In order to play games in new ways and facilitate competitive races on Twitch, speedrunners and hackers have cultivated a new genre of speedrunning based on remixing classic video games. In this paper, I investigate the histories, affordances, and legalities of the browser-based applications that lie at the heart of this practice—video game randomizers—using the Very Adaptive Randomizer of Items and Areas (VARIA) for Super Metroid (1994) as a primary case study. I begin my analysis with an overview of Super Metroid’s underlying game structures while elaborating upon its connections to broader speedrunning histories. This is followed by a summary of how randomizers function and a chronicling of VARIA’s development, in which I draw comparisons to a number of commercially released game technologies. I then perform a more deliberate analysis of VARIA using the walkthrough method, scrutinizing the application’s environment of expected use (that is, how users are encouraged to interact with it) and providing a technical walkthrough of its features (that is, a step-by-step account of its functionality). I contend that VARIA is a crystallization of video game hacker and speedrunner activities, both enabling new practices through its affordances and codifying the expertise of its community members through its interface.
On June 29, 2019, in front of an auditorium packed full of Summer Games Done Quick (SGDQ) attendees, speedrunners Andy and Ivan squared off in a competition that may have seemed unusual even to veterans of the annual fundraising event.1 During a session titled “Link to the Past + Super Metroid Combo Randomizer,” the pair raced to complete a video game hack that merged the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) titles The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991) and Super Metroid (1994) into a single game (see fig. 1). In addition to requiring the players to travel between the games’ worlds by way of designated passageways, the hack provided an additional twist. Key items from both Super Metroid and Zelda had been randomly scattered across both games’ environments—their exact locations unknown to the speedrunners. Treasure chests in the medieval setting of Hyrule were capable of yielding missiles or futuristic blaster upgrades, while weapon caches in the depths of Planet Zebes could house a magic wand or sword. During their race, Andy and Ivan had to quickly switch between games in order to properly equip their characters and make progress. Despite the additional challenges of flipping between genres and hunting for relocated items, the speedrunners’ objectives were identical to those found at any other SGDQ session: finish the game as quickly as possible.
Andy and Ivan face off during a SGDQ Twitch stream featuring the “Link to the Past + Super Metroid Combo Randomizer.” (Image captured by author from Games Done Quick, “Link to the Past + Super Metroid Combo Randomizer by Andy and Ivan in 2:53:57 SGDQ2019,” June 30, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uujsW7yFkZU)
Although much of the press coverage of Thomas “Total” Backmark’s Combo Randomizer treated it as a spectacle or a technological curiosity, randomizers can be more accurately characterized as emerging from years of speedrunning and video game hacking practices.2 Both Super Metroid and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past have active speedrunning leaderboards, expansive hacking communities, and popular livestreams on Twitch. These factors, when considered alongside longer histories of offline play, reveal an environment where randomizers for Metroid, Zelda, and other franchises can arise and flourish. These are not isolated technological curiosities but, rather, crystallizations of community histories, ideologies, and practices.
In this paper, I offer a preliminary analysis of randomizers, using the Very Adaptive Randomizer of Items and Areas (VARIA) for Super Metroid as a primary case study. First developed by the hackers and speedrunners ouichegeante and theonlydude in 2018, VARIA is a browser-based application that enables users to remix the placement of upgrades, locations, and bosses within the Super NES game Super Metroid (see fig. 2). The application requires users to provide a Super Metroid ROM image that is then used to generate randomized iterations,3 each of which may be customized using numerous drop-down menus, toggles, and numerical fields. The process behind this alteration is a form of ROM patching, a technique developed by hackers that applies changes to a ROM image based on instructions contained within a patch file.4 Although users select the initial set of rules dictating how a ROM image can be altered, the precise changes (such as where upgrades have been relocated) are intentionally hidden from the player. Thus, randomized versions of Super Metroid are puzzles for players to unravel, often in competition with others.
The VARIA Randomizer, using “simple” settings. (Image captured by author from VARIA Super Metroid Randomizer, accessed April 12, 2020, https://randommetroidsolver.pythonanywhere.com/randomizer)
As I analyze VARIA, I also dedicate some attention to the ALttP: Randomizer for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past to flesh out the wider histories and practices of randomizer communities.5 Both VARIA and the ALttP: Randomizer were heavily influenced by offline prototypes created by David “Dessyreqt” Carroll, are browser-based applications, and foster active racing communities on Discord and Twitch.6 Even though Zelda and Super Metroid occupy different genres, their underlying structures mirror each other in many ways, as keenly demonstrated by Backmark’s Combo Randomizer.
I begin this paper with a short overview of Super Metroid, where I discuss the game’s underlying structure and consider its place within longer histories of speedrunning. I then turn my attention toward randomizers to discuss their functionality, connections to speedrunning practices, and recent popularity on Twitch and at large-scale gaming events such as Awesome Games Done Quick (AGDQ). This leads into a more focused investigation into the origins of Super Metroid randomizers and their similarity to other gaming technologies, while touching upon the legal concerns that have helped inform their design. Following these broader analyses, I use the walkthrough method to engage in step-by-step observation of VARIA and its related paratexts to dissect the application’s “technological mechanisms and embedded cultural references.”7 This analysis involves scrutiny of VARIA’s environment of expected use (that is, how users are encouraged to interact with the application) and a technical walkthrough of its features (that is, the application’s functionality). In addition to documenting how the application works, I use the walkthrough method to unpack VARIA’s precise affordances, ingrained meanings, and implied ideal users and use scenarios. To close, I discuss some of the key ideologies that are expressed through VARIA and reflect upon its place in longer histories of speedrunning, hacking, and livestreaming.
Many research projects have studied video game alteration through the analysis of online communities and individual modified games, but comparatively little attention has been paid to hacker-designed applications such as randomizers. These technologies are enmeshed in the multifarious afterlives of video games, which Raiford Guins aptly describes as the “curious state after commodification and consumption, after intended utility and designed functionality, and possibly even obsolescence; where a standard life span is met with extended or repurposed and recontextualized uses.”8 Industry-centric game histories often hint at these residual uses—Dominic Arsenault, for example, touches upon hacking and home-brew projects at the close of his Super NES / Super Famicom (SNES/SFC) platform study—but few analyses bring community-developed tools to the forefront. In her cross-cultural study of video games, Mia Consalvo chronicles the central role of ROM-hacking tools in the development of fan-made translation patches for Japanese-only games such as Mother 3 (2006) and Hourai Gakuen no Bouken! Tenkousei Scramble (1996).9 Continuing the enduring fan tradition of undermining regional release strategies, translation hackers iteratively build text- and graphic-editing applications to facilitate numerous unofficial localizations. Shifting from alteration to creation, John Vanderhoef documents the affordances of emulators that “recreate the technological constraints of older platforms” and their vital role in fostering NES home-brew practices.10 Home brewers map the inner workings of consoles and draw upon many of the same tools and competencies used by randomizer hackers, albeit with the goal of adding new titles to an outmoded console’s software library (rather than editing existing titles). David Murphy further elaborates on the role of emulators in his discussion of MAME, which serves as a historical archive, of sorts, due to its ability to reanimate arcade games that have become difficult to access due to their rarity, physical deterioration, and ongoing copyright concerns.11 These types of applications emerge from long-standing user practices and values, and studying them can reveal the diverse uses that game technologies assume in the wake of their intended commercial life spans.
