Games

The Messy Relationship Between Mario Maker's Hacking Community and Nintendo

Some of Mario Maker's biggest fans love to break the game, thinking they're making new tools. Nintendo wants to ban them.

by Patrick Klepek
Aug 28 2019, 1:08pm

Image courtesy of Psycrow

Long before Nintendo developed its own creation suite with Super Mario Maker, fans found their own ways to screw with Nintendo’s classics with “romhacks.” Romhack is a fancy word for mod, but altering the code of the game that’s ripped from a cartridge underscores the lengths fans have gone to for decades. The whole super difficult kaizo genre, for example, was born out of the romhacking community. It also results in adaptations of creepypastas where Mario is forced to kill Luigi and bursts into tears. Mario Maker probably doesn’t exist without all of this.

But the arrival of Mario Maker, essentially a Nintendo-blessed canonization of the practice, did not eliminate romhacking from the world. If anything, it’s only emboldened the romhacking scene’s most dedicated creators to bring their expertise to Nintendo’s official level creator in a format where a potential audience of millions could experience their work.

“Harmless glitches, whenever you can even guess what Nintendo considers a glitch, only add to the possibilities and variety of levels, and don't take anything away from them,” said Psycrow, one of Mario Maker’s most infamous creators, known for trying to evade Nintendo’s banhammer while simultaneously enriching the community he was being chased out of.

Long after Nintendo stopped updating the original Mario Maker, Psycrow, whose day job involves billing issues between hospitals and insurance companies, was still mining the game for glitches, exploits, and other ways to give designers new tools. Admittedly, those tools often broke the game in hilarious ways, like exceeding the enemy limit and allowing designers to dump infinite Bowsers into a level, which is why Nintendo kept their distance.

Psycrow got on my radar again after noticing he shipped a Switch to Mario Maker streamer CarlSagan42, someone with a knack for making (and beating) troll-y levels. Wait, shipped? As it turns out, this is the second time Psycrow had shipped a piece of hardware to CarlSagan42—last time it was a Wii U. This is because while Psycrow enjoys discovering glitches that can be shared with everyone—see, the notorious black hole glitch where items stack on one another and infinitely clone—he also delights in straight up hacking the game.

Piles of poo that dance across the screen like goombas. A level that stretches that stretches on forever, breaking the size limits set by Nintendo. Psychedelic effects that completely distort the screen. The ability to swap bodies with enemies and suddenly have their movesets. The scaling of items to sizes much larger (or smaller) than is officially allowed. Psycrow has essentially pulled off a romhack on Nintendo’s own hardware and software.

The whole, very good video of CarlSagan42 playing Psycrow’s experiments is right here.

Nintendo doesn’t talk about this part of the community. It’s a larger pattern of ignoring an overlooked key to Mario Maker’s success, especially in the months and years after most folks have moved onto other games. Mario Maker, like so many other games these days, lives and dies by the people playing it, but contrary to the player-first mentality so many other companies adopt, even to a fault, Nintendo leaves its fans in the dark. Secrecy is one of Nintendo’s tricks, but they overplay it.

The irony, of course, is how popular glitches are among Nintendo fans specifically. Maybe it’s to do with Nintendo’s relentless commitment to polish, so watching their games act strangely feels mildly rebellious. In reality, people love their games and just want to spend more time with them. How often have you seen Breath of the Wild weirdness crossing social media?

Part of the joy of Mario Maker is how often what the game explicitly makes possible often looks like a glitch because the toolset really does offer players a huge canvas to play with.

But what Nintendo likely considers chaos, Psycrow considers entertainment. He’s been glitching through games long before Mario Maker, attracted to “not playing by the rules but seeing what was out there and what was possible, doing something the other players hadn't done before.” He pointed to a favorite glitch of his from the original Fable, where players could glitch through walls by digging over and over. Dig, move backwards. Rinse, repeat.

SMM1 and SMM2 are such big games, doing unexpected things in those creates that much more entertainment for people,” said Psycrow. “If you want a short answer, though: It's fun!”

