Way back in my first Reaxxion article, I talked about why I love retro games. One of the best things about retro games is they’re still being made… sort of. Last year, I had just stumbled onto a copy of Sonic Megamix at a local retro game store when I discovered the vast world of fan-made bootleg retro games. Some call them ROM hacks, some call them homebrew games, but either way, they’re the same thing: modded versions of classic cartridge-era games.
The types of ROM hacks out there are as varied as the bits of corn in a fat kid’s diarrhea dump. Some of them take the engine of an existing game and make a whole new title out of it, while others just take an existing game and add a different playable character. You can find ROM hacks on cartridges for the old systems, or even just download them off the net if you know where to look. Some of the ones I’ve played have been amazing while others have been wastes of time and—in some cases—money. For instance, I recently found a bootleg of Grand Theft Auto V for the Sega Genesis.
I figured it would be like the original top-down Grand Theft Auto, but with the graphics downgraded to the Genesis’ level. In fact, it was a Russian hack of a game called Outlander, but with a GTAV title screen. Oh well. I knew I was taking a risk by buying it, and it’s not like I paid a great deal for it anyways.
But most of the ones I’ve played and/or bought have been great, and I thought it would be worth sharing some of the better ones with all of you. I may even do full reviews of these down the line, but for now here are my top five bootleg games you should all check out.
1. Sally Acorn In Sonic The Hedgehog
There are tons of ROM hacked versions of the first Sonic game featuring the various different Sonic characters. Hell, I even found one where you play as Nintendo’s Kirby. But Sally Acorn in Sonic the Hedgehog was the most interesting to me, partly because it was cool to see a character from the old Saturday morning Sonic cartoon in the games, but also because this seemingly small change completely alters the gameplay.
As Sally, you can’t hurt enemies merely by jumping on them. Instead, you have a little handheld A.I. sidekick named Nicole that shoots a small energy blast in front of you. You can only hurt enemies while firing that, and it takes a moment after you fire it before you can fire it again. This small change drastically alters how you play the game and it’s enough to make a title I know like the back of my hand seem fresh again.
2. Super Mario Bros. 3 Mix
This game takes the basic Super Mario 3 engine and throws in about as many things from as many different Mario games as possible. You can play as Mario, Luigi, or Toad, and go through worlds featuring pretty much anything you could think of from Mario games. Yoshi, Bowser Jr. Shyguys, the bunny ears from Mario Land 2: if you can name it and it’s from a Mario game, it’s in this homebrew. Also, unlike a lot of ROM hacks, Super Mario 3 Mix isn’t balls to the wall hard, so if you’re just looking for a standard challenge in a Mario game, this is for you.
I’m not gonna lie: it does have a few bugs that pop up here and there, and the level design can feel a little sparse at times. It’s still pretty fun, but you’ll never forget that it’s a fan-made game.
3. Mario Adventure
This is another game using the basic Mario 3 game engine. Unlike 3 Mix, however, Mario Adventure is balls-to-the-wall hard. You get unlimited lives in this game, and you’re definitely gonna need them. Also, since the game has unlimited lives, you can use coins as currency in mushroom houses to gain power-ups.
One of the coolest features of Mario Adventure is the weather system. Every time you go into a level, the weather randomly changes from windy to rainy to snowy and sunny. This adds an element of unpredictability, since every time you go back in, you’ll never know exactly what you’ll be dealing with. I’d put the difficulty on this a little above the Japanese Mario 2, so it will frustrate the hell out of you at times. But who doesn’t like a challenge now and then?
4. New Dr. Mario World
This takes the Super Mario World game engine and makes a Dr. Mario platformer where you need to rid the Mushroom Kingdom of the evil viruses. You can also play as Wario. The graphics are fantastic, the level design is gorgeous, and the controls are perfect.
5. Zelda: Outlands
I’ve mentioned this ROM hack on Reaxxion before. This is the game Adventures of Link should have been. It takes everything that was great about the original Zelda, including the spirit of exploration, and expands on it. As with Mario Adventure though, this game is a real ball-buster, but the high difficulty is part of what made NES games so great anyways.
So there you have it: five ROM hacks that are so good they’re worth buying in cartridge form. If you’re not a purist like me, you can also find them online. Give ’em a shot; I’m confident you’ll like them.
Read More: 4 Reasons Why You Should Play Games “Blind”