Romhack Thursday: Gradius III using the SA-1 chip

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

First, I’d like to fill you in a bit on the world of supplemental chips included in cartridges.

The greatest advantage of cartridges as a software distribution medium is that you can include extra hardware in the cart that extends the capabilities of the system. The inclusions, ranging from a few extra logic gates controlling banking to static save RAM and batteries to supplemental microchips to entire coprocessors, goes back to at least the Atari VCS/2600, where they played a major role in extending that console’s lifespan. The VCS only had 128 bytes of RAM, a ROM address space of a mere 4 KB, and didn’t even have lines going out to the cartridge for writing to external memory. In spite of these fairly dire limits, regularly games for the system would far surpass what was expected by its creators, culminating in the DPC chip used in Pitfall II.

It’s not true that you can do anything with extra hardware in a cart, but you can push the limits quite far. The inclusion of extra circuitry in the cartridge is what allows Champ Games to make their amazing Atari arcade ports (such as Mappy and Scramble).

After the VCS/2600 fell out of popularity the NES came along, and extra chips of this sort became almost mandatory. The tales of Nintendo being hampered by the chip shortage at the time of the NES’s popularity limiting production are true, but are also somewhat self-inflicted. Legions of popular games required at least a MMC1, a chip that could have been included in the base console, or supplied in an add-on peripheral like a pass-through cartridge. But instead Nintendo chose to include one with every game that required it, and also MMC3s, some MMC5s, and a handful of other chips.

Then the SNES came along, and more extra chips entered the picture, most notably the DSP, the SA-1, and most famously the SuperFX. The SA-1, basically a coprocessor for the machine’s overworked Ricoh 5A22, a variant of the WDC 65C812, which was itself a 16-bit version of the venerable MOS 6502, is our focus here.

Extra chips in SNES carts weren’t nearly as essential as they were for most NES games, but there were still a good number of them. In the early days of the SNES extra chips like these were not hugely common, although a DSP was used even in one of the system’s launch games, Pilotwings. On the other hand F-Zero, a game remembered fondly for its great sense of speed, didn’t use any special chips.

The SA-1 was one of the more powerful of these chips. It was basically a second 65C812-type chip running at triple the main CPU’s clock speed, with a small amount of dedicated memory and some other minor features. Most famously it was used in Super Mario RPG, but it was also used in both of the SNES Kirby games.

The SA-1 wasn’t used in that many games, and it wasn’t even available for use, I think, in the system’s early days, which was a shame. The power of the SA-1 was quite great, if used correctly. SNES hacker Vitor Vilela has made a growing number of hacks that recode classic SNES games to use its calculatory prowess, and the difference is often quite dramatic.

There’s a lot of stuff there on his Github page that I’m going to save to present later, but one of their earlier projects, and one of the best I’d say, is his conversion of SNES Gradius III to use the SA-1. Gradius III is probably the SNES game in which slowdown is the biggest problem, it is not hard at all to get Gradius III into a state where the game slows down to half speed, or even one-third speed, simply by loading up on Options and powerups. As a difficult game where slowdown makes it much easier (and it may have been designed around it), and as a SNES launch title with great graphics and sound, it’s still playable without the SA-1, but you can nearly hear the processor creaking under the weight of all those projectiles and effects.

With the SA-1, all of that slowdown is just gone. It makes the game a fair bit harder, but also a lot more fun to play. See for yourself:

And now, look on in horror at a deathless playthrough of Gradius III with this hack:

Romhack Thursday: Gradius AC 2000 for NES

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!

Gradius AC 2000, by Kaison (romhacking.net)

Romhack Thursday: The Legend of Zelda Automap Plus

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

Last month we brought you Metroid + Saving, a passable attempt to make a classic game, that has a number of quirks related to it being a fairly early NES game, less frustrating to newer (younger) players. This week’s hack is another with that theme, snarfblam’s hack of NES The Legend of Zelda that adds a working automap to the game.