In this article, I provide a preliminary case study and some theoretical and methodological scaffolding for approaching these types of technologies. VARIA is a useful object of study because of its ongoing popularity, large archive of online documentation, and active user base spread across Discord, Twitch, and other social-media channels. Due to its entanglement with speedrunning, hacking, and livestreaming histories, VARIA also serves as an intriguing lens to study how randomizers have helped formalize and popularize speedrunning practices and the adoption of video game hacks by wider audiences.
Serial Structures and Sequence Breaks: Super Metroid and Speedrunning Histories
Released for the Super NES in 1994, Super Metroid (see fig. 3) is the third installment in Nintendo’s popular science-fiction franchise Metroid. Taking control of intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran, players must delve into the cave-riddled Planet Zebes, defeat hordes of malevolent aliens, and recover the universe’s last Metroid before its alien physiology is harnessed for nefarious purposes by space pirates.12 A 2-D side-scrolling action-adventure game that emphasizes exploration and combat, Super Metroid’s core gameplay involves defeating bosses and acquiring upgrades for Samus’s futuristic weapons and armor, which incrementally grant access to the depths of Planet Zebes.
Title screen of Super Metroid (Nintendo, Super NES/Super Famicom). (Image captured by author)
Super Metroid was a critical and commercial success in North America and has seen sustained popularity with re-releases on Nintendo’s virtual consoles, inclusion on the Super NES Classic Edition, and frequent mentions in listicles that rank it among the greatest video games of all time.13 Alongside Castlevania: Symphony of Night (1997), Super Metroid is one of the progenitors of the Metroidvania genre, which broadly encompasses platforming action-adventure games that “emphasize non-linear exploration and story, with access to new areas restricted until new abilities are gained.”14 These abilities vary widely from game-to-game, but in Super Metroid include upgrades to Samus’s weaponry (for example Missiles, Power Bombs, and the Ice Beam), defenses (for example, Energy Tanks and the Varia Suit), and mobility (for example, Hi-Jump Boots, Speed Booster, and Morphing Ball). These upgrades serve two key purposes: first, they increase Samus’s overall capabilities, allowing her to defeat enemies and navigate the game’s world more easily. Second, they grant access to new areas of the labyrinthine Planet Zebes when used in particular situations. For example, when Samus gains the Ice Beam power-up, she is able to freeze many enemies midflight, rendering them harmless and transforming them into platforms that can be traversed to reach new areas (see figs. 4 and 5). Importantly, these upgrades do not immediately reveal to players the nuances of their use or what parts of Planet Zebes they unlock. Although some hints are provided indirectly through environmental design, players are required to explore and experiment in order to uncover the path forward.
Acquiring the Ice Beam in Super Metroid (Nintendo, Super NES/Super Famicom). (Image captured by author)
Utilizing the Ice Beam to ascend through a vertical area in Super Metroid (Nintendo, Super NES/Super Famicom). (Image captured by author)
The cyclical patterns of the Metroidvania genre—collect an upgrade, explore a new area, and repeat—have been noted by theorists and hackers alike. Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux elaborate that video games often deal in serial structures, and that the work of game designers commonly involves “[obscuring] the explicitly repetitive aspects of computational media.”15 This seriality is easily observed in early platformers such as Super Mario Bros. (1985), where players traverse sets of levels with the consistent objective of reaching a goal pole (or, in every fourth level, defeating a boss). However, instead of presenting distinct levels or explicit paths to travel, Super Metroid’s sprawling world gradually opens to players as they collect upgrades and construct an understanding of how to use them. This careful arrangement of aesthetic and structural elements (enabled by strong art direction, clever level design, and the inclusion of secret areas) masks the somewhat repetitive nature of Super Metroid’s collection tasks, keeping initial and subsequent playthroughs fresh for players. Since its introduction, this design formula has been applied to successive entries in the Metroid and Castlevania franchises and co-opted by numerous other games.
As Eric Koziel elaborates in Speedrun Science: A Long Guide to Short Playthroughs, the Metroid franchise is an important precursor to modern speedrunning practices as it encouraged fast, proficient play long before the term speedrunning was officially coined.16 In Metroid (1986) for the NES, players are rewarded with better endings if they finish the game within a predefined time limit. Speedy play was further fostered with the addition of an in-game timer in Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991) and through a Nintendo Power Super Power Club Challenge, which asked players to submit their fastest times for beating Super Metroid. Players verified their times by mailing in photographs of Super Metroid’s ending screen, which displays a player’s completion time, and the postcredits “see you next mission” screen, which reveals what percentage of Samus’s upgrades the player has collected.17 Despite these public endorsements, it is doubtful that anyone could have anticipated just how repeated Super Metroid playthroughs would become in the ensuing years. Likely since its release in 1994, but only publicly documented since approximately 2004, speedrunners have played the game ad nauseam in pursuit of the fastest possible completion time.18 Where the best ending requires a player to beat Super Metroid in under three in-game hours, the current world record times hover around twenty-seven in-game minutes for completion and forty-two minutes for 100 percent playthroughs.19
This push toward faster and faster times has resulted in a deep understanding of Super Metroid’s underlying structures among speedrunners, who have collaborated to develop hyperoptimized routes to progress through the game.20 Routes are sets of in-game decisions a player makes in order to work through it as quickly as possible, such as what paths they choose to travel and which upgrades they collect.21 Where initial playthroughs of Super Metroid encourage exploration and slowly introduce new mechanics to the player, speedrun routes allow for little deviation and generally require intense technical proficiency from the onset. Watching an accomplished speedrunner beat Super Metroid is equal parts impressive and incomprehensible. Throughout a run they will execute seemingly impossible maneuvers, exploit glitches in the game’s code, and bypass (usually) mandatory challenges in a practice known as sequence breaking. Often dedicating hours to practicing each day, speedrunners may need to make hundreds or thousands of attempts before they improve upon their personal-best time or earn a high ranking on the global leaderboards at Speedrun.com. To both document their runs and turn a potentially solitary activity into a social one, many speedrunners livestream their attempts on Twitch, with top-ranked Super Metroid speedrunners such as zoast and Oatsandgoats cultivating tens of thousands of followers.22 For these players, the default challenges of Super Metroid have become secondary to the satisfaction of grinding out better times in front of online audiences. Although the ending screen of Super Metroid claims it will “see you next mission,” speedrunners seem more intent on completing the same mission over and over again.
ROM Hacks and Races: Understanding Randomizer Design and Use
In order to play games in new ways and facilitate competitive races on Twitch, speedrunners and hackers have cultivated a new genre of speedrunning based on remixing classic video games. The applications that make these remixes possible are commonly referred to as randomizers. Although the term hacker has multifarious meanings, I broadly define video game hackers as those who make unauthorized alterations to digital games after their release.23 By tweaking the underlying code structures of a game, hackers can alter its text, music, graphics, and more. For older titles such as Super Metroid and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, this practice commonly involves editing a ROM image using community-developed software tools, with websites such as ROMHacking.net serving as hubs for hosting these applications.24 Importantly, many hackers who work on randomizers are also speedrunners and livestreamers, highlighting the entanglement between the practices.
