Why Super Metroid's Hacking Community is Still Going Strong

By Victoria Earl

A strong community can mean the difference between success and mediocrity, even for a well-made game. From fan magazines like Nintendo Power to modern conceits like in-game chat and game-based forums, past and current developers and publishers have made at least some effort to foster communities based around their games. Community is becoming even more vital as social games, persistent multiplayer games, and mobile games enter the same space as traditional single player games.

There are a multitude of tried-and-true methods for fostering a game community. Many developers put years of work into maintaining a game, releasing new content to keep players coming back. Other developers add a multiplayer component, hosting matches between players or adding a social layer to encourage players to interact with each other. These and more tactics have been known to work as long as the developer in question keeps up with the community.

But what happens when a developer moves on? Multiplayer servers are shut down, updates cease, and developer-curated community websites fall into disuse. If a game is good enough, there will always be fans -- they can be found scattered across various websites and forums, still helping the occasional new player or praising their favorite game from their past.

But these stragglers are just a shadow of the former community. The core community has died, and even previously dedicated fans will spend more of their time elsewhere. It may take a while, perhaps even a few years, but most game communities dwindle away after the developer moves on.

There are a few exceptions to this pattern, though. Occasionally, with the right conditions, a game's community will significantly outlast its developer's involvement. No game proves this better or more succinctly than the classic Super Metroid -- not only does it have a robust community nearly 20 years after its release, but the community also formed organically long after the game's original release.

Super Metroid's New Community

The community in question, which was once a subset of the more generic Metroid fan forum Metroid2002.com, now exists as a ROM hacking community. It chiefly revolves around Metroid Construction, a website, forum, and IRC channel created in early 2009 as a college project. Although ROM hacking isn't unique to Super Metroid, the Metroid Construction community is active, prolific, and accomplished, producing hacks that rival the source material in originality and complexity.

The community's daily activity far outstrips many more typical game communities, particularly when considering the age of the game itself and the relatively narrow focus of the community. There are no new players posting to ask about cheat codes and secrets, nor even are there speedrunning hopefuls discussing sequence-breaking tactics. The Metroid Construction forum does cover ROM hacking for other Metroid games -- plus, incidentally, The Legend of Zelda -- but the Super Metroid hacking sub-forum is by far the most active, with literally thousands more posts than any other game in the franchise.

As one may guess from this level of activity, the Super Metroid hacking community has created a multitude of new hacks -- nearly 100 complete, playable hacks are listed on the Metroid Construction website. These aren't 100 slight variations on the original game, with minor tweaks and cosmetic changes. Many of these hacks are radically different from their source material in terms of graphics, level design, and even gameplay mechanics.


Super Metroid: Redesign,
pictured right, is one hack that drastically alters the layout from the original, pictured left.

So the Super Metroid hacking community is active, self-starting, and unique among Metroid games. The question is, then, how exactly does it sustain itself? How does it attract new members and daily activity? For answers, I asked members of the Metroid Construction forum to explain their reasons for joining the community. Their responses, while unique to each individual, shared key elements that pointed to the community's success.


It Starts With the Game

The most basic element of the community's success is also the only one that is entirely in the hands of the developer. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the community members cited the game itself as one of their primary reasons for joining the community. This may seem like a foregone conclusion, since Super Metroid's superb design is well recognized, but there are common threads in the members' description of their love of the game.

First, a red herring -- many fans will label their devotion to a game, particularly a classic game like Super Metroid, as "nostalgia." The problem with this is that it may fool developers into thinking that they cannot capture the same degree of devotion with a modern game. In fact, while people do often prefer games played during their formative years, nostalgia cannot sustain a dedicated fandom. On its own, it simply doesn't hold up under close scrutiny, and the Super Metroid hacking community -- like most dedicated fandoms -- examines the source material with profound meticulousness.

