you wouldn't download a sigma virus

caveat emptor: I’m not a rom hacker, I don’t distribute pirated shit, and I have no idea what I’m talking about

I’m doing my millionth replay of the original Mega Man X trilogy. (halfway through 2 at the moment, thanks for asking, I wish I ever remembered powerup locations and proper sequencing in the latter games as well as I do in X1)

these games, even the first one, pushed the SNES to its limits, and the seams show. there’s slowdown on every level if more than two or three enemies are on screen. entire levels—underwater sequences, or anything with full-screen effects like X2’s weather weirdness on Wire Sponge’s stage—drag and struggle to maintain playable framerates. this wasn’t uncommon on the SNES—and to be clear, the amount of times I’ve still beaten these games demonstrates that they still function fine in spite of the limitations.

but for this most recent playthrough, I’m using SA1/fastROM versions of every game, plus enhanced romhacks for X2 and X3.

Vitor Vilela, who runs a whole github project on patching fastROM support into SNES games, summarizes its advantage thusly (emphasis mine):

Project FastROM aims into optimizing the SNES games originally designed to run under SlowROM (2.68 MHz) to FastROM (3.58 MHz). FastROM allows the SNES CPU read data and opcodes from the ROM 33.58% faster compared to SlowROM.

Depending on the game, FastROM will make the game run about 10%-33% faster compared to the original SlowROM version. This depends on how frequent the game accesses the ROM chip, since the other componenets such as WRAM @ 2.68 MHz, PPU @ 3.58 MHz, DMA @ 2.68 MHz and SRAM @ 2.68 MHz will stay at the same speed.

this is basically an emulated version of chips like SA1 or SuperFX, which were used by certain higher-end games for improved performance. add-on chips for game cartridges were a thing through the whole 16-bit era, up to and including Sega’s more explicit peripheral versions like the 32X or the Sonic & Knuckles cart.

fastROM doesn’t seem to require extensive hacking of the game’s logic — by comparison, Vilela’s widescreen Super Mario World project changes the game to use the SA1 chip, but required attendant code changes to run properly. Vilela also works on patching SA1 support into SNES games, but for this reason among others, it’s less reliable than fastROM. (X1, at least, does have SA1 support.)

the patched MMX games still have bits of slowdown, but the baseline performance is rock(man) solid. X1 doesn’t creak the first time you blow up a bee blader — but also you’re likelier to get hit by “Sea Attackers” on Launch Octopus’s stage, because there’s no more slowdown to effectively telegraph their approach. the games aren’t harder, because they’re rarely going bullet-hell mode. they’re smoother, cleaner, closer to what you’d imagine the original developers wanted.

then you can add something like the MMX3 Zero Project, an extensive romhack that turns a rushed and busted mess into a polished and feature-rich gem, or even just an X2 relocalization project that makes something coherent and fun out of the game’s (minimal, admittedly) narrative content.

and these hacks are definitionally not ground-up recreations of the games in question. they’re far less intensive than, say, the decompilations of Super Mario 64 or Ocarina of Time, which allow those games to have native PC ports complete with better visuals and quality of life enhancements—but even these are becoming more and more possible in the, uh it’s not just romhacks now, let’s call it the “fans fix their favorite games” scene.

though “fix” is maybe not the right word? really, these hacks and releases represent attempts to preserve beloved games. there’s no profit motive and no cashing in on nostalgia, just a desire to make old favorites playable and smooth for as many people as possible.

official remakes and rereleases can be successful, too, but they’re often marred by the capitalist crassness of the venture. that includes the successful ones: you can tell me that the Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space remakes were good-actually until the end of time, but I’ll still pause at the sheer redunancy of such remakes when both games were perfectly playable on modern systems.

(when the RE4 remake came out, I took that opportunity to play the original in full for the first time, using fan mods on my copy of the Steam release. it looked and felt perfectly remastered enough for me.)

the release of Sonic Origins saw the removal of the original Sonic games from the Steam store. sure, the origins release builds in widescreen support, but here’s a secret: those original Steam releases included the original ROMs, which let you keep the eaten cake. you paid for the game, and you can experience the fruits of fan labor in the form of Genesis Plus GX Wide or Sonic AIR.

the companies that distribute these games do not care about them except for the capital they generate. this makes them unreliable at best for, and more often actively harmful towards, the acts of preservation or refinement. I have no ethical qualms about using roms and emulation, and I’ve had local backups of basically every retro system under the sun for years. this isn’t much different than having a nice collection from a used bookstore, to me. by contrast, well, it’s not like I have access to my wii shop purchases anymore.

I would love to properly support the developers who made these games, except

  1. sending money to 2023 nintendo is not the same thing as supporting the developers of, like, stunt race fx; those people don’t work there anymore

  2. intellectual property rights are the death of art

  3. I even purchased a copy of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, but why would I ever play any of the games on that collection in that format instead of in the vastly superior emulated or decompiled forms that already existed for years at the time of that game’s shitty limited release?

there are even strong arguments for emulating newer games, most of them variations on “I paid for this, let me use it how I want.” tears of the kingdom, for one, can run with more stable or higher framerates on PC than on its own hardware. I bought the damn thing, now I’d like to play it at 1080p and use the core mechanics without the game going full slideshow.

DRM and digital distribution already destroyed ownership of games in the traditional sense, and the tenuous remains only decay further over time. nintendo and other major distributors kill ROM sites and emulation avenues whenever they can. I’m pretty alright with clawing back a sense of ownership where I can.

Mega Man X 1-3 are available on Steam, incidentally, under the $20 Legacy Collection that also includes 4. reviews suggest this is a sloppily set of emulated titles that introduce fun stuff like input lag, missing content, and no access to the ROMs themselves.

cool, man! I’m gonna ignore that, especially considering I bought all three games as cartridges back in the day and the messy X Collection on GameCube.

I’ll be over here playing what feel like the definitive editions that Capcom could’ve developed and produced on their own for pennies, that instead had to be built by devoted fans of artworks with no other decent or honorable stewards.