Like Metroid, finding your way around 128 screens of Hyrule is challenging, even if the game isn’t as large as, say, the Gameboy Link’s Awakening, which had 256 screens. But the limited number of tiles also decreases each screen’s visual distinctiveness, especially up in the mountainous regions.

The map appears in the upper-left corner of the overworld screens, which you can see in these screenshots. A special touch is that the map isn’t revealed all at the start but fills in as the player explores, and doesn’t consist of blank squares to show explored areas but even shows some detail. Places where screens are blocked internally are shown on the map, which is a great aid to both navigation and memory.

It immediately becomes evident that, like with Metroid + Saving’s mapping feature, it’s how the game should have been written originally, and probably would have been if design trends had evolved just a bit further at the time.

There are a couple of other graphical niceties in the hack, like health being shown in the life meter in 1/8th-heart increments. But overall the map is the main attraction here. It’s such a fundamental change to the game that the much more involved hack Zelda Redux uses it too. It is also worth trying out, if you still find the original Legend of Zelda to be a bit too hardcore for you.

Zelda Automap Plus, by snarfblam (romhacking.net)

Romhack Thursday: Super Mario Bros. Tweaked

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

The 2D Super Mario Bros. games illustrate pretty well how game design tastes were changing through the NES era. Super Mario Bros. and Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 still follow an arcade-like paradigm, where players are expected to lose many games before they finally rescue the princess. (Obviously, Vs. Super Mario Bros, being a coin-op game and which was released between those two, adheres to an arcade play ethic out of necessity.)

But Super Mario Bros. 2 is more of an adventure, where a skilled player might finish it on their first try, and an experienced Mario master can amass so many extra lives in Super Mario Bros. 3, as soon as World 1-2, as to make finishing it on the first attempt quite possible. Then when we move into Super Mario World we have outright game saving, and the fear of the Game Over screen recedes almost completely. That is the structure that all the later Mario games have followed, where losing progress is fairly unlikely.

I am not here to claim that this is a bad thing, and of course, even Super Mario Bros. offers to let the player continue on the world they lost on with the use of a code. But the code is still a secret, and while it isn’t a bad thing, it is a different thing. Super Mario Bros. with the copious extra lives and rule changes of later games, would be much a different experience to play through, even if all the levels are unchanged.

The romhack Super Mario Bros. Tweaked, created by Ribiveer, makes those changes. The worlds are exactly the same, but many subtle aspects of SMB have been brought into line with its sequels. Here is a list:

• Starmen count the number of enemies you defeat while invincible, increasing scoring, and if you get enough you start earning extra lives. This change alone will earn you tons of extra lives.

• Extra lives over 10 are displayed correctly on the level start screen, and are limited to 99. Mario’s state on the start screen is properly updated based on his powerup state.

• If you hold the jump button down while stomping on an enemy, you get extra height. This happens in Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 as well, of course.

• Consecutive stomps and enemies defeated by shells and Starmen increase the pitch of the enemy defeat noise as points increase, as they do in Super Mario World and later 2D Mario games.

• Taking a hit while Fiery Mario reduces you to Super status. Also, if you make a Fire Flower appear, then take a hit before collecting it and get reduced to Small Mario, collecting the Flower still advances you to Fiery state.

• Reaching the top of a flagpole awards you not points but an extra life.

• Invisible extra life blocks aren’t disabled if you failed to collect enough coins in the previous world’s third level, as explained in our previous post.

• Collecting a powerup in midair no longer ends your jump.

• The conditional scroll stop at the end of 1-2 and 4-2, which is broken in the unmodified game, work now, making it much harder to reach the famous Minus World. It’s still possible to reach it; the patch author promises a surprise if you do.