Most randomizers are browser-based applications that procedurally generate modified versions of popular speedrunning games, using a ROM image as the raw material for modification. Where the objective of many hacking applications is to grant users the ability to freely edit a ROM image, randomizers instead create an altered version without fully revealing to the user what changes have been applied. By shuffling the location of key items and objectives within these titles—such as Samus’s upgrades in Metroid and Link’s weapons in Zelda—these randomized iterations force players to progress through familiar games using strategies that would generally not be adopted in casual playthroughs or speedruns. For example, where players typically acquire the Morphing Ball upgrade almost immediately upon starting a new save file in Super Metroid, the randomizer may force them to explore several areas before finding the indispensable item. As the Morphing Ball allows Samus to traverse narrow passageways, without it, entire sections of Planet Zebes are rendered impassable; its relocation disrupts many of the developer-designed pathways through the game’s world.
Speedrunning is generally predicated on completing a video game in the shortest amount of time possible, but randomizers introduce unpredictability and force players to adjust their typical speedrunning routes. These changes cannot be fully planned for ahead of time due to the randomizer’s hidden machinations. Surprise and improvisation are commonly touted as the key draws of using a randomizer, as enthusiastically noted by the developers of the ALttP: Randomizer: “ALttP: Randomizer is a new take on the classic game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Each playthrough shuffles the location of all the important items in the game. Will you find the Bow atop Death Mountain, the Fire Rod resting silently in the library, or even the Master Sword itself waiting in a chicken coop?”25 Despite the claim that randomization offers a “new take,” the variant play it facilitates is not without precedent. Where randomizers for Zelda and Metroid have only existed since about 2016, they have been long preceded by a number of similar, self-imposed player challenges. Many Castlevania: Symphony of the Night players created puzzle speedruns for each other that required them to complete the game while “observing a number of strange and limiting restrictions.”26 These included bans on using certain equipment, unusual routes through the game’s world, and even nonsensical tasks such as the so-called feeding of items to difficult bosses. Because the details of a puzzle speedrun are not revealed to a player until just before a playthrough, these challenges demand a similar reflexivity in routing as randomizers. The main difference is that puzzle speedruns are self-imposed and use an unmodified version of a game, whereas randomizer speedruns are facilitated technologically by modifying a ROM image. Although executed differently, both puzzle speedruns and ROM hacking are methods that help players build an understanding of the underlying structures of games—experimenting with different routes, finding new sequence breaks, and tinkering with a title’s glitches and mechanical affordances. The influence of puzzle speedruns on randomizers is reflected not just in these commonalities but also through their contributors. ALttP: Randomizer developer ChristosOwen and early randomizer designer Dessyreqt both created and participated in Zelda and Metroid puzzle speedruns (see figs. 6 and 7) throughout the early 2010s, with the former citing it as an influence in his work.27
A puzzle speedrun for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past created by Christos Owen in 2012. (Image courtesy of ChristosOwen, “Puzzles,” Pastebin. July 21, 2015, https://pastebin.com/UYHrG032)
A puzzle speedrun for Super Metroid , created by David “Dessyreqt” Carroll in 2011. (Image courtesy of Super Metroid Speedrunning Wiki, May 29, 2021, https://wiki.supermetroid.run/Puzzles)
Randomizers have seen a surge in popularity in recent years due to their presence at high-profile gaming events and the cultivation of competitive racing scenes on Twitch and Discord. Games Done Quick events have featured randomizers for The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario 64, Super Metroid, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and the previously described Combo Randomizer drew over 135,000 concurrent viewers and raised over $70,000 for charity at SGDQ 2019.28 The competitive nature of these communities is highlighted through the centrality of randomizer races, in which two or more players compete on Twitch to finish the same randomized game in the shortest time possible (see fig. 8). Races allow players to test their randomizer proficiency against each other and are the key method of determining winners and losers in tournaments. Discord servers such as Super Metroid Rando League are home to hundreds of players and offer weekly challenges and seasonal tournaments with prizes. As the challenges posed by randomized ROMs may not be immediately obvious to audiences on Twitch, especially those without speedrunning experience, these livestreams are often accompanied by commentators who describe the onscreen action as it unfolds. These streams are further enhanced through the inclusion of trackers: Twitch overlays that display which objectives each player has completed, to better communicate which player is ahead in a given race.
A screenshot from a Super Metroid Rando League event, in which four players race against each other to complete the same randomizer version of Super Metroid . (Image captured by author from SpeedGaming, “Week 1, Team vs vs Team 3 Game 2. Super Metroid Rando League S3,” YouTube, April 8, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYDoumCRnIQ)
Races are important in both popularizing randomizers and shaping their features. Participants rely on the applications to include tournament presets that align with the rules of a competitive event, and developers then look to these events to build interest in the application and get feedback on their work. Both VARIA’s and ALttP: Randomizer’s change logs reflect this cyclical development, as updates often coincide with the launch of new competitive events and include features submitted by members of the community.29 There is a symbiotic relationship between randomizers and their racing communities, with the applications both facilitating new forms of play and reifying emerging community standards and norms.
Generate Randomized Game: Chronicling and Contextualizing VARIA
VARIA was not the first Super Metroid randomizer, nor is it the only one currently available. The Super Metroid Speedrunning Wiki lists half a dozen randomizer applications, each with its own features and capabilities. The scattered nature of documentation for these projects makes it difficult to assemble a comprehensive timeline for Super Metroid randomization, but a wealth of information can be gleaned from online resources such as GitHub, Discord, and the VARIA website itself.
While its developers do not define VARIA using any term other than randomizer, I approach it as an online platform that allows users to procedurally generate near-infinite configurations of Super Metroid. Where video game platforms are typically characterized as computing systems such as consoles,34 recent studies have pushed the boundaries of the platform paradigm to encompass both software applications and fan activities. This is perhaps best demonstrated through Benjamin Nicoll’s study of the digital game engine Twine and Alex Custodio’s investigation of Game Boy Advance modders, as both authors explore the epistemological threshold of platform studies.35 Building on this research, I frame VARIA as a platform for creating remixed versions of Super Metroid: centered around the application itself, but also inseparable from Super Metroid, the practices of speedrunners and hackers, and innumerable paratexts that have emerged from its online communities.
Of course, the argument can be made that Super Metroid was already a platform long before hackers began rearranging its code structures. Boluk and LeMieux assert that many classic video games have already “become platforms for making new games,” identifying these derivative works as metagames that encompass the “unprecedented experiences and effects that emerge in, on, and around videogames.”36 This definition of metagames is exceptionally broad, including everything from speedruns to esports commentary, but foregrounds the ability of metagames to reveal alternate histories of play by showing what occurs when “players grow bored with the standard challenges and begin to game the limits of the software itself.”37 While I am hesitant to claim that VARIA’s development is rooted in boredom, it is undeniably fueled by a desire to seek out new challenges within Super Metroid. Importantly, this desire is paired with an ambition to formalize and share new challenges with broader audiences, as made evident by the randomizer’s status as a free online application.
Through this lens, VARIA’s functionality draws parallels to the game modes found in many commercially released titles. As Nick Montfort keenly documents in “Combat in Context,”38 the Atari 2600 game Combat (1977) was one of the earliest titles that allowed users to customize their play experience by selecting from twenty-seven separate modes. By flicking on and off particular options, players gain access to variations such as “tank-pong, “bi-plane,” and “invisible tank,” all of which are derived from a single central tank game (see fig. 9). Montfort contends that Combat is neither an open-ended game platform nor just simply a game, but rather a game program that presents players with a variety of options. Much like how VARIA provides an interface for users to make randomized versions of Super Metroid, Combat lets players cycle through modes that reconfigure the overall experience of the game.
