On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.
It’s not easy to find romhacks that measure up to our exacting standards, that strike me in just “that way,” but a conversion of the NES Legend of Zelda, one of the few mainline Zeldas never to have been really remade in any form (unless you count the abandoned Satellaview versions), fits the bill like a duck in well-made dentures.
This screenshot may look nearly exactly like The Legend of Zelda. In fact it is the Legend of Zelda, just converted, nearly exactly, to the SNES.
The question has to be asked: why? I mean, to a degree it is kind of pointless. There’s been nearly exact (although always unofficial) re-implementations of The Original The Legend of Zelda since Zelda Classic (Set Side B). All of Nintendo’s own rereleases, from Virtual Console to Gamecube bonus disks to a stand-alone Game & Watch unit. But recreating it on SNES does have certain uses. First, it fixes a handful of issues with the earlier game, notably it doesn’t have flicker or slowdown. It also uses the L and R buttons to allow for quick inventory cycling without having to go into the subscreen.
It speeds up game transitions: it uses the Link to the Past-style iris in and out effects, using the SNES’ display masking feature, instead of the slower curtain closes and opens from the NES version. It allows you to use custom soundtracks via MSU-1 support. Health refills instantly instead of pausing the game for up to 15 seconds while all your hearts load up with red. And the sound is very slightly different: by default the low-health beep is less insistent, there’s an extra sound when you kill an enemy, and the candle sound is a little higher in pitch.
But perhaps the best reason to convert it to the SNES is, SNES emulators are nearly as common as NES emulators. You can play this modestly improves version of LoZ on anything with an SNES emulator, which isn’t something you can say of Zelda Classic.
I’m kind of an outspoken fan of the original LoZ, I still think it’s well worth playing today, although I think you should seek out its manual should you do so. (The opening demo even tells you to look there for details!) You’ll die a lot, it’s true, but there’s little penalty for it except for going back to start or the beginning of a dungeon, and having to go refill your health before you try again. It takes real skill to weave around its fast-moving enemies and projectiles, but it’s doable, and you don’t need speedrun skillz to do it.
It is rather difficult to find it through search. It’s not on romhacking.net. Creator infidelity’s announcement was on Twitter, where he offered only a direct download.
Blogfriend Phil Nelson pointed me to this absurd little homebrew Gameboy game. You don’t have to play it on a Gameboy though, its itch.io page has an embedded emulator. It’s got fun music, and its text is digitized typewriter writing.
It’s a simple choose-your-own-adventure kind of thing, made in a week, with a good number of suitably silly branches. You’ll die often, so you’ll restart a lot if you want to see everything that can happen. If you remember what you did it doesn’t take long to get back where you were (so long as you don’t scream at the beginning). While it’s a silly trifle, a certain word at the beginning filling the screen probably makes it unsuitable for kids.
You made it past the snarky cat picture! You must really be into this. You might find more of interest at the submissions page of the Bad Game Jam.
On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.
Most of the things we post here are game hacks. That is, something that has been modified from a published game. Hacking games is not illegal, but the process that some people usually use to obtain the roms themselves may be somewhat questionable. Well not for the subject of this week’s article: it’s 100% homebrew, created from scratch and unencumbered by such considerations! It runs on NES hardware (or an NES emulator), but technically speaking what we have here is more of an indie game on classic console hardware more than a hack.
It’s also an unusual subject for a 2022 indie game. You’ll find all kinds of hacks to, say, put silly characters into Super Mario Bros., but a remake of an Intellivision game, and one with an Atari port that is very much its equal, and porting those games to the NES-that’s unusual enough to merit discussion, even if the game itself is very simple.
Astrosmash! (with the exclamation point) was a very popular game for the Intellivision. I heard it was originally intended to be an Asteroids-style game, with rocks that split into pieces when shot, but turned out to be interesting translated to a Space Invaders-style missile base game, where your ship is stuck to the bottom of the screen shooting at targets falling from above. Astroblast! was released by M-Network (Mattel’s label for publishing games for competing systems), and was a very similar game for the Atari VCS/2600, but actually improved on the original in two ways: it can be played with either the joystick or paddle controller. It’s the only game for the VCS like that! Both control schemes are fun, although experts can probably play much better with the paddle, due to both its faster and more precise movement. And, it’s extremely fast! The sheer pace of the VCS Astroblast is so much greater than the Intellivision Astrosmash that it kind of demonstrates why VCS games tend to be more engaging than Intellivision games: it wastes no time with an easy ramp up in difficulty, but starts faster than almost any other game, and only gets harder from there. It’s simply exhilarating!
The way it works is like this. Rocks, Pulsars and Spinners fall from the sky, and your ship tries to shoot them before they hit the ground. You get points for shooting things, but lose points for things that get past you. Rocks come in two sizes (smaller ones have higher point values), but only kill you if they hit you. Big rocks break apart into small rocks when stuck. Pulsars home in on you as they fall, which makes it more likely they’ll hit you, but also means they’re easier to shoot. The most dangerous items plummeting towards you though, by far, are the Spinners. You must shoot Spinners, you don’t just lose points if one lands but a life. Small Spinners are your greatest enemy, since they’re also hard to hit. There’s also UFOs that harass you, which pass by horizontally and drop bombs on you.
Here is a short game of Astroblast, to give you a sense of how it works. Notice how fast it is. Know that this is nowhere near as fast as it gets. It is my kind of game:
As you score gets higher, the background color changes, and the game gets faster. You get extra lives every 1,000 points, and you start with ten, far more generous than most arcade-style skill tests from that time, but you need all those lives because you’re constantly dying. Difficulty is determined by score, the more points you have the faster it gets. Because you lose points as well as gain them, and because the speed is balanced right at the edge of human reaction time, players tend to play until they reach a difficulty score boundary, where only nearly-inhuman focus, and lots of practice, can push you beyond it. Astroblast will push your playing skills to the very limits.
