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Part 3: Modding 101: ROM Hacking

Part 3: Modding 101: ROM Hacking

Modding 101 Homepage

Ahhh, the wonderful world of retro gaming. Retrouary was fun, yeah? Well, as it turns out, there’s more to retro gaming than dusting off your Vectrex and booting up your favorite Emulator. There’s also the Modding side of things, where we enter the vibrant and wonderful world of ROM Hacks. What’s a ROM hack you ask? Well, it wouldn’t be a student 20 DIY article without a little history, now would it?

ROM H4xX0r History: Final Fantasy US 2.5 – or V, or… whatever…

Such a good game... better than anything after FF7, if you ask me. Not quite as good as VI, though...

Such a good game… better than anything after FF7, if you ask me. Not quite as good as VI, though…

Digging into the history of ROM hacking has been difficult; almost a month of digging and research hasn’t gotten me any closer to knowing how it all began and exactly when. This article was, after all, supposed to be up for Retrouary itself! So, after bashing my head into the internet for quite a while, the best answer I have is this: it all started almost 20 years ago with a little game called Final Fantasy 5 that didn’t (at the time) have an official English version.

Now, you may not have heard of this strange video game series called Final Fantasy. It’s a moderately successful series of fantasy RPGs that began with one of the best NES games ever made, progressed through the SNES era with three games, then revolutionized the RPG scene in America and around the world with the release of the 7th unironically titled Final Fantasy game on the Playstation. For our purposes, though, it’s the 5th game in the series that merits the most attention.

Final Fantasy 4 was released as Final Fantasy II in the States. Final Fantasy 6 was released as Final Fantasy III. Not to get into the serious mathematical issues this causes on its own, you may noticed that one of the Final Fantasies is missing. With the emergence of Emulation of console hardware on home computers came an intriguing idea: fans could take the dumped ROM images and make their own translations. At least, that’s what a group known as Kowaso Ku thought in 1996. And translate they did, bringing with it the first English translation of Final Fantasy 5.

rom hacking final fantasy 5

Pretty obvious, really, but the English version is on the right. Also, it’s much easier to read if you speak English and not Japanese…

Accomplished with a complicated bit of Hex Editing, and a valiant effort from a group of fans, this objective came to fruition. Their primary goal was to see if they could do it (they could), with a important secondary goal of bringing the game to a new audience. In so doing, Kowaso Ku created a whole new area of hobby-hacking: ROM hacks.

Spearheaded by the success of fan translations, ROM hacking has grown into a sizable hobby. Besides fan translations, ROM hacks include a variety of changes. Bug fixes, graphic improvements, retranslations, gameplay changes, total hacks (which make huge changes to a game), and even whole fan-made games based on existing ROMS are out there now. Another addition to the gaming world brought about by ROM hacking – albeit much more recently – is the UNdub. These hacks remove the English dub from games and replace it with the original Japanese spoken dialog, complete with subtitles.

There’s a lot of ground we could cover here, but I’m going to keep things simple by talking about the ROM hacking process, followed by pointing to a few tools and talking about a few specific hacks that you might enjoy.

Hex Editing and Stuff and Things

I... what? What the heck is that supposed to be? How does that mean anything?

I… what? What the heck is that supposed to be? How does that mean anything?

Most ROM hacking of old school games involves a Hex Editor – a program used to make modifications to the Hex files that are ROM dumps. There are a variety of Hex editors out there, and none of them make any sense to me. Somehow, dedicated hackers have taught themselves to see past a series of seemingly random letters and numbers and into what they mean to an Emulator, an SNES, or both. Also used are Tile Editors and a variety of specialized tools for each individual game.

The hacking community has made scores of tools to help them with their hobby. Much like Hex Editors, these tools make little sense to me. They’re seldom pretty, and often obtuse to the uninitiated. That’s okay, though. They’re for dedicated hobbyists, after all. Unless you’re planning to do some hacking of your own, you don’t need to pay any attention to these tools at all. If that is you goal, then you can find a lot more information at the wonderful Romhacking.net than I can provide here. We’re only going to go into detail with one type of tool: the IPS patcher.

rom hacking lunar ips

It’s not just tiny on your screen. It’s, like, small enough to fit on a floppy disk. What’s a floppy disk? Ugh. Kids these days…

An IPS file is one that contains all the information for a Hack, ready to be applied to an existing SNES or NES ROM. All you need to accomplish this is an IPS patcher. Different IPS Patchers have different functions and user interfaces. We’re going to go with a rather famous and easy to use one: Lunar IPS. Lunar IPS is a tiny program – only 152 Kilobytes. That’s… tiny. In any case, using it is as simple as can be. You open the program, select the IPS file you want to use and the ROM you want to apply it to, and BAM! Hacked ROM!