Combat ’s guide to game modes. (Image courtesy of Polyclade, https://archive.org/details/combat-atari-2600/page/7/mode/2up )
Despite these similarities, VARIA deviates from Combat through its execution and the circumstances surrounding its creation. First, VARIA exists separately from Super Metroid and the Super NES despite being inextricably linked to both technologies. It is available through a web browser rather than embedded within the game itself, and the ROM images it produces are typically played using an emulator instead of the original console. Second, the randomizer is the result of hacking practices that occurred long after Super Metroid’s release, while Combat’s game modes were implemented by its development team. Nintendo has never officially sanctioned or even acknowledged the development of VARIA—an important fact when considering the company’s history of litigation toward similar technologies such as the Game Genie.39 I am hesitant to make definitive claims regarding the legality of VARIA as the nuances of intellectual property law are beyond my expertise. However, it is undeniably an unauthorized technology, and, as I will discuss shortly, both its design and community values reflect an awareness of potential legal tribulations.
My primary approach to studying VARIA is the walkthrough method.40 The walkthrough method provides a framework for studying mobile applications (that is, apps), with an emphasis on interacting with their interfaces to study their “technological mechanisms and embedded cultural references to understand how they guide users and shape their experiences.”41 Conducting a walkthrough of an application involves scrutinizing its environment of expected use, including its vision, operating model, and governance, and conducting a technical walkthrough, which observes the processes of registration, feature use, and discontinuing service.42 The environment of expected use is commonly discerned through the study of paratexts such as affiliated websites, terms of service, and developer-released documentation, where the technical walkthrough focuses on what options are presented within the application to uncover embedded meanings and values.
As game studies lacks a method for scrutinizing technologies such as VARIA, I determined that the walkthrough method would prove useful despite not fitting perfectly within the authors’ intended use case (that is, apps installed on mobile technologies). Randomizers are accessible, public-facing applications, and the walkthrough method’s goal is not dissimilar to the platform-studies approach, which calls for in-depth technical investigation and an “awareness of and discussion of how platforms exist in a context of culture and society.”43 Although VARIA’s structure, identity, and unauthorized nature complicate the use of the walkthrough method, it also raises intriguing new questions: How does the procurement of a ROM image serve as a type of registration mechanism? What elements of video game hacking and speedrunning does the app normalize? What governance strategies have the app authors adopted to address intellectual property law concerns? While I have hinted at my findings through the introductory portions of this paper, these next sections offer a more deliberate analysis of VARIA and its paratexts.44
As a final note: acquiring, copying, or distributing ROM images is often characterized as illicit under maximalist interpretations of North American intellectual property law.45 For my own interactions with VARIA, I created a ROM image using a Retrode 2 Cart Reader supplied by Concordia University’s Residual Media Depot and a personal copy of Super Metroid—a process that falls under educational fair dealing as defined by the Canadian Copyright Act.46
A Walkthrough of the VARIA Randomizer: Environment of Expected Use
The walkthrough method asks researchers to determine the environment of expected use for an app, that is, uncovering its underlying vision, operating model, and governance while analyzing how its creators use these elements to regulate user activity.47 With most commercial apps, this can be deduced by sifting through materials such as press releases, advertisements, and descriptions in online marketplaces. VARIA proves to be somewhat trickier to study in this regard, as it eschews many of these trappings. It does not need to be purchased or installed, it is not heavily advertised outside of its own social media channels, and its developers have not released industry press kits or financial reports. This does not mean that VARIA’s environment of expected use is indiscernible, however, but it did lead me to a slightly different collection of paratexts: the VARIA website, the VARIA Randomizer Discord channel, the Super Metroid Speedrunning Wiki, the Super Metroid Rando League Twitch channel and Discord server, and social-media posts from its development team.
VARIA’s website features the application itself, an introductory landing page, and a slew of information about its functionality and development history. A short message underneath the website’s main banner introduces the app as follows:
Here, you will be able to generate as many VARIAtions of Super Metroid as you want, by Randomizing Item locations, and even the connections between the main Areas! If you’re not an uber skilled speedrunner, have no fear, neither are we. It is Very Adaptive to all skill levels, and you are guaranteed to be able to finish a randomized ROM, granted that you create your skill preset, or use a standard one in your range. To help you find your way in these sometimes not so easy randomized ROMs (aka “seeds”) you will be able to use a Solver, to estimate the seed’s difficulty or have a full spoiler log. Even better, you can use the interactive Item Tracker to help you as you play along. For area-randomized seeds, the Tracker can also be used in a simpler way just to help you keep track of the area connections without any additional help.48
This introduction is somewhat contradictory, as it welcomes new players but is also steeped in terms that casual fans of Super Metroid may not understand. The failure to define speedrunning, or esoteric jargon such as hell runs and major/minor items, implies that VARIA has been designed with an in-group in mind. In order to fully understand the application’s features, users must possess knowledge of not only Super Metroid but also the nuances of its speedrunning and randomizer communities. Consalvo describes this type of expertise as gaming capital: a fluid currency that is gained through knowledge and experience with a game.49 She notes that people who accumulate enough gamic knowledge, such as being aware of secrets or Easter eggs, may then leverage their expertise within a community to gain acceptance or prestige. However, unlike many common forms of gaming capital, which rely upon official games and their paratexts, VARIA calls for expertise that can only be gained through active play or by spectating randomizer Twitch streams.
Despite this presumed user knowledge, VARIA’s developers state that there is no need to be an “uber skilled speedrunner” to use the application.50 Even though its interface is intimidating, some attempts have been made to explain VARIA to new users and guide them toward Super Metroid speedrunning resources. These efforts do tend to drift toward proclamations of technical mastery, however, as made evident through the website’s sprawling descriptions of VARIA’s features. Presented as bulleted lists, these descriptions range from simple feature summaries (for example, “Start Location: choose or randomize where you want to start the game”) to playful warnings against selecting difficult options (for example, “Have fun randomly removing major items!”). These lists are informational but also serve as a method for demonstrating the knowledge accrued by the development team. Consalvo notes that those who are “possessed of the proper kinds of gaming capital ... are powerful in the sense that they can often dispense advice with confidence, are looked to as experts in some way, and can, through their behavior in game, enhance or reduce opportunities for others.”51 New features in VARIA not only reflect the developer’s deeper understanding of Super Metroid’s underlying structures and logics but also the achievements and discoveries of the entire community, whose work is regularly integrated into the application.
One aspect of VARIA that is not explicitly stated on its website is its operating model. Although the “Information & Contact” section links to several affiliated pages, none of them espouses a business strategy or development philosophy. The existence of a GitHub page with forks suggests an open-source model, a fact confirmed by ouichegeante in an introductory post on Reddit.52 In terms of revenue, VARIA requires no fee to register, possesses no premium or freemium services, and hosts no advertisements on its website. Additionally, unlike similar projects, such as the CEMU Wii U emulator,53 VARIA does not crowdfund revenue through Patreon or Kickstarter. As the only obvious overhead cost for the Randomizer, its website, is “sponsored by the Super Metroid Item Randomizer League,” it seems that VARIA is a fan-driven, nonprofit project sustained through community labor and resources.