Some of these changes mean that players get a lot more extra lives, greatly decreasing the game’s difficulty. Consider that now, 38 years after the game’s release, far fewer play Super Mario Bros. than they used to. Someone might dust off their old NES some time, or play it on Virtual Console or through Nintendo Online on Switch, or emulate it by some other means.

But most people now who play SMB are probably people who are at least very good at it: streamers and speedrunners. People who don’t need the game to be made any easier. A patch like this might open Super Mario Bros. up to people who always thought it was too difficult, though.

It does feel a touch fairer, without that expectation that players will lose over and over. If you always found the first Super Mario game too challenging, give this hack a try. The challenges are pretty much the same, but you’ll have quite a few more chances to learn to overcome them.

You can now binge on extra lives as easily as you can in later games
You don’t have to trigger the game’s secret condition to make extra life blocks appear
Oh almost forgot, some of the Cheep Cheeps are green now

Super Mario Bros. Tweaked, by Ribiveer (romhacking.net)

Romhack Thursday: Super Mario World Coin Chaos

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

You could consider the act of creating a romhack to, itself, have difficulty levels.

The easiest kind of hack to make, usually, is the simple graphic hack. Most game engines don’t really care what its characters look like, it just tells the hardware where in memory to get the data to display the game objects. If you only change the graphics, the rest of the program is none the wiser. That’s why there were so many dumb visual hacks in the early days of romhacking.

Up one level of difficulty is the level edit. These can be pretty hard if unaided, but many games these days have bespoke map editors. Many classic-era games don’t store their area data internally as tilemaps, meaning it’s not quite true that you can change game levels to just anything, and many of these programs are not simple to learn or use, but it beats finding and editing pointers directly out of the game’s binary code.

A fairly difficult thing to do is to modify the game’s engine itself. Platformer engines are complex mechanisms, especially back in the days when they had to be highly optimized in order to leave time in each frame for other necessary game logic. Many Game Genie codes modify engine operation, but many of those same codes make the game glitchy and prone to crash. Especially if the modifications involve the creation of additional game states, that not only must interface with the rest of the game’s code without breaking things, but must also have room found for them inside a typically crowded game program.

Super Mario World Coin Chaos, by Jp32, doesn’t change the engine much, but makes them count. A few of them:

  • Mario has unlimited lives, which isn’t an uncommon change for a hack like this.
  • Mario’s health isn’t determined by his powerup state. 1Up Mushrooms have been repurposes to add a hit point, up to five. Powerups affect his abilities but don’t give him any extra hits.
  • Fire Flowers grant a limited number of fireball shots. One level, Frozen, starts Mario out with them, and offer additional shots.
  • While underwater, holding down Y allows rapid swimming, as if Mario were holding an item.
  • The level Automatic is an autoscroller, but with a twist: Mario doesn’t have free travel throughout the screen, but moves forward automatically at walking speed.
  • The level Climb grants Mario a wall jump! Like many game wall jumps, it’s hard to get used to, and requires tricky timing.
  • Yoshi can fly forever, but Mario takes damage as usual while riding him.

The biggest change, though, is that instead of trying to reach a goal, Mario is trying to collect coins by whatever means he can. When he gets his 99th coin the level immediately ends.

In difficulty, the game isn’t Kaizo-hard, but it heats up rapidly. The first level is about as hard as a later Super Mario World level, and it gets tougher from there. There are two tracks of levels and the player can progress along either, but both are pretty tricky. I’ve gotten about two-thirds the way through so far, so if there’s any objectionable content after that point, well, mea culpa.

The variety of themes and how they affect the 99-coin objective make this a hack not to miss. It’s not very long in number of levels, but there’s a lot of challenge here waiting for you. Good luck!

SMW Coin Chaos (by Jp32)

Romhack Thursday: Zelda Ancient Dungeon

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

In the world of romhacks, the term “Ancient Dungeon” has a specific meaning.

