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Old 03-14-2009, 02:44 AM   #1
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Default On The Essence of ROM Hacking

This is something I wrote a few years ago. Based on a couple of current threads, I thought it might be a good idea to repost it on this forum.


Often times, people ask for help on a messageboard and donít understand why the answers they seek arenít placed in their lap, wrapped up in a nice, neat package with a shiny silver bow. These people only see the end result of romhacking, they miss the underlying process that is the very essence of romhacking.

What many people fail to realize is that hacking is all about the process, not the outcome. Hacking is a journey, not a destination. Itís about figuring out technology, not manipulating it. Downloading a level editor and using it to modify a game is not hacking, no matter how great the final result.

Hacking is about taking a piece of technology, a game for instance, ripping it to shreds and figuring out how it works. The person who uncovers the data used to build a level editor is a hacker. The person who uses that editor is not. At best, theyíre a low-grade designer, a tracer of someone elseís art.

Iím not trying to rip on people who like to use level editors, do whatever it is you enjoy. Iím just trying to show you the viewpoint of the average romhacker and explain why they expect you to put some effort into finding the information you need to do whatever it is you hope to accomplish.

No successful romhacker was taught how to romhack. They may have received personal lessons on a specific subject, but nobody babied them through the entire process with step-by-step instructions on what to do. Learning to hack requires, above all else, a desire to figure things out for yourself.

This isnít to say youíre on your own. On the contrary, learning to romhack is now easier than ever before, thanks to a wide variety of tools and tutorials. The first thing you should do is get a good tutorial and read all of it. Once youíve done that, then feel free to ask questions about anything you donít understand. If you havenít read a tutorial and at least attempted to figure it out, however, any questions about what to do will invariably result in being told to read such-and-such tutorial.

Hacking requires a particular mindset. A hacker must be capable of figuring things out on their own and must have a burning desire to learn. Without these qualities, youíll never make it far, either losing interest or just treading water in the shallow end with the most basic techniques. Not everyone is capable of being a romhacker, no matter how badly they might want to be.

Thereís an old joke that goes ďHow do I get to Carnegie Hall?Ē ďWith lots and lots of practice.Ē Well, you learn to hack by hacking. You might wonder how you can do something if you havenít learned how to do it yet, but thatís the very nature of the beast. When you were a baby, nobody taught you how to walk, you just kept trying until you figured it out. And just like youíll occasionally trip and stumble as an adult, even the most accomplished romhacker will routinely screw something up or run into a problem when hacking a ROM. No matter how advanced your skills might become, when you stop learning new things, you stop being a hacker.

So decide what it is you want to be. If itís a hacker, then get out there and hack. If you just want to design games, then do so. But remember: You couldnít do what you do without romhackers, but they hack to satisfy their own pursuits. So feel free to ask for a particular bit of information, but remember, no one is obligated to find it for you.
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Old 03-14-2009, 12:55 PM   #2
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Very true. When using a level editor, you're definitely not hacking. But then again, it could go deeper. If you're using a hex editor someone else made...is that hacking? You're relying on an editor that someone else programmed. I guess what is and isn't hacking is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. Most of the games I use are just graphics and text so far, but I'm learning so much each time and have fun with it. I agree with a lot of what you said...especially the figuring things out by yourself thing. The people who rely on level editors probably wouldn't be the same people who sit there corrupting bit by bit to try and get a reaction from the game. I think a lot are looking for the easy score. I'm no expert yet so if I said anything stupid, just give me an e-crotch punch.
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Old 03-14-2009, 01:32 PM   #3
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Originally Posted by k0k0them0nkey View Post
Very true. When using a level editor, you're definitely not hacking. But then again, it could go deeper. If you're using a hex editor someone else made...is that hacking? You're relying on an editor that someone else programmed.
The difference between using a hex editor and using a level editor is that a hex editor doesn't actually know how the file you're editing works, whereas a level editor does. So to use a hex editor, you're still hacking because you're figuring out how the file you're hex editing is built. Of course, if you were given a bookmark file for a particular file (or were following a ROM map) then editing the hex under those circumstances wouldn't qualify as hacking either, because you're not trying to figure anything out.

I think a good analogy is this: Knowing how to mix particular chemicals together with pigments to form paint doesn't make you an artist. Knowing how to apply paint to a canvas to form a beautiful portrait doesn't make you a scientist. One can certainly be both, but most aren't.
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Old 03-14-2009, 06:16 PM   #4
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I like this. *waves a magic wand* POOF!
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Old 03-15-2009, 09:10 AM   #5
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Very well put! I approve your message

It is very tough at times to figure out how a game is put together when nobody else has already. Using programs is more "game modification" than hacking in my opinion.
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Old 04-06-2009, 12:02 PM   #6
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This is a great information. I am a gratefully user of the hacking results (level editors ....). You guys earned the respect of the emu-users!
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Old 04-17-2009, 03:39 PM   #7
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Nice bit. Mind if I add it to the Library on GSHI.org?
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Old 04-19-2009, 01:48 PM   #8
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Feel free, though I'd appreciate if you could include a link to Suicidal Translations with it.
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Old 05-16-2009, 04:37 PM   #9
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I somewhat agree and disagree with what was stated about level editors. While it's true, the more easier to use editors are often used by people that really don't know how to hack. On the other hand, I'd rather use a level editor as it's way less tedious than editing via a hex editor, or dealing with compression, etc. When there are times when I would rather concentrate on the design, than the technical aspects of the ROM.

Also, some people consider cheat codes as not hacking. I mostly disagree with that statement and opinion. For example, NES Game Genie codes. Yes, you probably could enter in random letters/numbers and even modify existing codes using letters. However, this method tends to be unreliable with various side effects.

So, that being said, you really have to hack a game in order to make decent cheat codes. I've made a number of them myself and have done minor ASM hacks in order to make sure that said codes work and only apply to a certain bank(s).

I've been around for along time, and I know all about the division and difference of opinion between the hacking community and the translation hacking community. For as long as I can remember, other hackers really haven't gotten the respect that they deserve until the last few years.

Noted that NESticle pattern table editing doesn't take much skill, but is still an aid to help people edit games. So, you could say that NESticle more or less is accessable to hackers both skilled and unskilled alike. Just like level editors would be.

I myself, I do a broad variety of game hacking, on a few systems, but mostly NES/Famicom type games. I find merit in each of these things that I do.
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Old 05-17-2009, 03:34 PM   #10
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I agree with you, but not totally. I'm leaning a little more toward Inverse's statement. I've previously edited with a hex editor, but the current game I'm working on has a gazillion premade editors - which I'm taking advantage of.
I don't consider myself a romhacker..I'm a game modifier. I like making the play more difficult and challenging. Therefore, the precreated editors work perfectly for me.
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