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What?! An article about Mario Maker having meta influence on the industry and fan ROM hacking community?! No way! Yeah, I’m late to this party. I’m sorry. I’m not that big a Mario fan and thought Maker was overrated long before everyone else will eventually realize it. But even I haven’t been able to ignore the thing that has taken over all my favourite YouTube Let’s Players and gaming commentators, so I’ve been forced to form opinions on the damn thing. Like the opinion that it only kinda puts an end to Mario ROM hacks.

So since its release, Mario Maker has been the favourite topic of gaming journalists, particularly those interested in the fan built ROM hacking community… is what I would say, if I actually read an article from time to time and found that was that case. As is, I’ve got no clue was people are talking about, but I’m sure at some point someone thought of saying something like, “Mario Maker: The End of ROM Hacks!” or something equally stupid and traffic driven, so go find that article and pretend I’m responding to it. And, to be fair, there is some truth in that. But we’ll get to that later.

First, some terminology. If you don’t know what Mario is, then please send me the address of your rock; it sounds like a great vacation home. If you don’t know what Mario Maker is, then I’m genuinely curious what you typed into Google to get here, unless you used Bing, because you could probably type “gay porn” into Bing and end up at IKEA, and totally understand how that could happen because Bing works in mysterious ways, which is kind of an apt way to characterize a services of the omnipotent Microsoft. If you don’t know what a ROM hack is, then that’s something I’m actually interested in helping you with.

Long, long ago, in a nation far away, some people actually made really good videogames. Unfortunately, they took their sweet ass time in letting us westerners throw money at them for the games, so some fans would get their hands on what are called ROMs of the games (digital copies), and translate them from Japanese to English.

Of course, in creating the tools capable of editing these ROMs, and distributing the relatively easy to edit digital material widely through the internet, these translators opened an overused metaphorical box in gaming, and soon people caught on that they could use this stuff to alter the game, or even break it down completely to just the engine and then design their own game from there. One of the most popular franchises for this, was Super Mario.

Mario ROM hacks have been around for quite a while now, and their primary mechanic has always been new level design. So Nintendo evidently saw all that money they weren’t getting (an impressive thing to see, considering there’s no money in ROM hacking), and probably thought about doing their usual Nintendo thing of Cease and Desist, but then were like, “Nah, that’s just not fun anymore. The real bullies these days use emotional violence, stealing away all their victims’ friends and achievements!” So they came out with Mario Maker, a game that lets to design Mario levels, and play other people’s levels!

Okay, so based on that paragraph, I probably sound like I’m on the “death of ROM hacking” team, and to some degree, I am. Mario Maker is an officially licensed, easy to pick up way to do most of what ROM hackers have been doing for years, and thus largely negates their importance or significance from September 11th, 2015 onwards. But I don’t think you can say ROM hacking isn’t going to continue.

I couldn’t find any exact dates, but understand that people have been making ROM hacks for a pretty long time. Long enough for the whole thing to develop its own genre of platformer, the Kaizo Games. Now just a short hand for really damn hard ROM hacks, Kaizo Mario was originally a ROM hack of Super Mario World that was really really hard. That was really all it was. And I don’t mean like NES hard, I mean ROM hack hard, in that it was so ludicrously difficult that it could only plausibly be beaten as a ROM hack.

What do I mean by this? Well, ROM hacks have a mechanic that Mario Maker, or even the original NES Marios never did, called Save States. Basically you can map a button on your keyboard to create a save at any point in the game, and immediately reload that point as soon as you fall into the Death Water, or get hit by a fireball or something, just by pressing whatever you set as your load key. Very convenient, and for ROM hackers, a little too convenient. Save States would admittedly make any officially released Mario game way too easy, so to compensate for them, ROM hackers made their levels very very difficult, creating a sorta interdependency. The Kaizo Mario’s are only fun and beatable if you have Save States, and Save States are only really justified if you’re playing a Kaizo Mario.

What’s this got to do with Mario Maker? Nothing. And that’s the point. While there are a lot of people making challenging levels in Mario Maker, none of them are Kaizo hard, because they can’t be. To upload your level, you first have to prove it’s beatable by, well beating it, which no one could do with a real Kaizo level. Not without Save States, and Mario Maker doesn’t have Save States.

Something else Mario Maker doesn’t have: Overworlds. Most big, recognized ROM hacks aren’t individual levels, they’re full maps. And while this doesn’t really add much form the gameplay perspective -other than stringing several levels together which you can sorta do in Mario Maker if you just label them part 1, part 2, etc.- it does allow for storytelling, which just happens to strike my own interests a bit more.

Overworlds could be added to Mario Maker 2, or even used for DLC now, but I can’t help but feel there were intentionally left out of the game. Despite how often buzzwords like “creativity” are used in marketing, Nintendo’s not interested in giving much creative freedom, not because they’re some malicious oppressive entity, but because… well, penises. They’re already fighting it in Miiverse posts, and probably Mario Maker levels as well. That’s just what you get when you rely on user generated content. Pixel art dongs and non-Nintendo friendly language. Of course they’re not letting that near Mario, which means limiting creative freedom, and is one of probably a few reasons Mario Maker really only means Mario level maker.

So is the ROM hacking community, at least for Mario games, hurt by this? Yeah. People who would otherwise get into ROM hacking are probably going to settle for the more user friendly but less creatively open tools of Mario Maker instead. And most Mario players who just can’t wait for the next new official title to play new levels will just browse Maker now, instead of searching up the latest ROM hacks. It’ll probably be a shrunken community over the next few months.

But is it dead? No. The creative endeavours of ROM hacking go well beyond just level design (I should know; I’m currently working on one myself), and Mario Maker doesn’t support really anything other than just that. And while sure, there are some tough levels out there, Kaizo continues to be genre unique to the official releases. And to all Kaizo Mario makers out there,

Don’t Lose Your Way