Way back in the SNES days, there was the cult favorite JRPG Lufia and the Fortress of Doom, a.k.a. Estpolis Denki. While overloaded, and most agreed harmed, by its ludicrous encounter rate, it had a good number of interesting innovations. It had an end-of-game stat report and a kind of New Game Plus mode, called “Try Again,” which reset players to base level but increased player experience and gold earned by four times. It had hidden Dragon Eggs throughout the world that could be collected and redeemed for special advantages near the end of the game, whereupon they would be scattered throughout the game, and refound, for more advantages. The game also had “Forfeit Island,” a place full of shops where every item the player characters ever sold throughout the game would make their way, and could be re-purchased.

Its prequel, Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, had even more play innovations, including visible monsters and a Zelda-like system of items that could be put to various uses on the exploration screen. Another thing Lufia II expanded on was the first game’s “Ancient Cave,” which was a dungeon that only a single character could enter. It didn’t take up a large portion of the original game, but Lufia II expanded it greatly, turning it into its own alternate game mode, that could be accessed from the main menu after completing the game.

Probably inspired by the Mystery Dungeon games, this version of the Ancient Cave was a 100-level randomized dungeon that reset players to Level 1 and no equipment when they began. It’s a completely optional challenge in that game, but many players found it highly interesting.

In romhack circles, an “Ancient Dungeon” is a game that completely tears apart its original game and turns it into a randomized play experience like Lufia II’s Ancient Cave. A similar implementation is Mega Man 9 and 10’s “Endless Mode,” which has also been recreated in romhacks for other Mega Man games.

Most Ancient Dungeon hacks are for JRPGs, but now we have one for Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda, and you might find it worth checking out.

The Legend of Zelda: Ancient Dungeon takes its name literally, in that the whole game is just one dungeon. There are no overworld screens. Each room contains a number of enemies, sometimes easy, sometimes hard, sometimes few, sometimes many, and sometimes a boss. They still drop items when you kill them, so you can build up lost health if you’re careful.

The creator of the hack managed to include the overworld enemies in the dungeon rooms, and also include monsters who are not ordinarily found in the same dungeon in the same room, by dynamically loading monster graphics during room transitions. That’s a pretty decent technical trick!

The layout of the dungeon is completely random. Monsters are chosen dynamically as you go. Many Ancient Dungeon hacks are actually computer programs that do the random generation themselves, and write that layout to the rom, so if you play the same version multiple times you’ll get the same dungeon each time, but that does not happen here.

The game shuts the doors out of each room until all the enemies inside have been defeated. Sometimes when you clear a room, a random item will be left. Once in a while this will be one of the game’s major items, like a Sword or the Ladder. You often get Heart Containers or other major items from beating bosses. There are also rooms where an old man offers to sell you another item using the rupees that you find along the way.

This Ancient Dungeon hack doesn’t map logically. Often you’ll enter a room with one exit, which will lead to a different room than it was when you were there before. This doesn’t mean your choice of exit is completely meaningless though. You’ll still enter the next room out of the opposite side of the screen as you left the last room, which can be important if you’re expecting a boss in the next room.

One thing about this hack is that it ramps up pretty slowly. When Link has full hearts he can shoot his sword, which can make quick work of many screens of enemies. If you take even half a heart of damage, though, you’ll go to only short-ranged attacks until you can build it back up. Getting far demands a lot more care than normal Zelda. You might find Water of Life as you go, which you may have to make a difficult choice as to whether to use it quickly and get your sword back, or save it for when the monsters get tough.

In my first test play I mostly ruled at it. I’ve played a ton of Legend of Zelda over the years, and I even managed to-carefully-destroy a three-headed Gleeok with just five hearts, a Wooden Sword and a Blue Ring. But I still lost, on Room 155, when I was unexpected thrust into a room with three blue Darknuts and three blue Wizzrobes, not a pleasant sight when you only have those five hearts and Blue Ring.

The hack does not allow for saving your progress, and unless you cheat by using savestates you lose everything you’ve done when Link gets his ticket punched. 155 rooms is a long way to go to only have five hearts to show for your progress.

