Romhacks are incredible, allowing players to do a number of interesting things to tailor their gaming experience – from introducing new languages, characters, and animation to completely overhauling a game's UI and gameplay. But what possesses romhackers to want to dig deep into the guts of a video game to make changes in the first place?
Well, in the case of Rani Baker, a US-based romhacker, the answer apparently lay inside a frustrating debate inside the Fist of the North Star community over the merits of Hokuto No Ken for the Nintendo Famicom. You see, Fist of the North Star actually had two side-scrolling action games released under the series's original name, Hokuto No Ken, in Japan – both made by different games companies.
In July 1986, Sega was the first company to release a side-scrolling adaptation of the Buronson and Tetsuo Hara manga series of the same name for the Master System, followed a few months later, in August 1986, by Toei and its own game for the Nintendo Famicom.
Both titles featured very similar gameplay systems, with players moving left-to-right as the series' protagonist Kenshiro, beating up groups of bandits and gang members across various post-apocalyptic locations. However, the Famicom game often gets a bad rap, with criticism typically directed at its glitchy backgrounds and simplified graphics.
Here's how they compare:
As a result, Baker wanted to create her own hack for the Famicom game to see if she could close the gap between the two different versions.
Baker tells us, "The romhack came about because I got kind of tired of everyone praising the Sega Master System Hokuto No Ken game while degrading the Famicom Hokuto No Ken game, even though they have the same plot and the same basic gameplay mechanics. The Famicom version actually has some interesting stuff like kill moves, Easter Egg items and labyrinth stages, so I wondered how close I could actually get to splitting the difference between the two."
Among the changes introduced include a new title screen based on the Sega Master System version, a full English translation, custom death screens for the characters Shin and Jagi, and a complete redraw of all the stage graphics and most of the sprites. It's a significant upgrade, so we were wondering what obstacles Baker encountered while working on the hack.
She responds, "Most of the challenges I have experienced with this overhaul hack are fairly entry-level stuff, compared to other overhaul hacks I have done, navigating memory pointers and reverse-engineering the idiosyncrasies of the original programmers. For some reason, the music for the first three levels is stored on the CHR chip and takes up what would normally be graphics memory. That's some weird stuff."
As for what's next, Baker recently tweeted that she intends to make cartridges of it next month, which will provide her with a new challenge.
"The first Hokuto No Ken uses a cartridge hardware memory map known as "mapper 3" or CNROM," she explains. "I have been wanting to get into taking existing NES cartridges and burning new games onto them as my next step in becoming familiar with NES development and that is a very common one to start out with because it's the step above the very basic NROM and includes much more elaborate games but can accommodate the same relatively entry-level skillset."
It's worth mentioning that you will be able to find much more of Baker's work over on her itch.io. This includes more overhauls of retro games, like Mad Max and Ms. Pac-Man for the NES, as well as home-brew titles like her most recent release, Graveyard Dude.