It is therefore vital to look beyond the labels fans use, and instead to the stories they tell. Universally, when a community member told their story of how they became a fan of Super Metroid, it involved them playing the game extensively. Many estimated their personal total playtime of the original at 100 hours or more -- either to master it, to explore it, or to simply re-experience it. This time invested is the key to the dedication that these community members have to the game, not the age at which they played it.

Truly dedicated fans help carry any community, but are particularly important for a community's longevity. They will be the ones who run fan forums, who write FAQs, and who create fan content that other players -- even those who have not spent much time with the game -- will be interested in.

They do this because they view their favorite game as unique. As community member Fizzer stated, "There's something magical about Super Metroid that separates it from every other game of [its] kind." If a developer wants someone to say that about its game, and in turn to encourage other players to become fans, the game must be designed to inspire fandom.

"Cyber-Archaeology"

Merely being a fan of Super Metroid isn't enough motivation to join the hacking community. For many early adopters and expert hackers, a curiosity about the game spurs them to delve into the game's source code. Several forum members described a love of exploring behind-the-scenes to figure out how a game works -- community member JAM explained that it felt like being a "cyber-archeologist." For these explorer-type players, finding development fossils -- items that were present in the original game's code but never used -- is one of the chief rewards of ROM hacking.


Some hacks re-introduce fossils hidden in the game. The miniature enemy above, called "Stoke," is one such fossil in hack Metroid: Super Zero Mission.

The drive to pick apart a game is not unique to Super Metroid, but the extent to which some of its secrets are hidden makes it ideal for curious cyber-archaeologists. Hackers quickly discovered the usual quirks, including bizarre enemies and special block types that were never used. Even a hidden "Game Quit" menu didn't hide for long before someone found the Game Genie code that activated it.

But some fossils are better hidden -- for example, community member JAM found a new fossil in late 2010 with the help of another member, Scyzer. The fossil, dubbed the Golden Torizo cheat code, can only be triggered during a split-second window while entering a specific room. JAM actually stumbled upon it while looking through the raw assembly code for the game, then posted it on the forum for others to investigate. The community quickly figured out how to activate it -- not to try to exploit a new cheat code, which during normal play would give the player upgrades after they should have already gotten them -- but just to see why it might have been added.


Encouraging these fans to explore the game is something Super Metroid excels at. Its use of hidden upgrades throughout the game, combined with a percent score at the end of the game to tell players how many upgrades they missed, creates replayability through exploration.

Furthermore, players couldn't see the completion rate until after the end of the game, encouraging them to explore every square inch of the game world before completing it. This intense investigation would lead players to discover that they could "sequence-break," or undermine the critical path of the game, which would encourage even more exploration.

More important than trying to encourage this curiosity, however, is to simply avoid putting up roadblocks. This is actually the one area in which Super Metroid failed. When it was released, it was a closed system, and serious exploration of the game's code was impossible for the average fan.

It was only years later, when the game's cartridge technology itself was circumvented, that intrepid fans were able to explore the code and start the hacking community. Developers don't have to give fans complete freedom with a game's code, but a completely closed system may well cripple a game's community.

By capitalizing on fans' natural curiosity about their favorite game, developers can lead them to a deeper understanding of it, which in turn can give players the knowledge necessary to create new content for the game. For Super Metroid, this ability was key to the inception of the ROM hacking community, but it was only half the story.


Without direct access to Super Metroid's code, major hacks like Super Metroid Phazon Hack, pictured above, would be impossible.

A Unique Experience

Even if fans have a deep understanding of how a game works, their knowledge may go unused if they have no motivation to do anything with it. By contrast, the members of Metroid Construction used their knowledge to create their own versions of the game, from cosmetic changes to unique spins to complete overhauls.

What motivated them? Forum members said that a lack of a true sequel to Super Metroid spurred fans to hack the game. Simply put, a lack of official content induced a flourishing of unofficial content.

It's important to note, however, that the Metroid franchise did not have to die for Super Metroid to be a unique game. Although there was a significant dry spell of about eight years between Super Metroid and its twin sequels, Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion, the more important factor is how different these sequels were from the original.