Astro Smash ‘N’ Blast is an homage to these two games. It takes the same form, your ship at the bottom shoots upwards at an endless wave of plummeting targets, Rocks, Pulsars and Spinners. (There are no UFOs in this version.) There’s fewer things falling, but the game is a bit more precise about hitting small targets. Pressing the Select button turns on autofire, which you’ll probably want to use, to avoid compressing your thumb tissue into a singularity with rapid frantic tapping.
Rocks don’t split in two in this version, but otherwise it plays a lot like VCS Astroblast. Small Spinners are particularly difficult targets to hit, and must be aimed at precisely.
This version takes on a bit of inspiration from Pac-Man CE, in that in addition to having limited lives, you have a time limit. You can earn extra time by hitting +30 second targets that pass by horizontally, and you can regain hits on your ship by hitting passing 1UPs. These are the only bonuses; unlike the originals, you don’t get extra ships from points at all. Although the game ends if you run out of time, chances are great that you’re going to lose all five of your lives before then.
As in Astrosmash/blast, as you ascend to tougher difficulties, the screen’s background color changes. You probably won’t see the later levels though without a lot of practice. Astro Smash ‘N’ Blast offers a level of challenge rarely seen in most games. I prefer games like this, with a strong element of chaos, to more typical modern examples of high challenge, like bullet hell shooters and rhythm games. I think the essence of the super fast video game is in randomness, not memorizing levels and playing them almost by rote but in reacting instantly to dynamic situations, and that’s why I like all the Astro-style games.
I am left wondering what inspired Double Z to look to old Intellivision and Atari games for inspiration. They were released when I was a small child; had Double Z even been born yet when the Astro games were on store shelves? For whatever reason they made it, I am glad they did. Games like this don’t come around often any more, and I intend to put in some solid practice on it.
The Commodore VIC-20, Commodore’s first attempt at a budget color home computer, often gets lets out of the spotlight in favor of its more capable successor, the Commodore 64. Back at release it had significantly limited RAM even for the time, only 5K, and it also had only eight colors for general use, simple sound, and no hardware sprites. Even so, it did all right in the market, but was quickly overshadowed by Commodore’s more powerful followup.
But all of these factors mean that making substantial games for it is both a more interesting challenge, and a lot more impressive when it’s done well. Youtube channel RetroGamerNation did a roundup video of interesting VIC games made in 2022. Remember, when watching these videos, the VIC had no sprites. I personally like the look of Flood. Most of these games require significant RAM expansion to run (on the VIC-20, “significant” means at least 16 kilobytes), but many people who try them out will be running them on an emulator anyway, and one of the games actually runs on an unexpanded VIC.
Back in 2013, David Crane chimed in on a thread about Pitfall II. The Atari VCS (a.k.a. 2600) was not known for the quality of its music. For sound effects, especially noise effects like blasts and booms, it was fine, but its TIA chip didn’t have the frequency resolution to produce every musical note precisely, meaning some of it notes would sound a bit off.
There was technically a way to produce almost arbitrary waveforms, though like many techniques on the system it was processor-intensive. It involved changing the volume on one of its sound channels in real time to simulate the waveform of the sound you wanted to make. That was fine so long as you didn’t need the processor to do anything else, and sadly, on the VCS, just displaying graphics relied heavily on the processor.
David Crane managed to get decent polyphonic music out of the VCS by using Pitfall II’s DPC chip, which Crane created himself, as a co-processor that figured out the right values to set the volume to produce the mixed waveform for the music at a specific time, which the machine’s overworked 6507 CPU could then read and send to the right volume register in the TIA every scanline. The process is explained (to the understanding of a sufficiently technical frame of mind) here. I think I understand it myself!
The fact that David Crane is still around, and so willing to discuss the many tricks he came up with to make his games, is a great blessing, as is the existence of the AtariAge forums themselves, which are a trove of classic gaming information.
Nowadays this technique has been refined and utilized in homebrew cartridge productions. A particular standout is the music from Champ Games’ version of Mappy, which is frankly amazing. Check it out:
Via MNeko on Twitter, Apotris (itch.io, $0) is nothing more than a really sharp and responsive clone of a certain tetromino-stacking puzzle game. It just feels good to play! It’s Game Boy Advance homebrew, and I can personally vouch that it’s particularly nice if you have the means to play it on a jailbroken 2 or 3DS.
Audacity Games is Activision co-founder, not to mention the creator of Pitfall! and A Boy and His Blob, David Crane, along with former Activision designers Garry and Dan Kitchen. They’re getting back into the games business with a new Atari VCS/2600 title now available, after three years of development: Circus Convoy!
With hardware acceleration, lots of crazy tricks are possible, as demonstrated in the recent post here on homebrew VCS carts. David Crane himself helped pioneer this approach with his seminal Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, whose original VCS version used a special chip to help make possible its many tricks. Well, Circus Convoy is notable in that it doesn’t use such tricks! It doesn’t use “hardware acceleration,” although I presume it still uses tricks like bank switching and additional RAM.
Take a look at the features and play guide pages on their website, and if it looks interesting to you and you still have a working Atari, maybe buy a cart? The prices do seem a bit high for a new VCS game in 2022, with the cheapest offerings at $55-60. But I’m sure there are hardcore VCS enthusiasts out there who are interested.