It’s definitely fun. Look at some of the madness Psycrow’s gotten up to:

This weirdness is achieved in a variety of ways. At times, it’s taking advantage of a glitch that allows you to do something Nintendo didn’t plan for, other times it’s hooking a console into a PC and looking underneath the hood, directly into the game’s code. Nintendo hates both.

Part of what makes the current moment so exciting is specifically because Mario Maker is a sanctioned toolbox to play around in. In the past, whatever Nintendo thought about romhacks, good or bad, was irrelevant; it was happening in a separate universe. Mario Maker introduced the chance to share personal creations with an audience of millions, and it’s no shock that included the many, many people from, or influenced by, the romhack world.

The biggest question, then, is what constitutes a glitch? What’s an exploit? Let’s take kaizo stages, for example. Nintendo does not ban kaizo levels from Mario Maker, even though beating them requires players to pull off moves Nintendo doesn’t teach the player. Using shells as platforms by bouncing them off walls is typical kaizo fair, but anyone who stumbles upon a kaizo level is going to be frustrated. Still, kaizo is (typically) within the boundaries of what Nintendo provides, it’s just using the world of Mario in ways Nintendo never intended.

“What's confusing and scary to newcomers would be tricky tech that the player is expected to do themselves,” said Psycrow, “and things like that tend to not be patched or removed at all.”

Take the P-Switch jump, for example, one of the most common advanced techniques required to beat kaizo levels. The P-Switch, which swaps blocks for coins and vice versa, is not a platform. You’re not supposed to be able to jump off it, and no official Nintendo level would ask you to. And yet, you can use the P-Switch as a platform and a kaizo level is going to demand you do so. Nintendo has modified P-Switch behavior over the years, but never removed the ability to use a P-Switch as a platform. Why is that considered legitimate?

Nintendo’s famous lack of communication rubs a lot of people, Psycrow included, the wrong way. It’s how one of Mario Maker’s most popular streamers, GrandPOOBear, has a very popular level deleted without explanation. Was it because most of his levels have some reference to fecal matter and that annoys Nintendo? Probably! Would it be super useful for Nintendo to just come out and say that, instead of hiding behind a vague “inappropriate and/or harmful content” banner with no broader explanation of what’s crossed the line? Yep.

“I feel like [if] people are making glitch levels with malicious intent or to somehow hurt the game, then yes banning would be the right way,” said Alex “PangaeaPanga” Tan, the most well-known creator of kaizo stages. “But the fact that this community is the complete opposite, and most of these glitches are just meant to be showcased and without malicious intent, Nintendo isn't handling the situation the correct way.”

Breaking Mario Maker is a form of celebration, yet they’re routinely punished for it. Nintendo considers glitches to be cheating, but it doesn’t actually say that—it just implies it. Nintendo doesn’t employ community managers to speak directly with creators, so most of the back-and-forth happens between articles written up in the press and conversations with customer service, neither of which are effective ways of cultivating a community in 2019.

In 2016, Psycrow recorded a conversation with someone who identifies as a Nintendo customer service representative, a copy of which was privately reviewed by VICE Games and appeared authentic. Psycrow was told a permanent ban in Mario Maker couldn’t be lifted because it’d been applied “by Japan” for cheating. In the recording, Psycrow argued that Nintendo is no longer supporting Mario Maker with new updates, and these “glitches” are, in the absence of more content from Nintendo, a way for the community to come up with their own features to play with.

The alleged representative is sympathetic—”I totally understand where you’re coming from”—but claimed they cannot do anything to help, Nintendo of America can’t remove the ban. They offered to pass on Psycrow’s feedback, but there was no guarantee anything would happen.

He remained banned on Wii U. So far, he’s been much more careful on Switch, where getting a console banned by Nintendo probably means you need to purchase another one.

Despite my repeated criticisms of Nintendo’s approach to the Mario Maker community, it’s not hard to see where they’re coming from. If a random player comes across a level that relies on exploits to finish or acts unexpectedly because it’s using a glitch, that’s going to be a bad experience. That would be true on day one of Mario Maker and day two thousand. On some level, there is a fundamental disagreement of opinion that just might be irreconcilable.