Moderation and governance are intriguing for VARIA, as there is little to no interaction between users within the application, no end-user license agreement (EULA), and no code of conduct. However, two key forms of regulation have emerged in VARIA’s Discord channels: an attempt to restrict the sharing of copyrighted game content and a desire to prevent cheating in randomizer races. In regard to the former point, VARIA requires users to provide a ROM image of Super Metroid (see figs. 10 and 11), and, as mentioned earlier, the distribution of these files is often characterized as illicit. Ouichegeante and theonlydude appear aware of these potential legal pitfalls, having opted not to host Super Metroid ROM images on VARIA’s website and designing the application to modify ROM images locally (that is, on a user’s computer) rather than uploading them to a central server. Moderators on the VARIA Randomizer and Super Metroid Rando League Discord servers have also banned the sharing of ROM images but do guide users in a surreptitious fashion. Pinned to the top of the Discord channel is a “Y Can’t Metroid Crawl?” meme with the phrase “google d63ed5f8” edited into it (see fig. 12). The first Google result for “D63ED5F8” is the Super Metroid ROM download page at Vimm’s Lair, a long-standing ROM-sharing website. This simple act of decentralization diminishes the development team’s legal risk while providing users with the elements necessary to use the application.
The Choose File section of the VARIA Randomizer. (Image captured by author from VARIA Super Metroid Randomizer, accessed April 12, 2020, https://randommetroidsolver.pythonanywhere.com/randomizer)
The Choose File tooltip. (Image captured by author from VARIA Super Metroid Randomizer, accessed April 12, 2020, https://randommetroidsolver.pythonanywhere.com/randomizer)
The “Y Can’t Metroid Crawl?” meme, appropriated to point toward an illicit ROM download. (Meme image courtesy of Discord—Super Metroid Rando League, accessed April 13, 2020, discordapp.com/channels /500362417629560881/500392627661701157)
Unlike copyright concerns, cheating is an issue that affects only a portion of VARIA users. Randomizer racing—a popular speedrunning activity, organized in the Super Metroid community by the Super Metroid Rando League—pits two or more players against each other in a Twitch stream to see who can finish a randomized version of a title first. Winners increase their league ranking, eventually participating in semiregular tournaments.54 In order to ensure a level playing field, players are assigned the same skill preset, settings preset, and seed shortly before a race takes place.55 Presets determine the difficulty of a randomized ROM and what changes can occur within the game, ranging from what speedrunning techniques are required to complete the game to the availability of power-ups. A randomizer seed is a number between 1 and 9999999 that can be entered manually or generated automatically by VARIA, which is used as a first step in its randomization algorithm. Having a predetermined setting and seed allows several users to asynchronously generate the same randomized Super Metroid ROM using the application.
Cheating is an apparent issue for randomizer communities as subversive players will sometimes crack into a ROM image during a race to determine how the game has been rearranged, giving them a distinct advantage over the competition. This has resulted in the VARIA team implementing a Race Mode that makes it difficult to peek into a ROM image using hacking tools, while also rendering it incompatible with the website’s Solver software.56 The community’s racing guidelines make clear that cheating is reprehensible: “runners caught cheating will automatically be forfeited from [sic] that race” and may be banned from future events.57 Somewhat ironically, cheating in this fashion can be viewed as an extension of the ROM-solving practices that first led to the development of VARIA, but the practice has been overwhelmingly framed as delinquent. As Consalvo notes, knowledge of a game does not inevitably lead to the accumulation of gaming capital and may threaten to diminish it if associated with practices that conflict with community values.58 In the case of VARIA, community norms and technological fixes discourage users from undermining the integrity of races and tournaments.
In their reactions to ongoing cheating issues, as well as potential legal complications related to ROM images, the VARIA community reveals discursively negotiated values that sometimes conflict with both developer ideals and the types of expertise that are valued in broader Metroid fandoms. The moral nuances of VARIA, then, emerge as another type of gaming capital that potential players must acquire, as violating community values may result in reprimand or ejection from online spaces.
The Walkthrough Method: The Technical Walkthrough
The technical walkthrough is the central data-gathering procedure of the walkthrough method, determining processes of registration, feature use, and discontinuing service.59 As with the environment of expected use, VARIA’s status as a web-based hacker application creates some challenges for the technical walkthrough. Whereas most mobile apps are self-contained and provide a clear distinction between what is part of the application and what is a paratext, VARIA’s boundaries are less defined. The application is thoroughly entangled with other sections of its website, such as the Solver and the Customizer, and often embeds content from other online resources. This necessarily leads users away from VARIA and into a collection of Twitch streams, Discord servers, and fan wikis. To help limit the scope of my analysis, my technical walkthrough begins with VARIA and only diverts to other web resources if guided directly through its features or tooltips.
Before discussing the day-to-day use of VARIA, I would like to further elaborate on user registration procedures. Although registration is not required to use the application, there is an optional process that allows users to create password-protected presets that they can return to edit at any time. VARIA encourages the generation of such presets, noting that they can be used to “generate seeds that will only require techniques you know,” preventing players of varying skill levels from encountering in-game challenges they cannot surpass.60 The techniques managed through these presets are types of in-game movement that speedrunners use to navigate Super Metroid, but are generally not required to complete an unmodified version of the game. These range from wall jumping, a method of vertical ascension accomplished by hopping off walls, to mockballing, a glitch that allows players to increase their speed while using the Morphing Ball. As a user tweaks options, VARIA estimates the difficulty of the preset through the skill-level bar at the top of the screen, quantifying player ability. Presets that are created in this fashion appear in a publicly available list—one of the few ways that users can leave traces in VARIA (albeit, asynchronously and anonymously). Community-created presets do not seem to be moderated, unlike the developer-maintained difficulty presets (ranging from noob to master) and official tournament presets. Mirroring the open-source nature of VARIA itself, presets persist between versions and can be accessed and iterated upon by any user.
When approaching the application, the first decision a user must make is what version of its interface they will use. There are three different interfaces that display options based on a user’s familiarity with VARIA: simple, medium, and advanced. The simple interface allows users to turn on and off the most common types of randomization using their default settings. The medium and advanced interfaces introduce more intricate options, including the direct manipulation of numerical variables (such as how frequently Super Missiles and Power Bombs appear across the game’s world) and the ability to tweak aesthetic elements (such as turning off the game’s music). Regardless of which interface is used, the final step is to hit the randomize button to create a remixed version of Super Metroid.
The layout of VARIA is minimalist but sprawling, featuring a multitude of drop-down menus and on/off toggles with little to no aesthetic embellishment (see fig. 13). Evoking the design of a form or quiz, each section is preceded with a simple title and, occasionally, a short text description. As an example, the “Bosses Randomization” section of VARIA, which scrambles the location of Super Metroid’s four main bosses, begins with the brief description: “randomize the access doors to the Golden 4 bosses.” Utilitarian in its presentation, VARIA favors function over form and crams as many features as possible onto a single page with few embellishments. Users are expected to navigate the application from top to bottom, with suboptions nested underneath on/off toggles and the important “choose file” button placed at the very top-left corner of the screen. Options are presented in a no-frills fashion, allowing users to quickly configure how they wish to customize Super Metroid (or, if they are feeling adventurous, randomizing the randomization options to produce more chaotic results). The central limiting factor is their own expertise with the game, its associated speedrunning techniques, and the conventions of the randomizer.