But where do you get the ROMs? I can’t tell you that. I can, however, tell you where to get the IPS patches, and even recommend a couple to you. So, without further ado…

Cool ROM Hacks

You can find more ROM hacks than you can shake a stick at Romhacking.net. The site hosts a community of ROM hackers with thousands of individual hacks in a variety of different types for many, many different games. A few of my favorites include:

MDBTroid

rom hacking mdbroid

See the map in the upper right? Oh, so welcome in this game. So welcome…

Hosted on metroid-databse.com, this brilliant hack makes a few much-needed changes to the classic NES game Metroid. You’ll need to use the FCEUX emulator to run it, and a special LUA script (found here: http://www.bwass.org/bucket/metroidlua.zip – I’ve DLed it and done a couple virus scans, so I can promise that as of this writing the file is clean). This hack is of the gameplay-improvement type. The main thing it does is add a much-needed map to the original Metroid. There are other changes, too, but the Map is the only one I care about. It doesn’t make the game any easier, just easier to navigate.

Super Mario Adventure

rom hacking super mario adventure

Huh… the Mushroom Kingdom has weather. Who knew?

A brilliant hack, considered the best of the best among Super Mario 3 hacks, and among old-school game hacks in general. A complete overhaul of the already amazing SMB3, this hack features fantastic level design, and a professional-level experience. Not too difficult (a bit harder than the original, though), this game has a few new features to go with the level overhaul, like the ability to store power-ups Super Mario World style and a random weather system (!!!). Try it if you can.

Rudra no Hihou (Treasure of the Rudras)

A frankly amazing fan translation of an excellent (but difficult) RPG from Square. This is one of those games where you kinda get why it

rom hacking treasure of the rudras fan translation

Treasure of the Rudras… Long, difficult, and inarguably awesome.

didn’t get translated: the magic system based on creating your own spells by inputing words. With a spell system built on Japanese Kanji, it’s kind of understandable that it would be almost impossible to translate the game as a whole. But translate it fans did, and now you too can experience this unusual but fantastic RPG from the same company that made Final Fantasy!

Super Metroid Redesign

A whole re-imagining of one of the greatest action-platformers of all time, Super Metroid Redesign is a hack of Super Metroid (duh). It’s a complete redesign of the whole of the game, once you get past the science station in the beginning. It’s a bit harder, with tougher enemies and a re-working of the physics in the game, but not that hard. The world is huge, however, and you’ll spend hours exploring. Don’t expect to beat this one in a single sitting!

rom hacking super metroid redesign

You have no idea how awesome this is for old-school Metroid fans. You know you want to try it…

To Dub or to Undub, That is the Question…

One of my favorite sorts of hacks, which would be better called ISO hacks than ROM hacks, is the Undub. Look, I appreciate the work that dub actors do, alright? It’s hard work with little pay. Unfortunately, the quality of these dub jobs can be… well, questionable at best. In my play throughs of Persona 3 FES, Persona 3 Portable, and Persona 4, I’ve had to turn of the voices. I’m a subbed Anime kinda fan, and I just can’t take the English voice acting. That’s where undubs come in. I have undubs for all three of these games, and I’m a lot happier for it.

An Undub is a simple thing on the face of it: it restores the original Japanese (or what have you) voice acting to a game, adding in subtitles where they’re needed. As for where they’re needed, they’re usually… not needed at all. Most of these games have English subtitles in any case. So, it’s just a restoration of the original voice acting.

Undubs are becoming more and more popular. They exist for several games, and the numbers are growing. My first suggestion, if you want to see the impact of an Undub, would be to get your hands on the Persona 3 FES Undub. The beautiful Anime cut scenes in that game flow much better in the original Japanese, without the awkward phrasing and tempo that dubs can sometimes have. The voice casting was better in the original game as well, with voices that better match the personalities of the characters involved.

Do Undubs have a downside? Of course they do. Usually, the subtitling isn’t reworked at all, and matches the dialog of the dubbed version. This isn’t a problem unless you know a little Japanese, and thus can spot when the dialog goes completely off the rails. I’ve spotted places where the original Japanese wording had an almost completely different tone or meaning from the translation. It’s a bit jarring when you spot it, but it’s still worth it if original dialog and subs are a thing you’re into. The real question is why the original Japanese dialog and subtitles weren’t available in the first place. A simple flick of a switch in the Options menu could have completely solved this, and it seems to me that it wouldn’t have been that difficult to do.

But what do I know? I’m just a weird old vet who likes listening to other languages… And who loves playing video games, whether they be the original masterpieces or the creations of dedicated fans.

Up next in the Modding series, we’re going to talk about things like Mod order and testing groups of mods to help them play nice. With a little luck, that one won’t take me as long to put together as this one did…

Written by Nerd Bacon

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