The same week Nintendo released Super Mario Maker in 2015, Nintendo launched a copyright strike at Mario video uploaded by Andi McClure, a designer of numerous web curiosities. On its own, this was nothing surprising. Corporations have enormous power on YouTube if they choose to wield it. Your video can instantly disappear, with few options to fight back. But what made things curious was the news Nintendo announced on Monday:
One of the coolest features coming to Super Mario Maker 2 is what Nintendo’s calling Ninji Speedruns, where you try to complete Nintendo-designed levels while racing against the scattered ghosts of other players. What makes the connection between McClure and Nintendo curious is the video Nintendo directed a copyright strike at on McClure’s channel.
The video is “Many-Worlds Mario: Kaizo level 1,” and you can view here in archived form. But here’s a taste:
It’s possible Nintendo came up with the idea on their own; Nintendo has included “ghost” features in games like Mario Kart, where you can race against a record of another player’s run. But McClure’s creation, an emulator hack building on a hack of Super Mario World itself, later served as partial inspiration for one of the most influential platformers in the last decade, Super Meat Boy. In Super Meat Boy, every death becomes a recorded “ghost,” and once you’ve managed to beat a level, you’re forced to watch every gory death simultaneously.
What Nintendo is currently adding to Mario Maker 2 feels like a natural extension of all this.
Nintendo did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
McClure wasn’t the only person hit with a copyright strike when Mario Maker launched, either. It was actually an epidemic at the time. Nintendo seemed to be specifically targeting ROM hack videos, including those by Alex “PangaeaPanga,” one of the most popular kaizo level makers and someone who, these days, is a very popular creator within Mario Maker. The company was reportedly telling creators these videos was an “unauthorized use of [Nintendo] assets” and to not “post any videos using unauthorized software.” But kaizo was only possible by hacking digital copies of games ripped from Nintendo cartridges.
Part of video game design has been, for better and worse, taking ideas from other games and building on them, legally and illegally. It’s not hard to see the leap from McClure to Meat Boy to Mario Maker, and it’s also hard to imagine Mario Maker existing without kaizo hacks.
“Now, I'm not angry Nintendo is using an idea similar to one I had first,” said McClure on Twitter earlier this week. “What *does* make me angry, actually really angry, is they copyright-takedown the video showing I had the idea first, and THEN they use the idea. IN THE SAME GAME (mario maker) THEY TOOK DOWN MY VIDEO OVER.”
In 2008, McClure became fascinated by kaizo levels, ROM hacks of Super Mario World that attempted to create incredibly tough levels that usually required pixel-perfect timing to solve. The term “kaizo” has become pretty popular these days, but in 2008, it was genuinely new.
McClure became fixated on a YouTube comment that ruminated on how the appeal of watching people play kaizo levels isn’t seeing a perfect run, but how long it takes for them to climb the mountain. Process is the point. Most kaizo videos on early YouTube and other services showed the “clean” run, when everything goes right, the result of saved states used to inch forward, jump by jump. It was an era before streaming was available to the masses.
“So I was thinking, what if you had a special tool that instead of erasing all the screwups, it saved all of them and made a video of all the screwups plus the one successful path superimposed?” McClure wrote in a blog post at the time.
Thinking became action, and action became hacking the popular SNES emulator, SNES9X, to pull off what McClure had been contemplating. The YouTube video Nintendo would take down nearly a decade later is the result of that hack, and chronicles the 134 attempts it took McClure to make it through the first stage of Kaizo Mario World. When Nintendo issued its copyright strike, the video had roughly 2.3 million views, McClure told me.
Super Meat Boy would enter the picture a few years later. McClure, a self-professed fan of “punishment platformers,” played Super Meat Boy without realizing she’d influenced it. But an interview with designer Tommy Refenes revealed how McClure’s Mario hack came up:
“Basically, there’s a video that’s been floating around on the Internet for awhile. It’s a modded Super NES emulator that’s rigged to play custom-made Super Mario World levels. They rigged the emulator so it would record every attempt and then overlay them and play them at the same time. So this one video, it’s called Quantum Mario, it’s just one Mario jumping from platform to platform and he’ll fall off on the left, fall off on the right, or get hit with a bullet, or jump off of the bullet. It’s just every one of his attempts. It starts through this incredibly difficult level and just goes all the way through until it’s just one guy remaining. I love that video and I was like ‘We should do that with Meat Boy and I can do it in real time.’ I just kind of coded it in over a weekend or something and perfected it as we were going through the development. It was an on-the-whim kind of thing. And it worked out as a great reward for f—ing up.”
Quantum Mario is a random YouTube video with roughly 86,000 views, where someone used McClure’s hack to play Kaizo Mario World. That video, naturally, is still online. One theory behind Nintendo’s copyright strikes has been using the term “kaizo” in a video title, but Quantum Mario influences a reference to kaizo. What it doesn’t have is millions of views.
McClure was tickled her experiment had resulted in something extremely cool.
“I *really* like Super Meat Boy and it made me incredibly happy when I found out my video was inspiration for the replay ghost feature,” she told me.
Nintendo, notoriously secretive, hasn’t talked about the inspiration for Ninji Speedruns.
Much of Mario Maker’s popularity post-release is driven by elements of kaizo culture, even though Nintendo has never publicly discussed the impact of kaizo on Mario. The levels the most popular Mario Maker streamers are playing? Kaizo, or at least kaizo-influenced. It’s the same for the most popular videos on YouTube. This is not exclusively true, obviously; people play Mario Maker for lots of different reasons, but kaizo is inarguably a defining element.
“Mario Maker was, in a lot of real ways, Nintendo privatizing the public sphere of romhacks,” said McClure. “Mario Maker's UGC [user generated content] is driven by the tradition of hell hacks. Speedrunners who used to speedrun hell hacks now make Nintendo money by streaming themselves playing hell Mario Maker levels.”
Kaizo was a natural, organic extension of people’s Mario fandom. It’s because people loved Mario. The arrival of Mario Maker heralded a certain canonization of kaizo, even if Nintendo wasn’t willing to acknowledge it. The decision to try and erase kaizo from YouTube upon Mario Maker’s arrival was a signal of how the company intended to appropriate from kaizo, making the irony of McClure’s creation ending up in Mario Maker 2 all the more damning.
“It wasn't enough for them to have their cake,” said McClure. “They ate ours too.”
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