The VARIA Randomizer in advanced mode, revealing every possible setting. (Image captured by author from VARIA Super Metroid Randomizer, accessed April 12, 2020, https://randommetroidsolver.pythonanywhere.com/randomizer)
In contrast, the tooltips embedded within VARIA are quite expansive. These tips are accessed by clicking question-mark icons and summarize individual features using text, images, and links to community resources. The “Major Splits” drop-down menu, for example, provides three undefined options (“Full,” “Major,” and “Chozo”) that are only elaborated upon within the tooltip itself (see figs. 14 and 15). As I have previously noted, many of the terms used in these descriptions are speedrunning jargon and require a great deal of familiarity with both Super Metroid and its speedrunning community in order to be comprehensible. This is perhaps most evident in the tooltip for the “Start Location” feature that, appropriately enough, dictates where on Planet Zebes players begin and what changes must be made to Super Metroid to facilitate this change (such as the addition of new passageways). In its tooltip, each game area is identified using fan-conceived titles such as “Business Center” and “Bubble Mountain,” which hold little meaning for someone who has not sifted through fan wikis or watched numerous speedruns of the game (see fig. 16). Even when terms are defined, they are often done so with further slang or in-jokes, or by referring to complex diagrams that are all but indecipherable to those who are not familiar with Super Metroid. Returning to the “Major Splits” example, its associated tooltip defines “Chozo Locations” as “chozo statues, Morphing Ball, and boss item locations (Right Super in Wrecked Ship, Varia Suit, Ridley ETank)”—a detailed description, but one that would make little sense to new players. More information about item locations is displayed on a detailed but visually overwhelming map of Planet Zebes. This information overload once again highlights the tension between accessibility and expertise that permeates the entirety of VARIA’s interface.
The Major Splits drop-down menu in VARIA. (Image captured by author from VARIA Super Metroid Randomizer, accessed April 12, 2020, https://randommetroidsolver.pythonanywhere.com/randomizer)
The tooltip for Major Splits, revealing a large amount of information about the game’s structure. (Image captured by author from VARIA Super Metroid Randomizer, accessed April 12, 2020, https://randommetroidsolver.pythonanywhere.com/randomizer)
An excerpt from the Start Locations tooltip, featuring an array of area screenshots alongside fan-conceived nicknames for them. (Image captured by author from VARIA Super Metroid Randomizer, accessed April 12, 2020, https://randommetroidsolver.pythonanywhere.com/randomizer)
As a final note for the technical walkthrough: app suspension and closure are virtually nonexistent in VARIA. The only traces that a user can leave within the application are presets and anonymized usage data. In regard to the former, users are free to create and edit as many presets as they like but they cannot delete them. They persist in VARIA’s memory, even across updates, forever available to the development team and other users. Considering the latter, the “Statistics” page of the VARIA website pulls data from user-created seeds (aggregated according to the presets that have been utilized) then provides a visualization of trends within randomized ROMs. The result is an expansive charting of how ROM images turned out based on certain presets, providing insight on VARIA’s functionality without identifying users.
See You Next Mission: Discussion and Future Research Directions
Although VARIA is purported to be accessible to all fans of Super Metroid, the application is steeped in speedrunning jargon and requires users to provide their own ROM image in order to engage with it. This points to an expectation of self-guided learning, where users must amass a certain amount of gaming capital (to understand the application’s features) and technical expertise (to learn what a ROM image is and where to find one) in order to take advantage of its features. Hacker ideology is not a homogeneous set of tenets, but this attitude does evoke ideals from computer-hacking communities, particularly how software knowledge and technical know-how are prized over any other characteristic.61 VARIA embodies this dynamic through the development of the randomizer itself and the skilled play of Super Metroid and its remixed variations. Ouichegeante and theonlydude have enacted a form of technical proficiency over Super Metroid, gaining a literacy of how the game functions through their hacking endeavors and, then, leveraging that mastery to create an application that can manipulate the game with the press of a button. Players perform a similar act of mastery when engaging with randomized iterations of Super Metroid, amassing metaknowledge about how these irregular versions may unfold based on their chosen VARIA configurations. As Brendan Keogh notes in his deconstruction of hackers and/as gamers in A Play of Bodies, “just as the hacker is concerned with mastering complicated systems and ultimately beating the form of the computer, so too is the gamer concerned with mastering complicated systems of mechanics and ultimately beating the form of the videogame” (emphasis in original).62 Gaining the knowledge to complete either of these goals can be quite difficult due to the complex assemblage of elements that constitutes VARIA’s platform, including fan wikis, Twitch streams, Super Metroid, and the application itself. “Read the Fucking Manual” (RTFM) is an elitist refrain that haunts many software development communities,63 and VARIA’s structure hints at a similar meritocratic learning process for those interested in participating in the community. However, determining exactly how welcoming VARIA’s community is to new players is beyond the scope of this paper, as it would require a more in-depth analysis of the social dynamics within its Discord servers and Twitch streams.
Beyond requirements of expertise, VARIA’s creators are quite laissez-faire in how users engage with the application. Ouichegeante and theonlydude have omitted registration or revenue models, and Discord and Twitch moderators appear to only step in if users pursue activities that involve legal risk, such as directly sharing ROM images, or compromise the competitiveness of races, such as cheating. The open-source nature of the project further promotes this hands-off approach, as any Super Metroid hacker is permitted to submit presets or even experiment with VARIA’s source code for their own purposes. Successful variations are often integrated into the application as added features, available through the advanced interface and featuring clear accreditation to the hacker-author. Decentralized access to ROM images and open-source development models once again draws parallels to common computer-hacker strategies, which take advantage of the sprawling nature of systems, websites, and individuals to preserve access to content and ideas.64 VARIA’s developers have adopted these strategies to minimize their legal risk while still taking advantage of contributions from other hackers.
As VARIA includes technical contributions from various Super Metroid hackers and reifies standards established by its competitive communities, it embodies judgments about what these groups value about the game. These tastes are not dissimilar to those ascribed to the “authentic” or “power” gamer, often characterized as someone who prioritizes gameplay mastery over a title’s aesthetic and narrative elements.65 In fact, a number of VARIA’s presets and options eliminate audio fanfares, music, and dialogue from Super Metroid in an effort to remove elements that have been deemed too slow, repetitive, or distracting for repeated plays. However, Super Metroid’s narrative and aesthetics have not been completely discarded by VARIA and its users. Despite unfurling the game’s original plot in a somewhat nonsensical order, randomizer race participants and commentators will often narrativize playthroughs by describing enemies and obstacles as antagonistic to the speedrun itself. Phantoon, one of Super Metroid’s main bosses, is commonly referred to as a “troll” due to its tendency to attack in slow patterns that hinder quick progress through the game. Notoriously challenging areas have been given nicknames such as “Spiky Death Room” and “The Worst Room in the Game” to emphasize their difficulty and the skill required to traverse them.66 Where earlier I argued that Super Metroid possesses underlying serial gameplay structures, randomization helps cultivate serial structures of narrativization by incorporating community metahumor. As players make routing decisions through a remixed version of Super Metroid, they treat new challenges as humorous vignettes that are fleshed out by in-community nicknames, jokes, and even memes. While VARIA requires players to complete many of the same objectives as a normal playthrough of Super Metroid, the game’s plot is transformed into something satirical, highlighting the absurdity of the randomizer’s challenges and the difficulty of speedrunning in general.