I don’t know if I’ll try it again. Zelda’s dungeon rooms sure get monotonous after awhile. It could use a lot more variety in graphics, and its colors don’t even change throughout all those rooms. But this hack was released very recently, and I look forward to seeing what creator arnpoly does with it in the future!

Youtuber LackAttack24 did a successful hour-long play of this hack, if you’d rather watch than try it yourself:

The Legend of Zelda: Ancient Dungeon, by arnpoly (romhacking.net)

Romhack Thursday: Metroid + Saving

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

What is the ultimate fate of the library of the NES? Right now a lot of people who played it in their childhood are still around. We won’t be around forever. Once we’re all gone, or even mostly, will anyone still care about them?

I don’t believe that game design goes obsolete, but novelty is a big driver of game enjoyment, and what was once popular can fuel a nostalgic appreciation. Once both of those things are gone, will NES games be able to win new generations of players to their side?

Metroid + Saving’s file select screen, showing collected items

I think there is reason to be hopeful in this area. After all, lots of speedrunners are focused on these games, and many of them are fairly young, not even having been born yet when the NES was new and Nintendo Power was in print. Still, there are some games that are a bit player unfriendly, viewed through modern eyes, and one of them is Metroid.

The original Metroid is a difficult game to enjoy now. It’s got a gigantic game world for a NES game, but no mapping option at all. To win the player must explore, find a lot of items necessary to winning, probably find some more that make winning viable to a non-expert, and fight countless monsters that can very quickly end the player’s session. While the player can continue as many times as they wish, they always resume at the entrance to the area they were in with only 30 health, so to survive long enough to resume their explorations they usually must spend a lot of time grinding for energy balls, a process that can take quite a lot of time.

Added is a basic wall jump feature! The time’s really tricky, but since the game was designed without one, it works out okay.

Nintendo generally doesn’t remake their older games, except occasionally with graphic upgrades, such as with Super Mario All Stars. The gameplay, however, they leave alone. But they did remake Metroid, as Metroid Zero Mission, which added a lot of the later niceties that Super Metroid introduced, has a much more logical game progression, and even has an expanded end game. It seems to indicate that even Nintendo thinks Metroid is a bit hard to get into.

The map reveals the layout of the whole game, but except for a few cases, you still have to search out important items.

There is a whole genre of romhacks devoted to fixing the more unfriendly aspects of older games, and one of the most successful of these hacks, in my opinion, is snarfblam’s Metroid + Saving. It’s recently gotten an unofficial update by SimplyDanny, which is slightly friendlier, but both are substantially more playable games to people who aren’t inured to classic Nintendo difficulty.

The first thing it does is get rid of passwords. People playing with savestates may not care, but there is a lot to be said for approaching these games as they were intended by their original makers. And Metroid’s first release, on the Famicom Disk System, did have save files! So the save functionality (if you’re playing on an emulator or supporting flash cart) isn’t a revision, it’s more of a restoration. You lose the JUSTIN BAILEY password, but it’s not like the original game isn’t still out there.

The door transitions have been made much faster!

But Metroid + Saving has a lot more going for it than just that. It has a map! In the original it appears when you pause, but SimplyDanny’s version also puts a small map inset in the upper-right corner of the screen. It’s not the first classic Metroid hack to add a map (that might be Parasyte’s Metroid Automap patch), but its inclusion here is well taken. It’s hard to express how helpful a map function is to new Metroid players. It changes the nature of the game, keeping a lot of its challenge, but reducing the frustration, and also helpfully providing hints as to where secret passages may lie.

Missile doors take fewer missiles to open!

The new unofficial addition also restores all your energy when you begin a new session, makes random health and missile drops more common, and makes the game subtly easier in a few other ways. The Ice Beam has been strengthened considerably, a change I don’t agree with (it seems too powerful now), but it does greatly reduce the number of shots you must pump into late game enemies.

