.
They have fallen into obscurity in the intervening decades, but it used to be that the Ultima games were some of the biggest RPGs around, and many still have fond memories of them. The story of the rise and fall of Origin Systems, once one of the biggest game publishers, and how now they’re just another of the hundred ignored lines on EA’s balance sheet, is not our business here today, but instead that of one fan’s effort to improve one of the less faithful adaptations: the NES version of Ultima Exodus.
Ultima and Ultima II (and their predecessor Akalabeth) were popular, but Ultima III was the first megahit version of the game, that could be considered to stand up today. Ultima I was pretty small, and Ultima II had a lot of crazy elements like space travel. Ultima III has a much more cohesive game world, a more detailed quest, and generally feels a lot more like what we would consider an RPG game now. Later games would build off of it and become even more popular, especially Ultima IV with its detailed morality system, and Ultima VII with its vast game world, depth of NPC interaction, and many system and UI improvements.
Back to Ultima III. One of its best-selling versions was the Famicom version in Japan, which had a bit of a media blitz around its release. Both the Ultima and Wizardry games had something of a second life on Japanese computer systems and consoles, where they would go on to sell millions of copies more. While EA’s ownership and neglect have meant that Ultima is mostly gone and forgotten*, in Japan new Wizardry games continue to be made, hewing to that series’ original dungeon crawl aesthetic.
* This is, honestly, partly to series creator Richard Garriott’s ownership of several important characters, meaning both parties have to agree to the other’s vision for any further official Ultima game to be made. And Garriott seems to be chasing fads lately; his most recent idea for a game utilizes that bane of all game design concepts, NFTs.
So now you have a little idea of what Ultima is. The Famicom/NES version was a hit in Japan, but it differs from the computer version in many ways. This was pretty much the norm for the many Japanese-made Famicom adaptations of Western games. An article could be usefully written on all the ways Famicom ports of RPGs differ from their originals. Maybe later.
The point of this romhack is to change the NES version of Ultima III: Exodus so it more matches up with the computer versions. It uses its own patching system, so Romhacking.net’s web-based patching system won’t be of use.
So many little things have changed in this version that it’s hard to talk about! At the very least, the graphics have received a complete overhaul. The cartoony figures of the original, which were pretty silly even back then, look a lot more appropriate for a series with the stature and legacy of classic Ultima games.
NES Ultima Exodus is also notorious for a number of significant bugs, including the absence of an important clue, it being impossible to cancel a character’s turn without wasting it, poorly differentiated character classes, and the lack of some of the monsters of the computer version. These have been fixed in this version. Some other niceties have been added, including character portraits for the people you talk to, which is really going above and beyond for a game like this!
It’s pretty much become the definitive console release of this landmark of computer RPG gaming! You should check it out if you have an interest in these things.
Portopia is the biggest missing piece, to many US enthusiasts, of the history of Japanese gaming. It led to the creation of Dragon Quest, but it had a huge influence all on its own, which can be felt in a wide variety of other Famicom titles, including some that did make it to the US. Why do The Goonies II and Dr. Chaos have those weird room-based adventure sections? It’s because of Portopia, trying to mix its kind of menu-based first-person gameplay with the pre-existing side-scrolling platforming game style popularized by Super Mario Bros. It seemed random to Western players at the time, but Japanese players would have known exactly what those games were trying to do.
We’ve mentioned Jeremy Parish and his various Works projects before, and they’re always interesting and informative, a great antidote to the strident style of many popular Youtubers, and this one is especially important to anyone seeking to understand how the Japanese game industry grew and evolved in the Famicom era.
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.
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.
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!
It’s been known for a while that three classic-era Atari arcade games were produced by HAL for the Famicom and NES: Defender II a.k.a. Stargate, Millipede, and Joust. Nicole Express recently did her typically excellent job discussing them and what makes them interesting. Such as, among other things: they use music that was later reused in NES Punch-Out!!, they are subtly different between their Famicom and NES versions, Satoru Iwata may have personally worked on them, and they were developed as part of Nintendo’s pitch to Atari to have them distribute the NES in the United States.
Something that one might overlook reading the article, however, is the news that this isn’t the only version of Millipede made for the Famicom hardware. As an in-house project at Atari Games/Tengen, Ed Logg himself implemented Millipede for it, before they discovered that the publishing rights in the US resided with the other Atari, the one that got bought by Jack Tramiel.
The source was recently found on a backup tape from Atari, and hand-assembled. The resulting rom file can be downloaded from the AtariAge thread on it. It has no sound, because that hasn’t been implemented yet, the colorful alternate palettes of the arcade version are missing, there are some bugs (I mean program bugs, not enemies), and the DDT Bomb objects hadn’t been put in yet, but a lot of the game is still there. There are even multiplayer modes, supporting up to four players playing alternating or simultaneously! It’s especially interesting since Ed Logg assisted Centipede’s creator Dona Bailey in creating the original game.
There was an error in the data prep in many NES games that caused them to reverse the bit order of samples. Or more accurately, the games encoded the samples correctly, but the flaw is in the NES sound hardware.
Chrontendo’s back! Dr. Sparkle’s long-running journey through the entire library of the Famicom and NES continues. He’s been doing this for at least 15 years! Chrontendo got its start as a blog, then moved to a YouTube format, although every episode is also uploaded to the Internet Archive. Dr. Sparkle tries to complete the games he covers, meaning, sometimes it takes a very long time to construct an episode, especially when it contains a lengthy JRPG.
In addition to being generally watchable by anyone with even a passing interest in video gaming history, Chrontendo is a good series just to have on in the background while you do other things. What I’m saying is that it’s comfortable. Like Comfortable Doug! (warning: earworm)
Chrontendo 60 is subtitled “The Most Perverted Episode,” covers April through May of 1990, and features:
horse racing sim Kurogane Hiroshi No Yosou Daisuki! Kachiuma Densetsu,
a long section the original Fire Emblem and the series in general,
Rare’s PinBot, a very unique and interesting simulation of a real Williams pinball table with some unique video extras,
GameTek’s home version of the Nickelodeon game show Double Dare, which was also made by Rare,
the ludicrously-titled Dinowarz: The Destruction of Spondylus,
Imagineering’s Ghostbusters II,
Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road, by Rare,
a very long section on the epic Final Fantasy III, from and by Square, which Dr. Sparkle proclaims to be the best JRPG on the system,
Kagerou Densetsu, a “sorta action RPG thing” published by “Pixel,” but we’re not sure who exactly that is, and may have been intended, it is speculated, to be a kind of RPG-ish sequel to The Legend of Kage, and
Nintendo World Cup (forgive me for not typing out the entire Japanese title), that weird Kunio soccer game that Nintendo published under their own banner, just with all the story and setting removed. It’s a decent soccer game even so.
With this episode, Dr. Sparkle is declaring a dividing point for the series. Up until now has been the rise of the Famicom; the rest covers its fall, what he calls the “Byzantine Empire” phase of the system’s life. This doesn’t mean the series is almost over though. Far, far from it.