The Hotdog Laserhouse

May 1

A Billion Words About a Rom Hack

New Super Mario Bros. 3 is a rom hack of New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS. It attempts to port over the whole of Super Mario Bros. 3 to its portable retro-throwback progenitor, but most immediately you’ll notice that creates a problem wherein NSMB does not support all of the features of SMB3, creating level incompatibility. A smart designer would be able to design around these limitations, but unfortunately for NSMB3, it’s just another rom hack.

Part of the reason I never really got too deep in to the rom hacking scene is because a lot of the rom hacks out there, to be frank, aren’t very good. Or at least, they just aren’t “for” me. This is generally because of something you could call “rom hack difficulty”. To hack a game, you need to have incredible passion for the game in question and a rather intimate familiarity with its inner-workings. This naturally breeds an environment where rom hacks have unnecessarily obtuse difficulty for no other reason than the guy making it wanted something challenging to play. Given that a rom hacker may have in fact mastered the game in question, and that “challenge” becomes something that is impossible for a normal human being to complete, let alone sometimes even comprehend.

New Super Mario Bros. had the unfortunate distinction of also being kind of too easy. A lot of people wanted more challenge out of that kind of game (I was one), so it only made sense that somebody would take up the quest to make something a bit more rugged. It just so happened that in addition to wanting to port SMB3, the creator of NSMB3 also wanted something that was most definitely not easy. That would be fine - even the hardest games can be smartly balanced so that they are difficult without being cheap. The original Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox is widely considered to be a “hard game”, but it’s only difficult because it punishes you for not playing carefully and intelligently.

What I’m trying to get at here is that NSMB3 not only deviates from the original SMB3 designs, but it also cranks the difficulty up to unnecessary levels. Some of the difficulty has to do with the process of porting SMB3 levels to NSMB - NSMB actually has less levels than SMB3 does, so the creator had to merge multiple SMB3 levels in to one big long stage separated by warp pipes. That means you are frequently asked to marathon a single massive stage that is actually three entire levels stitched together - with but a single checkpoint to mark your progress. Die, and you could potentially face having to replay what amounts to a whole entire level over from scratch. More insulting still, however, are the bits between those - the author of NSMB3 had ample opportunities to inject his own original level designs in to NSMB3 (particularly in areas like Ghost Houses and Castle/Fortress levels), and more often than not, it’s in these areas that the difficulty of the game spikes dramatically for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

Take, for example, the fortress at the end of World 3. After completing the (mostly faithfully translated) Doomship section, you take a pipe that somehow lands you inside of a castle. I guess the Doomship wasn’t enough, because now you have an entire room where you must hop across donut blocks as lava slowly creeps upwards. At first glance, this seems easy enough to a moderately seasoned Super Mario Bros. player: The jumps are not that difficult to make and as long as you keep moving you stay ahead of the lava with ease. Except you run in to a location where you have two question blocks laid before you. One has four arrows pointing to it, and the other is left by its lonesome. The one the arrows point to contains a fireflower. The opposite box contains a mini-mushroom, turning you in to mini Mario. “Huh," I thought. "That’s weird. Maybe there’s a secret that will use it." I grab it and continue onwards, using mini Mario’s extra floaty jump to coast through the next set of jumps. And then I see why the arrows were pointed at the block with the fireflower in it: at the edge of the room are two brick blocks, and the only way to progress is to break them. Mini Mario can’t do that. It let me pick up the ability, make it a sufficient distance with it, and is now punishing me by death. Sure, you can say that it told me to use the fireflower and not the mini-mushroom,  but if that’s the case, just eliminate the mini-mushroom block. No, instead it had provided the option to pick it up just so it could point and laugh at me 20 seconds later. "Boy, I bet you wish you had followed my advice." it would say to me, with a smug grin on its face. All I can think about is how long it’s taking for the lava to catch up. I willfully leap off and butt stomp to my burning death.

Oh yeah, and by the way? For some reason, the World 3 fortress does not have any checkpoints to speak of. At all. Die at any point, and you start the entire level over from the beginning of the Doomship. Even if you die to the boss.

This is a running theme in NSMB3. The original New Super Mario Bros. was not praised for the way it handled its save system - basically, you had either defeat a boss or spend from your bank of hidden star coins to unlock a secret pathway on the world map. In this way, hidden star coins became something of a commodity - you’d keep a cache of them and only unlock a secret area if you needed to save your game mid-map. Given that the original SMB3 did not have hidden star coins in it, this is obviously an opportunity for NSMB3 to find new ways to punish you - which is to say that hidden star coins are stashed in the most obscure, difficult-to-reach areas in the entire game. Meaning no mid-map saves. Meaning if you sit down to play NSMB3, you are going to have to play half of an entire world each time before it’ll let you take a break and save your game.

And this is NSMB3, meaning “half of an entire world” can be a good 5-6+ levels divided up between 3 spaces on the map. With limited checkpoints. Are we having fun yet?

People praise this guy for it. While I’m sure there are more, for all I know, NSMB3 is the most high-profile NSMB rom hack out there right now. There have been a few places where this has been posted, and whenever I bring up my concerns I’m practically lynch mobbed by people telling me to “man up, noob”. It probably shouldn’t be surprising when people are way over-protective of something that makes them feel “skilled”, but too often there are moments where skill takes a back seat to trial-and-error. I recall another instance earlier in World 3 where I came up from a pipe directly in to a Koopa Troopa jumping down from above. No way to avoid it. Literally the moment I was given control, I took the hit - and as it turned out, that was the “critical path” route. Be it lack of foresight or totally intentional, you will always take damage at that part of the level, and that’s something that should not be; especially in a Mario game where health can be at a premium.

I’m sure lots of hard work went in to making NSMB3. The hack is vast, changing every single level contained in the original New Super Mario Bros., and as I said earlier, plenty of time was put in to creating original levels. I know what that can feel like - when I did MarioWeen back in 2005, on average, creating a single level would take me almost a full month from start to finish. Build, tweak, polish, test, tweak, test, polish. I’ve been there.

Earlier I said rom hacks weren’t “for” me because they were often too difficult - and that’s largely because it’s one of the easiest things in the world to design a game that is “hard”. Anybody with a functioning brain can throw some extra goombas in a Super Mario Bros. level or line a boss battle room with insta-kill spikes. The real challenge in game design is the opposite of that - finding the correct balance that makes your game accessible. If you’re bragging to me just how obtuse and confusing your puzzle is like it’s something to be proud of, I’m just going to roll my eyes at you.

In the process of writing this, I discovered that the mini-mushroom described earlier is in fact used for a secret area, but it’s framed in such way that 90% of players are probably going to miss it - and at that point, I’d already given up on NSMB3.