Super Mao Bros.

Last night I fired up the nostalgia machine and decided to play an emulated version of Super Mario Bros. 1. It turns out that the ROM was corrupted, which would usually make it unplayable…

…except SMB1’s code is so resilient that that doesn’t happen. The usual failure mode for a corrupted version of SMB1 is that you start in a fascinating level called World 0-1, which reuses code from other levels to create a surprisingly playable level in a flooded castle. Finishing the level resets the game, though.

So I couldn’t play much of SMB1. But playing World 0 got me in the mood to experiment with other glitches by deliberately screwing with a game’s memory (in the way that a Game Genie used to do), leading to a new game I call Super Mao Bros.

“Mao” is a card game that I played a lot in high school. One feature of the game is that the winner of each round adds or changes a rule, but they don’t tell anyone what the new rule is — they just penalize people for breaking it. That’s why it’s named after a crazed dictator.

Super Mao Bros. is kind of similar, except it’s you against a video game. Here’s how you play:

  • Get a ROM of some NES game with distinct levels. I used Super Mario Bros. 3 (as my SMB1 was clearly glitched enough already). Super NES games aren’t an option; they have enough memory that you’ll probably never see any tangible differences.
  • Play the game in an emulator that lets you enter Game Genie codes during the game. I use mednafen for this purpose — and what’s particularly nice is that it will treat any string of 6 letters as a valid code.
  • Every time you beat a level, save your state, then make up an arbitrary code and add it as a Game Genie code. (Memorable 6-letter words are best, because you’ll need all the help you can get keeping track of them.) For example, you might add a new code named “FLOWER” whose value is “FLOWER”. The point is you have no idea what it will do to the game.
  • If the game crashes, restore your save state, figure out which code crashed it, and replace that code with another one.
  • If you die, don’t reload (that’s cheating!). But you may still choose to replace a code with a different one. There are many codes that won’t crash the game, but do make levels unwinnable.

I’ve been having a lot of fun with this. I played a game where I had about 40 playable codes going, and I got as far as World 4-1. I had to continue several times in World 3, because World 3 is already a bitch, my 20 years of muscle memory was no help with the new game mechanics, and the game was now inherently harder as well.

You’ll find lots of lists of Game Genie codes out there on the Web, of course — both from people who want to cheat to make a game easier, and people who want to make it as glitchy as possible. But many of the codes I came across at random occupy an interesting middle ground of slight changes to the game that remain playable. I’ll list some of my favorites (which may be inaccurate, as sometimes it’s hard to tell which code does what).

  • RUSSIA: objects that fall off the screen, including dead enemies, might trampoline back onto it. You can kick a turtle shell into a pit and it might bounce out of the pit and kill you. This has an effect of making Hammer Bros. encounters on the map very dangerous, as they might refuse to die. Also, some freaky thing hovers in the air just behind your head no matter which way you’re facing, much as described in They Might Be Giants’ “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go”.
  • CHAPEL: every level starts out totally graphically corrupted, but when you move, normal graphics scroll onto the screen. This one is playable — the actual gameplay doesn’t change — but it’s hard, because you have to play certain parts blind.
  • FLAVOR: changes the notes in the music. The music becomes much more monotonous, but somehow remains mostly tonal.
  • MARKET: when you move onto a level on the world map, you can’t move off of it; you have to play it. Except that you can miraculously skip over level 3-8, the much-loathed “fish eats you” level, if you move the right way!
  • BANKSY: when you die, the game crashes with a loud sudden noise. Not recommended, but I’m amused at how it’s subtler and meaner than the codes that just instantly crash the game.
  • PIRATE: The best one. A chunk of each level gets rearranged vertically, as if it were hit by an earthquake. I haven’t seen this make a level unplayable, but I have seen it make levels where you have to find a very different path to the finish.

Arrrr. We be rearrangin’ ye levels, matey.

This is more playable than it looks.

Mario’s quest came to an end when physics simply stopped working in World 4, and no amount of disabling cheats and reloading would put it back. The memory had already been permanently corrupted, presumably. That’s okay — next time I’ll just warp to World 4.

I kind of wish I had recorded a video of this, but that would be hard to do. Anyway, there are tons of YouTube videos of glitched and hacked Mario games out there; the unique experience here is actually playing the game, and trying to make progress in a game that keeps changing under you.