If you tried out Metroid before and found it its diamond-hard surface too difficult to break, you should give this version a try. It’s still challenging, oh yes, but a lot more accommodating to newbies. It is a version of Metroid for the ages.

Metroid + Saving 0.3, made by snarfblam

Metroid + Saving 0.5.2, modified by SimplyDanny

Romhack Thursday: Ultima Exodus Remastered

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.

This thief looks a lot cooler here than they did in the NES original!

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.

The font especially is much improved, over the very bland type used before.

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 character portraits are especially nice!

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.

Hey Chuckles!

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!

Seriously now: why haven’t the Ultima games been remade yet? Everything else has been remade, why not Ultima? Money is being left on the table!

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.

Romhack Thursday: Astro Smash ‘N’ Blast!

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.

Astro Smash ‘N’ Blast, for NES (romhacking.net)

Romhack Thursday: Super Mario 64 Reduced Lag

It’s not so much a hack as a recompilation, but it’s distributed in patch form so I’m accepting it. A person identified as “Nintendo 64 Wizard” took the source code created by decompiling Super Mario 64, and, simply, did something that Nintendo didn’t do: compile the game with -O2 optimization turned on. The result is a much more consistent frame rate.

From the romhacking.net article, a scene from the star with Bowser’s Sub in it, which is notorious for causing the game to lag.

If optimizing Super Mario 64 is an appealing concept to you, you might be interested in some of the videos made by Youtuber Kaze Emanuar, that goes into why the game has lag, and his own efforts into improving it.

Super Mario 64 Reduced Lag hack (romhacking.net)

Romhack Thursday: Zelda in Low Res

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

When people think about NES games, they often think of pixel art. Big chunky pixels! It’s one of the defining aesthetics of our era. The NES occupies a niche between the truly blocky graphics of the Atari VCS era and the 16-bit consoles, which don’t have a much greater resolution than the NES (since the limitations of CRT displays were a big factor), but had a much greater color depth that could help smooth things out.

But it can be interesting, visually, to try to find a middle ground between the Atari and the NES. That is where the subject of this post comes in: The Legend of Zelda Chunky Edition, a graphics hack by Zero Meaning.

There are no words for how much I love this look!

Only the graphics have changed, and just to make them more blocky, instead of the prevailing trend for remakes, which is to make them less so. (Oh also, the bright cyan of Link’s Blue Ring tunic has been darkened a bit.)

For some reason, this look suits The Legend of Zelda a lot! The greatest challenge to making it, I think is figuring out how to represent letters and numbers. You can see from the title screen above that the S, R and numeral 8 posed particular challenges, as did the copyright symbol.

There’s not a lot more to say about this one! So here are a few screenshots of Zelda, chunky style.

Romhack Thursday: Kirby’s Dream Land in Color!

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

Kirby’s first adventure was, famously, a Gameboy game. Since that system is black and white, it’s been heard that Shigeru Miyamoto didn’t know Kirby was supposed to be pink until his second major game, Kirby’s Adventure, was released as a swan song for the Famicom/NES. The last main world in Kirby’s Adventure, as a nod to its Gameboy roots, is monochrome.

Kirby games tend to have distinctive graphics, and Dream Land is no exception even if it is monochrome. But what would they look like if they were in color? Well we don’t have to wonder any longer, because of a romhack constructed by GreenAndACat. It ports the game to the Gameboy Color hardware, and it looks pretty darn great! They resisted the urge to make it too fancy, instead giving background elements broad swaths of primary color that look great when applied to the game’s simple yet iconic graphics. Have a look:

Green Greens is looking pretty sharp!
The water may look slightly glitchy, but its clarity is really appealing!
Nice color combinations inside Castle Lololo
No games do starry skies like Kirby does.

Kirby’s Dream Land DX, on romhacking.net.