Discussions of VARIA’s structure and intent point toward an important, unstated purpose of the application: to serve, in conjunction with its accompanying paratexts, as an archive of Super Metroid speedrunning and hacking knowledge. VARIA’s all-inclusive approach to features and documentation can be difficult for newcomers to parse but codifies terms, traditions, and techniques that have emerged throughout decades-long histories of speedrunning, puzzle speedrunning, and hacking. Its updates represent new discoveries made by players and developers, which are then cyclically integrated into the application to validate their importance and formalize certain types of play to a broader community. Thus, VARIA serves as a crystallization of video game hacker and speedrunner practices, made possible through the sustained efforts of its community members.
VARIA renders stable a vast assemblage of community practices and ideals, making it a dynamic source of information for scholars studying Super Metroid and its histories of play. However, the platform should not be considered an endpoint or a completed work, as it is entangled with numerous other technologies and is constantly updated and revised. Since VARIA was first introduced in 2018, ouichegeante and theonlydude have updated the application dozens of times, and numerous other projects have emerged that expand upon its features. Backmark’s Combo Randomizer is an example of the collaborations that occur across hacking communities, pushing the limits of ROM-hacking practices and highlighting structural similarities across various titles on the same console. Crowd Control, a Twitch extension that allows users to pay to playfully alter a video game as it is being played by a streamer, offers compatibility with numerous randomizer applications and points to the potential commercialization of such practices.67 Finally, GDQ continues to showcase new types of randomizers at their events, broadening the prominence and appeal of such applications. Although I have offered an initial investigation into VARIA and video game randomizers in general, there is still much to be said about these dynamic technologies.
I would like to thank Stefanie Duguay for providing feedback on this paper and for her advice on adapting the walkthrough method to study VARIA. Additionally, many thanks to the Residual Media Depot dwellers (Darren Wershler, Alex Custodio, and AJ Rappaport) for their critiques and encouragement as this research developed, and the ROMchip editorial team for productive criticisms during the review process.
1. ^ Alongside Awesome Games Done Quick (AGDQ), Summer Games Done Quick (SGDQ) is one of two flagship events put on by Games Done Quick (GDQ), a corporation that organizes video game speedrun charity marathons. GDQ raises money by asking viewers for donations as they watch speedrunners complete games on Twitch or in person at physical conventions. GDQ has raised over $31.3 million since its inception in 2010 (Tracker, Games Done Quick, accessed June 26, 2021, https://gamesdonequick.com/tracker/) and has attracted as many as 140,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch. See Benjamin Congdon, “2021 Stats,” GDQ Status, accessed June 26, 2021, https://gdqstat.us/previous-events/agdq-2021/?series=0. “Andy” and “Ivan” are the Twitch usernames and (most likely) real-life first names of the speedrunners. In this paper, I default to usernames when discussing speedrunners/hackers unless they publicly advertise their real names.
2. ^ Owen S. Good, “A Link to the Past, Super Metroid Can Merge into One Game—and Even Share Items,” Polygon, June 30, 2019, https://www.polygon.com/2019/6/30/20579486/a-link-to-the-past-super-metroid-randomizer-snes-rom-speedrun-video.
3. ^ A ROM image is a computer file that contains a copy of the data from a read-only memory chip. In cartridge-based video games, this image contains all of a game’s data, which may then be altered using hacking software or played using an emulator. Editing a game’s ROM image is often referred to as ROM hacking. ROM images are created using a ROM dumper, but due to the prevalence of video game ROM images online, hackers or players rarely need to make a new ROM image (especially for a popular game).
4. ^ Originating as stand-alone applications, in-browser patchers are a common method of distributing ROM hacks. ROMHacking.net (an extremely popular hacking website) offers the use of generic ROM patchers as well as custom-built applications to patch specific ROM hacks. “ROM Patcher JS,” ROMhacking.net, accessed June 26, 2021, https://www.romhacking.net/patch/.
5. ^ The ALttP: Randomizer, first released in 2018, is currently developed by Veetorp, KatDevsGames, ChristosOwen, and SmallHacker.
6. ^ David Carroll, “Dessyreqt—Overview,” GitHub, accessed June 26, 2021, https://github.com/Dessyreqt.
7. ^ Ben Light, Jean Burgess, and Stefanie Duguay, “The Walkthrough Method: An Approach to the Study of Apps,” New Media & Society 20, no. 3 (March 2018): 882, https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444816675438.
8. ^ Raiford Guins, Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 7.
9. ^ Dominic Arsenault, Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 193; and Mia Consalvo, Atari to Zelda: Japan’s Videogames in Global Contexts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 48.
10. ^ John Vanderhoef, “NES Homebrew and the Margins of the Retro-Gaming Industry,” in Fans and Videogames: Histories, Fandom, Archives, ed. Melanie Swalwell, Angela Ndalianis, and Helen Stuckey (London: Routledge, 2017), 112.
11. ^ David Murphy, “Hacking Public Memory: Understanding the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator,” Games and Culture 8, no. 1 (January 1, 2013): 47, https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412013478687. MAME used to be an acronym for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator. However, after it merged with MESS (Multi Emulator Super System) in 2015, its name is no longer an acronym. For more information, see https://www.mamedev.org/.
12. ^ “Super Metroid Instruction Booklet” (Nintendo, 1994), 2–5, https://www.nintendo.co.jp/clvs/manuals/common/pdf/CLV-P-SAAHE.pdf.
13. ^ Polygon Staff, “The 500 Best Games of All Time,” Polygon, December 1, 2017, https://www.polygon.com/features/2017/12/1/16707720/the-500-best-games-of-all-time-100-1; and IGN Staff, “Top 100 Video Games of All Time,” accessed June 26, 2021, https://ca.ign.com/lists/top-100-games.
14. ^ Metroidvania is a fan-created classification and its precise meaning is contested. The Metroidvania subreddit broadly defines the genre as “platforming games focused on guided non-linearity and utility-gated exploration.” “R/Metroidvania,” Reddit, accessed June 26, 2021, https://www.reddit.com/r/metroidvania/; and “Metroidvania,” Wikitroid, accessed February 26, 2020, https://metroid.fandom.com/wiki/Metroidvania.
15. ^ Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux, Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames, Electronic Mediations 53 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 180.
16. ^ Eric Koziel, Speedrun Science: A Long Guide to Short Playthroughs (Brainerd, MN: Fangamer, 2019), 292.
17. ^ Koziel, Speedrun Science, 91.
18. ^ “Record Progression,” Super Metroid Speedrunning Wiki, accessed February 26, 2020, https://wiki.supermetroid.run/Record_Progression.
19. ^ I use in-game time strictly to allow for comparison to Nintendo Power’s times, as most speedruns now use external timers to measure their duration. Where the in-game time for the fastest Super Metroid speedrun currently sits at twenty-seven minutes, the real time is listed as forty minutes and fifty-five seconds. Speedruns are often divided into categories, each with their own conditions. The Super Metroid Any% category requires players to defeat the game’s final boss and bans a few game-breaking glitches. The 100% category shares the same parameters but also requires players to collect all of Samus’s upgrades and defeat all of the game’s bosses. “Super Metroid Leaderboards,” Speedrun.com, accessed June 26, 2021, https://www.speedrun.com/supermetroid.
20. ^ “Any%,” Super Metroid Speedrunning Wiki, accessed June 26, 2021, https://wiki.supermetroid.run/Any%25.
21. ^ Koziel, Speedrun Science, 351.