Metroid Prime took the series in a completely new direction, using a 3D graphics engine and a first-person perspective in stark contrast to Super Metroid's 2D graphics and sidescrolling view. And although Metroid Fusion looked similar to Super Metroid, its relatively linear gameplay was seen as a departure from Super Metroid's oft-lauded sense of open exploration. Both these new games thus successfully -- and profitably -- continued the franchise without diminishing Super Metroid's perceived uniqueness, leaving room for fan interpretation.

Although developers strive to make their games unique to stand out from other franchises, this doesn't always happen within a single franchise. Purely iterative sequels can cannibalize extant game communities and suppress the community's desire to create content. If a developer creates new content frequently, it is competing with its own fans' creations -- and the fans usually lose. Fans must be able to see a niche for their content, or they will have little reason to bother. Releasing a sequel every year may guarantee a steady income, but a developer is more likely to curate a self-perpetuating community by helping fans promote and create their own content.


One notable thing lacking from Super Metroid is a strong story element. Ice Metal: Uninstall, above, is one fan's answer to that gap.


Snowballing: Reaching Critical Mass and Self-Sustenance

Making an excellent game to garner fans, encouraging those fans to learn more about it, and then giving them space to create their own spin on it is key to creating a robust game community, but in order to mature from a developer-managed community to a truly fan-driven community, it needs to draw more players in on its own.

Like most communities centered around content creation, the Super Metroid ROM hacking community gains exposure through its most impressive accomplishments. The best known accomplishment, and the one that helped the community start gaining steam in 2006, is Super Metroid: Redesign. Redesign has a plethora of gameplay videos on YouTube, features on several hobbyist gaming sites, and is even part of a PC Magazine feature on noteworthy hacks. It's no wonder, then, that many members cite Redesign as their first exposure to the community. Others pointed out that Redesign was especially important as the community was forming.

How did Redesign get so much attention? Simply put, it changed the landscape of Super Metroid ROM hacks. It was the original overhaul, changing the layout, adding new items and more areas, and even changing the physics of the original game. It was seminal for the Super Metroid hacking community, and many of the techniques used in the hack have become standard since.

It thus paved the way for several other major hacks, the most prominent of which are Ice Metal: Uninstall, Phazon Hack, and Metroid: Super Zero Mission. Although they are all hacks of Super Metroid, each is unique in its approach and demonstrates how the hacking community pushes the limits of Super Metroid.

The first of these, chronologically, is Ice Metal: Uninstall, released in late 2010 by Metroid Construction forum member Crys. Whereas the original game is satisfied with just one opening cutscene and a few key events in the game, this hack focuses on creating an engaging story, inserting text into each area's map screen as clues for the player to find. Although you can recognize some areas from the original game, Ice Metal reconfigures the layout of the game significantly. Like most major hacks, Ice Metal also changes the order in which the player obtains major upgrades.

Next is Metroid: Super Zero Mission, released by Japanese hacker SB in late 2011. As its name implies, it endeavors to combine elements from both Super Metroid and a later 2D game in the Metroid franchise, Metroid: Zero Mission. It does this by adding a puzzle element to the game, frequently challenging players to use their arsenal to find the way forward rather than battling enemies. It also incorporates several key elements from Metroid: Zero Mission, including Chozo lore, invincible enemies, and mystery items. Although it is clearly intended as a hybrid of the two Nintendo-published games, the hack stands as an original game in its own right.


Some of the elements from Metroid: Zero Mission that appear in Metroid: Super Zero Mission include level gates, pictured left, and motion-sensing lasers, pictured right.

Finally, there is Super Metroid Phazon Hack, the current version of which was released by Red_M0nk3y at the end of 2011. This hack works on pushing the limits of the original game -- some areas in the hack are so large that they require a loading transition in the middle of play. Everything has been altered, from the layout to the order of items to the order in which the player fights the boss enemies. It even includes destructible crates that contain beneficial items, a staple of the modern FPS genre in general and the Metroid Prime trilogy in particular.

