Sat. Oct 1st, 2022

Like an old partner or a favorite pair of socks, there’s solace in revisiting a familiar game from your childhood. There’s a sense of ease in knowing what’s in each treasure chest, which bush an enemy will emerge from, or the secret tactics that overcome an enemy with ease. That calming intimacy makes games like this an easy nostalgic choice when you just want to unwind.

But what if you want to add some spice to that familiar experience? After playing a classic game to the point of memorization, how do you recapture the sense of adventure and discovery you experienced the first time you played it? A small but growing community in the retro emulation scene is trying to answer those questions with a class of mods and hacks called “randomizers.”

Shake and deal

At their most basic level, randomizer mods shuffle the data in a game’s ROM, making each run a new and unpredictable experience. So The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past Randomizer can change which items you find in which chests, change dungeon mission rewards, and even replace Link’s sprite with one of many fan-created options (the Mega Man X sprite is a personal favorite). And you can go even further than that, by changing the exit locations for different in-game doors or even distributing the boss keys for specific dungeons around the world (rather than in the dungeons themselves)!

What started as a small niche has now grown into a retro gaming genre of its own. Launched in 2016, the “BIG List of Video Game Randomizers” website now lists hundreds of randomization mods for games from Metroid Prime, Golden Sun, and earthbound until Faxanadu, Adventure Island, and disaster† The list continues to be updated weekly with new titles, so if your favorite isn’t listed yet, it might be soon.

Different randomizer mods allow for different levels of randomization, but the idea of ​​mixing up item locations or discovered skills and abilities is pretty standard. Some keep the intended structure of the title, but change the rewards and items you find on your journey. Others completely change the way the game is played.

Two games at once

One of the more extreme randomizers out there actually combines two games in a way that requires you to beat both over the course of a single playthrough. In the Super Metroid x Link to the Past Randomizer mod, use your special randomized doorways to navigate between the worlds of Hyrule and Zebes, collecting items in one to help you progress in the other. There’s a very real chance Link’s uncle can give you the high jump boots that will allow Samus to claim the Master Sword somewhere deep in Norfair.

Randomizers add near-infinite replayability to tired old games, with new challenges players must overcome with each playthrough. They test the player’s skill and knowledge of the game rather than just muscle memory gained through years of experience. By limiting the player’s ability to rely on their autopilot memory, the focus is instead placed on quick adaptation and troubleshooting.

However, in-depth knowledge of the base game is still helpful in a randomizer, even if it’s just to help you figure out what new avenues open up for each new item you find. You may have to fight a tough enemy with more meager resources than you normally would. Or you may be asked to consider keeping a group member with a special ability, even though they can barely survive a single hit.

Even if you only have a passing memory of a classic game, there are plenty of resources and guides available to help you out. These range from beginner’s guides with basic strategies for approaching a randomizer run to full-featured trackers that can show you which areas become accessible as you get new items.

I like to watch

I first stumbled upon the retro game randomizer subculture a few years ago when I was in a Twitch stream of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the PastLttP future) that I initially struggled to understand. There I saw a character who was definitely not Link and found items in chests where they definitely didn’t belong. A quick trip down the Google Search rabbit hole explained what was going on and cemented my interest in this strange new world of fresh retro gameplay. Since then I’ve gambled countless times in a randomizer Castlevania titles, Super Metroidfire emblemOcarina of Timeand Final Fantasy (4, 5, 6). Each new mod just dug me deeper into the randomizer hole.

Talking to other people immersed in the randomizer scene, my introduction through Twitch seems far from rare. While a few discovered the concept through random internet searches, most seem to have stumbled upon the community in the past two years watching live streams. Those range from smaller streamers and large-scale charity streaming events like Awesome Games Done Quick, RPG Limit Break and the recently held Questing For Glory 3 speedrun event just a few weeks ago. And with the upcoming Awesome Games Done Quick 2020 slated to release both the LttP and Mario 64 randomizers, a whole new group of viewers will be introduced to these mods.

Some of the most popular randomizers including Super Metroid, Zeldaand the open world Final Fantasy IV randomizer – have achieved their popularity in large part thanks to the embrace of the speedrunning community. Final Fantasy IV: Free Enterprise is such a randomizer. First released in 2018, Free enterprise allows players to break the strict story structure of the original title to take part in an open world scavenger hunt in search of the items that will eventually send you to defeat the game’s final boss. One month after the mod’s release, Free enterpriseThe Discord server had more users than the one dedicated to speeding up the original Final Fantasy IV† A year after its release, the game was featured in Awesome Games Done Quick 2019, the largest video game charity event in the world.

Tournaments and races have become a staple of the randomizer community, with larger events hosted by a number of organizers including Challonge, SpeedRunsLive and SpeedGaming. In the autumn of 2017, the organizers of the LttP Rando tournament revealed that the demand for their event was much higher than they had anticipated. After their initial maximum of 100 participants was filled, they had to set up a 150-person overflow tournament to meet the demand. In the spring of 2018, the same tournament had 512 registered players and probably would have accepted more if the seeding software supported it.

If you stop by SpeedRunsLive today, you can expect to see multiple randomizer races happening at any given time, with their largest organized LttP randomizer tournaments with more than 100 players. Daily LttP races on SpeedGaming regularly attract hundreds of viewers, and the annual SpeedGaming Live event in October featured randomizer tournaments with a prize pool of $3,000 for the first time.

These numbers won’t give esports giants like Fortnite or League of Legends reason to be scared, but at least they show the potential for the concept to one day grow from a niche into a potentially lucrative spectator sport.

Audience counts aside, players, developers, event organizers and viewers I’ve spoken to all agree that this growing class of mods has revived the well-known older titles. The renewed ability to replay an old game and experience a new adventure every time evokes that sense of wonder and discovery we got when we first put in the original cartridge or disc.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and while randomizers will never completely replace core experiences with these games we love, they can make them feel fresh and new every time.

A special thank you to everyone in the SpeedGaming, RPG Limit Break, Free Enterprise, and LttP Rando communities who kindly answered my questions and shared their experiences and expertise with me.

List image by Nintendo

By akfire1

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