22. ^ Before the introduction of video-sharing and streaming services, speedruns were often documented using VHS tapes or DVDs, then either transcoded into video files or mailed to websites such as the Speed Demos Archive. Koziel, Speedrun Science, 37; “Zoasty,” Twitch, accessed June 26, 2021, https://www.twitch.tv/zoasty; and “Oatsngoats,” Twitch, accessed June 26, 2021, https://www.twitch.tv/oatsngoats.
23. ^ While this definition provides a useful starting point, its description of hacking is only one among many. As aptly noted in past studies, despite sharing some overarching values and tenets, hacker communities are incredibly varied. E. Gabriella Coleman and Alex Golub, “Hacker Practice: Moral Genres and the Cultural Articulation of Liberalism,” Anthropological Theory 8, no. 3 (September 2008): 255–77, https://doi.org/10.1177/1463499608093814; and Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, 25th Anniversary Edition (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2010).
24. ^ “Super Metroid,” ROMhacking.net, accessed June 28, 2021, https://www.romhacking.net/games/729/.
25. ^ Veetorp et al., “ALttP Randomizer,” ALttP Randomizer, n.d., https://alttpr.com/en.
26. ^ Koziel, Speedrun Science, 132.
27. ^ ChristosOwen, “Puzzles,” Pastebin, July 21, 2015, https://pastebin.com/UYHrG032; “Puzzles,” Super Metroid Speedrunning Wiki, May 29, 2021, https://wiki.supermetroid.run/Puzzles; and Michael Iantorno, “Sub-Versions: Investigating Videogame Hacking Practices and Subcultures” (master’s thesis, Concordia University, 2019), 77.
28. ^ Benjamin Congdon, “2019 Stats,” GDQ Status, accessed June 26, 2021, https://gdqstat.us/previous-events/sgdq-2019/; and “Bid Detail—Link to the Past + Super Metroid Randomizer,” Summer Games Done Quick 2019 Tracker, accessed June 26, 2021, https://gamesdonequick.com/tracker/bid/8847.
29. ^ Ouichegeante and theonlydude, “Information & Contact,” VARIA Super Metroid Randomizer, accessed April 12, 2020, randommetroidsolver.pythonanywhere.com/infos; and Veetorp et al., “ALttP Randomizer.”
30. ^ David Carroll, “Super Metroid Randomizer,” GitHub, July 15, 2016, https://github.com/Dessyreqt/smrandomizer.
31. ^ Ouichegeante and theonlydude, “Information & Contact.”
32. ^ Theonlydude, “VARIA Randomizer, Solver and Tracker for Super Metroid,” GitHub, October 20, 2017, https://github.com/theonlydude/RandomMetroidSolver.
33. ^ Ouichegeante and theonlydude, “Information & Contact.”
34. ^ A popular definition of platform originates from Racing the Beam, referring to “computing systems” and encouraging study of “how they enable, constrain, shape, and support the creative work that is done on them.” Nick Montfort, Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, Platform Studies (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), vii.
35. ^ Benjamin Nicoll, Minor Platforms in Videogame History (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019); and Alex Custodio, Who Are You? Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance Platform, Platform Studies (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020). Apperley and Parikka pose an interesting interrogation of platform studies that is referenced in the work of both Nicoll and Custodio: “platforms are not recalled or rediscovered through platform studies—rather, in the process of ‘doing’ platform studies, a uniform platform is produced.” Thomas Apperley and Jussi Parikka, “Platform Studies’ Epistemic Threshold,” Games and Culture 13, no. 4 (June 2018): 353, https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412015616509.
36. ^ Boluk and LeMieux, Metagaming, 32.
37. ^ Boluk and LeMieux, 182.
38. ^ Nick Montfort, “Combat in Context,” Game Studies 6, no. 1 (2006), http://gamestudies.org/0601/articles/montfort.
39. ^ Nintendo has previously pushed back against unauthorized game peripherals and technologies, such as the company’s litigation toward Game Genie manufacturer Lewis Galoob Toys Inc. in 1990. Although the ensuing lawsuit was resolved in Galoob’s favor, it highlights a strategy of control in which Nintendo discourages unauthorized tinkering with their products. Arsenault, Super Power, 64.
40. ^ Light, Burgess, and Duguay, “The Walkthrough Method.”
41. ^ Light, Burgess, and Duguay, 882.
42. ^ Light, Burgess, and Duguay, 891.
43. ^ Montfort and Bogost, Racing the Beam, viii.
44. ^ VARIA has been updated numerous times between my initial research and the publication of this article. My analysis took place between March 26 and 28, 2020, and focused on the version released on February 10, 2020. It was conducted using the Google Chrome web browser (version 80.0.3987.149) within the Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (version 10.0.17763) operating system.
45. ^ Several ROM-sharing websites have been the target of multimillion dollar lawsuits from Nintendo, and the company has openly stated its belief that ROMs and game copying devices are illegal. Joe Skrebels, “Nintendo ROM Site Lawsuit Results in $12 Million Judgment,” IGN, November 13, 2018, https://www.ign.com/articles/2018/11/13/nintendo-rom-site-lawsuit-results-in-12-million-judgement; Jordan Oloman, “Nintendo Wins Multi-Million Dollar Lawsuit Against ROM Hosting Website,” IGN, July 1, 2021, https://www.ign.com/articles/nintendo-wins-lawsuit-rom-website-romuniverse; and “Archived: Legal Information (Copyrights, Emulators, ROMs, Etc.),” Nintendo, accessed April 6, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20190406150339/https://www.nintendo.com/corp/legal.jsp.
46. ^ “Canadian Copyright Act” (Government of Canada), accessed April 22, 2021, https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-42/Index.html.
47. ^ Light, Burgess, and Duguay, “The Walkthrough Method,” 890.
48. ^ Ouichegeante and theonlydude, “Welcome to VARIA,” VARIA Super Metroid Randomizer, accessed January 26, 2020, randommetroidsolver.pythonanywhere.com.
49. ^ Mia Consalvo, Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 4.
50. ^ Ouichegeante and theonlydude, “Welcome to VARIA.”
51. ^ Consalvo, Cheating, 123.
52. ^ A fork is a copy of a GitHub repository, allowing another user to freely experiment with a project without committing changes to the original. “Super Metroid—VARIA Randomizer and Solver,” Reddit, accessed April 13, 2020, reddit.com/r/Metroid/comments/ 84wyg4/super_metroid_varia_randomizer_and_solver.
53. ^ “Team CEMU,” Patreon, accessed April 18, 2020, patreon.com/cemu.
54. ^ “Rules and Season Info,” Discord—Super Metroid Rando League, accessed April 13, 2020, discordapp.com/channels/500362417629560881/500392627661701157.
55. ^ “Rules and Season Info.”
56. ^ Ouichegeante and theonlydude, “Welcome to VARIA.”
57. ^ “Rules and Season Info.”
58. ^ Consalvo, Cheating, 76.
59. ^ Light, Burgess, and Duguay, “The Walkthrough Method,” 891.
60. ^ Ouichegeante and theonlydude, “Welcome to VARIA.” In addition to accounting for player skill level, VARIA’s algorithms make sure that all randomized ROMs are fully beatable. That is, the game’s objectives are not relocated in a way that would make them totally inaccessible.
61. ^ Levy, Hackers, 31.
62. ^ Brendan Keogh, A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018), 181.
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