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.
Zoid Kirsh on Twitter (while Elon Musk hasn’t completely wrecked it yet) tweeted about how Metroid Prime’s save system works. Metroid Prime save files are less than 60 bytes long! A single Gamecube memory card block is eight kilobytes, so it’s a bit overkill, but it’s still nice when a developer is frugal!
The way they explain it is that the game has a number of “world layers” which determine what is spawned in each area when it’s loaded. Which layer is active when a room is loaded is determined by a single bit in the save. That, plus some basic stats like health and ammo, and the record of object scans, all take up very little memory when bit-packed.
If Metroid Prime’s save file were 59 bytes long, that would mean it had 472 bits to work with. The passwords used by the original Metroid only stored 144 bits of data!
The Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games are interesting offshoots of the mainline Mystery Dungeon titles. They make clear a stark difference between primacy and popularity: if you only care about sales, then there is no question that Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games are the main games, because their sales vastly outweigh the other games. The games in the second generation, Explorers of Time/Darkness/Sky, are the best-selling Mystery Dungeon games of all. You have to know that there’s around 30 other games, many much older than the Pokemon flavor, in fact older than Pokemon itself by three years, to know the whole story.
Yet the PMD games are still Mystery Dungeon titles, and they play very similarly. They’re graphical roguelike dungeon-crawl games, just, you, your teammates, and your opponents are not generic fantasy creatures, but Pokemon. That is, specific fantasy creatures. Trademarked ones, in fact.
Because PMD’s fairly popular, you’re more likely to find investigations into its internals than the Shiren or other Mystery Dungeon games, just from the number of people who exist in its audience with both the will and skill to investigate. Yet, those internals are close enough to the MD standard that they even provide insight into how classic Mystery Dungeon operates.
YouPotato TheZZAZGlitch’s usualy video stomping grounds in Pokemon, but they have a fondness for PMD, so they’ve made a video on how the first generation (Red/Blue Rescue Team) generates its dungeons, and what do you know, many of these floor types are also very familiar to me from my time exploring the Shiren games, and it doesn’t seem a stretch at all to presume they’re run by the same, or at least a very similar, algorithm.
One of their discoveries is of a hidden structure to the overworld of that game. Their discussion of this is fascinating, and should be referred to if you have an interest in such things. I will give a broad summary here.
The Game Boy was not given much VRAM for storing graphics. To avoid bus conflicts, the CPU that runs the system only has access to VRAM, to store new background tile information, either during VBLANK, a specific time each frame when the PPU circuitry isn’t accessing memory, or by blanking the screen entirely, which is only really feasible during major transitions, like through a door or into a hole. So, the system is limited in how quickly it can store new tiles during play.
Link’s Awakening stores two kinds of tiles in its VRAM. Most of them are from a set that’s used throughout the overworld, but a small number are overwritten, used for different purposes as Link explores the landscape. The overworld is separated into 2×2 blocks, and each can have its own set of these customized tiles.
There is a problem with this setup, however. When Link changes screens, like in the original Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past, the screen transition scrolls smoothly between the areas. During the scroll, briefly, it’s possible for elements from two different screens to be displayed at once. How does the program handle situations where the custom tiles have two different definitions between screens?
The answer is that the overworld is cleverly designed so that there aren’t adjacent screens with walkable passages between them that use different sets of custom tiles. There are screens in the game that only use tiles from the main overworld set, and all of the places with passages between the screens with custom tiles have one of them, as a kind of memory airlock, to prevent glitches during transitions. It’s pretty clever.
If this is interesting to you, I encourage you to read the whole article, especially for the exceptional cases where the system breaks down and they had to find other ways to keep the screen from glitching.