While all these major hacks are unique in their own ways, they are universally built for a veteran Super Metroid player. The critical path of the game is always changed around to keep players guessing at which item they'll encounter next, they are always noticeably more difficult than the original game, and they often require players to master specialized moves, like the optional wall jump move in Super Metroid.

Many make more subtle changes, including changes to the gravity or changing the effect of expansion upgrades, even when those changes aren't strictly necessary. This succinctly demonstrates that these hacks are by fans, for fans -- they aren't meant to attract players who aren't familiar with the original. Instead, they extend the amount of play the core fan base can obtain from the game. This in turn extends interest in the game, which in turn feeds the community, creating a feedback loop of hacker-created content attracting more hackers.


Tools of the Trade

While sophisticated Super Metroid hacks draw players into the hacking community, most new members won't become hackers without accessible tools and a way to learn the trade. In the case of Metroid Construction, the SMILE Editor is the core hacking tool for Super Metroid, allowing new hackers to safely explore the game's code using a graphical interface.

Several forum members cited this editor, as well as the ample documentation and help channels available to new hackers, as the reason they were able to learn hacking.

Although a modern developer might create and maintain its own game editor, SMILE is a collaborative effort -- when the fan who created SMILE could no longer dedicate the time to maintain it, other community members took on the responsibility to update and improve it.

Besides the SMILE Editor, the Metroid Construction community has another major piece of middleware -- a hack for community members to build on to create new hacks. Called Project Base and made by community member Grime, Base is a refurbishing of Super Metroid. It contains no changes to the critical path, but focuses on fixing bugs, optimizing the code, and updating the physics and graphics.

It even adds a few new moves, like a backflip, to make gameplay flow better. Because Grime encourages other hackers to use the hack as a starting point, Project Base makes complex and thorough hacks much easier to do.


The graphical updates in Project Base, pictured right, include everything from a new color palette to new room backgrounds. The original game is on the left.

The reason a hack like Project Base works, and the final piece of the puzzle for the Super Metroid hacking community's success, is the collaborative culture of the community. Hacks aren't created in a void and released when complete. Instead, the forum is abuzz with hackers old and new posting works in progress for testing and feedback.

In these threads, the creator discusses bugs, potential improvements, and ideas with other forum members. This contributes to the friendly culture, but more importantly, it means new members can become a meaningful part of the community before completing their first hack, and old members have a reason to keep coming back between projects. Forum members credited this with the rise in standards for new hacks -- frequent feedback helps keep hackers motivated to earn the respect of their peers, and that leads to better hacks, which in turn leads to more exposure, which finally leads to more members.

Repeating Super Metroid's Success

Although it's certainly not the only game with a loyal hacking community, the Super Metroid hacking community demonstrates how low-maintenance a game's community can get. Because its growth was wholly organic, there's no set blueprint of rules that a modern developer can simply copy, but that doesn't mean developers can't learn from it.

First and most importantly, a game has to create fans. Fortunately, this is also key to creating a successful game, so it already has its own body of research. Super Metroid does this by encouraging exploration and mastery of the game. While simply hiding secret items in the game world may not work so well since the advent of wikis and FAQs, there is no real shortcut for the player mastering the core mechanics of a game.

Any type of game can encourage mastery -- some, like Monster Hunter, require the player to understand boss behavior to progress in the game, while others, like Street Fighter IV, encourage fans to hone their skills playing against other players. Even the three-star scoring system in Angry Birds encourages players to spend extra time flinging around the titular avians. Whatever the method, a game has to encourage a significant number of players to invest a lot of time in the game, garnering a more permanent interest in the game itself.

But even intense interest in a game can die out if it's not fed and encouraged. Developers can't force players to further explore a game, but they can encourage curious players -- or create roadblocks for them. Secrets hidden in the game, or "Easter eggs," can encourage fans to explore the game.