What people like Psycrow find legitimately frustrating, however, is the inconsistency. Why can you use a P-Switch as a platform? Why can someone publish a level where you’d need to toss a shell in the air, grab a second shell, then toss that second shell against the wall, use it as a platform when it jumps back, grab the first shell in the air, toss that first shell against the wall, and again use it as a platform? That’s not player-friendly. It’s ridiculous!

Fundamentally, what’s the difference between that and making Bowser a bunch of times?

“Glitches usually happen on their own and tend to just make interesting things happen automatically without the player needing to do anything,” said Psycrow. “If they don't like something it's their responsibility to patch it, not the paying customers to try to guess what they don't like and avoid it or else make their purchase worthless through removals and bans.”

Making things shakier is how Nintendo might, at the same time, be actively relying on these people to improve their game. Psycrow noted how one of his more well-known glitching discoveries, dubbed the “game genie” technique because it was a small exploit that opened the door for much bigger exploits, was patched out after he published it. Mario Maker became, in Nintendo’s eyes, a better game because of Psycrow’s work—but he’s a cheater?

To Psycrow, there’s a legitimate difference between the two extremes of the work he does. On one hand, there’s finding glitches, learning how they work, and eventually turning them into tools for the community to use. On the other, there’s mucking around in the game code.

“Glitching is basically what anyone can do with just the regular game that Nintendo gives us, like the Black Hole glitch,” he said. “Memory modding is using outside tools, like a program on your PC that connects to your console and lets you view the game's memory, to figure out what's going on within the game and change items to be in states they can't normally be in, such as getting cannons to spawn like they're coming out of a pipe.”

No one expects memory modding to be acceptable in a legitimate level, it’ll always be fringe. And you’re unlikely to see much, if any, of this beyond what’s found on Twitch streams and YouTube videos; memory modding requires jacking into Mario Maker 2, well out of reach for most players. It’s also a big Nintendo no-no, and the company will ban you if gets the chance. You can see why Psycrow shipped the literal Switch the levels were modded on.

This world of glitches is also different in Mario Maker 2 because of changes Nintendo made. In the past, levels uploaded to Nintendo’s servers with glitches would disappear pretty fast, but not fast enough that you couldn’t upload it and have someone else quickly download it. In Mario Maker 2, Nintendo detects exploits before they’ve left your console. The game will locally delete the stage, declaring “corrupt data was found so the course has been deleted.”

The community has found ways to trick Mario Maker 2 into allowing the presence of exploits by determining what triggers detection and working around it, allowing them to quietly share with one another before Nintendo notices. (At the moment, it takes a day or two for stages to be taken down because Nintendo seems to heavily rely on catching it pre-upload). Some users have been caught by Nintendo, however, and had all the likes removed from their account “due to repeated violations” that, unsurprisingly, Nintendo wouldn’t elaborate on.

Right now, Psycrow is poking around at what Nintendo will and won’t allow to be uploaded, likely to result in another round of cat-and-mouse that could land him (and his account) in trouble. He wants to “push [his] limits” and see what exploits, including memory modding, can be uploaded before Nintendo catches on. He can’t ship a Switch to everyone, after all. If you want to join Psycrow's community, there's a public Discord.

“What I loved about all this stuff was the ability to simply bring imagination to life in new ways,” said Psycrow, “both in terms of gameplay and graphics, for the sake of taking the entertainment value as high as possible. It's the creative fun and the entertainment it can provide that I really like about the Mario Maker games.”

On some level, this tension will always exist because players will never be satisfied. Nintendo is a company that likes to exert control, and Mario Maker is a form of controlled chaos. But while Nintendo’s quiet demeanor might suggest indifference, their actions show otherwise; the company seems to be paying close attention but without the actions resembling what people like Psycrow are ultimately looking for: recognition they’re fans, too.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you've seen any interesting happening in Mario Maker, drop an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com. He's also available privately on Signal.