Cory Archangel’s Super Mario Clouds (2003) is arguably one of the most famous ROMhacks . Exhibited at the Whitney in 2003, Arcangel claims “Super Mario Clouds is an old Mario Brothers cartridge which I modified to erase everything but the clouds” (coryarcangel.com/things-i-made/supermarioclouds/). After interviewing the artist for the New Yorker a few years ago, Adrea K. Scott writes that Arcangel’s “idea was as simple as silk-screening soup cans: take the code to the classic 1985 Nintendo cartridge and erase everything but the clouds, which typically drift behind the action.” Scott is more right than she knows. As Foucault wrote at the end of his book on René Magritte, “A day will come when, by means of similitude relayed indefinitely along the length of a series, the image itself, along with the name it bears, will lose its identity. Campbell, Campbell, Campbell, Campbell” (1983, 54). That is not a pipe, that is not soup, and this is not Super Mario Bros. Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds does not contain any source code from the PRG ROM driving Nintendo’s original game.
Arcangel embraces an open source, hacker ethos and has made much of his artwork available online. Even with such transparency, the fact that Super Mario Clouds is not running any of Mario's original code goes unnoticed in the literature surrounding the project. Arcangel even notes on github, “to compile this code requires Bob Rost's NBASIC, and the 6502 complier NESASM,” a clear sign that the program was written in BASIC, not hacked assembly. Thus Super Mario Clouds is less like a ROMhack and more a homebrew--a new piece of software developed in the aftermarket economy surrounding a few of these vintage systems. The pixel-wise movement, randomization, and even coloring do not match Shigeru Miyamoto’s game. So rather than simply play Super Mario Clouds, Coin Heaven attempts to remake the game from scratch by following Arcangel’s advertised process.
Most NES games, and especially the early ones, split their data into two halves: PRG (programming ROM) and CHR (character or graphics ROM). Equipment is available in the hacking, homebrewing, and reproduction scene for reading ROM data from an original NES cartridge into binary or hexdecimal files. Adding a small header to these collections of data allows them to operate in most NES emulators. Editing the sourcecode of such files requires either digit by digit hex editing or disassembly into a (more) legible 6502 assembly language. Altering the code in this format, or with community-made software is how ROMhackers have made new games out of old software since the mid 90s. After editing the files and testing them on emulators the data can be written onto EPROM chips, a widely available hardware alternative to Nintendo’s original mask ROMs. Though Arcangel advertises this method, the final PRG ROM used in Super Mario Clouds is not related to Super Mario Bros. By following his steps, an entirely different game is produced: Coin Heaven.
In Coin Heaven an invisible Mario walks on invisible ground, looping endlessly in a cloudscape where a cinematic sequence once took place between World 1-1 and World 1-2 of the original Super Mario Bros. Beyond the speed, and the pattern of the clouds, the colors, and greater degree of repetition, something is very different. A lone coin remains blinking in the menu. To the chagrin of many ROMhackers, the coin, known as “Sprite 0”, must be redrawn as an integral part of the game’s engine. Time does not move without money and making it invisible crashes the game. All that is solid does not melt into air as Sprite 0 symbolizes not the formal autonomy of games, art, and capital--but the desire for a type of utopia in which these practices operate without material base. The coin, then, only appears to offer the player a “coin heaven,” the name of three specific bonus zones in Super Mario Bros. devoid of enemies and filled with money. This bitcoin is not merely digital, but reveals the intimate and intractable relation between software and hardware. The fantasy of an infinitely-editable digital space is challenged by the irrepressible materiality of the platform--the gold coin standing in for coltan, capital, and the global circuits through which the Nintendo Corporation operates. While Arcangel’s piece is famous for its erasure of the gameplay from Super Mario Bros., it also effects an erasure of the game’s medium specificity, depicting Super Mario Clouds as a utopian autonomous zone that renders invisible the game’s history of money and materiality. By contrast, Coin Heaven refuses this portrayal, demonstrating the deep history that is hard coded into the game’s electrical circuits.