Even trivial secrets can have a significant impact on fans; Minecraft's developer spurred an intense flurry of interest by mentioning an Easter egg that turned out to be a trivial change in the title screen, while some merely suggestive text in Dark Souls (which its director later revealed was nothing more than a tease) did the same. And while Easter eggs can encourage players to explore, developers must also make sure not to create a system so closed to investigation that it discourages curious players. It's these players that were the seeds of the Super Metroid hacking community, and a game community would be hard-pressed to sustain itself without them.


Another major roadblock for player-driven communities is the developer's own eagerness for, well, developing. Just like with exploration, a developer can't force a desire upon players to create their own spin on their favorite game, but it can certainly suppress it by flooding the community with iterative sequels or even constant updates. In the case of Super Metroid, it was a unique game even within its own franchise.

This may be an unattainable utopia for developers on a tight budget and publishers on a tight schedule, but developers can still keep a community from splintering when an iterative sequel is necessary -- Valve's purposeful and gradual transition between Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 is a prime example. Releasing updates and downloadable content instead of sequels is another way to keep a game's community in one place; this works particularly well for multiplayer games like Team Fortress 2, though developers must take care not to push out so many updates that they discourage player-created content.

Encouraging fans and avoiding these roadblocks is a good way to start a community, but in order to make the transition to self-sustenance, the community has to draw more people in on its own by garnering attention on its own merits. Super Metroid isn't the only game that gets attention for its achievements. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind's community, which creates mods that improve the game, made headlines nearly nine years and two sequels after the game's release with a compilation of mods called the 2011 Morrowind Mod Compendium.

But more important than earning the attention of the press, which is relatively sparse even for large modding communities, is garnering fans' attention. A developer can encourage this by giving fans a way to highlight and promote player-created content themselves -- this may be done with a website like LBP.me, which allows owners of games in the LittleBigPlanet franchise to discover, rate, and manage custom levels for the games.

In order to discover and promote quality content, however, a community has to create it. The most important thing is an accessible set of tools for players to use. Although SMILE was made purely by fans, the complexity of modern games demands developer involvement. The caveat is that any toolset must be either totally, undoubtedly complete, or its source code and the means to update it must be given to the community before the developer moves on. Developers of games like Morrowind and Half-Life have ensured this by releasing the tools they used to create the games in the first place.

Next, good documentation can help players use these tools and create better content. These can be in developer's hands at first, but must eventually become the responsibility of the community itself -- many communities, Super Metroid included, successfully maintain a wiki on their own.

Finally, the developer can encourage a collaborative culture by allowing and encouraging fans to release works in progress for feedback. By giving the community the means to create new content indefinitely and encouraging members to do so with the help of their peers, developers can aspire to foster the kind of community that is still around years after a game's release.

Although building a long-lasting community is no simple task, Super Metroid's organic, robust hacking community provides several key lessons for creating a self-sustainable game community.

  1. Ensure your game invites long hours of play without relying solely on novel content. If there are no fans of your game, there will be no one who wants to make content for it.
  2. Encourage fans to explore your game in-depth -- add Easter eggs, give players an opportunity to learn about the game's inner workings, and avoid putting roadblocks on exploratory behavior.
  3. Create and release tools that allow players to easily modify or create content. Custom levels, mods, and even player-made in-game items give fans an outlet for their creativity and allow them to put their own spin on your game.
  4. Avoid undermining or splintering your game's community with iterative sequels or excessive content updates. Give content-producing players a niche to fill.
  5. Finally, allow the community to promote and discover new player-made content using, at minimum, a rating system. Open discussion channels will allow for even more feedback, making the community more collaborative overall.

While the steps above are one way to cultivate game communities like that of Super Metroid, they are neither comprehensive nor perfectly suited to every individual game. Use them instead as a guide for making players into fans, fans into fan creators, and fan creators into community leaders, and let them help you gain insight on what will work for your game and its community.

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