Like a longtime partner or a favorite pair of socks, there’s comfort to be found in revisiting a familiar game from your youth. There’s a sense of ease knowing what lies inside each treasure chest, which bush an enemy will spring from, or the secret tactic that vanquishes a foe with ease. That calming intimacy makes games like these an easy nostalgic choice when you just want to take a load off.
This story originally appeared on Ars Technica, a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, reviews, and more. Ars is owned by WIRED’s parent company, Condé Nast.
But what if you want to add some spice back to that familiar experience? After playing a classic game to the point of memorization, how do you recapture the sense of adventure and discovery you experienced the first time you played it? A small but growing community in the retro emulation scene is aiming to answer those questions with a class of mods and hacks called “randomizers.”
Shuffle Up and Deal
At their most basic level, randomizer mods shuffle the data in a game’s ROM so that each run becomes a new and unpredictable experience. So The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past randomizer could change which items you find in which chests, alter the rewards from dungeon quests, and even replace Link’s sprite for one of the numerous fan-created options (the Mega Man X sprite is a personal favorite). And you can go even further than that, changing the exit locations for various in-game doors or even scattering the boss keys for specific dungeons throughout the world (rather than in the dungeons themselves)!
What started as a small niche has now evolved into its own retrogaming genre. The BIG List of Video Game Randomizers website, started back in 2016, now lists hundreds of randomization mods for games from Metroid Prime, Golden Sun, and Earthbound to Faxanadu, Adventure Island, and Doom. The list is still updated weekly with new titles, so if your favorite isn’t listed yet, it may be soon.
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Different randomizer mods allow for different levels of randomization, but the idea of mixing up locations of items or discovered skills and abilities is rather standard. Some retain the title’s intended structure but change the rewards and items you find on your journey. Others completely alter the way the game is played.
Two Games at Once
One of the more extreme randomizers out there actually combines two games in a way that makes you have to beat both over the course of a single playthrough. In the Super Metroid x Link to the Past randomizer mod, you use special randomized doorways to navigate between the worlds of Hyrule and Zebes, collecting items in one to help you progress further in the other. There is a very real chance that Link’s uncle could give you the high-jump boots that allow Samus to then go claim the Master Sword somewhere deep in Norfair.
Randomizers add near-infinite replayability to tired-old games, with fresh challenges for players to overcome with each playthrough. They test the player’s skill and knowledge of the game instead of simply the muscle memory gained from years of experience. By limiting the player’s ability to rely on their autopilot memory, the focus turns instead to quick adaptation and problem solving.
Deep knowledge of the base game is still useful in a randomizer, though, even if it’s just to help you figure out what new avenues may be open with each new item you find. Perhaps you’ll be forced to fight a difficult foe with more meager resources than you normally would have. Or maybe you’ll be asked to consider keeping a party member with a special skill even though they can barely survive a single hit.
Even if you only have a passing memory of a classic game, there are plenty of resources and guides available to you that can help. These range from beginner’s guides with basic strategies for approaching a randomizer run to full-on trackers that can show you what areas become accessible as you get new items.
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