Over the past four decades, the Mario franchise has become a well-oiled machine of flawlessly polished game design. The focus on adapting, expanding, and streamlining the Mario-verse to fit the evolving needs of its players and market is arguably exactly why the series has remained so consistently relevant for so long.
Yet, playing hyper-polished feats of design like Super Mario Maker leave some longtime fans of the franchise nostalgic for the days of janky programming, kill screens, and brutal challenge. That's why the heroes of the Super Mario World (SMW) ROM hacking community remain stubbornly alive, even long after the release of an official Nintendo Mario level creator.
On this niche, yet dedicated corner of the internet, the spirit of the 90s is alive and thriving. Arguably the inspiration for Super Mario Maker, the Mario hacking community dates back decades, to the 1999 ROM hacking website Acmlm's Board.
In 2006, founders Kieran and Smallhacker decided to build the increasingly popular Super Mario World hacking community its own house. SMW Central was born from the desire to make SMW hacking accessible to all, by bringing all the resources and information scattered across the web under one roof. Once the forums were introduced, SMW Central went from a congregation of hobbyists to a thriving community of lifelong friends.
Hidden Laser Suit; Super Mario World. Image: SuperMarioInfinite
"The site exploded with popularity, peaking at about 2010 and stabilizing since then," said S.N.N., a head administrator on the site for nearly a decade during its early days.
One of the key differences between the much smaller world of Mario ROM hacking and the Super Mario Maker community is that it maintained the rough and tumble sensibility of hacker culture. The event that jump started the community's first big boon in 2010 only exemplifies that.
An infamous YouTube video entitled "Hidden Laser Suit; Super Mario World" went viral (or as viral as niche nerd videos go) by passing a Mario hack created by KPhoenix for a legitimate power up obsessive SMW players somehow missed. Many viewers went scrambling back to the Super Nintendo game. Others, like SMW Central moderator leod (a gullible 13 year old at the time) figured out that the rad ass laser suit was actually created with a level editor tool called Lunar Magic. "It's amazing to me how much influence a silly little prank like that video had on other people's lives," leod said. "This one video alone made so many people join our community."
The pranks didn't end there. Several years ago, the entire SMW Central website—all its forums, hacks, resources, etc.—were destroyed in what is now referred to as "The Great Wipe." The official reason given for the happening? "I [Kieran Menor] got a little bored one evening and together with Smallhacker and Pac, it was decided that we should try out a little experiment: giving all non-banned users full moderator privileges." The rest, as they say, is Great Wipe history.
Long-time member and PR manager Koopster explained that, while the dream of hacking and creating their own Mario levels is what initially brings people to the site, "The eagerness to hack does fade with time." Yet many return year after year anyway.
To leod and many other community members, that's because if you stick around long enough, fellow SMW hackers, "go from just a group of people doing the same thing you do, to an actual group of friends.They're people to care about. Some of them I've talked to for almost half of my entire life by now."
Yet despite being a tight knit internet family with it's own lingo, in-jokes, history, and social norms, the community's continued existence traces back to the original goal of making Mario ROM hacking as accessible as possible. Particularly, the SMW tool Lunar Magic created by user fuysoya is not only credited as one of the best game-editing tools ever made, but also credited for both launching and sustaining the community.
This single, simple drag-and-drop tool is all anyone needs to create a basic Nintendo-style SMW level, regardless of programming knowledge. I know this from personal experience, as an absolute n00b to all things technical who got her own private lesson in using Lunar Magic over video chat with a community member that even helped me figure out how to embed the glorious Motherboard logo into Super Mario World.
Best SMW Music 99 - VLDC9 - Abstract. Image: Hadron
"It's just so user-friendly and intuitive, without foregoing advanced functionality," explained leod, echoing the gushing descriptions from every other user I interviewed. It might not be as simple as Super Mario Marker, but it comes close, and predates it by nearly a decade.
Lunar Magic's simplicity also serves as a gateway drug to more advanced SMW hacking, which requires one to learn the ancient programming language Assembly (ASM) used by the SNES. Learning ASM, while admittedly tedious, allows ROM hackers to do things like create new "sprites" (which, in SNES language, refers to all moving objects, from platforms to Goombas) or implementing patches that add new mechanics, effects, or rules to the game.
Like any long-lasting open-source community, the heart of SMW Central's survival comes down to collaboration through forums, contests, and shared tools. The "Vanilla Level Design Contest"—which garners well over 100 submissions every year according to S.N.N.—is defined by one simple rule: design the best level you can with only the resources from the original SMW game.
On top of the low barrier to entry embedded in this kind of contest, collaboration among creators is encouraged too. "Collaborations are great because it's much less work in everyone's backs and everyone is constantly checking each other's work," said Koopster.
Ultimately, SMW Central survived Super Mario Maker because the official game lacked the human and DIY factors of the ROM hacking community. Because while many SMW Central members certainly enjoy the official Nintendo editor, none see it as a replacement.
"For one, what stopped a mass exodus to Super Mario Maker was that SMW is infinitely more customizable," said leod. Unlike Super Mario Maker, you can mess around with literally anything as a SMW hacker, whether by adding new music, bosses, mechanics, Motherboard logos, or even Mega Man graphics for a good old fashioned crossover.
The topic of Super Mario Maker versus Super Mario World ROM hacking came up often on the forums before, during, and after the game's release. The consensus? Super Mario Maker might have easier level sharing and out-of-the-box accessible editing options. But, "after over a decade of aggregating, we have quite the library of resources built up by the community, and we have [SMW] fully documented on a technical level," said S.N.N. "So the sky's the limit if you're savvy enough!" In fact, some argue that Super Mario Maker only increased the level of interest in SMW ROM hacking, since it gave people a taste of the possibilities they could expand on elsewhere.
Super Mario Maker also fundamentally lacks the sense of ownership a ROM creator feels after figuring things out—like pushing the dinosaur language of AMS to its limit—for themselves, with only the guidance of internet buddies. In fact for some, like administrator Ersanio, by becoming one of the few early pioneers to first learn 65c816 ASM language (the CPU-specific language of the SNES), "I discovered that I was a talented programmer." Now, on top of being one of the most respected teachers and coders in the community, Ersanio is also studying programming in college. "You could say that SMW hacking actually changed my life."