Even though it was released over 30 years ago, Super Mario World continues to be relevant to this day. Even if you ignore how many games have been inspired by the classic 2D platformer since its release, you can still feel its influence in even the farthest reaches of gaming culture.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the world of romhacking. The passionate community that loves tinkering with classic games and remixing them to make even harder challenges has constantly given the game even life over the past few decades. The people behind these fan-made games are hobbyists, driven by a passion for creation and a love of Super Mario World.
Romhacks – essentially – are fan games that use an original game as a base, using assets and mechanics already designed to remix and reshape an experience you may be familiar with. Romhackers, then, are practically creating something original inside the confines of an existing work. And it’s not just new levels or areas these hobbyists create; they will also tinker with music, too: romhacks generally don’t use the music from the base game for the most part. Instead, creators take songs they like from other games and port them to the game the project they’re working on.
And because Super Mario World features one of the most active romhacking communities currently in existence, it has now become a celebration of game music across the medium. Amazing how one passionate community can create another, right?
Music porters came to the Super Mario World community for different reasons. Longtime composer Sinc-X, who is one of the stalwarts of the early days of Mario hacking, told us it was all about wanting to be a part of the community.
“I had found my way to Super Mario World by way of Mario Flash games, and unsurprisingly I wasn’t very good at making levels,” he tells us. “Eventually, I found my way to music; I’m not sure how exactly I ended up there, since I had zero experience with creating music in any form before that point, and I was certainly terrible at it when I started. Whatever the case, something about it clicked, and I’ve been going at it ever since.”
For Wyatt Croucher, another composer and hack designer, Super Mario World hacking proved inspiring. “I discovered SMW hacking back in 2009 from watching the original Kaizo Mario World video series – I was really into hard/mean games at the time,” explains Croucher. “Then Youtube’s recommendations sent me down a rabbit hole of other Super Mario World hacks, with graphics and music that weren’t in the original game. It all seemed like magic to me. Until I found Addmusic – the software that lets you put songs into Super Mario World – and saw that it actually wasn’t that hard to write out a melody and listen to it in-game. I love messing around with music creation software, and this was the first time where I could do it as part of a community who would actually use my work.”
mmBeefStew, another creator who both makes hacks and music, wanted to put a personal touch on the hack he was working on at the time, El Dorado. “I started porting because I was working on a hack and I wanted songs that hadn’t been ported yet to help make the hack feel fresh and fit some of the theme ideas I had,” says Stew. “I could have commissioned people to port for me but couldn’t justify coming out of pocket a bunch to have people port for me and I wouldn’t ask someone to work for free. I figured might as well learn to do it myself.”
Like creating levels for the game, the process for porting music depends entirely on the song you want to bring to Super Mario World. “There are a lot of factors that contribute to difficulty,” Sinc-X tells us. “Generally, porting for Super Mario World consists of two major steps; first, the song needs to be transcribed or arranged so that it will fit within the SNES’ sound limitations, and then that transcription can be converted to MML, which is the ‘language’ used to actually put the song on the SNES.”
Sometimes it’s as easy as plugging a piece of music into a converter, though the results can be unpredictable. “Right now there’s a tool to automatically convert SNES songs to the SMW format,” says Wyatt. “Depending on the coding of the game the song came from, the tool can give you a result that’s anywhere from perfect to completely garbled (the instrument samples will always come out fine though).”
If the output ends up as a garbled and unlistenable mess, porters have to take the old approach of transcribing everything manually, which (of course) has its own difficulties. “First, if the song doesn’t have a version where you can isolate the parts (for example only listen to the drums or bass or melody line) then you have to pick out every part by ear which is very challenging. I had to do that for several of the songs I ported and it’s a super time-consuming and tedious task,” explains mmBeefStew.
The results of the modding community’s hard? A monstrous database of music from different games that will appear in Super Mario World hacks thanks to the community and staff at Super Mario World Central. A good example of how a port sounds is mmBeefStew’s take on Mad Forest from Castlevania III as compared to the original. Or Sinc-X’s take on J-E-N-O-V-A from Final Fantasy VII. Or Wyatt’s port of Quick Man from Mega Man 2. There are hundreds more, just like these iconic examples, from a plethora of creators – a cursory search on Youtube will throw up so many more. They exist for the express purpose of filling a Super Mario World hack with music, showcasing the passion and drive of the creators for modding a game they love.
That’s not to say that all the music these porters make comes from video games. The creators draw inspiration from everything that they can – take mmBeefStew’s port of Hot Drinks, a take on the oft-memed Wendy’s training video that recently surfaced, which actually came about thanks to a friend’s love of the meme.
“There’s a funny story there actually, kezcade is an awesome SMW streamer and he loves Hot Drinks and has been doing memes with it on stream for a long time now,” explains mmBeefStew. “He jokingly asked some of the SMW porters to port it but none of them said yes so I in secret ported it for kezcade and he found it in a hidden room while playtesting my hack for me. kezcade gets all the credit for starting the meme.”
For Croucher, the idea of reaching outside video games for inspiration formed the basis for his debut hack, Casio Mario World. Casio’s entire concept is it’s filled with music ported from sources other than video games, even featuring songs from artists and bands like Passion Pit and Oneohtrix Point Never. “I started working on Casio pretty soon after discovering Oneohtrix Point Never,” says Wyatt. “I listened to his album Replica a lot, and after a while I noticed how few sounds Sleep Dealer used, despite sounding so rich and chaotic.” The results are arresting and some of the most striking music to ever appear in a Super Mario World hack.
Composing completely original music is rarer in romhack circles, but you can sometimes happen across it – and for some creators the freedom it allows for experimentation can be worth the difficulties wrangling new stuff out of an existing template throws up.
“With porting, it’s often a game of striking a balance between being faithful to the original song and sounding good on the SNES, whereas with composing it’s entirely the latter,” Sinc-X explains. “Depending on the song, that can make porting a lot easier or a lot harder; something especially complex, particularly when real instruments are involved, can be a nightmare to arrange faithfully, but on the simpler end of the spectrum, something like a NES song is much easier to get right. Composing, on the other hand, all comes down to how well you can get your musical ideas across in those 8 channels and 64KB of space, which is certainly restrictive compared to composing normally, but it also encourages a certain kind of creativity.”
One of the most memorable original compositions is the epic theme to Bowser’s Castle in the collaboration hack YUMP 2, which lasts a long time and goes in many different directions. It’s effectively prog-rock via romhack. “My goal was to combine a number of video game music styles into one piece, which would be listenable for potentially hours on end without getting too repetitive,” says Sinc-X.
“As for influences, there are probably way too many to count, but it was definitely inspired by a ton of classic video game music. The Celtic-esque section has some Tim Follin influence for sure, and a lot of the sound design in the more eccentric parts of the song is inspired by soundtracks like Streets of Rage.”
Super Mario World continues to thrive to this day, but it looks and sounds much different than most expect. The romhacking community is keeping the game alive some three decades after it launched, and judging by the vibrant music that’s now associated with Mario, the musicians and hackers behind the game’s long life will keep finding new tricks for this old dog for many more years to come.
Super Mario World is out now.