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This September, Nintendo is finally going to give fans what we’ve wanted for years—a way to make our own Super Mario Bros. levels. But why wait? Super Mario Maker looks great, but fans have been making their own Mario levels for years.
Take Andrew Higsby, for example. Like other Mario fans, Higsby watched The Nintendo World Championships and saw the Mario Maker level that turned Super Mario Bros.’ iconic World 1-1 into an unforgiving deathtrap. But unlike most viewers, he wasn’t impressed.
“Let’s get real here,” Higsby told me. “That’s something you could do since, like, 1999.”
In 2009, at age 17, Higsby released Super Mario Omega, a modified version of Super Mario World that adds over seventy new levels and entirely new graphics and music to the Super Nintendo classic. He did it all via ROM hacking, the process of taking a digital copy of a video game and changing the underlying code to create something new.
Higsby grew up playing Nintendo. His mother taught him where to find Super Mario Bros. 3’s secret warp whistles, and his dad taught him how to play Tetris. “Creating Super Mario levels was something that I always wanted to do,” Higsby said. “What you see in Super Mario Omega is really just the build-up of all of that inspiration and creativity that I’ve experienced in the other video games that I’ve played.”
Super Mario Omega is one of the most popular Super Mario World ROM hacks on the internet. In part, that’s because Higsby’s levels are just as polished and well-balanced as Nintendo’s official creations, but Omega has another hook, too: for some levels, Higsby mixed Super Mario World with his other favorite games. “There’s a Mega Man 2-themed level…a Sonic the Hedgehog-themed level, a Tetris-themed level,” he explained. ROM hacking is flexible like that: with few exceptions, if you can imagine it, you can do it.
Higsby isn’t a programmer, and he’s written very little code himself. That’s the great thing about Super Mario World hacking: if you just want to make levels, Lunar Magic, the de facto Super Mario World level editor, will do most of the heavy lifting for you.
Lunar Magic is the brainchild of an anonymous programmer who goes by FuSoYa (a reference to the ‘90s fantasy game Final Fantasy IV). FuSoYa started developing Lunar Magic on a whim in 2000, and 15 years later, he’s still working on it. It’s intuitive and easy to use—to create basic levels, all you need to do is point and click—and the well-made editor is one of the main reasons why Super Mario World is the ROM hacking community’s favorite Mario title.
FuSoYa only expected Lunar Magic to last a couple of years, not the better part of two decades, and he’s constantly surprised by how innovative its users can be. “Someone once proposed marriage to their girlfriend by spelling it out in a hacked level using Lunar Magic and having her play it,” he told me. “That was certainly unexpected.”
EASY TO START, TOUGH TO QUIT
To get started, would-be level designers only need three things: a copy of the Super Mario World ROM (illegal to distribute, but easily found via Google search), Lunar Magic, and a Super Nintendo emulator (a piece of software that runs Super Nintendo games on your computer). A game controller doesn’t hurt, either; Super Mario World was made for gamepads, and trying to play with a keyboard can be a little frustrating.
Basic Super Mario World levels consist of three layers: Layer 1, which contains stationary objects like the ground, walls, pipes, and platforms; Layer 2, which usually houses the background; and the third layer, the “Sprite Layer,” which holds interactive objects like coins, question mark boxes, and enemies. Choose the layer you want to work with, select an item from the corresponding menu, and right click to place it anywhere in the level.
That’s it. There are plenty of tutorials on YouTube if you get stuck (like the one above), and the Super Mario World community hub, SMW Central, is a great place to learn about more advanced techniques. Ultimately, the most challenging part of Super Mario World hacking isn’t learning how to make levels—it’s deciding what those levels should be.
“At first, [your levels] will not be very good,” Higsby said. Like anything else, level design takes practice. Higsby says that editing existing Super Mario World levels can be a good way to learn, and both he and FuSoYa recommend basing levels on a theme.
Keep players busy, too. “When people are first creating, you’ll have a lot of flat land, with maybe a couple of little things you need to do,” Higsby says. “My goal when creating levels is that you’re always doing something. There are always question mark blocks to hit, there are always enemies to defeat, there are always coins to collect.”
In addition to all of that, testing is important. When FuSoYa developed his famous ROM hack Super Demo World, he and his brother took turns playing each other’s levels to make sure that they worked. When editing, Higsby fires up his emulator every five minutes or so. “You’re constantly, constantly testing every time you create a little bit more of the level to make sure that everything works together,” he said. And don’t rush: both Higsby and FuSoYa say that a good level takes at least a day to make. If you’re going faster, there’s probably room for improvement.
Ultimately, Super Mario Maker will probably be bigger than ROM hacks—Mario Maker doesn’t deal in that legal grey area where ROMs and emulators reside, and it’s got the full weight of Nintendo’s marketing department behind it. But Higsby isn’t worried about the existing scene being overshadowed. “[Mario Maker] looks cool, but in comparison to ROM hacking, it’s still actually lacking a lot,” he told me. “If you really want to have all of the customization at your fingertips, people will still stick with ROM hacking, for sure.”
So, what are you waiting for? Go ahead. Get started.
Christopher Gates is a writer and video game critic from Los Angeles, CA. In his spare time, he watches too much baseball, reads too many comics, and drinks too much beer. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisWGates.
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